Conservation bill could give Alaska $2.5 billion

Posted: Monday, August 07, 2000

Erosion threatens the very existence of the village of Shishmaref. Waves, wind and ice have tortured the coastline and eaten away at the land, often leaving structures clinging to the shoreline. At least 15 Alaska towns are in similar shape and in need of an infusion of funds to take back the land from the enveloping maw of the Bering Sea.

Those funds could come from a coastal impact assistance account in the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA). They could help restore the lands or help build and repair infrastructure and roads - the choice would be up to the communities.

This landmark legislation represents a tremendous victory in the 20-year federal battle to provide coastal impact assistance to states that support environmentally responsible oil and gas development on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). As we deplete the nonrenewable resource of oil and gas, the royalties from that development should be shared with the states to renew, refurbish and provide for recreation.

Part of the bill seeks to help coastal communities. Another section seeks to increase populations of the wildlife that has enabled Alaskans to survive and thrive and continue a subsistence lifestyle. The wildlife conservation portion of this bill would bring roughly $17 million a year to Alaska to conserve and enhance both game and non-game wildlife. It expands on the popular ``Teaming with Wildlife'' initiative. Existing excise taxes on fishing and hunting licenses, and the necessary equipment for those sports, are returned to a fund to restore and conserve wildlife. Funds could be used in Alaska to expand rifle ranges and improve habitat to increase game populations.

Yet another provision of the bill ensures that the federal government sets the proper example by, in a manner of speaking, paying its taxes on its lands. States such as Alaska with significant federal lands depend on the Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program. The CARA bill fully funds that program bringing $22 million to Alaska when previously we have received about half that amount. The money goes to qualifying towns and villages throughout the entire state thanks to changes the delegation made to PILT last Congress.

The CARA bill could provide Alaska with $164 million a year, or $2.5 billion over the next 15 years, to support the programs mentioned above and many others. This represents the most significant commitment of resources to conservation in history, and would constitute the largest infusion of federal funds Alaska has ever seen outside the federal highway trust fund. Congressman Don Young has a similar bill that has passed the House of Representatives, and the funding formulas in either bill would guarantee increasing benefits to an energy producing state like Alaska long after Don, Ted (Stevens) and I have left Congress.

The total CARA measure takes $3 billion from the federal government's revenues from offshore oil and gas development and uses $900 million of the total for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Half of that fund makes matching grants available to states and localities to build local parks and recreational facilities. The LWCF already has funded improvements to Alaska land in Fairbanks, Harbor View Park in Ketchikan, Marine Park in Juneau, the Coastal Trail in Anchorage and others statewide.

Some of the bill's opponents have expressed concern over a provision of the bill that provides $450 million a year to be spent nationwide for new federal land acquisitions. While many residents in Lower-48 urban areas actually want more open spaces under federal ownership, CARA contains provisions designed to curb the federal government's voracious appetite for gobbling up precious private lands in Alaska.

In the absence of CARA, the Clinton-Gore Administration has purchased large blocks of federal land by circumventing the normal congressional authorization process and moving directly to grab appropriations for land purchases by pressuring Congress at the end of a session. Congress must agree, or face another vetoed budget and government shutdown. That was the administration's game plan when they won more than $900 million for federal land buys just two years ago.

But under CARA, no money can be spent on any land acquisition unless specifically authorized by Congress. That will guarantee that no acquisitions can proceed without passing through all committees that have jurisdiction; specifically my panel would look at purchases within national parks and forests. The bill also guarantees that the government can acquire land only from truly ``willing sellers'' or in circumstances where Congress approves a law authorizing such an acquisition. While the bill should make it possible for Alaskans who honestly want to sell their inholdings to finally get paid, the bill will decrease federal land acquisitions in Alaska from the high rates seen over the past decade.

I support a strong OCS program as a means of reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy, and the states that allow OCS development for the benefit of the nation should certainly share in the revenues. Moreover, those who support these important conservation programs will also realize where the money comes from, thereby broadening support for responsible OCS development.

Based on the letters and resolutions of support for CARA from almost every city and borough in the state, it would appear that Alaskans still know a good thing when they see it.

Frank Murkowski is one of Alaska's two U.S. senators.

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