Conservation bill may have grown too much

Posted: Tuesday, July 25, 2000

The following editorial appeared in the July 19 edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

The political landscape of this election year is quaking under the stampede of hunters, environmental activists, historic preservation advocates and public lands and wildlife managers rushing to embrace U.S. Rep. Don Young's proposed Conservation and Reinvestment Act.

The bipartisan lure of Young's legislation is undeniable:

As much as $3 billion in annual offshore oil lease receipts is slated for national dispersal, providing full or increased funding for a variety of worthy conservation programs.

For advocates and managers of programs currently starved for funding, CARA holds the prospect of prayers answered at long last. For Western states coping with tax-base erosion from the presence of large blocks of exempt public lands, CARA offers financial relief. For politicians seeking to bolster their environmental credentials, CARA, with its painless divvy of federal oil dollars, represents an easy ``green'' vote.

Individually, the Fairbanks News-Miner finds no fault with the programs - already on the books - that CARA promises to bankroll. Alaska can make excellent use of the state's estimated $163 million share of the annual program dollars.

We have property owners who've been forced to wait years for compensation while denied the use of their lands. We have wildlife mysteries, such as the decline seen in Yukon River salmon, that are worthy of increased research and habitat protection efforts. We have historic trails that would appear perfect for the preservation efforts envisioned in the bill.

Alaska Native corporations undoubtedly have lands they are interested in exchanging or selling under programs eligible for CARA funding.

Yet the sheer breadth of Young's legislation gives us pause. The process of forging a compromise has steadily enlarged CARA's constituency. We won't criticize senators if they should conclude the bill has become too big to swallow. A trimmed-down version could always be reintroduced in the next Congress.

Furthermore, we worry that public priorities may be skipped over as special interests fill their plates.

Of particular concern is CARA's provision for direct funding of ``eligible entities,'' as opposed to projects supported by state or municipal governments. The relevant provisions of CARA's Title VII appear to leave the door wide open for special interest groups. Pencil in, as you wish, the Alaska Outdoor Council, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center - or any other nonprofit with a pet study or a land-use objective - to pursue their private agendas with dollars that might otherwise go toward defense, public schools or other federal priorities.

Groups funded under CARA are banned from spending their dollars on initiatives against hunting. While laudable, this provision alone is no guarantee local values and preferences are embodied in CARA-funded projects mounted by qualifying nonprofits.

In the very least, the News-Miner calls upon the U.S. Senate to amend the bill to ensure that the programs and projects funded through CARA are subject to approval by local governments in the areas served.

Advocacy groups have an important role to play in policy discussions, but public priorities can easily take a back seat when special interests are placed in charge.

Young's legislation could foot the bills addressing resource issues of huge importance to Alaskans for years to come.

Without local oversight, however, we worry that CARA funds might be tapped to pay for projects or Alaska land initiatives more in line with Outside interests.

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