WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama says he's constantly telling his two daughters to go outside, turn off the TV and stop using Skype. He wants to get more American kids off the couch and out the door, reconnecting with the world and its natural beauty.
And he wants to make it easier for them to use parks and public lands, saying that too many Americans "can go days without stepping on a single blade of grass."
Toward that end, the president wants Congress to double spending — to $900 million next year — on a conservation fund that's used to buy more property for the federal government. Currently, the government owns 635 million acres, or roughly three out of every 10 acres, with the largest chunk in Alaska.
But with the nation deep in debt and facing a long backlog of projects on its public lands, many Republicans are lining up against Obama's plan, leaving its fate uncertain.
"I think we should take care of what we have before we acquire more land," said Washington state Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "Most people would say let's maintain what we have before we acquire more of it, I don't care what it is. ... To me, it's a pretty straightforward solution to oppose it."
At a recent Senate hearing, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski told Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that the agencies in charge of the nation's land already have "a multi-billion-dollar maintenance backlog."
"It begs the question of how you can place such a high priority on acquiring more land when you have to cut the very funds you need to take care of your current infrastructure in order to do it," she said.
The president's proposal has ignited a fight over the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which, since its beginning more than 45 years ago, has been used to buy more than 4.5 million acres at a cost of $6.1 billion.
Backers of the fund say it's important for Congress to keep pumping money into it as the nation loses roughly 3 million acres to development each year. They say it's a race against time, noting that one out of every three developed acres in the nation was developed from 1982 to 2007. The National Park Service has identified 1.8 million additional acres that it wants to acquire, at a cost of $1.9 billion.
When the president unveiled his plan in February as part of his "America's Great Outdoors" initiative, he said the federal government must protect national treasures "even in our most trying times."
"Even FDR, in the midst of the Great Depression, enabled the National Park Service to protect America's most iconic landmarks, from Mount Rushmore to the Statue of Liberty," the president said.
Obama is proud of his record on public lands. In his first months in office, he signed legislation that designated 2 million acres of wilderness, including more than 1,000 miles of wild scenic rivers and three national parks. He wants the impact of his new plan to be felt nationwide. It calls for creating "a new generation of safe, clean, accessible great urban parks and community green spaces."
Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1965, funding it with fees charged to the oil and gas industry for extracting resources from public lands. It allows the federal government to provide matching grants to states and local governments to acquire and develop public outdoor recreation areas and facilities.
"The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a nearly 50-year-old promise to the American people that if we are going to allow giant oil companies like BP to deplete our ocean energy resources, we will take a small sliver of their massive profits and deposit it into a conservation fund," said Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.
Critics said it didn't matter where the fund got its money from because the federal government already owned too much land.
"We in the West sometimes have a little bit different point of view," said Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho. "... I understand why sometimes people from New Jersey and Massachusetts and other places that don't have a lot of public lands sometimes don't understand the same concern that we share."
Hastings, who criticized the president's plan at a recent hearing before his committee, said there were "many worthy projects" that the government couldn't afford right now. And he predicted that the plan will face an uphill battle in the House, which the Republicans control.
"I suspect the appropriations committees will not look favorably on it," he said. "They will probably cut that back a great deal."
The top Democratic appropriator in the House, Washington state Rep. Norm Dicks, called the land-buying program a good one and said GOP efforts to water down or kill the president's plan disturbed him. He said it was important for the federal government to buy land when it had the chance.
"During a tough budgetary time, some of this could be put off," Dicks said. "But sometimes these willing sellers are only willing to sell for a certain period of time."
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