Southern Governors Talk Conservation

More than a football field lost to the ocean every half-hour. Twenty-one thousand football fields lost each year. Such is the situation along Louisianas gulf coast, where rising seas and ongoing erosion are destroying wetlands and imperiling roads, towns and wildlife, according to the states governor, Mike Foster (R).

Such is the situation along Louisiana's gulf coast, where rising seas and ongoing erosion are destroying wetlands and imperiling roads, towns and wildlife, according to the state's governor, Mike Foster (R).

Foster, speaking during the opening day of the annual meeting of the Southern Governors Association in New Orleans, has a plan to halt the coast's losses, but at an estimated cost of $14 billion, he doesn't have the money.

As a result, Foster is hoping for federal help, using as his model the federal-state plans to save the Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades.

"The truth is, just like in most states, it's going to take federal involvement," he said. But much lobbying work remains to be done to get a viable plan through Congress.

Eight other governors from Southern states Missouri Gov. Bob Holden (D), Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist (R), Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton (D), West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise (D), Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman (D), Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) joined Foster in New Orleans to discuss issues ranging from homeland security to education.

But the first day's conversation was dominated by conservation, the theme of the conference.

Judging by their presentations, every governor in attendance would like to do more to protect his state's wetlands, wildlife, air and water.

As West Virginia's Wise put it: "[Conservation] is fast becoming a bipartisan or nonpartisan issue, one in which people are willing to pay to support it."

Arkansas' Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, frames conservation as a religious issue.

"We're to be good stewards and take good care of the planet that [God] gave to us. And it's not just a matter of taking care of the recreational opportunities, it's really a sacred duty," he said.

Few governors, however, feel as though they have adequate resources to undertake that sacred duty.

"Almost every state faces fiscal challenges right now, and also the federal government," said West Virginia's Wise.

Virginia's Warner said he has crafted a plan to permanently protect 20 percent of the land in the Chesapeake watershed region, about a million acres. The cost of the plan? $1.2 billion over the next decade.

"That's obviously a fairly substantial dollar amount in these constrained fiscal times," Warner said.

To raise money for the Chesapeake and other projects, Warner plans to present a $120 million bond issue to voters this fall. Warner said the state also has an optional two dollar check-off on car registration with the money devoted to land conservation.

For the most part, the governors would like the federal government to take a larger role in conservation, but they aren't hopeful that will happen anytime soon.

"I don't see the federal government taking the lead on this, so it's got to be at the state level," said Missouri's Holden.

Gale Norton, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, was in New Orleans for the Southern governors' meeting. She said her department, which manages one of every five acres of land in the United States, has made working well with the states one of the performance criteria for Interior managers.

She said cooperation is the best way to go because the governors know better than anyone else what is going on in their state.

If the federal government is to give states any additional money, at least one governor would prefer that it comes in the form of more aid for the fiscally-troubled Medicaid program, which delivers healthcare to low-income individuals, than for conservation.

"If there's some money to be handed out right now, I'll take it in Medicaid first," said West Virginia's Wise.