Rescue the water trail

September 20, 2006

Barely eight months remain before the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown will be marked with a re-enactment of John Smith's exploratory voyages through the Chesapeake Bay region. Yet planning and promotion for the event have been held up because Congress hasn't enacted legislation designating Captain Smith's 2,300-mile route a National Historic Trail.

With a record of achievement that's otherwise looking mighty thin, the cantankerous 109th Congress ought to grab this low-hanging fruit before it's too late.

State and local officials throughout the region as well as their representatives in Congress are supporting the measure because it would provide federal coordination of educational and interpretative displays instead of a piecemeal approach with no protection of cultural and natural resources.

The National Park Service also weighed in recently on behalf of the historic trail designation - the first for a water route - arguing that a federal agency was in the best position to administer and maintain the trail in partnership with regional governments and private groups, which would put up much of the financing.

Yet with only a few days to go before Congress breaks for the November elections, the legislation seems dead in the water.

In the Senate, hope remains for a speedy resuscitation. Retiring Maryland Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes is a lead sponsor of the legislation, which has been approved by a Senate committee but is stalled by disputes over other measures.

Rougher sailing in the House, meanwhile, seems to result from an undertow of opposition. The House Resources Committee chairman, Richard W. Pombo, who contends that the National Park Service is overburdened, has yet to schedule a hearing on the bill. Despite unconfirmed rumors of a direct appeal from Vice President Dick Cheney, believed to be the highest-ranking advocate of the trail designation, Mr. Pombo appears unmoved.

The problem is time, a Pombo spokeswoman said, adding that the trail legislation could be considered when Congress returns after the election to finish work on the budget and other matters. But that would needlessly cost the project a few more precious months - and there's no excuse for it.

Even a cantankerous Congress can enact a simple measure with broad bipartisan support quickly if it chooses.

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