Senate must vote to save open land

July 17, 2000|By Andy Falender and Alix Pratt

BETHESDA -- In Maryland, cities and towns find themselves reeling as they confront a rapidly growing problem: the loss of open space caused by sprawling development.

Rampant, unconfined development can alter a town's character and permanently change the quality of life for its citizens. While sprawl can have a very local and personal feel -- the meadow next door boxed into house lots, the woods where you walk lost to another superstore, the daily commute turned into a nightmare of traffic -- it is not unique.

The loss of open space is a national problem crying out for a national solution.

One giant step forward would be passage of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), the most significant piece of environmental legislation to move through Congress since the clean water and clean air acts of the 1970s.

CARA's funding, at $2.8 billion a year, would come directly from offshore oil and gas revenues. The bill passed the House in May by a resounding bipartisan vote of 315 to 102.

In short, three out of four representatives understood how badly cities and towns in their districts need help in combating sprawl and providing healthy recreational opportunities. Three out of four congressmen heard voters' concerns about the loss of farms, forests and historic treasures. And they realized the breadth of the coalition for CARA, which runs the gamut from environmental groups to national real estate organizations.

It's estimated that CARA would steer at least $37 million annually to Maryland. Six out of eight of Maryland's House members voted for CARA, and now we urge Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Sen. Paul Sarbanes to intensify their support for CARA.

The Senate, if sufficiently motivated, will deliberate on the bill this summer. By voting for CARA, senators will be able to stem the annual loss of 3.2 million acres to development and road building. They'll also be following the golden advice attributed to the late house speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill: "All politics are local."

In other words, the nearby meadow crisscrossed with hiking trails and blooming with flowers may not become a maze of house lots after all.

The heart of CARA is restoration of the neglected $900 million Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Every year, $450 million from LWCF would be distributed as matching grants for recreation and open space projects that are selected by cities and towns -- not by the federal government. This is ground-up conservation, based on the belief that a community knows what it needs and only requires the tools to get it done.

And it works. Before Congress canceled its funding in recent years, LWCF's matching grants program resulted in more than 37,000 projects. Soccer fields, swimming pools, bicycle paths, watershed lands, urban woods and suburban pastures -- the everyday places that improve the quality of life in your neighborhood.

A few examples in Maryland include John Eager Howard Playground, Cylburn Park and Harlem Park Playfield in Baltimore, and the Sandy Point, Deep Creek Lake and Gunpowder Falls state parks. In addition, LWCF has funded the Assateague Island National Seashore, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Antietam and Monocacy National Battlefield.

It is historic environmental legislation that responds to the pressing needs of Maryland and every state in the Union.

Andy Falender is executive director of the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club. Alix Pratt is a resident of Bethesda and chair of AMC's Washington chapter, which includes Washington, Maryland, and Northern Virginia.

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