After years of meager funding at the hands of a congressional majority with little affection for environmental issues, land-conservation and habitat-protection programs nationwide are about to receive a huge financial boost from the federal government.
California, in particular, stands to gain a great deal from what some observers characterize as a "landmark" conservation-funding measure in the $18.8 billion Interior Department appropriations bill sent to President Clinton in October. Federal funding will double immediately for everything from urban parks and soccer fields to marine and coastal habitat protection. Spending will increase even more in subsequent years.
Yet at the same time that conservationists welcomed the increased federal commitment, they lamented the bigger fish that got away. A more substantial financial package — one that had achieved a remarkable level of bipartisan support and appeared headed for an easy victory after a 315-102 endorsement by the House in May — failed in the Senate because of opposition by a handful of Western senators. The demise of that initiative, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), suggests that despite growing recognition in Congress of the economic importance and public popularity of habitat protection and recreational use of federal lands, the old Western attitudes favoring resource extraction and regarding Uncle Sam as an unwelcome meddler in regional issues predominate.
The six-year spending program approved last month by Congress allocates $12 billion to conservation programs. Financed mainly by Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas royalties, the plan authorizes $1.2 billion in 2001 (another $400 million for marine and coastal programs is included in a separate bill) and raises that to $2.4 billion by 2006.
The huge spending increase will fund a variety of federal programs, such as Everglades restoration and national parks maintenance. Importantly, however, two-thirds of the money is earmarked for state and local programs. The bill directs first-year spending toward six major categories: federal and state land and water conservation ($229 million); state conservation programs ($229 million); urban and historic preservation ($39 million); federal lands maintenance ($150 million); coastal programs ($100 million); and compensation to states for taxes lost on federal land, a new category of federal conservation spending, ($50 million).
In contrast, the failed CARA bill (HR 701) would have spent $3 billion a year for 15 years, for a total federal commitment of $45 billion. Among its primary components was full funding for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a remarkable program launched in 1965 that has established Cape Cod National Seashore and Voyageurs National Park, protected landscapes as diverse as Big Sur and Yosemite, and created more than 37,000 local and state recreation projects. Restoring full funding to the LWCF has been a top priority for conservationists for the past three years.
The theory behind creation of the LWCF was straightforward: Money derived from depleting one natural resource should be used to protect another. Accordingly, the fund allocated royalties on the sale of oil and natural gas pumped from offshore leases to land conservation and recreation programs, with particular emphasis given to those coastal states — such as California — that bear the burden of OCS oil and gas development.
Since 1980, when Congress established a ceiling for LWCF appropriations, $900 million a year has flowed into the fund. Half that historically was directed to state and local programs. But a few years later, money technically directed into the LWCF remained unallocated to conservation programs — the dollars shifted, in fact, to cover other government spending during a time of rising deficits. State and local programs were particularly hard-hit. That money typically provided matching funds and grants for urban park and recreation programs, as well as state park acquisitions and operations, but non-federal LWCF allocations dropped to zero in the mid-1990s.
The CARA bill would have restored the state/local LWCF funding to $450 million annually, authorized in the form of 50-50 matching grants. It also would have devoted substantial funding to other programs with potential benefit to California communities, such as the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program ($75 million), State Wildlife Program ($350 million), Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program ($50 million), Urban and Community Foresters Program ($50 million) and Historic Preservation Program ($150 million). In all, California stood to collect at least $171 million a year.
The CARA bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Don Young — a conservative Alaskan not known for sympathy to environmental causes — and Rep. George Miller, a Bay Area liberal. This partnership between ideologically dissimilar lawmakers helped generate broad bipartisan support for the bill in the House, where it survived several attempts by Western Republicans to append restrictive amendments.
In the Senate, CARA was championed by Sen. Frank Murkowski, another Alaska Republican not generally considered a friend of environmental legislation, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. (Support from the Alaska delegation is not surprising in light of the state's economic reliance on crude-oil revenues — and the implicit assurance that LWCF spending would encourage popular support for the drilling that provides the money.) Murkowski pushed the bill through his committee on a 13-7 vote, and persuaded 62 his colleagues to sign on, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. The Western Governors Association argued that the bill made "good economic, ecological and political sense."
Despite this broad support, entrenched opposition by Rocky Mountain senators — who viewed the money as a way of invigorating the federal "land grab" in their states — promised a bruising floor battle. With time in the legislative session growing short, Lott was reluctant to embroil the chamber in such a dispute, which would delay passage of other key budget bills and interfere with fall election campaigns.
Thus was born a compromise — a scaled-down appropriations bill that nevertheless commits substantial federal resources to conservation. Key environmental leaders mourned the death of CARA but praised the compromise. George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, called it a "historic breakthrough." Rodger Schlickeisan, president of Defenders of Wildlife, declared it "the most important conservation funding legislation in our lifetime."
Others were not so sanguine. "The Interior appropriations bill may mean more
money in the short term for land protection and wildlife conservation programs," said Mark Van Putten, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, "but it's not enough, it's not guaranteed, and it would likely come at the expense of a far superior proposal … Anything less than CARA effectively subverts the will of the American people and both houses of Congress."
That may be the case. In an election year, however, it may also be the best deal conservationists can get.
White House Council on Environmental Quality: (202) 395-5750
House Committee on Resources' CARA Web page: www.house.gov/resources/ocs/
National Wildlife Federation: (202) 797-6840