The effort to create a massive federal land-buying trust, funded with billions of tax dollars, is moving through Congress like a freight train, with hundreds of sponsors.
Pulling no punches in his grassroots campaign to stop the bills, Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association warned, “CARA will finance massive land acquisition including eminent domain; shut down more federal land from recreational or commercial access; wipe out the property tax base of small communities; and cost a heck of a lot of money. And all this to attack core GOP constituencies of property owners and residents of small towns, and pacify pork-driven congressmen from Louisiana and Alaska, power hungry government agents, and enviro groups.”
The Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), HR 701, was introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). Supporters say its aim is conservation and “protecting open spaces.” Detractors offer a different spin, noting the bill allows federal and state government agencies to spend some $2.8 billion each year for the next fifteen years to buy up private lands.
The bill has attracted over 300 sponsors in the House and is expected to have passed by the time this issue of Environment & Climate News hits the streets. Companion bills await in the Senate, where a single lawmaker can keep a bill from passage.
Of politics and pork
Among other things, CARA would give the Secretary of Interior several million dollars a year for projects in National Parks, and the Secretary of Agriculture millions for the National Forest System. Many of the bill’s sponsors are congressmen who have vehemently criticized the National Park System, and especially the National Forest Service, for mismanagement and wrong-headed planning.
Why, then, is there such widespread support among House lawmakers for CARA? Part of the explanation, according to senior staffers, is the Land and Water Conservation Fund that is part of the CARA package. That fund represents a pot of federal tax dollars that would be divvied up among the states for spending on parks, forests, and other projects. There’s something in CARA for everyone.
Last year, Congress voted to consider the Great Lakes “oceans” for CARA purposes. Since funding for CARA’s Land and Water Conservation Fund comes from oil and gas drilling off the outer continental shelf, “coastal” states stand to get more money–the rationale being drilling is an environmental negative, which can be offset by the environmental positive of more money for conservation projects. By calling the Great Lakes “oceans,” Congress paved the way for making more CARA money available to Midwestern states–making their representatives in Congress more likely to vote in favor of the bill.
Support is not universal
Though CARA currently enjoys the support of most congressmen, a handful have been vocal in their opposition.
In an unusual move, nine members of the House Resources Committee submitted a “dissenting view” to be filed with the Committee’s report on the bill. “[I]t is negligent to continue ignoring the $5 billion maintenance backlog in our existing national parks and other federal lands,” they wrote. “We believe that the federal government should be properly maintaining and managing what it already owns, before approving a trust fund that will finance massive new land acquisitions.”
CARA gives substantial new powers to federal agencies many contend are already mismanaged. For example, $50 million is included in CARA for “Endangered and Threatened Species Recovery Agreements,” through which the Secretary of the Interior could “require [a] person to carry out on real property owned or leased by the person activities not otherwise required by law that contribute to the recovery of an endangered or threatened species.” The Secretary could also “require the person to make measurable progress each year in achieving those goals, including a schedule for implementation of the agreement; specify the date on which the agreement takes effect and the period of time during which the agreement shall remain in effect.”
Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho), long an advocate for private property rights, said at a House Resources Committee hearing on CARA, “. . . while this new entitlement program is being established here today under the guise of ‘environment’ and ‘conservation,’ its true premise has more to do with who will own and control property and its use in the United States of America. When did we conclude that the government can manage the land more responsibly and efficiently than the private property owner?”
Several CARA-similar bills have been introduced in the Senate, most recently S 2181 by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico). Others are S 25 introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana); S 1573 from Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut); and S 446 from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California)–all which would direct continental shelf oil and gas drilling revenues to fund land acquisition. Bills differ primarily in the allocation of funds between coastal and non-coastal states.
At press time, no Senate bill has yet been passed by the Senate Energy Committee, chaired by Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska).
For more information
A current list of CARA sponsors is available on the Internet at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d106:HR00701:@@@P.