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Congress Embraces Land Conservation

4/12/99
By H. JOSEF HEBERT
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A billion-dollar land rush is under way in Congress, with both political parties saying they want to preserve open spaces, protect wildlife and set aside environmentally sensitive places.

But the details are very much in dispute. Environmentalists and their Democratic allies want the bulk of funds to go for new parkland, suburban green spaces and wildlife protection. Most Republicans are backing a proposal to funnel money into coastal states with offshore oil drilling.

Despite the differences, never before have lawmakers, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike, been as gung-ho to spend money for land conservation _ as much as $2.6 billion a year under one proposal.

There could emerge ``a classic congressional bargain'' for unprecedented and permanent annual funding for land conservation programs, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in an interview. ``There's no question the money is available.''

After decades of Congress giving little attention to land conservation programs, the change of heart has left environmentalists stunned.

``We need new open spaces and finally it looks like Washington might be about to play the kind of role it should,'' said William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society.

The proposals are coming from conservatives such as Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, a property rights advocate and frequent critic of environmentalists, to liberal Democrats such as Rep. George Miller and Sen. Barbara Boxer, both Californians with strong links to environmentalists.

Measures introduced this year in both the House and Senate far exceed even the ambitious $1.1 billion ``land legacy'' initiative unveiled by President Clinton in February _ itself a record amount for conservation should it be approved.

While the administration has yet to endorse any specific bill,Babbitt already has a $295 million shopping list of 86 priority projects, including buying 450,000 acres in California's Mojave Desert, along with forests in New England and property in the Florida Everglades.

``There's a lot of room for agreement'' among the various bills, says George Frampton, chairman of the president's Council on Environmental Quality.

And the politics seem to be right. Last November, voters approved local and state ballot initiatives calling for spending more than $4 billion on urban parks and setting aside farmland and open spaces.

``There's not a significant constituency that's opposed to this. In this case, we're dealing with something that's motherhood and apple pie,'' Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, said in an interview.

In recent months, it's been a race of one-upmanship. First, Clinton proposed doubling conservation spending to $1.1 billion, including $642 million for federal and state land purchases under a program that for years has been largely ignored.

Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, proposed spending $2.1 billion, including $620 million to buy new land for conservation.

In the House, Young and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., came up with a $2.59 billion package, with $756 million for federal and state land purchases.

Both of these bills would allocate about half of the total spending for ``impact assistance'' from offshore oil drilling. Under Young's bill, Louisiana alone would get $360 million, nearly the total earmarked for federal land purchases.

Environmentalists have criticized the bills because of fear the potential windfall might prompt states and local communities to push for increased oil development at the expense of other wildlife protection and land acquisition programs.

``It is heavily tilted to offshore oil producing states,'' said Babbitt. ``That's something that needs to be bargained about.'' Young counters that he's only trying to ``resolve the inequities'' in how revenue from offshore oil drilling _ which would pay for the programs _ is distributed.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, have lined up behind legislation offered by Miller and Boxer that would pump $2.3 billion into conservation spending, including $900 million for federal and state land purchases. They would prohibit favoring states with oil drilling and putting more money into park restoration, farmland preservation and endangered species protection.

Despite opposition to all the bills from some property rights groups, Miller said he wants to avoid ``sniping at each other's bills or motives'' and work on a compromise.

``We have a solid base to begin working cooperatively,'' agreed Young.