Beware Alaskans bearing gifts

  • Cartoon: Don Young National Wildlife Refuge

    Diane Sylvain

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Oh, impressed, are you, that Bill Clinton wants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy more land for the public domain? Well, consider this:

So does Don Young.

No, the crotchety, conservative chairman of the House Resources Committee has not turned green, or at least not very green. The bill he flipped into the hopper in mid-February contains restrictions destined, if not designed, to envenom the typical environmentalist's pancreatic network.

For instance, not a pfennig of the $300 million or so that Young's Conservation and Reinvestment Act would let the federal government spend on land purchases could add a square centimeter to the wilderness system.

Or, for that matter, to the geographic expansion of anything else. Only inholdings, those privately owned pockets of land within national forests and other public lands, would be purchasable with this money. Actual expansion of the boundaries of any public property would be strictly verboten.

In the real world, this would allow purchase of New Mexico's Baca Ranch, which is almost entirely within a national forest, but not, for instance, the 800-acre Williams property near Big Sur, the Forest Service's "first priority for acquisition in F(iscal) Y(ear) 2000" in California.

Not that there is no rationale for emphasizing "inholdings," an administrative annoyance and the source of public-private conflicts (HCN, 2/16/98). But refusing to let the federal government buy anything outside the boundaries of existing public land puts a lot of desirable spots off-limits.

In fact, a cynic perusing Young's bill, co-sponsored by Democrat John Dingell of Michigan and three Louisiana Republicans, might conclude that he really didn't want the government to buy any more land at all, especially considering the little ringer in there that any purchase of more than a lousy million bucks would have to be approved by Young's Committee on Resources and the Senate Energy Committee chaired by fellow-Alaska Republican Frank Murkowski.

This could well mean that whatever those two fellows don't want bought doesn't get bought. In the past, the amount of land they have wanted our government to buy for purposes of preservation and recreation has ranged from very little to nothing at all.

That perusing cynic might suggest that what Young really wants is to use this $300 million or so, plus more millions to funnel to state governments for buying land, as a come-on - a legal and traditional legislative bribe - to get moderates in both parties to vote for the bill, including the part Young really does want - federal money for coastal areas where oil-drilling has had an impact, often undesirable. Coastal areas such as are found, oh, just off the top of my head, in Alaska and Louisiana, home of Young's co-sponsors (and Murkowski's, too; his similar Senate bill is co-sponsored by Democrat Mary Landrieu of what Earl Long used to call the Gret Stet of Loozhiana.

Or, to use the officialese of Young's press release, his bill would create "a revenue-sharing fund for coastal states and eligible local governments to mitigate the various unintended impacts of OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) activities and to support sustainable development of nonrenewable resources."

At this point, one may well ask: what is the connection between oil drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf and buying land in the Interior West? For this question, there is a simple answer: money. All the money for buying land comes from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, established in 1964 as environmentalism's price for allowing the oil companies to drill through the ocean floor.

For every barrel of oil (or million cubic-feet of natural gas) the companies pay a fee. That drilling actually generates some $4.7 billion a year, and for the past two decades, $900 million of that was supposed to go into the Fund every year to buy land. In these parts, what is supposed to happen does not always happen, and most of the money has been diverted into the federal treasury, the better to mask the real extent of the recently departed federal deficit.

Now, the fiscal situation has changed, and so has the political situation, and in this context that cynical analyst may be doing Young a disservice. First of all, the new money for coastal area mitigation would not come from the LWCF. It would come from the "surplus" Outer Continental Shelf royalties that had been lumped in with the rest of the federal government's income.

So despite all the conditions Young has attached, he and his allies are calling for "full funding of the LWCF," an environmentalist mantra last year, a near-consensus slogan today, and an omen for buying more land in Fiscal 2000.

It is not insignificant that in introducing his own, greener bill to distribute LWCF money, environmentalist California Democrat George Miller called Young's proposal "a welcome step toward a permanent federal commitment to public land acquisition."

In fact, Chairman Young is now taking a bit of flak from his allies in the "property rights" movement, who oppose all federal land purchases. That he is willing to risk their ire probably means he knows how little power they have outside a few pockets of the rural West. But it might mean something else, too.

For all his occasional fustiness, Don Young is no fool, and he knows that among the things that do not last forever are life, careers and legislative majorities. He will be 65 years old this June, and while Alaska's political realities probably assure him of his seat as long as he wants it, he may not want it much longer, especially because next time he might not be committee chairman, but merely the ranking minority member.

So if he wants to leave a legacy - and who doesn't? - this may be his last best chance. Young has made statements indicating that he suspects the government should not own any land at all. But it's a whole lot easier to secure a legacy by creating something than by eliminating something. It would be ironic, but productive, if one day there were a Don Young National Wildlife Refuge.

This could help explain why several moderate environmentalists are supporting Young's bill, including Wilderness Society board member Theodore Roosevelt IV, and Jane Danowitz, the executive director of Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation, the group formed to back the "Teaming With Wildlife" proposal to raise money to help states conserve nongame animals.

Young is throwing some money in that pot, too, not through the excise tax on outdoor equipment advocated by the original "Teaming" plan, but by setting aside 10 percent of the OCS money. His bill would also provide $100 million a year directly to cities for their own recreation program. Young may be a conservative Republican, but he seems to understand how liberal Democrats operate: spread the money around and pick up support.

Not that environmentalists will support Young's bill, at least not yet. They far prefer Miller's bill or President Clinton's "Lands Legacy" proposal, which calls for spending more money and which outlines a specific wish list, including the purchase of 483,000 acres of inholdings in the California deserts, preservation of the upper reaches of the Missouri River, protection of the Lewis and Clark trail in Montana's Blackfoot Valley, and easements to protect native grasslands in western North Dakota.

And, needless to say, the Clinton and Miller proposals lack all those restrictions in Young's bill. But what should be obvious to everyone, including Don Young, is that those restrictions might well be eliminated or modified on the House and Senate floors. While no doubt Young will fight any amendments, no one should be surprised if he ends up voting for an amended version. It's hard to claim a legacy if you vote against the final bill.

The arithmetic here is obvious. Simply consider the vote in the Senate on Feb. 12 on two measures proposed by the House of Representatives, something dealing with the continued tenure of the president of the United States. You may have read about it. Five Republicans voted against both of them. That's enough for Vice President Al Gore to break a tie even if, say, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and John McCain of Arizona, among others, didn't support a greener version of Young's bill, perhaps with some sections of Miller's alternative. In the House, the arithmetic is even more favorable to the environmentalist cause.

As is the nonquantifiable political dynamic. The Republican Party urgently needs to accomplish something, lest it be regarded as the party of a failed coup d'etat. Adding some real estate to the common weal lacks the political impact of fixing what ails the Social Security system, controlling managed health care, or (maybe) cutting taxes. But it would be an accomplishment, and a popular one, something to put on re-election brochures and in 30-second spots.

So it is entirely possible that one limited but lasting consequence of Our Long National Farce will be augmentation of the public domain. The Monica Lewinsky National Wildlife Refuge?


Jon Margolis is a political reporter who covers the Washington, D.C., beat from Vermont.

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