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GOP can be leader in estuary restoration

The Republican Party is historically known as fiscally responsible, tough on crime, strong on defense and protective of individual rights. In recent years, unfortunately, some in our party have abandoned the GOP's once-proud tradition of conservation and protection of our natural resources.

Members of REP America, the national organization of Republicans for Environmental Protection, recall when our party proudly led the fight to protect our environment. We believe that if current party leaders hope to appeal to the majority of Americans who want our natural resources protected, the GOP must begin to establish a record of solid legislative accomplishments. Fortunately, we have a golden opportunity.

Congress is considering the "Estuarian Restoration Partnership Act of 2000," a visionary piece of legislation to rebuild one of America's most precious natural resources. It has passed the Senate unanimously and has been voted out of two different committees in the House. Unfortunately, the bill is now being held up in the House by lack of cooperation among the leadership.

Estuaries, large regions of coastal areas where sea water meets freshwater, play a huge role in protecting our wildlife and food sources. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 75 percent of fish and shellfish caught in the United States by commercial fishing operations and 80-90 percent of fish caught by recreational anglers depend on estuaries for their survival. Moreover, these habitats _ river deltas, sea grass meadows, forested wetlands, shellfish beds, marshes and beaches _ support a large number of threatened and endangered species.

The Estuarian Restoration Act will protect and restore one of our most valuable natural resources. It will create jobs and economic opportunities in coastal communities while requiring only modest appropriations. Ultimately, it will provide built-in sustainability for America's $150-billion-per-year commercial and recreational fishing industries. Through financial incentives and technical assistance for reclamation and protection projects, it will foster public-private partnerships, and encourage active involvement by local governments. It will make restoration of estuaries one of the primary missions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In the end, this bill will generate more than $300-million in federal, state, local and private investments over 10 years _ all for a modest investment of $50-million.

If ignored by committee chairs and Republican leadership, however, the estuaries bill could disappear at the end of the current session. GOP leaders need to step up to the plate and concentrate on results, not rhetoric, since Congress has little time to finish its business.

REP America believes that our Republican Party cannot hope to overcome the perception that it is indifferent, even hostile, to environmental protections, if we don't seize this opportunity to pass a bill that provides so much for coastal communities, tourism, the environment and the fishing industry.

+ Martha Marks is president of REP America, the national grassroots organization of Republicans for Environmental Protection. +