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The fate of a history-making conservation act rests with the Senate.

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Margaret Nygard, the renowned North Carolina conservationist and champion of the Eno River, once said the strange thing about a successful environmental effort is that it's never finished.

"After the master plan is completed, then there's going to be a need to safeguard what we've got," Nygard said. This fall, Sens. John Edwards, Jesse Helms and their colleagues will have the chance to help do just that--safeguard wildlife and other natural resources in North Carolina and across the country--as the Senate considers the fate of one of the biggest conservation-funding packages in U.S. history.

The proposed bill, called the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), would provide roughly $3 billion each year for land acquisition, wildlife management and other conservation activities nationwide, with North Carolina receiving more than $46 million of that. The House already approved the measure this spring, so its fate now rests in the Senate.

"It's the only really effective game in town, as far as funding proposals," says Denny O'Neal, chairman of the Eno River Association's outreach and communications committee. "States will get a substantial hunk of change for their parks and recreation areas, as well as their fish and wildlife agencies."

For North Carolinians who've camped in Nantahala National Forest, hiked along Cape Lookout National Seashore, or appreciated any of the state's other public lands--and even for those who just like knowing such opportunities exist--CARA's fate should be a real concern. Maintaining plenty of healthy public lands for hiking, fishing, canoeing, camping and other outdoor pursuits is one of the bill's fundamental goals.

If passed, CARA would fully subsidize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was created in 1964 to help acquire lands for national or community parks, forests, refuges and other open spaces. Since its inception, the fund has provided more than $61 million to North Carolina's public lands, including the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Cape Lookout National Seashore and the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River.

Congress originally authorized $900 million a year for the fund, but in the past 20 years lawmakers have appropriated that amount only once, instead diverting most of the money to other causes. The fund--and with it, the environment--has lost billions of dollars in this way, but CARA would ensure that the full $900 million goes into the fund each year.

The bill also would provide $350 million to support state fish and wildlife agencies. Ron Scott, senior conservation associate with the Izaak Walton League of America conservation group, says this funding is "especially important to conservation efforts for a variety of nongame species whose needs aren't being attended to currently."

So where have lawmakers found money to pay for this multi-billion-dollar package? Not in taxpayers' wallets, as one might expect. Funding for CARA would come from revenue generated by offshore oil and gas leases. The idea, proponents of the bill say, is that royalties from these nonrenewable resources should be used to help support renewable resources, such as forests and wildlife.

The Senate reconvenes Sept. 5, and lawmakers will have only about a month to decide the fate of the bill before the end of the legislative session.

O'Neal says the short session makes it even more important for CARA's supporters to contact their lawmakers soon.

"If not brought to the full Senate for a vote, and approved, then everything goes back, at best, into limbo," he says. EndBlock

To contact Sen. Edwards, call (202) 224-3154, or e-mail senator@edwards.senate.gov. To contact Sen. Helms, call (202) 224-6342, or e-mail jesse_helms@helms.senate.gov.

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