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California and the West

House Approves Billions for Land Conservation Plan

Wildlife: Sweeping measure would use funds from oil and gas drilling to buy property and protect habitats.

May 12, 2000|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to channel billions of dollars each year to a new fund for land conservation, recreation programs and a host of environmental projects, brushing aside objections from an irate minority of fiscal conservatives and private-property advocates.

If the legislation becomes law, a new federal conservation fund totaling nearly $3 billion a year would be created from revenue drawn from offshore oil and gas drilling. Each of the states, including California, would receive some of the money.

Nearly a third of the fund--$900 million a year--would be available for the government to buy land that officials deem of value to the public.

The new fund could steer about $324 million a year to California--money that could be used to help restore eroding beachfronts, protect the habitat of endangered species or create city parks.

The bill, touted as the most sweeping natural resources measure to pass the House in years, was propelled by an unusual bipartisan alliance of environmentalists, conservationists and lawmakers who simply wanted to target as much money as possible for popular programs in their districts.

Advocates said that they were aiming to put money from oil and gas drilling to a use that Congress specified 35 years ago. That use often has been shortchanged because of other budgetary pressures.

The lopsided 315-102 vote in favor of the bill steamrolled some leading Republicans who voiced fears that the measure would trample the rights of private landowners. Others worried that the spending would undermine fiscal discipline that the GOP majority in Congress likes to promote.

The House Republican leadership allowed critics to offer a plethora of amendments--nearly all handily defeated--but otherwise was almost invisible on the measure. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) stepped aside to let lawmakers work "the will of the House," his spokesman acknowledged.

The legislation's groundswell of support recalled coalitions that have backed major highway and aviation spending bills in the last two years, demonstrating anew the formidable political appeal of measures that promise to spread wealth around the country.

"This will be a historic bill. This will be a landmark bill," declared one sponsor, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), a leading environmentalist. "And we will be addressing one of the very highest priorities of the American people."

The other main sponsor, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Resources Committee, has been at war with many environmental groups since the GOP took over Congress five years ago. But he struck a conciliatory tone in Thursday's debate, asserting that the bill would balance the rights of property owners and the importance of protecting open space and endangered species.

President Clinton strongly backs the measure. It also has key allies in the Senate, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). But Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), predicted that the measure will face strong opposition from some senators in charge of spending bills and others from western states where voters are wary of Washington's role as a dominant landlord.

Some western lawmakers in the House warned that enactment of what they called a government "land grab" would wreak havoc with their political base. "If this bill passes and becomes law, it will be a death knell for the Republican majority" in the House said Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho).

But 118 Republicans joined 196 Democrats and one independent to vote for the bill.

Even Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), a private-property advocate who voted against the bill, acknowledged that it contains "a lot of good parts"--some of which he convinced the sponsors to include.

Under the bill, $1 billion each year would be earmarked for coastal conservation, with formulas weighted toward states affected by off-shore drilling, such as California and Alaska.

Of the $900 million that would be available annually to acquire environmentally sensitive land, half of the funds could be spent by the federal government and half by the states.

The bill also would distribute each year:

* $350 million for wildlife conservation.

* $125 million for urban parks and recreation.

* $100 million for historic preservation.

* $200 million for federal and Indian lands cleanup.

Miller said that the bill is "on a par" with landmark legislation passed in years past to clean up toxic waste and the nation's air and water. A broad coalition of wilderness, conservation, recreation and environmental groups agreed.

"It's a terrific accomplishment," said Jay Watson, a regional director in California and Nevada for The Wilderness Society, who lobbied for the bill. "Open space and wild places and outdoor recreation define qualify of life in the state of California and elsewhere, and this bill will ensure that that tradition continues," he said.

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