The Land and Water Fund waits to be tapped


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Last year, something unusual occurred hereabouts, and though the extraordinary event did not go unnoticed, its extraordinariness was insufficiently appreciated.

What happened was that the United States Congress lived up to an obligation. Though not unprecedented, this proximity to honor was rare enough to have deserved more attention than it received, especially considering that it occurred in the field of natural resources, where honor is especially rare. Specifically, Congress agreed to spend the money raised through the Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund for ... land and water conservation.

This is precisely what Congress obligated itself to do back in the middle 1960s, shortly before honor in government went out of fashion. Under the terms of legislation first proposed by John F. Kennedy and signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson, the royalties collected from drillers of offshore oil and gas were to go into a fund, the proceeds of which were to be used to buy property for public recreation and preservation.

The law never stipulated that every penny raised had to be spent that year. On the contrary, the fiscally prudent authors of the legislation (this was before fiscal prudence went out of fashion) envisioned accumulating surpluses.

What they did not foresee was the 1980s, when their successors would simply filch from the surplus, the better to make the federal deficit seem smaller than it was. Through 1980, Congress would spend at least half of the several hundred million dollars the fund raised each year. That year, $509 million was appropriated, leaving the fund with a reserve, or "corpus' in fiscal jargon, of $648 million.

Came the revolution - Ronald Reagan's, not Karl Marx's - and the next year the appropriation went down to $289 million, and to $180 million the year after that. By then the "corpus' was just short of $2 billion. The low point came in 1996, when the fund was taking in almost $900 million a year and its accumulated unspent capital was more than $11 billion. A mere $140 million was spent that year.

Then came last year (Fiscal Year 1998), when the fund raised $900 million and Congress, by jumpin' jiminee, spent almost $900 million. Or, to be precise, authorized the spending. Much of the money has not yet been spent, though in early February the administration produced a list of projects for spending some $238 million of it.

There is no mystery about what happened here. Politics happened. In the 1996 election year, President Clinton made commitments to block construction of the New World Mine near Yellowstone Natonal Park and the decimation of the Headwaters Forest in California. To make good on those commitments, the government had to buy off the mining and logging interests. Money for the buyouts came from the fund. The Republicans were in no mood to appear environmentally recalcitrant again, so after making a little trouble and getting a few goodies, they went along.

Leaving a political-fiscal impasse. The resurgence of the fund inspired hope among environmentalists that perhaps the one good deed would lead to another, especially because it also inspired greater interest in selling on the part of landowners. It's basic economics: When buyers start buying, owners start thinking about selling.

"With lots of money, new big projects came to the table," said Leslie Kane of the Trust for Public Lands. "Landowners started saying, we're ready to sell if you have money to buy."

All over the country, but especially in the West, there are owners of inholdings and other lands who might sell if the price is right. In some cases, no one but the federal government is likely to buy the land. In other cases, developers lie in wait. Andy Wiessner, a conservationist (and a High Country News board member), who tries to preserve wildlands through land trades, says there is a $2 billion backlog of valuable land which owners would like to sell to the government.

But the dominant conclusion in the Clinton administration seems to have been that one good deed was enough. When the $1.73 trillion Executive Budget was unveiled Feb. 3, only $269,644,000 was slated to be spent from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In other words, some $600 million from the fund once again goes ... o, not to make the deficit look smaller this time, but to make the projected $9.5 surplus look bigger. If this is really to be the first balanced budget since the aforementioned Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, the Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund is going to do its part.

Cleverly, the administration proposed spending at least some money from Fiscal Years 1998 and 1999 for most of the high-profile purchases which the public is likely to support. There is, for instance, $4 million for the 8,200-acre Bar T Ranch southeast of Flagstaff. Buying all of it would cost at least $15 million, but perhaps the process can start now, to be completed another year.

Putting these purchases on the list weakens one argument against the administration's parsimony, and another is weak without any help. This is the contention that more ought to be spent from the fund's corpus, now more than $12 billion. But that money is not there. The corpus is not a savings account. Like all the other government trust funds, it's been absconded with over the years. That this may accurately be described as an outrage does not bring back the money.

The administration does propose spending more money from the fund than any other year since 1992, except for last year. And it projects spending more money from the fund in the future.

"We're disappointed," said Jane Danowitz of Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation, a new organization designed to inspire support for using the fund money. "Especially given the support demonstrated last year. We expected that the administration would build on that." But, she said, disappointment was not the same thing as despair, and she was encouraged that the administration seems to recognize the long-term importance of the fund.

Furthermore, there is just the sliver of a possibility that this may be the one non-military area in which a Republican Congress could be persuaded to spend a few bucks more than the Clinton administration requested. Many Republicans support the Land and Water Conservation Fund, especially because some of its money is supposed to be given to the states.

None has been since 1995, and not much since the mid-1980s, Danowitz said. This may not have been an accident. The state share of the fund money began to shrink when James Watt was Interior secretary, and Watt was known for believing that one unfortunate impact of government spending programs was that they created constituencies devoted to their perpetuation. Not that Watt opposed spending money for specific constituencies; he never met a below-cost timber sale he didn't like. But he saw good constituencies and bad ones, and attempted to cut off the money to the ones he didn't like, hoping that they would then disappear.

Organizations such as Americans for Our Heritage are specifically designed to reverse that disappearance. It's a hybrid, financed by environmental groups, associations of state park and natural resource agencies, and the businesses which make and sell outdoor recreation equipment. The pros and cons of such a political entity are worth considering on another day, but clearly it has the potential for drawing local attention to specific projects. Many a voter is far less likely to write his congressman about the Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund in general than about a wetland near the town lake, a bike trail along a nearby river, or the mountain his kids love to climb.

On this issue, as on no other, could the Clinton administration be outflanked on its left from the right?

Jon Margolis likes to visit Washington, D.C., but not live there. He lives in Vermont.

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