Congress's $12-billion nod to conservation

The bill provides an 'extraordinary' boost for parks and nature.

It can pay for the restoration of an art-deco theater in Miami Beach, for the upkeep of the trails and lodges throughout the national park system, or for the recovery of salmon on the West Coast.

It's the $12 billion land-conservation fund, and it is considered by many experts to be one of the most comprehensive conservation programs in the history of the United States.

The bill, which passed the House handily Tuesday and enjoys White House support, would double spending on natural and historic preservation next year and more than triple it in five years. As of press time, it had not passed the Senate, but approval was expected soon.

Such a monetary commitment by Congress represents the largest budgetary increase ever in American conservation - driven by the elections, but also the public's concern with sprawl and deteriorating parks.

"This is an issue whose time has come," says Mary Beth Beetham, director of legislative affairs for Defenders of Wildlife. She echoes lawmakers as well as President Clinton when she describes the program as "incredibly significant."

The land conservation fund would double current spending to $1.6 billion in fiscal 2001, and reach $2.4 billion in 2006. The money could not, as in years past, be siphoned off for other programs. Any unused funds would be carried into the next year.

What distinguishes the fund - apart from its size - is its remarkable reach. It provides grants for local and regional projects in virtually every setting - urban parks, national forest, coastal areas, and so on.

It also gives the federal government more money to purchase land, such as Civil War battlefields or wildlife habitat. Coastal and wetlands restoration is covered, and so are neighborhood parks and historic sites. Roughly two-thirds of the money would go to states, cities and communities.

But the fund also creates some new categories of assistance, including $150 million a year for national park maintenance and additional funds to compensate communities for lost property taxes from federal land purchases.

Senator Slade Gorton (R) of Washington is particularly pleased with the special provision for maintaining the country's national parks. The backlog of work to be done, whether it's on trails or structures, is as much as $20 billion.

Meanwhile, Senator Gorton, who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, receives more than 1,000 requests a year from other senators seeking funds for conservation projects, many of which can never be fulfilled because of a lack of resources.

Despite its overwhelming support in Congress, some lawmakers and environmentalists are not satisfied with the measure. It's a compromise from even more generous legislation, which passed the House last May by a 315-to-102 vote.

That legislation, called the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, would have guaranteed funding of a 15-year, $45-billion program. By contrast, the current package provides only for a six-year, $12-billion program. Moreover, it requires that Congress approve the spending each year.

"The challenge is to assure permanent funding," says Tom Cassidy, senior policy adviser at The Nature Conservancy. "This goes to the heart of whether communities and states have the certainty of planning."

But some lawmakers were loath to create a new "entitlement" and forced the compromise in Congress and with the White House, which had been pushing for the more generous measure.

Still, the White House is satisfied, and even Mr. Cassidy concedes that the new funding level is "extraordinary."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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