Legislation that would give the Bay states unprecedented amounts of money for land acquisition, wildlife conservation and habitat restoration has secured overwhelming support in the U.S. House.

As of mid-March, 317 of the 435 House members had signed as co-sponsors of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, and identical legislation had been introduced in the Senate with bipartisan support.

“A historic wildlife and conservation victory is within our grasp this year in Congress,” Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said at a March 1 rally for the legislation at the Capitol.

If approved, the legislation would annually direct nearly $3 billion in federal royalties from offshore oil drilling to a variety of conservation programs. Under the formula used to distribute the money, the Bay states would get a total of $150 million a year.

CARA increasingly is seen as one of the few major environmental bills that could pass this year. The main obstacle, supporters say, is whether House leaders will allow the bill — overwhelmingly approved by the House Resources Committee last fall — to come to a vote.

Resources Committee Chair Rep. Don Young, R-AK, the legislation’s original sponsor, called it a “landmark bill” and said it was supported by Congress members from “every region of the nation.”

“In addition,” he said, “we have the support of an overwhelming majority of our nation’s governors, county commissioners and mayors.”

The legislation is similar to President Clinton’s Lands Legacy Program, [See “2001 budget includes more funds for conservation,” March 2000.] although it gives more emphasis to state land programs. But CARA would move the conservation funding program “off budget” so it would not be subject to the whims of Congressional appropriators. Instead, the vast majority of the money would be automatically divided among states each year under a set formula.

Under the formula, Maryland would get nearly $37 million a year; Pennsylvania $50 million; Virginia $51 million; and the District of Columbia $7 million.

Because it avoids the normal budget process, it has drawn opposition from some members of spending committees which would lose power over the expenditures. Still, proponents are hoping for a vote in the House by early May.

“It is time for the Speaker of the House to schedule a vote on the most historic environmental legislation in a generation,” Rep. George Miller, D-CA, said at the March 1 rally for the bill.

Historically, the oil royalties were supposed to go for conservation programs, but the money was taken for other purposes during decades of budget deficits. With the nation’s books in the black, bill supporters say it is time for the money to be permanently redirected to conservation needs, many of which have received little or no funding in the past.

“CARA redeems the promise to assure an environmental legacy for our children and their grandchildren,” Miller said.

Meanwhile, identical legislation has been introduced in the Senate by a bipartisan group including Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-MS. A separate bill was recently introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, which has a slightly different funding formula.

While CARA’s formula favors states with offshore oil drilling because that is the source of the oil royalties, the Bingaman bill more evenly distributes the money among the states. Senate opposition to the bills has been largely limited to western conservatives who oppose any new federal land ownership.

CARA would allocate about $2.8 billion in revenues each year though several different categories.

It would direct $1 billion toward coastal conservation programs in 35 coastal states and territories; give the Land and Water Conservation Fund $900 million in funding — half for federal land acquisition and the other half for matching grants to states; $350 million for wildlife conservation and restoration; $125 million for the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery program; $100 million for the Historic Preservation Fund; $200 million for federal and Indian lands restoration; and $150 million for conservation easements and species recovery. Another $200 million would be used to make up taxes lost to local communities where the federal government owns large amounts of land.

The amount of funding a state would get each year in each category is based on a formula.