This budget cut is destructive


Business isn't being conducted as usual on Capitol Hill these days, and no better example exists than the perils besetting the Land and Water Conservation Fund

The fund, created in 1965 at the height of the Great Society, was designed to finance federal purchases of land for recreation and habitat enhancement, and to give states grants for parks and recreational facilities. The trust fund, financed by $900 million a year in royalties on offshore oil and gas development, now holds a whopping $10 billion. Interest on that principal is doled out through the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for deserving projects.

Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress love it; they take credit for bringing home boat ramps and campgrounds. But the fund's less press release-worthy uses, including buying inholdings and buffer zones for parks, have raised the hackles of inholders' and property-rights' groups.

In the 1980s, the Reagan and Bush administrations zeroed out spending from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This not only mollified fractious Sagebrush Rebels, but provided a touch of greasepaint for the administrations' soaring budget deficits. Even though the Land and Water Conservation Fund isn't taxpayer-funded and can't be spent on anything but land and recreational facilities, carrying a program on the books that took in millions more than it paid out made the deficit look a tad less horrendous.

Congress, however, never really accepted spending nothing. Even in the depths of the James Watt years, legislators pried loose a few million dollars a year for emergency purchase of inholdings and land on the brink of development. By the late 1980s, the Land and Water Conservation Fund was back in business, and in 1995, the fund is to disburse $225 million, with $25 million of that going to states as matching grants.

Last fall's election of a Republican Congress altered that landscape.

On May 18, the House of Representatives passed a budget resolution placing a five-year moratorium on all Land and Water Conservation Fund spending, saying that agencies "should improve their stewardship of land they already own before facing added management responsibilities." The Senate is contemplating a similar move.

States have quickly realized that cutting off such a little bit of money in an era of $200 billion deficits would wreak havoc with big projects within their borders.

Colorado, for example, would be hard hit, although Western states, with so much of their territory already held by federal agencies, typically receive far less funding than California, the Midwest and the Gulf States. Recent Colorado projects paid for by the Land and Water Conservation Fund include:

* BLM purchases of inholdings along the wildly popular Arkansas River, to increase access for fishermen and river-runners and save streamside vegetation;

* Adding 18,000 acres of forest destined for vacation-home development in "Cherokee Park," near Fort Collins, to the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest. The land provides access for big-game hunters and mountain bikers; and

* Buying land in Ruby Canyon near Grand Junction on the Colorado River, a popular recreation area and desert bighorn sheep habitat.

Critics say that completely shutting off federal land purchases, as Congress proposes, would also aggravate a problem that surfaced during the Watt moratorium: Inholders and other landowners who want to sell their property - many of whom have already signed agreements with federal agencies or land trusts - would be left in limbo.

"The 104th Congress has been focusing intently on protecting private property rights," said Will Callaway, staffer for the National Parks and Conservation Association. "The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been meeting that objective for 30 years."

"There's nothing better we can put our money into than land, when you see what's going on with our population," said Linn Kincannon, public lands associate for the Idaho Conservation League.

Grassroots environmental organizations and land trusts, which often shun overt politicizing, are mobilizing to keep the Land and Water Conservation Fund alive. They realize that won't be easy because of the anti-federal-lands sentiment in this Congress and because of the House's pledge to cut $1.5 trillion in federal spending over seven years.

If there is any good news for proponents of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, it is that the budget resolution is not binding; it's a blueprint for the House and Senate Appropriations committees, where the heavy horse-trading happens. Federal law requires that dollars be not only appropriated but authorized, two processes that thrash through a thicket of hearings, votes and markups before the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

Lobbyists and civilians with constitutions strong enough to brave this arcane, enervating process have numerous opportunities to influence it.

That's just what Liz Boussard, coordinator of the Land and Water Conservation Fund coalition, a collection of 53 regional and national groups, hopes will happen. "All of the Western states have a representative either on House or Senate Appropriations. They've got to hear from the grassroots like they've never heard from them before."

She notes that even members like Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a vituperative critic of the National Park Service, wants the agency to buy out miners with inholdings in Denali National Park.

"One thing I think we have in our favor," Boussard said, "even in all the rhetoric we hear about having to make cuts and having to balance the budget, the Interior appropriations subcommittees are still getting requests from members. And 75 percent of those requests are for land acquisition."

Nancy Shute writes her column for High Country News from Washington, D.C.

Senators can be reached at the U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510 (202/224-3121); representatives are at U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515 (202/225-3121).

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