Just as Chesapeake Bay land trusts are trying to meet an ambitious new goal for open space preservation, Congress has significantly boosted federal funds to buy land and purchase development rights from farmers.

Congress has already provided $1.32 billion for federal and state agencies to buy land from willing sellers during the current fiscal year. And, appropriators in Washington are expected to allocate $1.44 billion for the fiscal year that starts in October.

What’s more, Congress is poised to earmark as much as $350 million annually for the purchase of “development rights” from farmers. Taken together, the funds would more than double from mid-1990s levels the federal contributions to local efforts to protect open space from development.

The new funds arrive just in time for Bay land trusts, which are pledging to preserve 28.5 percent of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement’s goal of permanently protecting one-fifth of the watershed by 2010.

The agreement, signed by the Chesapeake Executive Council — which includes the governors of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the EPA administrator; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures — called for permanently protecting 20 percent of Bay watershed’s undeveloped lands by 2010, up from 17.2 percent.

The region needs to protect an additional 1.1 million acres to reach that mark.

The new federal funds for land acquisition and the purchase of development rights are the product of two separate compromises.

The first compromise was struck as an alternative to the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, legislation designed to make the Land and Water Conservation Fund an “off budget” trust fund. The bill would have used revenue generated from federal oil and gas leases to establish a separate pool of money for land acquisition by federal and state agencies that would not be dependent upon annual appropriations.

More than 30 years ago, Congress intended for oil and gas lease revenues to be used for land acquisition and urban parks. But, appropriators historically used most lease revenue for other pressing needs.

The CARA legislation sought to stop that from happening. Introduced in 1999 by Reps. Don Young (R-AK) and George Miller, D-CA and Sens. Frank Murkowski, R-LA, and Mary Landrieu, D-LA, CARA would have placed oil and gas lease revenue into a special trust fund.

It easily passed the House, but the bill was blocked in the Senate by turf-conscious appropriators, property rights advocates and some national environmental groups concerned about incentives for new offshore oil drilling. So, negotiators in 2000 agreed to appropriate $1.2 billion for land acquisition by federal and state agencies and to increase these funds by $120 million annually for the next six years.

“The net effect is that more funding is available for land acquisition, and that these funds are less susceptible to raids by appropriators,” said Russ Shay, a lobbyist for the Land Trust Alliance. “Although the funds are not in a separate trust fund, they have a special badge of honor that protects them from being diverted for other programs.”

So far, Congress has honored the deal, but the temptation to cut land acquisition funding to pay for other needs, such as National Park maintenance, will grow, Shay predicted

“We have to continue to worry that we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Tom St. Hilaire, executive director of Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation. “That’s why it’s still ultimately better to have a dedicated fund.”

Efforts to create an off-budget trust fund were under way this year when terrorists attacked the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon in September, St. Hilaire explained. Although he ascribed little chance to CARA’s passage this year, “we’ll get a new Congress and fresh start next year.” The second Congressional compromise is still being worked out, Shay said.

House and Senate negotiators are trying to complete work on a new $100-billion, five-year Farm Bill.

Although most farm funds would still flow to grain and cotton farmers in Midwest states, negotiators are poised to significantly boost funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s conservation funds, including the Farmland Protection Program. The federal program matches state and local funds used to purchase development rights from farmers.

Funding for FPP could be ultimately as much as $500 million in 2006, and would not be subject to annual appropriations, Shay said. No money was budgeted for the program this year, but if the Farm Bill passes, as much as $150 million could be available before Oct. 1.

The funds are being included in the Farm Bill to gain the support of senators from the Northeast, Northwest, Florida and California, including influential Agriculture Committee member Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT. Unless funding for conservation programs is substantial, many senators from states outside the Midwest would have little incentive to vote for the subsidy-laden bill.

The new federal funds should help land trusts meet the goal established in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, said Susan Clark of the Trust for Public Land. So far, 31 Maryland land trusts have pledged to help meet the 20 percent goal, and similar efforts to organize land trusts are under way in Virginia and Pennsylvania, Clark said.

But, she warned, at the same time that federal contributions are growing, state funds are threatened by state budget deficits. For example, Maryland legislators are poised to cut funds for open space preservation, Clark said.

“These actions bring into question whether or the not the commitment will be met,” she said. “Without a commitment in place to fund these programs, there’s little or no chance to meet this goal.”

The loss of open space is among the most significant threats to the Bay, according to scientists. Urban development eliminates forests and wetlands, which act as natural filters that intercept polluted runoff and remove pollutants that contribute to low oxygen levels. Sprawl also fragments forest corridors used by migrating wildlife, and increases sediment loads to the Bay, burying habitats used by bottom-dwelling creatures like oysters.

Even so, millions of acres in Bay watershed states have been developed during the last two decades, federal officials report. In Maryland, for example, nearly 24,000 acres were annually developed between 1982 and 1997, according to the National Resources Inventory administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.