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Neglect Threatens Natural Resources

President Clinton and Congress should be commended for their historic commitment to balance the federal budget. From my perspective as an investment banker, however, our country is not adequately investing in some of our nation’s most valuable assets: our public lands.

From the Alaskan tundra to the Florida Everglades, “America the Beautiful” has the most varied and diverse public lands of any nation in the world. Throughout their history, our national parks, wildlife refuges, forests, grasslands and other public lands had staunch champions from both political parties.

Republican President Theodore Roosevelt stated: “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.” Decades later, Sen. Henry M. Jackson offered a Democratic view: “What we do with our public lands tells a great deal about what we are, what we care for and what is to become of us as a nation.”

The budget agreement between Republican leaders and President Clinton is the beginning of an arduous effort to draft budget legislation that will pass muster with Congress and the American people. As Republican and Democratic leaders make these decisions, they must firmly resist the temptation to capture false “savings” that, in fact, diminish and threaten our natural heritage.

After years of underinvesting in the public lands, we need to acknowledge the deterioration in the integrity of this public trust and make a concerted effort to stanch the damage before it is irreparable.

As our population grows and we become an increasingly urban nation, the open spaces that remain are even more vital to the continued environmental health of our nation and physical health of the American people. These lands are a critical resource in maintaining clean water and air as well as our nation’s biodiversity. Our public lands also support local economies: Birding, fishing, hunting and camping generate billions of dollars in direct and indirect economic benefits for neighboring communities. And, perhaps most important, these lands satisfy our deep-rooted national ethic to protect unrivaled American landscapes for our children and to keep some of wild America alive and thriving.

Our commitment to maintain these assets must be in proportion with their value to our nation. Fiscal responsibility requires that we invest adequately in their stewardship. Thus far, our commitment has fallen short. To give one example, a 1993 Department of the Interior inspector general’s report documented a $323 million backlog in maintenance projects for the National Wildlife Refuge system. The backlog has since risen to $428 million. Moreover, a recent audit found that only 3 percent of national wildlife refuges are receiving funding adequate to satisfy minimal legislated purposes and critical maintenance. Meanwhile, Congress and the administration continue to refuse to spend almost $13 billion of accumulated surplus in the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Created in 1964, this fund is supposed to reinvest offshore oil drilling royalties in the protection of our public lands. The mismanagement of this fund represents a huge promise to conservation broken by elected politicians of both parties.

As continuing neglect of this public trust threatens some of our most valuable national resources, 150 environmental, recreation and conservation organizations have joined together to propose a public lands funding initiative. Their initiative recommends responsible increases in funding for stewardship of the public lands, starting with a $570 million increase in 1998, representing 0.034 percent of the federal budget. This amount could be offset by decreasing taxpayer financed subsidies to favored industries that graze, mine and log the public lands, often further degrading those public assets in the process.

The prudent, incremental increases proposed by this funding initiative deserve prompt, bipartisan action. In the responsible preservation of our public lands, we demonstrate each generation’s commitment to hand along to the next an America of uncompromised vigor and promise. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people who are alive today, but the property of unborn generations whose belongings we have no right to squander.”

It is up to us to bequeath “America the Beautiful” to future generations.

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