Saturday, March 14, 2009

Promised Land

by The New York Times
March 13, 2009

People who care about conserving open space are allowing themselves a bit of hope that the federal government finally will deliver on promises it made to the American people more than four decades ago.

In 1965, Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund to provide a steady source of money for the acquisition of threatened lands, the protection of significant landmarks and the expansion of outdoor recreational opportunities. The money would come from offshore oil and gas leases, giving the program an interesting symmetry: dollars raised from depleting one natural resource would be used to protect others.

The program has rescued millions of acres from development. But it has never been allowed to live up to its potential. Since 1980, spending has been authorized at $900 million annually — split evenly between federal and state projects — but actual appropriations have been much smaller. The last decade has been especially rough, despite former President George W. Bush’s campaign promise to “fully fund” the program. For the present fiscal year, Congress appropriated only $155 million, and none of it for the states.

Offshore royalties spin off billions every year. But Congress routinely diverts the money to the general treasury for deficit reduction, and the White House, no matter who occupies it, rarely pushes back.

President Obama’s budget offers a better deal: $420 million for the next fiscal year and the full funding of $900 million by 2014. These numbers are heartening. Federal dollars are needed to complete long-pending acquisitions across the country, from Hawaii to Yellowstone National Park to Virginia.

States are particularly hard pressed; Gov. David Paterson of New York plans to raid the state’s only land conservation program in order to reduce the deficit.

Promises, however, are only as good as the president wants them to be. We hope that President Obama remembers his.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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