May 20, 2012 at 8:34AM
by Jim DiPeso
Forty-seven lawmakers from across the spectrum are trying to accomplish a task that once was normal but lately has been a struggle: securing a bipartisan agreement on a transportation bill to authorize funding for roads, bridges, and transit systems.
The 47 senators and House members sit on a conference committee trying to harmonize the sharply different transportation bills the Senate and House passed earlier this year.
There's a nugget of gold amidst the political dross. Tucked into the Senate bill is a pro-conservation provision with a fighting chance of winning bipartisan acceptance: $700 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in each of the next two fiscal years. The Senate added the provision to its transportation bill in an impressive 76-22 vote. Now, several House Republicans are circulating a letter to Speaker John Boehner asking him to support inclusion of the Senate language in the final transportation bill.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was one of those great laws that was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support during the salad days of conservation lawmaking in the 1960s and early 1970s. The fund has two components: a federal side that pays for acquiring high-value conservation lands from willing sellers and a state side that finances open space acquisition and recreation development projects that fit local priorities, including playgrounds, ballfields, trails, wildlife areas, and waterways.
Since the fund was established in 1965, the fund has paid for land that has benefited our greatest conservation assets: Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, the Smokies, to name a few. More than 41,000 local and state projects have been funded via the state component. The money doesn't come from taxes, but from offshore oil and gas royalties, based on the principle that some of the proceeds of producing a finite resource should be used for conservation.
Every year, $900 million in offshore oil and gas royalties is deposited into the fund. Trouble is, however, Congress has rarely spent the full amount of the money for its dedicated purpose. Between 1999 and 2009, Congress appropriated less than one-third of the money for conservation and recreation. More than $17 billion of the funds have been diverted to other uses.
The Senate's LWCF provision makes partial amends. If the House goes along and lets it into the final transportation bill, it would be a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dismal congressional session.