Congress is looting a trust fund designed to preserve parkland and open space. This has been going on for years, but it could get much worse. When the Senate begins debate today on this year's Interior appropriations bill, we will be presented with a plan that devotes just 26% of the trust fund to its intended purpose while using the rest--more than $665 million a year--for other programs and debt reduction.
For the people of California, this is more than a battle over budget priorities: It is a threat to our environment, our economy and our quality of life.
In California, rapid growth and development are devouring wild lands from the Mojave Desert to the Mendocino coast. If we want future generations to enjoy our natural heritage, we must redouble our efforts to preserve it.
Congress recognized this problem more than 30 years ago when it passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965, which allowed the federal government to spend a portion of its oil revenues to acquire environmentally sensitive lands and coastal waters. Each year, oil companies pay the federal government billions of dollars in rents, royalties and other fees in connection with offshore drilling. In 1997 alone, the government collected more than $4.8 billion from oil and gas drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.
The 1965 act established the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which receives $900 million a year from federal oil revenues to purchase critical parcels of land. The good news is that the fund has collected over $21 billion since 1965. The bad news is that only $9 billion of this amount has been spent on its intended uses. More than $12 billion has been shifted into other federal accounts.
On the ground, this means that we have purchased some beautiful, irreplaceable tracts of land and missed the chance to buy others. For example, in California, money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund was used to buy land in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Redwood National Park, Tahoe National Forest and Channel Islands National Park, among many others. Today all of these are public lands that the public can enjoy for recreation, conservation, water supplies and a host of other uses.
At the same time, though, we missed golden opportunities to buy critical open space because Congress failed to appropriate the money from the fund. Some of the missed parcels--in the Santa Monica Mountains, along the Pacific Crest Trail and elsewhere throughout California--have since been lost to the public. If we had been able to use the entire fund, these areas might have been protected.
To preserve meaningful tracts of open space, Congress must take the Land and Water Conservation Fund "off budget" and use it for its intended purpose. President Clinton has included full funding for the fund in his budget proposal for this year. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) and I have included full funding as part of our "Resources 2000" Act, a comprehensive bill to protect open space, urban parks and historic sites. Other members of Congress from both parties are also working on bills that would extend full funding into future years.
Unfortunately, the Senate Appropriations Committee has chosen to march backward, cutting a further $94 million below last year's level, which was already far too low.
We must stop the looting of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and give it everything it is due.