April 9, 2008

House Endorses Conservation Program

Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The House voted Wednesday to give legal recognition to a Clinton-era conservation program that oversees some 27 million acres of federal land mainly in 11 Western states and Alaska.

The 278-140 vote to write into law the National Landscape Conservation System came after assurances were given to Western and gun-rights lawmakers that the measure would not add new restrictions to current rules on hunting and fishing, energy development or grazing rights on the designated lands.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt created the system in 2000 as a means to conserve, protect and restore nationally significant landscapes. Overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, it is made up of more than 800 units, including scenic and historic trails, national conservation areas, national monuments and wild and scenic rivers. It makes up about 10 percent of the land administered by the BLM.

By establishing the conservation system in statute, Congress would both draw attention to the high conservation value of the lands and prevent a future Interior secretary from abolishing the system administratively.

The Bush administration has indicated support for the bill. NLCS director Elena Daly told Congress last year that the act would "assure that these landscapes of the American spirit would be conserved, protected and restored for the benefit of current and future generations."

To assuage concerns that the bill was an attempt to impose the same restrictions on private use that apply to the national parks system, a provision was included to make clear that nothing in the bill alters current management authority and rules governing individual NLCS units.

That didn't satisfy Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee, who wrote in a dissenting view that the true purpose of the bill "is to prevent many locally popular, wholesome family recreational opportunities and almost all economic activities from taking place on 26 million acres of BLM land."

Similar legislation is being considered by the Senate. The bill is H.R. 2016.