Billings Gazette – 4/3/01
CARA REVIVED FOR 2ND DEBATE
By JEFF TOLLEFSON Gazette Wyoming Bureau
CODY, Wyo. - The congressional battle lines are already being drawn for the second debate over CARA, a landmark piece of conservation legislation that died without a vote in the U.S. Senate last year despite having more than enough votes to become law.
The Conservation and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as CARA, would tap offshore oil royalties to secure $3.1 billion annually for a broad range of initiatives, from conservation of wildlife, coastal ecosystems and American Indian lands to historic preservation, urban parks and recreation.
The act would fund state and federal land acquisition and landowner incentives for the recovery of threatened and endangered species on private land. It would also increase and secure money paid to local governments for federal land that is exempt from property taxes, known as payment in lieu of taxes or PILT.
As the title suggests, the act would reinvest money garnered from nonrenewable resources into land and conservation. CARA is backed by more than 6,000 organizations across the country as well as all 50 state wildlife agencies.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, has introduced the bill in the House again this year, and supporters are already gathering momentum for a second drive. Last year, the bill won 315 votes in the House.
But CARA has powerful opponents.
Fearful of more federal land purchases, Western Republicans played a part in the bill's demise last year, as did senators who control appropriations. CARA would have locked in funding for 15 years, essentially removing congressional oversight of annual appropriations to several programs.
In the end, despite a request from 63 senators who wanted to see the bill come to the floor, the bill ran out of time in a presidential election season. That led to a compromise that many call "CARA light."
Young's spokesman Steve Hansen said the congressman wants to avoid the time crunch this year by getting it out through the House quickly, "so the Senate can't sit on it and kill it." He said this year's bill retains most of its previous form, although the appropriation is bumped up to $3.1 billion annually from $2.85 billion last year.
"Everybody out there, they all know what type of support CARA has. We are hoping the White House will get on board and be supportive of CARA also," Hansen said. "There's significant opposition out there, too. The appropriators, both Republican and Democrat, are against it, and they have a lot of power."
Among them is Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who caught flak from wildlife advocates and Democrats for his work on the "CARA light" compromise. A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Burns remains opposed to critical parts of CARA. Spokesman Jon Lindgren said it's too early for the senator to take a stance on this year's CARA, although his reservations remain.
"Our concerns are basically the same as they were last time, that this is putting a great deal of funding for these programs on auto-pilot, when Congress should have oversight in that area," Lindgren said Friday.
But one of CARA's primary benefits, according to supporters, is the dependability it would create by locking in funds so local governments, as well as state and federal agencies, could count on the money. It's about local control and giving states dependable funding so they can make long-term decisions, said Naomi Edelson of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
"The good part of the bill is that it's focused on states' funding. We have a Republican House, a Republican Senate and a Republican White House, and that's their mantra," she said.
Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., says he believes in local control but not without accountability. He said he supports funding wildlife programs for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, but that doesn't mean he will sign off on a 15-year funding plan.
"Game and Fish people get a little accustomed to having their own budget and not having to deal with the Legislature or Congress," he said. The agency can make its decisions locally, he added, "but that doesn't mean that whoever is providing the money just kisses it goodbye and you never know what happened to it or how it was spent or anything else."
Burns spokesman Lindgren said the senator's biggest concern is land acquisition, also a primary concern of Thomas and other Western Republicans. CARA would secure $350 million annually for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LCWF) for state and federal land acquisition. Thomas and others tried to insert a "no-net-gain" provision to keep the federal government from picking up even more land in Western states.
Despite the broad support of CARA's conservation initiatives, Thomas said he was barraged with opposition.
"Talk to the cattlemen's association. Talk to the wool growers. Talk to the people who have to deal with federal land," he said.
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said Western states don't need more federal land.
"We're already nearly 50 percent federally owned. That doesn't mean there aren't parcels that it might make sense for the federal government to acquire, but when they do they should let go of another," he said.
Environmentalists say a fully funded Land and Water Conservation Fund would be used to purchase critical habitat from willing sellers, which benefits wildlife, sportsmen and anyone interested in conservation or outdoor recreation. Citing projects like the purchase of elk winter range from the Church Universal Triumphant north of Yellowstone, Bob Ekey of the Wilderness Society in Bozeman said acquisitions have enormous public appeal.
"People aren't trying to go out there wholesale and buy a bunch of land for the federal government," he said. "These are key parcels that help protect the wildlife values and other values of nearby public land."
Thomas said he doesn't see much hope for CARA. With a six-year appropriation for about $12 billion - as opposed to $45 billion over 15 years in the original - the CARA compromise eliminated most of the pressing issues, he said. Funding PILT
At the time, Burns touted the CARA compromise as a "win-win" for Montana, but CARA's supporters weren't convinced.
"It's a far cry from what the original legislation intended," said Barrett Kaiser, spokesman for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. "Max was disappointed at how the final result came out last year, and he wants to work in a bipartisan way to get meaningful conservation legislation passed that sets aside permanent long-term funding for such things as LCWF and the PILT program."
Kaiser said Baucus pushed heavily to boost PILT funding to its full level, which would have brought an additional $12.6 million to Montana counties each year. Beaverhead County, for example, would have received $800,000 in new funding annually, while Teton County would have received an increase of more than $300,000.
"What CARA would have done is authorize the full funding of PILT and locked that in so our counties could have budgeted and basically known what they were going to get," he said.
Thomas said the bill was written by coastal states and benefits largely coastal states, with the majority of money going to states like Alaska and California. Young's spokesman said the coastal restoration money is among Young's primary interests in sponsoring the bill.
Nonetheless, CARA has a large constituency because there is something in the bill for everybody, Hansen said.
"They have a coalition that's very strong," he said, citing negotiations among Democrats and Republicans, Easterners and Westerners and people from rural and metropolitan areas. Its broad support, he added, should carry it through Congress.
"We think if CARA could get to the Senate floor, we could have up to 75 votes, easily," Hansen said.
Updated: Tue Apr 3 09:06:52 CDT 2001 Central Time Copyright (c) The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises www.leeenterprises.com.
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