Bay jurisdictions stand to gain nearly $2.2 billion over the next 15 years to help preserve open spaces, rebuild parks, protect wildlife habitat and restore historical sites under a bill overwhelmingly approved in May by the U.S. House.
If the Senate goes along, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act could prove helpful in meeting the draft Chesapeake 2000 Agreement’s goal of permanently protecting one-fifth of the watershed as open space by 2010.
The legislation, approved 315-102, would also make money available to wildlife and fisheries programs, allowing scientists to gather more information about the health of species that have historically received little attention.
Overall, the bill would provide Pennsylvania with $50 million a year; Virginia with $51 million; Maryland with $37 million; and the District of Columbia with $7 million.
The bill was crafted by Rep. Don Young, R-AK, a longtime foe of environmentalists, and Rep. George Miller, D-CA — an alliance that stunned many because of their numerous clashes over environmental protection in the past.
Many supporters described the bill as “historic” and “landmark,” comparing it to the Clean Water and Clean Air acts passed nearly 30 years ago.
“This is the single most significant commitment our nation has ever made to investments in wildlife and wild places,” said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “The benefits will be felt in every state for generations to come.”
Under the legislation, nearly $3 billion of the $4 billion to $5 billion collected annually by the federal government in royalties from offshore oil drilling would be automatically allocated — mostly to states — to support specific conservation programs. The royalties were supposed to be going to conservation programs since the mid-1960s, but Congress raided the money for other purposes.
Over the next 15 years, the bill would annually direct $1 billion toward coastal conservation programs in 35 coastal states and territories; give the Land and Water Conservation Fund $900 million — half for federal land acquisition and the other half for matching grants to states; $350 million for wildlife conservation and restoration; $125 million for urban parks; $100 million for historic preservation; $200 million for federal and Indian lands restoration; and $150 million for conservation easements and endangered species recovery. Another $200 million would be used to makeup taxes lost to local communities where the federal government owns large amounts of land.
Most environmental groups enthusiastically supported the bill, although some sought more safeguards — especially in regard to spending for coastal areas — to ensure the money was spent on conservation efforts. The Sierra Club, for example, issued a statement praising the bill as “an important step in protecting America’s vanishing natural legacy,” but said it would work to “improve the bill to ensure that the final product is a clear victory for the environment.”
The bill was opposed mainly by members of the Appropriations Committee, who resented that the bill’s automatic funding overrides their authority over spending decisions, and by western conservatives, who opposed more public land acquisition. “What this is about is the federal acquisition of new land,” complained Rep. Richard Pombo, R-CA.
Some critics also complained that the formulas spent a disproportionate amount of money in states where there is offshore oil drilling.
President Clinton issued a statement praising the bill’s passage as “a historic step toward achieving permanent conservation funding.” He urged the Senate to move swiftly on the legislation.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-AK, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has scheduled committee action in mid-June. While saying he was “pleased” with the House action, he cautioned the bill would face strong opposition.
“Every one of the 25 or more amendments on the House side was offered by either an opponent to federal land acquisition, an appropriator or budget hawk,” he said. “We will face the same opposition and it is much more difficult to limit the vote in the Senate.”
Although the bill has strong support in the Senate — including backing from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-MS — individual senators have more power to tie up legislation.