Parks get infusion of green

By SUSANNA RAY

Herald Writer

Open spaces in the Northwest got a boost Wednesday with more federal money to improve Snohomish County parks and preserve land on Whidbey Island, among a host of other environmental projects.

It’s part of a major conservation bill President Clinton signed into law that will double the federal spending next year for parks and lands.

The interior appropriations bill earmarks $12 billion over six years for purchasing fragile lands, maintaining parks, preserving wildlife and other initiatives.

"This is a truly historic achievement, achieved in a genuine bipartisan spirit," the president said.

He signed the bill in the Oval Office, surrounded by leaders of environmental organizations and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who helped steer the bill through Congress and came up with the compromise language that finally passed.

U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and chairman of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, secured more than $60 million for Washington state projects, including $3.25 million to buy prairie lands and historic buildings on Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island.

But not everyone is pleased with the bill, especially not those who had been rooting for passage of the original Conservation and Reinvestment Act, or CARA.

That bill would have dramatically expanded the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which the late U.S. Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, an Everett Democrat, helped create 35 years ago to mitigate the effects of offshore oil drilling.

The bill Clinton signed does include an increase in conservation funding, but not nearly to the extent CARA supporters had hoped for.

The bill budgets $1.6 billion next year for the federal government to buy land or maintain its parks, with that figure rising 10 percent each year to $2.4 billion by 2006. That’s about half what CARA would have provided.

The whole point of CARA was to make the funding a concrete act, said Arvilla Ohlde, director of the Edmonds Parks and Recreation Department. The new bill doesn’t do that, she said, and "in reality, it’s only a hollow promise."

But the entitlement provision was exactly why Gorton had strenuously opposed CARA, along with other Western Republicans.

Gorton supports the language of the new budget, however, in part because it includes an emphasis on maintaining parks, spokesman Todd Young said. There is currently a $20 billion maintenance backlog for existing federal parks and lands, he said, which weighed heavily on Gorton’s mind in considering buying more.

The altered funding mechanism was another he changed his mind. Gorton said he had been concerned about the CARA bill putting conservation funding on par with Social Security and Medicare, as something Congress is required to fund no matter what financial constraints the country may be facing at the time.

"Previous versions of this bill would have created an entitlement that would have handed a blank check to the administration to spend billions of dollars however they wished," Young said. "The interior bill that the president signed (Wednesday)… says that we believe in the goal of the previous bill, but we’re going to fund it through the normal process with Congress deciding each year how to spend the money rather than the administration unilaterally deciding."

The president said the measure "will provide better funding to take better care of our national parks and deal with a lot of pent-up maintenance needs. It will increase support for firefighters and preventing forest fires, something America has seen all too much of in the last few months."

Overall, the bill appropriates $16.9 billion for the Interior Department and other agencies. It will provide $225 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Clinton said it was the first funding increase for the NEA since 1995, when critics in Congress tried to kill it.

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