New parks possible if program reinstated Senate committee may resurrect conservation act to buy unused land

By SUSANNA RAY

Herald Writer

A U.S. Senate committee may consider a deal as early as today to reinstate and expand a federal program that, in its prime, helped create Sunset Beach, Scriber Lake Park and the Fort Ebey Campground, along with 53 other parks in Snohomish and Island counties.

Environmentalists are excited about the $54 million a year that Washington state would get through the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, or CARA, to aid coastal restoration projects, restore fish and wildlife habitat, create new urban parks, preserve historic buildings and buy up undeveloped land to set aside for the public.

But the bill has a formidable foe in U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who worries that it could jeopardize Social Security or Medicare funds in the future and that the federal government’s buying power would steamroll local communities’ concerns.

CARA would essentially make outdoor recreation and wildlife conservation a permanent mandate for the federal government to fund, by revamping the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Everett’s famous politician, the late Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, worked to create that fund in 1965, when off-shore oil drilling was starting up in Alaska, and there was talk of it beginning all the way down the West Coast.

The idea was to reinvest the royalty money from the drilling back into the environment by buying undeveloped land and keeping it that way for public use. Some money was used to buy land at the federal level, other funds were given to the states to spend on public lands and programs.

From 1965 until about 1980, Washington received about $5 million a year through the fund, said Laura Johnson, director of the state Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation, which coordinates the distribution of the money. But the cash dried up to just around $3 million total in the two decades since.

"For 20 years, essentially, there’s just been a tiny trickle," Johnson said. "It’s a quiet little program that fell asleep, I guess."

Because of the lack of money, the state parks system hasn’t been able to open a new park for 15 years, she said, even though the population has increased by several million people in that time.

"Our public facilities – local parks and state parks – are having trouble keeping pace with that," she said.

If the money were restored, it could be used for more ballfields and parks in Snohomish County, for example, or for salmon habitat restoration projects, Johnson said.

But Gorton, who sits on the committee that would consider the bill, and several other Western lawmakers say many local communities don’t want the federal government to buy up more land around them.

Gorton spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said local communities have complained that federal ownership of land inhibits the local tax base and gives locals no say in what happens to the land. Bergman said Gorton also doesn’t want to support a bill that requires the government to spend a certain amount of money each year to buy land, no matter what other problems the country may be facing at the time.

And while Republican U.S. Rep. Jack Metcalf of Langley was a co-sponsor of the bill when it passed the House earlier this year, he has a few concerns.

"One is, it’s talking about spending a lot of money on new land acquisitions when we’re doing an atrocious job of managing what we have now," said Lew Moore, Metcalf’s chief of staff.

Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee, whose district includes south Snohomish County, supported the bill and even organized a kayak tour in August 1999 of several of the park sites created through the original Land and Water Conservation Fund.

But Gorton, along with three other senators, sent a letter to the committee’s chairman in June saying that "CARA is critically flawed," and threatening to kill it with numerous amendments if it was brought to a vote.

Bergman said Gorton doesn’t have any amendments planned, but other senators do. Developments on Tuesday, however, make it questionable whether the bill will even be brought up in today’s committee meeting, she added.

You can call Herald Writer Susanna Ray at 425-339-3439or send e-mail to

ray@heraldnet.com.

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