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PRESENT GAINS, FUTURE PROMISES

The Great Lakes in general fared well in federal appropriations for the current fiscal year, according to a recent Northeast-Midwest Institute analysis -- but demands for next year will be even greater, with a greater chance to make some lasting contributions to the lakes region.

This spring, Congress will debate a compromise Conservation and Reinvestment Act that distributes more than $2.8 billion in offshore drilling leases and royalties to natural resource conservation programs.

It's a landmark measure that sends cash automatically to several accounts each year without political haggling. That's a good idea, and deserves exploration.

The bill would use set formulas to determine state appropriations, using such factors as coastal populations and land areas -- and, rightly, sending larger shares to the states most directly impacted by offshore drilling. Under this measure, income from the environmentally intrusive drilling industry would be spread across a range of environmentally friendly efforts -- coastal impacts remediation, permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, urban parks, historic preservation, wildlife projects and the like.

The Department of the Interior estimates New York would receive $102.1 million annually in federal conservation assistance under the act. That includes nearly $40.2 million in coastal-impact assistance, as well as more than $28.1 million in Land and Water Conservation Fund support. Urban parks and new recreation facilities here would get about $11 million a year, historic preservation efforts a much-needed $2.96 million, wildlife restoration and preservation more than $17.6 million and efforts to fund conservation easements and aid endangered species recovery another $1.3 million.

That's a groundbreaking infusion of cash into conservation efforts, one that outweighs concerns by environmentalists that it could encourage more incentives for offshore drilling.

Congress this year cut federal spending for research into the ways sediments and contaminants move through the lakes, and for efforts to assess how much airborne pollution falls into lake waters.

But lawmakers did increase spending to control sea lamprey and other invasive species, upgraded the lakes' fleet of environmental research vessels, and decided to keep a regional Army Corps of Engineers headquarters and improve several water-level gauging stages that had been targeted for closure. They also earmarked $13 million to finish designing and start building a replacement for the large but aging Coast Guard icebreaker that keeps the upper lakes open to commerce in winter.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., helped win funding for the first year of a Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Program that could have major benefits here. He already has started a push to convince the Clinton administration to make sure invasive-species control measures are funded in fiscal year 2001, which starts next Oct. 1.

He'll need help from other Great Lakes lawmakers, who need to act regionally while thinking of their own global interests. In the next budget cycle, the lakes states also will seek funds to complete the new icebreaker and start work on a larger Soo Lock at the entrance to Lake Superior.

Now off the beaten Seaway path, Buffalo will benefit less from the commercial projects than the environmental ones. But this area still has a huge stake in the process. Geography made the Great Lakes the key to our past, and the hope for our future -- and 2000 promises to be a challenging year in regional efforts to brighten that future.

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