WASHINGTON – The federal government is preparing to give additional property to a landlord that is struggling with the upkeep of the land it already has -- itself.
A bill now making its way through Congress, which enjoys strong bipartisan support in the House and has a ringing endorsement from the Bush administration, would pony up $450 million for the purchase of new federal parkland.
The so-called Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), which was introduced in the House Resources Committee this week, also calls for the creation of a $46.5 billion fund to pay for state conservation projects ranging from coastal and historic preservation to urban park building and wildlife protection.
And President Bush was at a scenic state fishing lake in Alabama Thursday to stump for the renewed conservation effort. Bush wants to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the Land and Water Conservation Fund to be used for things like land purchases, environmental programs, endangered species protection, and weed control in lakes.
These efforts are moving ahead despite concerns of property rights advocates over recent reports by federal auditors that the park service can't adequately manage the 450 million acres of land for which it's already responsible.
Earlier this year a report by the Department of Interior's inspector general (IG) found that the department had up to $13 billion in backlogged maintenance costs as of September 1999. The report cited maintenance problems ranging from crumbling buildings on Ellis Island to dangerous park buildings in Montana to out of control forest fires on federal parkland.
The IG's report was similar to a report by Congress' General Accounting Office, which stated that the Interior Department has not been "able to effectively carry out its maintenance responsibilities."
These reports have some in Congress hoping to put CARA on hold. Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter, R-Idaho, called the legislation little more than a federal land grab. The feds are "just not managing the land" they already own, Otter said. "Now we want them to buy more of it so it will all be in greater disrepair?"
Otter and several other House members sent a letter to House Resources Committee Chairman James Hansen, R-Utah, urging him to open more hearings on the bill before bringing it to a vote. Otter, who said that 64 percent of the land in his home state is already owned by the federal government, said he will propose an amendment to the act requiring the federal government to sell off as much land as it wants to buy in any given state.
Otter’s office did not expect a response right away. But Marnie Funk, a spokeswoman for the House Resources Committee, said the committee is doing it's best to balance the public's right to conserve land with private property rights. Funk did not, however, directly address the mismanagement reported by the GAO and House Government Affairs Committee.
The Associated Press contributed to this report