Behind scenes of deal to curb bay pollution Federal program shaped by many hands in Washington

November 07, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- At an Eastern Shore farm late last month, Vice President Al Gore announced a $200 million federal program to curb water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay that was perfectly pitched to soothe a state agitated by a summer of fish kills and mysterious ailments.

It was a vintage Gore moment: He stood squinting in the sun, dressed in a red flannel shirt, a resolute defender of the environment.

The politicking required to secure that program, however, started more than a year earlier, well before the fish kills and well before the vice president's involvement. It demanded negotiating regional tensions and navigating a bureaucratic bog. An initiative born of many parents, its gestation shows how business often gets done in Washington.

The roots stretch to 1985, when Congress created a voluntary program with environmental trappings that paid farmers to stop growing crops on land with soil erosion problems. In reality, the sponsors sought to stabilize crop prices by reducing supply, thus bolstering the struggling economies of the Midwest and Plains states.

In coastal states such as Maryland, where waterfront property can be the site of pricey homes, farmers realized they could be better compensated by selling their land to developers. The government payments simply weren't enough.

As a result, in Maryland, farmers set aside only 18,000 acres of farmland under the program -- far less than the state goal of 100,000 acres.

Farmers in the Midwest happily signed up for the subsidies, taking vast tracts of land out of commission, some of which was only minimally damaged by erosion. Their benefactors in Congress, meanwhile, protected their domination of the 36-million-acre program, leaving little money for farmers elsewhere.

"In some areas out in the Plains, [the program] was an expensive boondoggle more focused on making payments to farmers than it was to returning environmental benefits to society," says David A. Stawick, a former aide to Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Early last year, the future of the conservation program seemed in doubt. Lugar and the panel's senior Democrat, Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, secured its continued existence but not before urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to follow earlier, largely ignored directives tying the program to anti-water-pollution efforts.

That was the opening that Timothy D. Searchinger was looking for. Searchinger, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund, a national advocacy group, had been frustrated by what he saw as the Agriculture Department's reluctance to wade deeply into environmental issues. He decided to use the farm bill to try to orchestrate a significant change in how the conservation program worked.

Aware of the Chesapeake's importance to the region -- not least to vacationing Washington politicians -- Searchinger thought the bay would be a perfect showplace for a new kind of environmentally friendly agriculture policy that could aid coastal states. Gov. Parris N. Glendening had already called for protection of rivers and streams that feed the Chesapeake. State and federal officials should pool their resources and divvy up responsibilities, Searchinger said, rather than come up with competing initiatives.

"Tim deserves a lot of credit in first identifying this opportunity and then pushing it forward," says Eric C. Schwaab, director of the forestry division of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

William C. Baker, the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, broached Searchinger's idea with Glendening after the two appeared together at an August 1996 news conference at Sandy Point State Park. The governor liked it.

Soon, Baker's staff, Searchinger and a flock of state forestry and farm officials were drafting proposals to pay farmers for 10 to 15 years to stop farming on a thin strip of land -- 35 feet to 150 feet

-- along the bay and its tributaries. Newly planted trees and grasses would serve as natural filters, capturing farmland pollutants, such as nutrients from chicken feces.

The state plan, submitted in October 1996 to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, called for the federal government to come up with $200 million, primarily to compensate farmers for the land's development value, not simply its agricultural worth. The state would kick in up to $50 million -- to help pay for the expensive planting of trees and grasses and to remove some of the acreage from farming permanently.

Lukewarm response

State officials waited apprehensively for a response. The Maryland plan would be the first step in an unusually aggressive environmental policy for the Agriculture Department.

"The response was lukewarm," Schwaab recalls.

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