Quietly, vast bill reveals green side of Congress

Bid to allot $2.9 billion for preservation has bipartisan support. Vote is tomorrow.

Soccer moms and dads across America could soon be toeing the turf on hundreds of new athletic fields. Urban families may have more places to picnic. And farmers and ranchers could be paid if they share their land with the Stephens kangaroo rat and other imperiled animals.

Tomorrow, Congress is scheduled to vote on a voluminous package of conservation legislation that observers say is among the most sweeping in decades.

The little-known bill, which has moved to the floor of the House after months of behind-the-scenes bipartisan negotiation, is crafted to dramatically increase federal spending on outdoor-recreation facilities and safeguarding the environment.

"This isn't just big; I consider it epic," says Thomas Cassidy, a policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy, a land-protection group near Washington. "Congress is on the verge of giving the American public one of the best quality-of-life presents it has received over the last 100 years."

In an unusual move, none of the proposed $2.9 billion would come from new taxes levied on citizens, but rather from a pool of federal royalties already collected from oil and natural-gas drilling off the California and Gulf coasts.

In part because of this, Democrats and Republicans - even in this divisive election year - have banded together to support the environment.

In fact, some of the same GOP leaders who have recently criticized President Clinton for his flurry of designating new national monuments in the West have enthusiastically rallied behind the legislation, known as the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA).

Observers point to two principle reasons: Foremost is that in poll after poll, Americans overwhelmingly support continued federal investment in parks and saving open space from sprawl. Politicians, in turn, see CARA as an opportunity to bring direct benefits to their constituents.

But more important is that in this era of federal budget surpluses, spending on conservation, which used to be considered expendable, is now viewed as a luxury the country can afford.

Many observers have called the legislation "historic," and one key congressional aide described it as a conservation "juggernaut" that champions grass-roots environmental protection with the carrot of federal investment rather than the stick of regulation. Not since the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration has so much federal money been proposed to flow toward green causes.

The centerpiece of CARA is full funding of the 35-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund to the tune of $900 million annually, with the pot to be divvied between federal and state projects.

That would triple current funding levels and give states more of a say in how federal money should be spent.

When it was enacted in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund was intended to be used exclusively for conservation initiatives. But at the beginning of the Reagan administration, the fund was routinely raided by Congress and used to support other parts of the budget.

Conservationists point to a $15 billion backlog of unfunded projects for protecting wildlife and creating parks in blighted urban settings. Mr. Cassidy says public concern over landscape degradation has sent a signal to Congress that a change in philosophy was necessary.

What CARA would do

Among CARA's other key provisions:

*Steering $1 billion annually to coastal regions and to Great Lakes states to mitigate the impacts of oil drilling on aquatic ecosystems.

*Devoting $350 million to local wildlife-conservation and habitat-restoration projects as a supplement to the Pittman-Robertson Fund. The amount of investment represents a doubling over previous levels.

*Delivering $125 million annually to cities in the form of urban park and recreation recovery. Fast-growing cities like Phoenix, Denver, and Atlanta would emerge as big winners, with millions of dollars available for new athletic fields, bike paths, and parks.

*Directing $100 million annually into a historic-preservation fund that would help maintain sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It would also ensure that other unprotected sites, like Civil War battlefields, are saved.

Causes for criticism

But the legislation is not without detractors. Some environmentalists worry that CARA nurtures a future dependence on oil and gas money that might serve as an incentive to open up more coastal areas to energy development. There is also some dissension among conservatives.

Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association in Battle Ground, Wash., calls CARA "a monstrosity" that treads upon private-property rights, panders to "environmental extremists" by putting more land under federal control, and is an egregious example of "pork barrel politics."

Mr. Cushman and others have been outspoken in their opposition, but it has gone largely unheeded by both moderate Democrats and Republicans.

"It's interesting that two principal Republican sponsors of the legislation include Don Young of Alaska and Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who for years have been heroes of the property-rights movement," says Mr. Cassidy. "The fact that they state with conviction that this law addresses, and actually improves, existing law with regard to private-property rights should be answer enough to skeptics."

In the House, CARA, with 316 co-sponsors, looks likely to pass. Sponsors include Mr. Young, who presides over the Resources Committee, and Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, who is regularly at odds with Young over environmental policy. Mr. Miller calls the initiative a "landmark" and says it's the most important legislation in Congress this year.

A virtually identical bill also is moving through the US Senate with bipartisan support. If the House and Senate pass it as expected, Mr. Clinton could sign legislation into law by late summer.

Help for counties

In a key part of the CARA package, counties that include national parks, forests, and grasslands to be given access to an additional $200 million. This would go above and beyond the payments that Congress traditionally has offered to such counties to offset the loss of potential tax revenue.

Another sensitive environmental issue has been the relationship between public wildlife and private land. CARA proposes setting aside $100 million annually that would be used to buy conservation easements - such as development rights - to protect working farms, ranches, and forests. Another $50 million would be available to reward ranchers who voluntarily conserve and restore endangered species on their property.

Representative Young says many environmental conflicts can be avoided if companies and landowners are rewarded for being good stewards instead of attacked for being bad ones.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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