Reaction to America's Land Legacy Radio Address by President Clinton & Vice President Gore

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by Rodger Schlickeisen, President, Defenders of Wildlife and Chair of Conservation CEO Task Force on Land Legacy

(08/23/1999) - President Clinton and Vice President Gore’s radio address this morning focused on one of the top priorities of the conservation movement for the millenium. The Clinton-Gore Administration has shown historic leadership in proposing the landmark Lands Legacy Initiative. Today’s radio address will be historic as well if land legacy proves to be one of the Administration’s successful priorities for the rest of this Congress. It should become a bipartisan rallying point because of broad public support for protecting parks and wildlife.

Many Americans are vacationing this month at the national parks, seashores, wildlife refuges, and city and state parks that would benefit from lands legacy. They may not realize that many areas in existing parks are still in need of acquisition and that new areas must be acquired to protect these resources and provide for wilderness, wildlife, and recreation for future generations. Just as the Royal Teton ranch acquisition helps provide critical range for Yellowstone’s bison, many other proposed acquisitions around the country -– from the Everglades to the California Desert to Gettysburg historic site -- are needed the protect the vacation areas, historic sites and wildlands that we hold dear.

Although we no longer have a budget deficit, we still have a serious conservation deficit that we must address immediately. In the coming decades, an ever-growing urban population will want to visit the same green spaces and cultural sites we cherish today and will need more open space conserved.

During this Congress the opportunity we have to protect America’s natural and cultural legacy is highly unusual. For the first time in decades, we not only have a budget surplus, but also a bipartisan consensus that some of it should be spent to preserve resources that otherwise will be lost. Several different pieces of legislation are proposed.

The Alaskan chairmen of the House Resources and Senate Energy Committees – Don Young and Sen. Frank Murkowski – have proposed the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA – H. R. 701/S. 25), joined by Rep. Billy Tauzin and Sen. Mary Landrieu. Rep. George Miller and Sen. Barbara Boxer have introduced the Permanent Protection for America’s Resources 2000 Act (H.R. 798/S.446).

This spring House Resources Committee Chairmen Don Young and Miller -- often adversaries on the Resources Committee -- appeared at a rally together on Capitol Hill to emphasize the need for bipartisan cooperation to achieve the largest conservation package in a generation.

The various legislative proposals provide varying degrees of conservation benefits. However, they all fulfill the original promise of Congress to spend a portion of OCS oil and gas royalties every year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) – a promise that has been broken repeatedly over the past several decades. Each year, far less than the authorized $900 million is appropriated by Congress for the LWCF; the rest has gone into the general fund, which now has a surplus balance of approximately $13 billion.

Meanwhile, a huge conservation deficit has built up as a result of congressional failure to spend the full authorized amounts. Unrestrained development and dramatic population increases are putting pressure on the quality of existing public lands, reinforcing the need to expand our current base. Our nation’s commitment to purchase lands within our national forests, parks, wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management units has fallen by the wayside due to the lack of funding over the years. This has resulted in a backlog of project needs estimated at between $10 to $12 billion. This situation is also true at the state and local level, as development pressures increase the need for recreational resources in and around our cities and threaten remaining vestiges of green space and habitat. The various bills recently introduced make it mandatory that the oil and gas royalties be spent for conservation. The difference is in the details, and the details are critical because they will determine whether Congress succeeds or fails in fulfilling this historic opportunity. Most conservation organizations agree that the final legislation must:

  • create a permanent funding stream beginning in fiscal year 2001;

  • make a generally equal allocation of funding between federal land acquisition and funding for state, local, and tribal government programs to acquire, protect or restore open space, parklands and forests, historical and cultural resources, farmland, wildlife habitat, coastal wetlands, significant marine areas, and forests;

  • not include any incentives for additional offshore oil or gas exploration or development, which should continue to be governed solely by existing law and procedures, and direct money to marine and coastal conservation rather than to activities that could further damage coastal resources;

  • provide significant, permanent funding dedicated to the restoration and protection of coastal and marine ecosystems;

  • provide for state-based wildlife habitat conservation planning and implementation and priority funding for nongame species;

  • provide funding for private landowner incentives to promote recovery of endangered and threatened species; and

  • avoid setting arbitrary restrictions on federal LWCF acquisitions.

Currently the only legislation that satisfies all of these principles is Resources 2000, introduced by Rep. Miller in the House and Sen. Boxer in the Senate.

On the other hand, CARA -- while providing funding for LWCF, the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Fund and wildlife programs -- also contains environmentally damaging provisions and is not as comprehensive as Resources 2000. CARA could encourage new offshore drilling and allow coastal impact aid to be used for environmentally damaging activities instead of conservation/restoration.

In order to gain a majority of the Congress, sponsors of the legislation would be wise to avoid disproportionately benefitting some states over others for coastal projects or limiting federal acquisitions to existing units largely in the East. The conservation community is cooperating with the Administration and the sponsors of CARA, Resources 2000, and other legislation in the hopes of helping to craft a bipartisan package that will be a victory for all Americans and for the environment. A great and historic conservation opportunity is within reach if the troublesome issues can be worked out.

The stakes are high. What will our children say if priceless places disappear to urban sprawl? Where will they go for solitude and peace if our parks decline? How will we protect the sense of identity and special character that binds communities together if we do not preserve our heritage? Will future generations have the opportunity to experience places that evoke our nation’s history or to see ancient forests and prairie landscapes with their native wildlife? This is the critical crossroads that the President and Vice President point out in the radio address today and we thank them greatly for doing so.

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Contact(s):

Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270

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