CARA Push Begins Anew

 

The Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) is back on Congress's list of legislative priorities, looking much the same as it did when it failed to come to a floor vote in the U.S. Senate last fall.

It's all there: The 15-year, $45 billion federal investment in public land conservation, wildlife, recreation and historic preservation projects. The overwhelming support of over 5,000 outdoor advocacy groups and state and local governments. The rapidly lengthening list of co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives already a majority before the first word of testimony was delivered to Congress this week.

"It's a good bill. I hope America wakes up to it and gets on the bandwagon as they were last year," U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) told Stateline.org .

If there is anything different about the drive to pass this year's version, it will be the effort by Young and the bill's other prominent supporters to assuage the fears of property rights advocates. That group's concerns about increasingly aggressive federal land acquisition and an estimated $9 billion maintenance backlog on federal lands were the main reasons CARA failed to pass last year, despite a nearly three-to-one vote in its favor in the House and the support of over 60 senators.The influence of property rights groups became clear as lawmakers took their first look at CARA this session. As introduced by Young, the bill directs revenue from offshore oil and gas drilling leases toward conservation spending in eight areas:

  • $1 billion for coastal conservation projects;
  • $900 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the nation's primary piggy bank for the creation of new national, state and local parks and wildlife refuges;
  • $350 million for wildlife restoration and habitat protections;
  • $125 million for urban parks and playgrounds;
  • $160 million for historic preservation;
  • $200 million for the restoration of deteriorating federal and tribal lands;
  • $50 million for endangered and threatened species recovery efforts;
  • $350 million for reimbursements to local governments for potential property tax revenues lost to federal land acquisitions through the Payment In Lieu of Taxes and Refuge Revenue Sharing programs. 

CARA's backers acknowledge the bill creates a few new spending priorities while providing money for a number of established federal conservation programs that typically receive short shrift in the budget process.

Congressional appropriators and fiscal conservatives often balk at such entitlements that take the purse strings out of their hands and prevent them from directing funds toward pressing needs that change from one year to the next. But Young and other CARA supporters in Congress and the states point to last year's $100 million, one-time "CARA-lite" provisions for wildlife as evidence that CARA is the only way to achieve what they view as the most effective means to meet the nation's conservation goals.

"We believe that CARA can be the answer, not only for Louisiana, but for the entire country." Louisiana Natural Resources Secretary Jack C. Caldwell told the House Resources Committee Wednesday (6/20).

Alaska and Louisiana, among the states that would benefit most from CARA's coastal restoration fund, profit from the extraction of their oil and gas resources but are also hit hardest by its impacts, Caldwell said. Current funding for shore restoration projects "is woefully inadequate and the timing is urgent. We need CARA and we need it now," he said.

State officials also testified on behalf of CARA's provisions for parks, wildlife and historic preservation, much of which would be administered by state governments.

"Good stewardship cannot be imposed from Washington, D.C. It needs to be supported at the state and community level," said Georgia Division of Wildlife Director David Waller.

Young and his allies have some persuading to do. Their greatest task will be to convince property owners, especially large private landowners in Western states, that CARA is intended to improve their footing when confronted with government interest in their lands.Rene Daniels-Mantle, a Colorado rancher whose family has raised cattle on Western lands for over 100 years, told lawmakers that her family has been repeatedly harassed by National Park Service officials who want to incorporate their property into federal lands.

Daniels-Mantle said federal agencies have regulated her property and neighboring lands to the point that in a few years her family may have no choice but to become the "willing sellers" specified in CARA's language.

Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican who, like Young, is a renowned champion of private property rights, said CARA would cap annual federal land expenditures at $450 million well below their $544 million average in recent years.

Tauzin said CARA would also encourage the negotiation of permanent easements on private property over land purchases, place greater demands upon federal agencies interested in acquiring land and require an act of Congress before condemning private property. Currently, federal agencies have the authority to condemn private lands under certain conditions. seemed unconvinced. "The whole essence of my testimony is that government should not be in the real estate business," she told Tauzin as the two-and-a-half hour hearing drew toward its conclusion.

Callahan told the committee that her organization supported H.R. 1592, a private property rights bill sponsored by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) also considered at the hearing.

But CARA's proponents believe this is their moment.

This bill makes "good economic sense, good common sense and good political sense. What we're going to do is finish the job this year," Georgia's Waller said.

 
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