End of session could kill conservation fund

Posted: Monday, September 18, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

For years, stable funding for conservation programs was held hostage in Congress by a handful of powerful House conservatives. Now, though the stalemate is all but dissolved, the congressional end-of-session crunch threatens to prevent its passage. This measure should be plucked from the pack and made law.

The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund was established in 1965 by earmarking offshore oil and gas drilling revenues to pay for a variety of environmental programs, including the cleanup of pollution caused by oil drilling. California has been a major beneficiary of this fund, but all states have been helped.

In the early years of the fund, as much as $900 million annually went for a wide variety of projects, including open space acquisition, wildlife management and coastal cleanup and to build or improve city parks and recreation programs. But in the early 1980s, Congress began to divert money from the land and water fund to offset the growing federal deficit. Federal oil lease royalties now generate between $4 billion and $5 billion annually, but in recent years, despite strong support by President Clinton, efforts to redirect this money to the land and water fund have been killed by fiscal conservatives and private-property advocates.

This year, however, an unusual bipartisan coalition has formed behind legislation -- the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) -- that would rededicate oil lease revenues to conservation funding. HR 701 passed the House in May and awaits action by the full Senate. The legislation would provide close to $3 billion each year for the next 15 years, money that states and localities badly need. California would receive about $324 million annually to buy more open space, build new urban parks and protect farmland, wildlife and historic sites.

Although some Western senators still seek to block resurrection of the land and water fund, it has backing from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.; House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., did not oppose it. That's good news. But measures like the conservation fund can easily get lost in end-of-session horse-trading. This one shouldn't.

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