The federal government could spend about $12 billion on local, state and national land conservation programs over the next six years under legislation approved by Congress and signed by President Clinton.

The legislation was a scaled-back version of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) which had won broad support from environmental groups and states and would have provided $3 billion annually for conservation programs over 15 years.

The compromise bill, dubbed “CARA-lite” by some, calls for spending $1.2 billion in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, and gradually increasing to $1.8 billion annually over the next five years.

The legislation would provide the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which finances federal, state and local land acquisitions, $540 million in the coming year. In addition, other state conservation programs would get $300 million a year, while urban parks, forestry and historic preservation programs would get $160 million.

Another $150 million annually would be used to address maintenance backlogs on federal land, and $50 million will be used to reimburse local governments with large amounts of federal land for lost tax revenue.

Exactly how those pots of money will be divided among states is not yet clear.

Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, called the legislation a “giant step forward” for land conservation. “These critically needed funds will help protect the last vestiges of open space, wildlife habitat and wild lands across our country before they are lost forever.”

Others were less enthusiastic because the bill offered less money for many programs, such as state wildlife conservation efforts. Also, funding for the compromise program is less secure than under the original proposal.

The original CARA legislation guaranteed the money would be made available each year by keeping it out of the congressional appropriations process — something many members of the powerful spending committees opposed.

Under the compromise, the funds are “fenced in” from other parts of the budget and cannot be used for other purposes. But Congressional appropriators would still have to approve spending the money each year, and could choose not to fully fund the programs.

We’re seeing the will of the appropriators preventing the will of Congress from being done,” said Max Peterson, executive vice president of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, referring to the 315-102 vote in the House for the original version of CARA, and the 63 senators who signed a letter supporting the bill.

CARA was to have been funded with federal royalties from offshore oil drilling. That money, which was supposed to have been going to conservation programs all along, was usually diverted by Congress for other purposes.

The royalties will be the main source of funding for the new program.

Another part of CARA, which would provide assistance to coastal areas, is still awaiting final action by Congress when it returns in December. While the original legislation called for $1 billion to be available annually for coastal projects, the “CARA-lite” program calls for $400 million next year, increasing to $600 million over the next five years.

The coastal assistance program is in the appropriations bill covering the Commerce Department, which includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and has not been approved. Several environmental groups are opposed to the coastal assistance program because the money could be used for roads and bridges, rather than exclusively for conservation projects. The same program had drawn similar criticism in the original CARA legislation.

If approved, that coastal assistance would also be “fenced in” during future years.