Budget cuts jeopardize conservation programs

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The budget woes of the federal government are beginning to bleed into some very sensitive areas for the conservation community. Conservation programs including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, State and Tribal Wildlife Grants, Farm Bill conservation programs and others have found themselves stripped to a minimum as Congress begins to tackle the Herculean effort of balancing the budget. Organizations that work closely on conservation on Capitol Hill say that the cuts to conservation programs are going too far.
“Finding ways to reduce the massive federal deficit must be done. But in doing so, let’s support those federal investments that pay for themselves several times over — and be critical of those that are wasteful,” commented Dale Hall, CEO of Ducks Unlimited Inc. “Conservation pays for itself. Congress and the administration should approach the budget challenge with facts and analyses, not a meat cleaver.”
The U.S. House of Representatives began work during the summer on appropriations bills that fund government agencies and programs, with big cuts to agriculture programs. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program is slated for a $350 million reduction, 20 percent below current levels authorized by the Farm Bill. The Conservation Stewardship Program would be cut more than 20 percent relative to its Farm Bill-mandated level which, if passed as currently written, would require the government to back out of contracts it has already signed. The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program would drop $35 million, 41 percent below Farm Bill authorization, and the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program would be cut by $50 million, 25 percent below Farm Bill authorization. Funding for the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, also known as Open Fields, was completely eliminated. The acreage caps for the Wetlands Reserve Program was cut by 64,200 acres (effectively a $200 million, or 32 percent, cut from Farm Bill mandatory spending levels) and the and Grasslands Reserve Program was reduced by 25 percent from Farm Bill mandatory spending levels. And the operating budget for the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s conservation programs would fall nearly $100 million from the fiscal year 2011 continuing resolution.
The House then moved on to the Interior Appropriations Bill that had significant reductions to agency budgets and conservation programs. The Land and Water Conservation Fund was proposed to be cut to $61.8 million, an 80 percent reduction from what it received in 2011 and far less than the $900 million full funding proposed in the President’s budget. However, in floor debate, a bipartisan effort to increase the funding level added $25 million to the program including $5 million to facilitate access to public lands for sportsmen and recreationists. The Cooperative Endangered Species Fund (funded within the LWCF account) is slotted to receive just $2.85 million, a 95 percent reduction from fiscal year 2011. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act fund is slated for $20 million ($30 million below fiscal year 2011 levels) and the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program would be cut to $22 million, which is $40 million less than in fiscal year 2011 and a 77 percent reduction from the President’s budget
request. Climate change mitigation and adaptation activities within the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency would be cut by 22 percent. Agency operating budgets have also been sliced dramatically.
The House never voted on a final package for the Interior Appropriations bill and, as with the Agriculture Bill, the Senate has yet to act. Congressional leaders are anticipating that all remaining appropriations bills will be lumped into one massive spending bill, but key conservation programs may not fare any better during the negotiating process. In addition, the recent agreement to cut another $2 trillion in discretionary spending as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling will further jeopardize conservation programs.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-ID, chairman of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, said that EPA and Interior will have to brace for leaner times along with other federal programs. “They won’t have growing budgets, that’s just the reality,” he said. “Nobody will have growing budgets.”
It is because of looming budget cuts that a new coalition of more than 600 organizations has formed to support the overall funding allocations for conservation programs. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, and Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH, the groups called on Congress to address the federal deficit while still investing in critical conservation, recreation and historic preservation programs in 2012.
“The Federal budget cannot and should not be balanced disproportionately on the backs of conservation, outdoor recreation and preservation,” the letter stated. “Doing so will impose on the future generations whose well-being depends on the conservation and preservation of our common natural and historic resources.” ♦
-Residing in Denver, Colo., Jodi Stemler is a consultant specializing in fish and wildlife policy communications. She is also the chair of OWAA’s National Affairs and Environment Committee. Contact her at jodi@stemler-consulting.com.

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