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Senate Panel Ties Park Roads to Flood Bill


WASHINGTON — In a move criticized by environmentalists, Republican senators are trying to attach to an urgent and widely supported flood-relief bill measures that would allow more road building in national parks and wilderness areas and would limit the protection of endangered species.

The maneuver, if successful, would give Republicans a victory on two issues that have earned their fire in recent months. It also would force President Clinton to choose between two unattractive options: Accept the controversial provisions or veto the entire bill and stall needed aid for victims of last month's devastating flooding in North Dakota.

Two years ago, Clinton found himself mired in controversy after he signed an emergency funding bill that included a provision opening up vast old forests to logging. Mindful of that, senior administration officials have promised to seek a presidential veto if the Republican measures are included in the flood-relief legislation.

"The consequences could be devastating" if the roadway measure is passed, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in a letter to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a chief advocate of the provision.

Babbitt also said the other proposal would threaten endangered plants and animals by exempting from the Endangered Species Act routine maintenance of flood-control programs, including dams and irrigation projects throughout the West.

The highway measure, approved last week by the Senate Appropriations Committee, is the latest effort to tinker with an 1866 law that granted road builders wide access to federal lands. Part of the law was repealed in 1976, but Babbitt has been trying this year to make more of the lands off-limits.

"This administration is grasping at ways to reverse 130 years of legal precedent and limit essential access of many rural communities. We cannot allow this to happen," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), hailing approval last week of the roads measure by the appropriations panel.

The budding controversy is likely to arrive on the Senate floor today, where it must pass a series of hurdles before going on to the House. It revolves around long-standing opposition to provisions of the Endangered Species Act and to limits on private and local-government access to sprawling, undeveloped lands throughout the West that belong to the federal government.

Both the House and Senate are under pressure to move quickly on federal assistance for flood victims. Such emergency appropriations often become a magnet for controversial provisions on unrelated topics, which their sponsors hope can become law without drawing much attention.

The 1866 law granting rights-of-way for road construction over public lands was designed to promote mining and settlement in the West. Since 1976, when much of the law was repealed, Alaska and Utah have sought to use its remaining provisions to claim more than 500 routes, many of them through national parks, refuges, wilderness areas and other protected lands, according to the Sierra Club.

Alaska has sought to take advantage of the 1976 repeal's exemption for previously used roadways. But, according to the Sierra Club, some of the routes the state is claiming under that category are actually dog-sled trails or footpaths traveled only infrequently and not more recently than several decades ago.

The endangered species proposal, sponsored by Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), would waive provisions, under certain conditions, of a law that restricts work on flood-control facilities if the construction would threaten creatures considered at risk of extinction.

A Craig aide, Michael Frandsen, said the proposal was written to allow the northern Idaho town of St. Maries to build a levee on the St. Joe River, where serious flooding occurred last year. Construction on the levee has been blocked because the cottonwood trees growing atop the flood barrier offer potential nesting sites for bald eagles. The federal government lists the birds as threatened with extinction.

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