A bill considered by many to be the most important conservation legislation in years -- and possibly the capstone to President Clinton's environmental legacy -- is winding its way through Congress. But watch out! The $3 billion legislation, known as the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), has little to do with conservation, and will in fact perpetuate the degradation of federal lands.
Why? Because CARA is bass-ackwards in its approach to federal land management.
While the bill provides a large pool of money for the acquisition of more federal lands, it provides no funds for addressing critical resource management problems and no reform for our ailing public land agencies.
This is a huge oversight at a time when the poor and declining condition of our public lands has been so well-documented that only catastrophic events are newsworthy anymore.
The fires that raced through Los Alamos this spring and Colorado this summer reveal the perilous condition of our forests -- unnaturally dense and fire-prone. Forty million acres of national forest land are at extreme risk to uncontrolled wildfire. And that is just one of the problems created by federal land stewardship.
In the Great Basin, invasive, non-native species have devastated millions of acres of grazing lands. In Yellowstone National Park, sewage spills into nearby native trout streams. At Gettysburg National Military Park, rain from leaky roofs soaks Civil War relics. Even our national refuge system is showing signs of neglect.
Based on this track record, why would anyone want the federal government to manage more land?
Nevertheless, this bill has received strong support from not only Democrats, but Republicans and even staunch supporters of private property rights. Why? Because it is pork barrel politics at its best. CARA would funnel billions of dollars to the states for land acquisitions.
Alaska, home to two of the bill's strongest supporters, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) and Rep. Don Young (R), would be a big winner in the CARA sweepstakes, receiving $163 million annually. California tops even that, with $324 million every year. Politicians find such numbers hard to ignore.
The federal government already controls one-third of the land area of the United States and continues to add more than 800,000 acres per year. The pace will quicken much more rapidly if CARA is passed. But the funds for managing these new lands are nowhere to be seen.
Any land manager, whether working for a federal agency or overseeing a private farm or ranch, knows that protecting resources comes at a price.
A recent study shows that in 1999 federal land management alone costs more than $6.6 billion, excluding the costs of facility construction and major repair. And management costs more than tripled from 1962 to 1997, jumping from $3 per acre to $10 per acre in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Unlike the federal government, conservation groups recognize that management is costly. Many insist on an endowment to cover management costs before they purchase any new land.
The Nature Conservancy recently announced a plan to buy a pristine atoll in the Pacific Ocean. It is raising funds for both the purchase and for an endowment fund that will be dedicated to the care and protection of this nature preserve.
Similarly, the National Audubon Society requires an endowment fund to care for any land that it accepts as a donation. In this way, it guarantees that the lands will always be protected and that resources dedicated to existing Audubon lands will not be redirected to cover the costs of managing the new property.
Conservation groups have sought new approaches to help them cover the costs of land management over the long term.
The government could learn from their example. It could sell lands without assets such as wildlife habitat or scenic value and use the proceeds to manage lands with higher conservation values. Recreational lands could be made to pay their own way.
To protect America's most valued lands, we must reform federal land management policies and encourage private conservation efforts. Until then, we should not jump hastily onto a legislative bandwagon that will only lead us farther into the wilderness of mismanaged landscapes.
Holly Lippke Fretwell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). Colorado Springs residents can weigh in on the CARA proposal by contacting Congressman Joel Hefley at 520-0055, Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell at 636-9092 or Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard at 634-6071.