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AS ITS final gesture, the 104th Congress passed a major parks and public lands bill that could have been a disaster but wound up with much that is favorable. This Congress started out with wild assaults on the environment -- including talk of selling some of the national parks and monuments. It finished, at least in the parks bill, by showing a much more moderate face.

It's interesting to note that House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., required that the bill's provisions be run by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-Utica, before they got to the floor. Boehlert is a moderate legislator with good environmental credentials. His job was to filter out political traps -- the sort that earned a backlash last year against conservative Republicans. Most of the bill's objectionable provisions fell by the wayside as it worked its way to passage.

At the heart of the bill are the national parks themselves. Early in the 104th Congress, congressional Republicans talked about actually selling off some of the national parks and monuments. Later that was moderated to a proposal that corporations become official sponsors of parks. Either idea flies in the face of the very idea of national parks. These are places of exceptional beauty or significance set aside for all the people and owned by all the people. Part of the aim is that they never be despoiled -- and commercialism could hurt that.

Imagine an official sponsor for the Grand Canyon. Or Old Faithful. The idea of selling naming rights is flourishing, but there ought to be a boundary that keeps national parks -- our natural treasures -- from such a fate.

The persistent sticking point at the end involved an Alaska corporation's 50-year contract for logging in the Tongass National Forest. As part of its deal, the company is supposed to run a pulp mill to sustain jobs, but the mill was a money-loser, and the company wanted out.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, ran interference for the company and, using Senate rules, was able to hold up the bill single-handedly in hopes of getting a relaxed contract. The negotiated conclusion was a modest side deal with the White House that allows the mill to close and logging to continue for two years, an arrangement well short of Murkowski's hopes.

None of the bill's provisions directly affect Western New York, but downstate benefits from one of the better elements. The federal government will help New York and New Jersey purchase the Sterling Forest, a 17,500-acre refuge less than an hour's drive from New York City. It is a watershed for the metropolitan area and a place for outdoor recreation but had been marked for extensive development by its Swiss owners.

Gov. Pataki has been a strong proponent of the purchase, but it was endangered by Western lawmakers with ideological opposition to the federal land buying.

The Westerners did not prevail. For those sick of football analogies, Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., a former basketball star, used his game, saying, "We hit a last-second shot for Sterling Forest."

Other major pluses include preservation of the historic Presidio, a former military base at the scenic foot of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and a tallgrass national prairie preserve in Kansas, the first of its kind.

The 104th Congress began with an extremist GOP frontal attack on environmental laws and regulations that upset many Americans. It was largely a failure, both politically and in terms of bills that cleared all the hurdles. The moderate parks and lands bill, sure to be signed by President Clinton, is a better way to go in every sense.

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