WASHINGTON - In a rare display of bipartisan backing for an ambitious environmental protection effort, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation yesterday that would direct $3 billion a year from offshore oil leases into state land and water conservation programs.
Enactment of the measure would mean $37 million annually to Maryland, where officials say they might use it for agricultural easements, shoreline acquisition along the Potomac River, protection of wildlife habitats, battlefield preservation and development of oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay.
Elsewhere in the nation, the money could be used for ballfields and bike paths, preserving old forests and mountain ranges, repairing eroded shorelines and damaged fish breeding grounds.
"This bill is a gift to all Americans to allow them to benefit from the tremendous natural resources in our nation now and into the future," said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who teamed up with Alaska Republican Don Young to win support for the measure.
The 315-102 vote that sent the bill on to an uncertain fate in the Senate offered a striking contrast to the bitterly contested battles waged just a few years ago by the Republican-led Congress to weaken or repeal environmental laws that opponents said intruded on private property rights.
"This represents a remarkable coming together," said Louisiana Republican W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, who in the past has been a leading opponent of such legislation but brokered some key compromises in yesterday's bills. "We were always concerned about avoiding too much regulation and protecting people's property rights," Tauzin said of past efforts."This bill takes care of that."
The strong House vote, which included a majority of Republicans and nearly all the Democrats, was also attributed to the large flow of cash that the bill would automatically send into state coffers without going through the annual congressional budget process."This is green pork," said Melinda Pierce, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group.
She compared the conservation money to "pork barrel" projects lawmakers more typically take home from transportation or military spending bills.
For example, Louisiana, host to much of the nation's offshore oil drilling, stands to gain $300 million a year. Some of that money might be used to elevate a coastal highway providing access to the oil facilities so that it runs above marsh.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat who was one of only two Marylanders to vote against the bill, said he was protesting the automatic spending feature.
He and other members of the Appropriations committee argued that conservation projects should have to compete for limited federal resources on an annual basis along with most other government programs."We're only providing about 40 percent of the money required for Head Start, for example," he said, referring to the early learning program for pre-schoolers. "Why shouldn't that get automatic funding? Where does it stop?"
Supporters said the automatic spending feature is necessary because Congress has failed to live up to a 1964 commitment that money collected from offshore oil leases would be dedicated to conservation.
Instead, the money has been steadily drained off to pay for other government programs."This money is owed to the American people," said Young, the Alaska Republican. "Since 1964, $13 billion has been misspent."
Western Maryland Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett, the other member of the state's delegation to oppose the bill, complained that the federal government should not be buying any more land until it does a better job of managing the land it owns now, said his spokeswoman, Lisa Wright.
She offered as a case in point the fire raging out of control in New Mexico. The fire had been deliberately set May 4 by the National Park Service to clear brush near Bandelier National Monument.
Similar complaints are likely to be heard in the Senate, where Western lawmakers say they don't want the government to take any more property off their tax rolls.
In some states, such as Nevada, the federal government owns 90 percent of the land.
Idaho Republican Sen. Larry E. Craig said the westerners might insist on a provision that any new land acquired by the government must be offset by an equivalent amount of government property being released for private use.
Many of those concerns are addressed in the bill by promoting land swaps and the purchase of easements that allow the owners to continue using their property in return for future land rights, Tauzin said.
The bill also requires that any land acquired must come from willing sellers, rather than property owners forced to sell through condemnation proceedings.
In 1995, Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, an Idaho Republican, sponsored a bill to prevent any future federal land acquisition that passed the House by a two-to-one margin.
She said during floor debate yesterday that she was mystified by the turnabout by her colleagues.
The only explanation she could offer was to point to the fliers floating about the House floor warning lawmakers of how much money each state had at stake if the bill was weakened by amendments or killed outright.
Every state would receive some money from the measure - ranging from $324 million for California to $8.9 million for Vermont. The District of Columbia would get $7.3 million."I'm desperate for this money," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican who said he has been working for nearly a year with farmers, real estate agents and government officials to try to fashion programs that can make the best use of the expected funds.
Maryland's $37 million annual share would be more than double the federal funds that now come to the state for wildlife protection and Coastal Zone Management programs, according to Michael Nelson of the state Department of Natural Resources.
In recent years, the state's land preservation and agricultural easement programs haven't been getting any federal money at all, Nelson said.
Here are the main provisions of the House bill calling for a $45 billion, 15-year conservation spending fund that would spend $3 billion a year.
$1 billion for impact assistance for coastal areas to mitigate beach erosion, restore wetlands and conserve coastal ecosystems.
$900 million for federal and state public land purchases. Money is divided equally between state and federal government.
$350 million for wildlife conservation. Includes money for protection of game and nongame wildlife.
$125 million for urban parks and recreation programs.
$100 million for preservation of historic places.
$200 million for protection and restoration of Indian lands and resources.
$150 million for conservation easements to help ranchers, farmers and other landowners avoid selling to developers; also money for incentives to protect endangered species.
$200 million for payment to communities to make up for taxes lost when property is set aside.