Legislation that could give the Bay states nearly $150 million a year for habitat restoration, land acquisition and other conservation programs cleared a key House committee in November, setting the stage for potential passage next year of what supporters call a “historic” environmental measure.
Nationwide, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act would earmark nearly $3 billion a year, mostly to states, to support historically underfunded programs covering everything from wildlife conservation to urban park restoration.
Regionally, the committee-approved legislation would mean nearly $37 million a year for Maryland, $50 million for Pennsylvania, $51 million for Virginia and $7 million for the District of Columbia.
The money would come from royalties the federal government receives from oil and gas drilling on the outer continental shelf. That money, which was supposed to be going into conservation programs for decades, has usually been diverted to other uses to help balance the budget.
Now, with the budget balanced, bill supporters want to return most of the $4 billion in annual royalties to conservation programs.
And, to stave off future budget diversions, the bill removes the expenditures from the congressional appropriations process. That means almost all of the money would automatically go to state and federal programs each year, based on a funding formula.
“We are taking a major step toward approving a truly historic bill which will guide our nation’s conservation, recreation and wildlife programs for decades to come,” said Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Don Young, R-AK, after the committee approved the bill on a 37-12 vote on Nov. 10.
A third of the money would go to coastal states for a wide range of conservation projects, and $900 million a year would fully finance the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the first time in decades.
Created in 1965, the fund was once an important source for public land purchases, but because of budget pressures, no money has been available for state and local purchases in years, while federal land buys have been greatly reduced.
Major annual funding allocations called for in the bill include:
- $1 billion for coastal and Great Lakes states for coastal conservation, fisheries management, data collection, mitigation of offshore oil and gas activities, and wildlife management. States have to devise plans, with public participation, stating how the grants would be spent.
- $900 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, half of which would be for federal purchases, and half for states and local governments. The federal government could purchase land only from willing sellers.
- $350 million for wildlife conservation and education. This money is aimed at supporting nongame fish and wildlife and their habitats. Historically, only species that are hunted or fished have received federal funding.
- $125 million for Urban Park and Recreation Recovery, which would provide matching grants to local governments to rehabilitate recreation areas and facilities, and improve recreation programs, sites and facilities.
- $100 million for historic preservation, which would make grants to states and maintain the National Register of Historic Places.
- $200 million to restore degraded lands and protect threatened resources on Indian and federal lands.
- $150 million to be used as matching funds to purchase conservation easements for endangered species habitat.
- $200 million to reimburse local governments for lost tax collections due to federal land ownership.
So far, 216 House members — almost half — have signed on to support the legislation, as have 49 governors. Supporters hope to bring the measure to a vote in the full House early next year.
That could be a hurdle, they acknowledge, because the measure is expected to face stiff opposition from some Appropriations Committee members. Because the funding formula used in the bill bypasses that committee, it would lose authority over a substantial chunk of spending.
“There are going to be some pretty powerful people on the Appropriations Commit-tee opposed to it,” said Steve Hansen, a Resources Committee spokesperson.
The legislation was supported by most environmental groups, though some raised concerns about particular sections. For example, some worried that language in the bill may allow coastal conservation funds to be used for road and other infrastructure work.
Also, some objected to a concession made to Western lawmakers that would require Congress to continue to approve purchases made with the federal half of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Overall, though, groups embraced the concept of automatically earmarking an unprecedented amount of money for conservation programs each year.
“The vote is a giant green light for dedicated conservation funding,” said Daniel Beard, senior vice president for public policy with the National Audubon Society. “This historic legislation to provide a permanent source of funds for conservation and wildlife has taken a major step forward.”
“Every state will benefit dramatically from the passage of this legislation,” said David Waller, president of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. “States face tremendous challenges attempting to conserve declining wildlife and dwindling habitats while meeting skyrocketing wildlife conservation education and recreation demands — all on a shoestring budget.”
Most of the opposition came from property rights groups who oppose more public land, and Western Republicans who fear the bill would spur the purchase of more federal land in their states.
“Mark my words,” said Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-ID. “We will all rue this day, when we decided to set the unreversible process in place to remove massive tracts of land in this great country from production and the tax rolls.”
But Chairman Young discounted much of the criticism from both sides. “Some environmental organizations claim our bill includes ‘harmful’ incentives for increased offshore oil activity. This is false, totally false,” he said. “Some land rights groups claim that ‘No landowner is safe,’ under our legislation. This is utterly ridiculous, as are a number of other outrageous claims they are making.”
The legislation was introduced early this year, but committee action was delayed for months while lawmakers worked out differences between it and a similar measure introduced by Rep. George Miller, D-CA.
Bill supporters hope the committee vote will also speed action in the Senate. “With all the heavy lifting that has been done in the House side, we hope they will adopt it,” Hansen said.
Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate, but it remains in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee where Chairman Frank Murkowski, R-AK, reportedly has been working to iron out concerns of Western Republicans about federal land ownership and private property rights. Senate leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-MS, have embraced the measure.