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Park Barrel Politics

Guadalupe River Park
Christopher Gardner

Road to Ruin: Originally, some $900 million a year in off-shore drilling royalties were supposed to go to conservation of public parks, such as the Guadalupe River Park in San Jose (above.). In 32 years, the fund has grown, but billions have been siphoned off for other uses.

How America's leaders have quietly pirated more than $12 billion from a federal fund slated for parks and open space.

By Michael Mechanic

IT SEEMED a matter of common sense that proceeds from the sale of natural resources taken from public lands should be used to acquire and preserve public property for future generations. Such was the attitude in 1964, at least, as Congress ratified the Land and Water Conservation Act, which places royalties from offshore oil drilling into a fund intended for federal, state and local land acquisition, conservation and recreational projects.

The authorization of $900 million per year was seen as a strong commitment by Congress to honor the public's desire for open-space preservation. Unfortunately, even as the ink dried on the act's signature page, the nation's leaders were beginning to renege on the bargain.

Conservation Con-job

SINCE THE BILL became law 32 years ago, more than $12 billion--nearly 60 percent--of the money destined for conservation has been diverted by U.S. presidents and members of Congress for non-conservation purposes. Never, during any fiscal year, has Congress allocated the full amount authorized by the act, coming close only during the Carter Administration in the late 1970s. In recent years, legislators have increasingly raided the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in order to reduce the deficit.

The raid is done stealthily and without public debate. The president and members of Congress simply fail to allocate the money in federal spending bills, thereby freeing it for general use. Yearly LWCF spending over the past four years has been about $181 million, on average, and Congress appropriated a paltry $100 million for fiscal 1997. The states, which originally received about half of the money, have gotten an increasingly smaller share, and now receive nothing.

In Santa Clara County, more than $1.5 million in LWCF money was used to acquire and develop Lake Cunningham Park. Money from the fund was also used to help purchase and develop Shoreline and Cuesta Parks ($1.27 million), Los Gatos Creek Park ($600,000), Guadalupe River Park ($213,000), Kelley Park ($116,385) and nearly two score other projects within county borders.

In all, projects in Santa Clara County have received more than $8.2 million from the conservation fund since 1966. But more than 97 percent of this money was allocated prior to 1990. Then came the pecuniary drought.

"At one time the Land and Water Conservation Fund was a very good source of funding for the city to use in acquisition and development of parks," says Carla Ruigh, a park planning manager for the City of San Jose, which alone has received more than $3.74 million in LWCF money. "In recent years that money has not been available, and there has been an overall reduction in grants for local projects. At this point any funding that we could potentially access, we could use."

Bounty Hunting

WHILE THE Reagan and Bush administrations were instrumental in diverting LWCF funds away from conservation, President Clinton has failed to provide the leadership needed to reverse the trend.

The LWCF was first administered in 1965 by an office called the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, created by the act for that purpose.

The money was split approximately evenly between the states and the federal government. The federal money went to the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. Of the state portion, 60 percent went to local entities, with the remainder being given to state agencies for state conservation projects. (In California these agencies were Parks and Recreation, the Wildlife Conservation Board, Water Resources and Boating and Waterways.)

In 1981, however, the Reagan administration and then­Interior Secretary James Watt abolished the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and transferred the duty of allocating LWCF money to the National Park Service. Soon after, money for the states began to dry up.

Between 1965 and 1981, California received an average of $10.1 million in LWCF funds annually. The money has since dwindled to an average of about $2.5 million per year. Last fiscal year, California, along with the other states, got nothing, and will get nothing in fiscal 1997. "Federal projects, mostly new national parks, were high-profile affairs from which legislators could get tremendous recognition," says California Parks and Recreation Director Don Murphy, explaining the change in funding distribution during the 1980s. "They went for the glamorous projects rather than the [smaller local ones]."

According to Michael Fisher, director of the California Coastal Conservancy, past and current administrations share the blame. "They figured they could sequester a lot of money and mask the size of the deficit with this fund," Fisher says. "Unlike other trust funds like Medicare and the Highway Trust Fund, the constituents served by the LWCF are too nice. If you tried to sequester Medicare, you'd get butchered."

Central Coast Representative Sam Farr, who is fighting for restoration of the LWCF, notes that the fund doesn't have as strong a legal standing as funds like the Highway Trust. But Farr adds that the failure by Congress to allocate the money is like "a business not investing in its own product."

"Congress has just been very stingy about that fund," says Farr. "Both Democrats and Republicans have been remiss. I see $900 million sitting in the bank with Congress unwilling to appropriate it, and we need local people to stand up and say, 'That money is ours!'"

Lashing Back

IT IS RARE for high-level bureaucrats to bite the hand that feeds them, hence the lack of outcry in the past, but with the LWCF funds cut off, and other state conservation funding sources virtually dried up, officials are now rolling up their sleeves and speaking out. "This is really an abandonment of our commitment to preserving our natural and cultural resources that we made 30 years ago, and it's being done with no public debate," says Murphy. "For Congress to cut off this money by not appropriating it, it's a cynical mission, and I think it's dangerous for this country to be making this decision."

Murphy, along with environmental leaders from the national Wilderness Society and Appalachian Mountain Club, are organizing a broad coalition of local and national interests poised to gain from restoration of LWCF funding. The organizers are planning a summit with key leaders--including Farr--at the Asilomar Conference Center in January. This summit, they hope, will lead to further regional meetings and formation of a nationwide network of support that will have an impact on public policy. "We have tried to do this through special-interest lobbying, but now we are turning to local and national environmental groups, professional athletes, sportsman's clubs and local interests," Murphy says. "We're not going to get the attention of Congress unless the grassroots constituencies start making noise about it."

Well Runs Dry

WITH EXISTING state conservation funds running on fumes, the LWCF money has taken on special significance here. California's last successful parks bond issue--a $760 million voter initiative titled Prop. 70--happened in 1988. (The last legislative bond measure for open space was a $375 million issue sponsored by Farr in 1984).

CALPAW (California Parks and Wildlife initiative), an unsuccessful $2 billion state ballot initiative, would have paid for specific projects including land acquisitions, youth and senior programs, campgrounds, wetlands restoration, and trails and greenway maintenance. With the economy in a rut, however, state voters nixed CALPAW in 1994, leaving many state agencies and local governments up the proverbial creek.

AB 1533, a recent attempt by San Jose Assemblyman Dominic Cortese to put a $495 million conservation bond measure on the state ballot in November, passed the state Senate on Aug. 31, but failed in the Assembly by five votes.

On the federal level, Farr introduced an amendment in June to a House appropriations bill that would have almost doubled the $125 million in LWCF funds proposed by Clinton for fiscal 1997. But Farr's amendment also failed, on a 183-235 vote, and a Republican-controlled appropriations committee cut the allocation further to $100 million.

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From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of Metro

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