House approves massive conservation measure

WASHINGTON - Ignoring complaints the government already owns too much land, the House agreed Thursday to create a $45 billion, 15-year conservation fund to buy parks and open spaces, pay for wildlife protection and restore environmentally damaged coastal areas.

Despite the overwhelming 315-102 approval in the House, the massive measure faces uncertain prospects in the Senate where western property rights advocates have promised to fight it when it comes up for consideration next month.

Republicans were sharply divided, voting 118-93 for the bill. Among Democrats, the vote was 196-8. The two independents split their votes.

The bill is the most ambitious environmental action before the Congress this year. It would commit nearly $3 billion a year over 15 years for a myriad of programs from buying scattered private property within federal parks and rebuilding eroded beaches and coastal wetlands to helping communities set aside land for soccer fields and bike paths.

During two days of debate, supporters of the measure voted down more than a dozen amendments - many offered by property rights advocates - aimed at reducing the ability of federal and state governments to buy private land. The federal government already owns a third of the country, the critics declared.

A substitute proposal offered by Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, that would have delayed the spending for five years and added new private property protections was defeated 291-126. He had argued that conservation funding should not be automatically put ahead of defense, education, health care and other important programs.

''What this is about is the federal acquisition of new land,'' complained Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. Pombo's amendment to slash money for federal land purchases failed 315-109.

Supporters of the bill - including Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Billy Tauzin, R-La., both longtime allies of the property rights movement - insisted the legislation provides increased protection for landowners, not less.

''This bill does not hurt private property,'' insisted Young, chairman of the Resources Committee. He compared the legislation, developed during months of negotiations, to a ''delicate house of cards'' - a balance of political interests that will fall apart if tinkered with. All but a few of the more than two-dozen amendments offered were defeated.

Hailed by most environmentalists as a long overdue federal commitment to conservation and preservation of open spaces, the legislation attracted an unusual alliance of conservatives and liberals.

Young, a longtime foe of environmentalists, teamed with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to craft the legislation - an alliance that stunned many congressional observers because of the two lawmakers' numerous clashes over environmental protection in the past.

Critics said the bill's broad support - there were 316 co-sponsors at the start of floor debate - stemmed from the large amounts of federal dollars being offered to states and local communities. While four states - Alaska, California, Louisiana and Texas - together would share more than $1 billion, every state gets some money - down to landlocked Vermont at $8.9 million.

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.

Endorsed by such groups as the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation, the legislation also has the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, hunting and sport fishing groups and most mayors and governors.

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 with only about a third of it going for public land purchases.

''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,'' said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation.

But some critics argued the money would be better spent to reduce the huge backlog in maintenance and repairs facing the government in national parks and other public lands. However, an amendment offered by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., to divert $225 million for maintenance was defeated 256-169.


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