CARA battle is won . . . for now

Published December 1, 2000

Property rights advocates cautiously declared victory in early October over the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), which would have established a 15-year, $45 billion trust to fund government efforts to acquire private land.

On October 6, the Senate approved, by an 83-16 vote, an Interior Department Appropriations bill that did not include funding for the CARA proposal. Congress ended this year’s session without attaching CARA to another appropriations bill.

The Interior Department appropriation authorizes a land acquisition fund for only six years, rather than CARA’s 15. Also unlike CARA, which attempted to guarantee funding for the full 15 years, the Interior Department measure requires that Congress appropriate funds for the trust every year. The 2001 appropriations measure includes $1.6 billion—roughly half the $3.0 billion CARA would have set aside that year.

CARA opponents were pleased to have defeated the “massive land grab,” but some considered the victory incomplete. “The compromise should not be considered a major victory,” noted Dave Russell of Citizens for Constitutional Property Rights. “The administration and the environmental lobby ended up with more funds than they had last year to buy up more land.”

Chuck Cushman, president of the American Land Rights Association, was more upbeat. “This is a case study of how grassroots activists from across the country can take on the Washington DC insider crowd and score a win. There will be some increases in land acquisition, but the idea of a guaranteed trust fund has been buried for probably another 10 years,” he predicted.

Senator Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming) was identified by the Alliance for America as a “property rights hero” in the Senate CARA battle. “Thomas spoke against having a 15-year guaranteed trust fund for government agents to condemn private land,” reported Brian McIntosh, who moderates the Alliance’s email listserv. “He spoke in favor of maintaining the government land we already have before grabbing any more.”

The National Governors Association, which had supported CARA for its promise of funding for land and wildlife conservation, urban parks, historic preservation, and recreation programs, opposed the Interior Department appropriations compromise. In a September 29 letter to President Clinton and Congressional leaders, Governors Thomas J. Vilsack (D-Iowa) and Frank Keating (R-Oklahoma), chair and vice-chair, respectively, of NGA’s Committee on Natural Resources, called the measure “an inadequate substitute for the Conservation and Reinvestment Act.” They warned, “This bill forces state priorities to compete for funding with federal programs in an annual appropriations battle. . . . This is a serious departure from the spirit and intent of CARA, and we renew our call for CARA’s passage.”

Cushman, however, doubted the governors’ call would be heard. “Property rights activists and recreational access advocates joined forces to raise Congress’s pain level so high that CARA became more trouble than it was worth.”