Water trail's last gasp?

November 29, 2006

The pressure's really on now. Queen Elizabeth II has agreed to serve as one of the star attractions of Jamestown's 400th anniversary celebration next May, but Congress is still foot-dragging on the preparations.

Legislation granting a national historic designation to John Smith's 2,300-mile route of exploration from the fledgling settlement throughout the Chesapeake Bay region still needs a final nod of approval from lame-duck lawmakers. If they don't get around to it before they adjourn next month, the legislative process will have to begin anew next year - almost certainly too late even for the first of the trail markers to be in place in time for the festivities.

Conversely, if Congress acts with dispatch when it returns to Washington next week, the John Smith National Historic Trail bill could be on President Bush's desk in time for him to sign it into law Dec. 20 - the 400th anniversary of the day in 1606 when Captain Smith and his crew set off to found what would become the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

What's mostly at risk in the timing is the opportunity to take advantage of maximum interest in Captain Smith's journeys to cement a regional partnership and encourage private financing for interpretative and educational programs that will serve the area for many years to come. Congress shouldn't miss this rare moment.

There's no longer any sign of opposition to the measure. Initial reluctance by the House Resources Committee chairman, Richard W. Pombo, has been overcome, and he's promised a fast-track floor vote on the bill next week.

The Senate is, well, the Senate. The trail measure was all cued up and ready to go before the election, but got stuck in unrelated snags. Maryland, Virginia and Delaware senators may have to form some kind of flying wedge to break through.

This is no larded-up pork-barrel earmark riding secretly on a must-pass measure; it's a low-cost coordinating tool that will use the federal designation to tie together programs related to the trail in all three states while also protecting cultural and natural resources.

Unlike most earmarks, the trail bill went through a full congressional review process and won strong administration backing. It just needs one final push to win approval. But that must come soon.

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