In a time of record budget surpluses, Congress is proposing to spend among the smallest amounts ever on what is thought to be one of its most popular programs: buying and preserving parkland.
Nationally, the parks preservation effort is scheduled to be reduced to a tenth the size it was in 1978.
At the same time, much-publicized proposals by President Clinton and several influential Republicans to expand the parks-buying program and make its financing permanent have run into trouble in Congress and appear unlikely to pass.
The news has cheered property rights activists, who initially worried that a Congress flush with money might spend $1 billion or more on parkland.
"Our view is that the federal government owns too much land already," said Chuck Cushman, who heads Keep Private Lands in Private Hands, a Washington state group that has lobbied Congress to cancel the parks program.
Preservationists grudgingly accepted less spending on parks in the mid-1990s because of federal budget deficits. But they are dismayed that, during a time of budget surpluses, it appears saving forests and shorelines from development is not much of a priority to national political leaders.
Called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the preservation fund was designed in 1965 by Henry Jackson, the Democratic senator from Washington state, to divert revenue from federal oil and gas leases into an account to buy land for outdoor recreation. More than 7 million acres of parkland and open space have been purchased and preserved in 37,000 local and national recreation areas.
In today's dollars, Congress spent an average of $1.1 billion each year of the 1970s on parkland purchases. That declined to $440 million a year in the 1980s, then to $350 million a year in the 1990s, as Congress increasingly elected to funnel the oil and gas revenue into other programs.
For next year, the House has proposed spending $165 million on new parks, the Senate $234 million.
"It's like natural resources are at the end of the line, competing for the crumbs left on the table," said Len Barson, director of government relations for the Seattle office of the Nature Conservancy.
Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the parks budget, supports some parks spending, but he said Clinton's proposal for a $1 billion "Lands Legacy" program "is absurd in the context of any overall budget that adheres to the terms of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997."
"There is a high desire for more parks, but we will do it within the guidelines of a balanced budget, and we will not turn parks funding into an ongoing entitlement program," Gorton said.
A new survey of public attitudes about parks and congressional financing by a Republican polling firm suggests politicians may be shortsighted to gut the fund.
Luntz Research recently reported that, by 45 percent to 31 percent, people would rather see money spent on parks than highways. On Capitol Hill, road projects have long been considered an enormously popular use of money.
The June poll of 1,200 adults nationwide also found a nearly 50-50 split on whether they'd prefer to have a share of the budget surplus spent on parks or given back to them as a tax cut.
The poll was paid for by a coalition of environmental groups.
Cushman, of the property rights group, said too much federal land ownership can destroy the culture and tax base of rural communities.
"If you live in a city, you're like rats in a maze, you want to get out and so you want more parks created," he said. "People in cities make a lot of noise, but they shouldn't control the land-acquisition policies that affect the rest of us."