As threats loom, conservation dollars disappear

Feds back away from buying sensitive land

 

EVERGREEN, Colorado — On a cold, foggy day in late March, not much is visible of the 6,000-acre Beaver Brook watershed in the mountains near Evergreen, Colo. Tall spruce and fir trees, flocked with snow, vanish into the low-lying clouds within 20 yards. A foot of snow blankets a meadow traced by elk and coyote tracks.

It’s the kind of landscape that gets subdivided into "prime mountain estates," and last fall, a big chunk of the property faced that fate. The nearby city of Golden had acquired Beaver Brook in the 1920s as a water supply, but by the late ’90s, the booming town needed more water and put the land up for sale to fund a new reservoir.

In 2001, the Mountain Area Land Trust, an Evergreen-based land preservation nonprofit, arranged for the Arapaho National Forest to buy Beaver Brook — which adjoins the forest — for $21.1 million. The Forest Service planned to use federal Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars to buy a portion of the land every year, completing the purchase in 2005.

As of this March, Congress had come up with a total of $15.5 million, enough to buy three-quarters of the property. But the remaining $5.6 million wasn’t forthcoming, and the Forest Service’s purchase option was about to expire. "We wanted to keep that land as open space," says Chuck Baroch, Golden’s mayor, "but if that didn’t materialize, we would consider selling to developers."

Baroch’s dilemma is emblematic of the struggle facing communities and conservation groups around the West, as they compete with developers over the fate of sensitive lands. In the last year or two, that struggle has become even harder, as the federal government starts to turn away from the time-honored idea of buying land in order to preserve it.

A $10 billion backlog

Back in 1964, Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund to allow both federal and state governments to purchase natural areas and develop parks, soccer fields and picnic grounds.

The Fund has paid for about 40,000 outdoor recreation projects and protected some 7 million acres of parks, open space and refuges, in places ranging from Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona to Utah’s Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area to the Platte River park in downtown Denver, Colo.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is supposed to get most of its money from fees paid by companies drilling for offshore oil and gas. But "Congress consistently diverts those funds," says Tom St. Hilaire, executive director of Americans for our Heritage and Recreation, a national coalition that educates the public about the Land and Water Conservation Fund. "(The Fund) never gets what it’s supposed to" — the $900 million of annual funding that Congress authorized in 1977.

Funds for federal land acquisition were slashed from $445 million in 2001 to $177 million in 2004, and in 2005, took another $13 million hit. Under President Bush’s 2006 budget, state funding would disappear completely, while dollars for federal land purchases would drop to $146 million, the lowest level in a decade. "Now is the worst time, given our challenges from sprawling development, to be cutting back on the Fund," says Christine Fanning, communications director of the nonprofit Conservation Fund.

The National Park Service estimates that in 2004, unmet state and local recreation needs, such as city parks and baseball diamonds, were close to a billion dollars. And the backlog for buying new land for wildlife refuges, national parks and national forests now sits at more than $10 billion, according to St. Hilaire.

Last year, Oregon’s Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area requested $5.5 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase properties in danger of being logged or developed. Congress gave it just $1 million, says Mike Ferris, Forest Service spokesman: "We’re losing out on the ability to protect critical pieces of land."

No more new federal lands?

The lack of attention to the Land and Water Conservation Fund parallels a growing movement within the federal government to reduce its role in land stewardship. The Interior Department recently released a report outlining its goals for land conservation, which stated that acquiring land is only one tool among many for protecting it. The report stresses "cooperative conservation" — giving private landowners grants to conserve land while retaining ownership of it.

And some Western members of Congress have stepped up their efforts to prevent new land purchases, and are even trying to sell off chunks of federal land. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, introduced a bill in early March that would require the federal government to inventory its holdings and identify properties that could be sold or turned over to local governments. Also in March, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., introduced a "No Net Loss of Private Land" bill, which would prevent the Departments of Agriculture and Interior from increasing the public-land estate in the West.

This lack of federal support means that conservationists bent on saving land will have to get creative — and that’s what has happened with the Beaver Brook watershed. Although the cuts to the Land and Water Conservation Fund prevented the Forest Service from buying the remaining 1,400 acres of the watershed, the Mountain Area Land Trust stepped in with $150,000. The trust then got Clear Creek County to pitch in another $390,000, and convinced Great Outdoors Colorado, a lottery-supported grant program for open space and parks, to loan the county the $5.2 million balance until the Forest Service can get the money appropriated.

But other communities may not be so lucky in piecing together the support they need for open-space protection. "We look at it from the perspective of willing landowners who’d like to sell," says St. Hilaire. "They’re not going to wait forever for a government agency to come up with the money."

The author is HCN’s news editor.



CONTACTS:

The Conservation Fund Christine Fanning, 703-908-5809

Americans for our Heritage and Recreation Tom St. Hilaire, 202-454-3370