Timber, conservation groups lobby Herrera Butler over transportation bill

Seat on committee raises representative's profile

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 

Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler is gaining attention from environmental, recreation and forestry groups who want a transportation bill that includes $700 million a year for land and water conservation.

But the first-term Republican from Camas said she doesn't support that plan for a few reasons: Running the conservation fund through the transportation bill decreases transparency, and the $700 million proposed is too much. It's even more than the amount the president has outlined in his proposed budget, she said.

Herrera Beutler said some of her fellow lawmakers are taking a bill intended to fund one area and using it as a vehicle to fund other objectives.

She was recently appointed to the special transportation committee tasked with reconciling differences between the Senate and House proposals for a transportation bill, which will reauthorize money for transportation and infrastructure projects across the country.

Federal conservation money has provided matching grants for projects throughout Southwest Washington, including $400,000 for green space in Salmon Creek, $500,000 for Fallen Leaf Park in Camas, and more than $446,000 to develop the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail in Vancouver.

Supporters of the plan to include conservation money in the transportation bill say the hefty sum means a backlog of conservation projects could be addressed more quickly, and the money could give a boost to the recreation and tourism industries.

"Congress might not pass an annual funding bill this year, so this could be Washington's one shot for land and water conservation funds," said Hannah Clark of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition.

The Senate, which has a Democratic majority, approved a transportation bill that spans about two years and includes the $700 million a year for conservation. The House, which has a Republican majority, has proposed a five-year plan that doesn't include the conservation money and also includes new drilling projects as an additional revenue source.

The conservation money would come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was created in the 1960s to help federal and state governments acquire natural areas for their protection and for public recreation.

Timber companies and forest protection groups have sent Herrera Beutler letters asking that she support the conservation money included in the Senate proposal.

"These grants, which provide incentives for timber owners and communities to keep forests working and producing timber and wood products for market, also provide direct economic and recreational benefits to our communities," according to a letter sent to Herrera Beutler in May by representatives from the Washington Forest Protection Association, Pope Resources and Port Blakely Tree Farms.

Herrera Beutler said Friday that there might be better solutions for helping forest-related businesses, which she said face burdensome government regulations.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is financed primarily through fees paid by oil companies that drill offshore. Conservation groups say the fund gets $900 million each year, but most of that money is diverted to cover other government spending that has nothing to do with the fund's intended purpose.

"Congress made a promise to the American people to use these funds for conservation," Clark said.

Herrera Beutler said she's reluctant to support an increase in spending for any program at this time.

Wants discussion

The congresswoman said the conservation fund is important to preserving the quality of life for her constituents, but she would like to see the conservation money given out through the typical appropriations process, which allows for more discussion and public comment.

"The program obviously has value," Herrera Beutler said. "I think the program deserves some conversation. Sliding it into the transportation bill I'm not sure is the best way to explain its merits to folks."

She said she supports land and water conservation spending, but she wants to keep the program financed at around its current level. In 2012, $323 million of the fund's $900 million went toward water and land conservation projects. President Barack Obama upped that amount to $450 million in his budget proposal for next year, but Congress has yet to pass a 2013 spending plan.

The special transportation committee Herrera Beutler serves on comprises 20 House Republicans, 13 House Democrats, eight Senate Democrats and six Senate Republicans.

Herrera Beutler said trying to reach an agreement on a transportation bill has been slow going. If the committee can't agree by the end of the month, it will likely pass another extension of the current transportation plan and continue negotiating.

"The process has been a little slow to me and a little frustrating," she said. "It's a political year. There's a lot of posturing I see happening."

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.