Legislative Landmines Threaten Coast

By Melanie Griffin

Late last year, a key committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved a massive conservation bill that would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a critical tool in efforts to preserve vanishing wildlands throughout the country.

However, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) contains some major stumbling blocks. As reported by the House Resources Committee, H.R. 701 creates incentives for oil and gas drilling in sensitive offshore areas, and would provide funding for projects that could damage our coastal environment.

Paying for the Protection of Our Natural Heritage

The LWCF was created in 1964 to preserve "irreplaceable lands of natural beauty and unique recreational value." The fund uses revenues from offshore oil and gas leasing to purchase land in and around National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, National Forests and other public lands. The act also set up a state matching grants program, under which states and local governments can get aid for wildlands preservation, and for outdoor recreation facilities.

Unfortunately, the tremendous promise of the LWCF Act has never been fulfilled. Of the $900 million promised annually, only a fraction has ever been provided.

A groundswell of public demand for the protection of our natural heritage spawned a host of LWCF revitalization initiatives last year. President Clinton's Lands Legacy Initiative, a funding package announced last winter, got the ball rolling with a proposal to fully and permanently fund the LWCF at its intended level, and to fund several other crucial conservation programs. Congress followed with several bills to do the same.

After much late-night negotiating, a compromised H.R. 701 is headed for a floor vote, with strong support in the House. But the negotiated bill still contains language that threatens sensitive marine and coastal areas, especially in Alaska.

The bill allocates so-called "coastal impact assistance" to coastal states and local governments based on their proximity to offshore oil production. This proximity-based formula could be a major incentive for local governments in Alaska and other producing states to accept more leasing and development. To make matters worse, while the bill lays out several good conservation uses for coastal impact aid, it also allows funding to be spent on infrastructure projects that could potentially harm the environment. In general, H.R. 701 does not distribute conservation dollars equitably, and the bulk of the $1 billion dollar impact aid program would go to just six coastal states.

What Sierra Club Members Can Do

Because the bill contains such historic levels of funding for land acquisition and protection and wildlife programs, the Sierra Club is not trying to stop the bill dead in its tracks. Rather, volunteers and staff are working to make changes in the legislation as it moves through the House and Senate. Actions to amend the bill on the House floor are critical if we are to protect our coasts and secure important conservation funding.

Please contact your member of Congress right away and urge support for amendments to H.R. 701 to protect our fragile coastal areas. Also urge that they fight efforts on the floor to weaken the LWCF. This legislation presents a momentous opportunity for restoring our coastlines, preserving our wildlands, and protecting valuable wildlife habitat - but we must not sacrifice our fragile coastal environment.

April 2000 Online Newsletter - Peak & Prairie Home Page - Rocky Mountain Chapter Home Page