Is a park a playground or preserve?

Today, in Alabama, Bush will argue for a leading preservation program.

Ever since the early days of America's land-conservation movement - when Teddy Roosevelt was sealing off vast tracts of the nation's wilderness - there's been tension over how such treasures should be used: Are they playgrounds for citizens to revel in, or pristine preserves that allow native plants and animals to thrive in relative peace?

These days, President Bush and Congress are still in the throes of this debate.

In Birmingham, Ala., today Mr. Bush will tout his plan to "fully fund" the premier US preservation program - the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is responsible for adding parcels to such icons as the Grand Canyon and the Appalachian Trail.

Even Bush's critics cheer his plan to boost the budget of this three-decade-old fund to unprecedented levels. Yet they also worry that his restructuring of the program will push the program will push conservation efforts decidedly away from the pristine-haven approach - and toward state and local parks filled with soccer fields, baseball diamonds, and kiddie pools.

"It's a great start," says Naomi Edelson, who promotes wildlife diversity for the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies here.

But Ms. Edelson and others criticize the Bush plan because it would give the nation's governors greater control over which kind of projects are funded - wildlife conservation efforts or bike paths, swimming pools, soccer fields, and the like.

"When it comes down to people versus wildlife," she says, "we know who wins." Recreational sites, she points out, are just more popular with suburban voters - who are often politically powerful.

Since its inception in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been divided into two separate programs.

One is the primary fund for helping America expand its national parks, wildlife refuges, and other sanctuaries. Bush would fund it at $450 million. Over the years, it has helped buy some 7 million acres of land, including parts of Everglades National Park in Florida, Acadia National Park in Maine, and Denali National Park in Alaska.

The other would give $450 million in matching funds to states. Historically, 70 percent of this state-directed money has been used to buy or build recreational areas - 7,000 soccer fields, 5,000 baseball fields, 6,000 football fields, as well as marinas, gun ranges, and other sites.

Wildlife conservationists have little quibble with recreational areas. Indeed, these sites are key to fostering a love of the outdoors.

"We're not going to get people to care about the Arctic if they don't care about the little wild places in their neighborhoods," says Sue Gunn, director of budget and appropriations at The Wilderness Society here.

But if playgrounds and soccer fields elbow aside more-pristine parks, that's cause for concern among those who want to protect plants and animals.

After all, they say, local parks with paths and playgrounds are habitat for little more than squirrels, or maybe geese - while many other species across the nation are in dire need of more and better surroundings.

Environmentalists say they are most concerned about two points in the Bush plan:

* Of the $450 million slated for the federal part of the program, $60 million is actually targeted at private landowners. It would give them monetary rewards for doing such things as planting hedges for nesting songbirds or holding off on mowing the grass in a sensitive breeding area. Critics don't fault this program - but say it shifts the emphasis away from buying new federal lands.

* Instead of requiring that specific dollar amounts of the state funds be spent on wildlife or recreation, it would simply let governors decide which projects are funded.

Bush and other conservatives say the new approach gives more freedom and flexibility to states. It will allow "local officials who live close to the land to make choices without Washington mandates or red tape," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton when she announced the program.

Since then, Congress has tinkered with the plan. The House Appropriations Committee last week approved $544 million for the overall fund - not the president's requested $900 million. Critics had said Bush's plan raids other conservation funds to generate the $900 million, and the committee agreed.

But Congress is considering another bill, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, which would automatically take money from offshore oil and gas royalties and put the full $900 million into the Land and Water Conservation Fund annually. It also would put $2.2 billion into other conservation, recreation, and historic preservation programs.

The Bush administration hasn't come out in support of that bill. But its backers say the bill would finally help to alleviate that age-old tension in conservation between recreation and wildlife protection.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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