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Conservation Bill Heads to Senate

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) — Supporters of a landmark bill to hand the states billions of dollars for conservation are hoping the lopsided vote by which it cleared the House will send a message to the Senate, where it faces stiff opposition.

The legislation, passed 315-102 Thursday after two days of debate, would create a $45 billion, 15-year conservation fund to buy parks and open spaces, pay for wildlife protection and restore environmentally damaged coastal areas. The money would come from federal revenue collected from oil and gas drilling leases — about $4 billion to $5 billion a year. Most of that money now goes into the general treasury.

President Clinton in a statement called the House action ``a historic step toward achieving permanent conservation funding'' and urged the Senate ``to move swiftly on this legislation.''

The outcome in the House was never really in doubt. Nearly two dozen amendments were beaten back by wide margins as the bill's sponsors worried that major changes in the legislation would destroy the ``delicate balance'' of support.

While Republicans were divided, voting 118-93 for the bill, supporters of the measure characterized the vote as an example of bipartisanship. Among Democrats, the vote was 196-8 with two independents splitting on the issue.

``The Senate is going to be hard-pressed not to pass this legislation,'' Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, beamed to reporters after Thursday's vote. Young had ignored opposition from property rights groups, and along with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., led the charge for the bill's passage.

That the two lawmakers would show such unity was itself a shock to many congressional observers. Young, a vocal foe of environmentalists, and Miller, a favorite of green groups, over the years have clashed repeatedly over environmental legislation.

Not this time.

Some critics called the House-passed bill green pork because it calls for distributing $3 billion a year — at least $8.9 million for each state — for a broad range of conservation measures, from buying private parcels trapped within federal land to rebuilding eroded beaches and setting aside parts of suburbia for bike trails and soccer fields.

Alaska, California, Texas and Louisiana would be the big winners, getting about a third of the $3 billion a year. No wonder, say the critics. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., a staunch defender of property rights, became one of the bill's leading cheerleaders. Louisiana stands to get $311 million a year and Alaska $163 million.

The bill is the most ambitious environmental legislation before the Congress this year.

``This is the single most significant commitment our nation has ever made to investments in wildlife and wild places. The benefits will be felt in every state for generations to come,'' Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said Thursday.

But its prospects in the Senate are uncertain.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he wants to ``use the momentum of this House success'' and plans to take up the bill next month. But he warned that even within his committee he expected stiff opposition from a number of senators worried about a government rush to buy private land.

``There must be safeguards against unbridled government acquisitions,'' said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who is on the committee.

Young and Miller believe the strong House vote — and support for the legislation from the White House — will sway senators. So will the tens of millions of dollars annually that will go to states, counties and towns for land purchases and other conservation measures.

But the property rights issue is not expected to go away.

Young argued that the bill provides new protections against the federal government taking land. It also will pour millions of federal dollars into conservation easements, which can be used to help ranchers and farmers keep their land away from developers.

At the heart of the legislation is a requirement that the 36-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund be completely spent at $900 million a year, tripling money for federal and state land purchases. Created in 1964, the fund was supposed to be used exclusively for conservation, but for years has been raided by Congress to pay for other federal programs.

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The bills are H.R. 701 and S2123.

On the Net:

For more information on the bill:

House Resources Committee: http://www.house.gov/resources/ocs

American Land Rights Association: http://www.landrights.org
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