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Federal Budget: First Look is not Promising

By Brenda Barrett March 29, 2017

On March 16, 2017 the Whitehouse released the America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again  and the news was not great for programs that support large landscape conservation. For the FY 2018 budget, the Department of Interior faces a proposed 12% budget cut. Although not as bad as other agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency is facing a 31% reduction – the decline is still troubling. The budget document is very brief and in general it does not identify where the pain will fall. However, is it is clearly not supportive of land acquisition or regional conservation initiatives and threatens parks and protected area funding. Let’s look at the actual language in the Blueprint– limited as it is:

Impact on Landscape Scale Conservation

  • Eliminates funding for specific regional efforts such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Chesapeake Bay, and other geographic programs. (EPA)
  • Reduces funding for lower priority activities in the National Forest System, such as major new Federal land acquisition; instead, the Budget focuses on maintaining existing forests and grasslands. (Agriculture)
  • Reduces funding for lower priority activities, such as new major acquisitions of Federal land. The Budget reduces land acquisition funding by more than $120 million from the 2017 annualized CR level and would instead focus available discretionary funds on investing in, and maintaining, existing national parks, refuges and public lands . (Interior)
  • Zeroes out over $250 million in targeted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and education including Sea Grant, which primarily benefit industry and State and local stakeholders. (Commerce)

All of the above programs have been identified in an  National Academy of Sciences 2015 report as part of the public policy tool kit that helps support landscape scale conservation efforts. As for what will happen to the Department of Interior’s landmark program, the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC), well the fate of the LCCs are not mentioned by name. However, given the proposed drastic budget reductions and the trend to de-fund landscape scale conservation initiatives, the signs are not hopeful. And this all before the proposed cuts and deletions of any  program that addresses climate change.

Impact on National Heritage Areas

  • Eliminates unnecessary, lower priority, or duplicative programs, including… National Heritage Areas as more appropriately funded locally. (Interior)

The National Heritage Area (NHA) program has been a favorite target of the Office of Management Budget for almost two decades. This is despite the fact that each areas is congressionally authorized with the mission to conserve significant  heritage landscapes and tell part of our nation’s story and that the program has had very positive evaluations. In the just one and half  pages allocated to the Department of interior’s 11.6 billion dollar budget, the NHA’s line item of only 16 million (FY 2017)  is specifically singled out for elimination.  Even more ironic, the Blueprint then goes on to comment favorably on other DOI programs that:

  • Leverages taxpayer investment with public and private resources through wildlife conservation, historic preservation, and recreation grants. These voluntary programs encourage partnerships by providing matching funds that produce greater benefits to taxpayers for the Federal dollars invested. (Interior)

Wait a minute, isn’t that just how the NHA program is supposed to work with every Federal dollar matched by other public or private contributions? And, in addition, doesn’t the program have strong evidence to back up claims that it provides such a match as well as  additional public and private leverage? This is very discouraging.

National Park Service

  • Supports stewardship capacity for land management operations of the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management. The Budget streamlines operations while providing the necessary resources for DOI to continue to protect and conserve America’s public lands and beautiful natural resources, provide access to public lands for the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts, and ensure visitor safety. (Interior)

This all sound good. However, any proposal that imposes a 12% reduction in funding for land managing agencies is problematic.  Front-line services at National Park units could be hit the hardest and it will certainly impact the service’s other cultural and natural resource programs. The Blueprint also proposes upping dollars to the NPS for deferred maintenance, but if staff for maintenance, planning and administration such an initiative is lost this increase will not provide much of a solution. For a comprehensive overview of the NPS funding and infrastructure issue see Denny Galvin’s recent testimony before the House Committee on Natural Resources.

And now to Congress            

It is important to emphasize that in most cases the March 2017 Blueprint does not contain information on exactly which programs and accounts will lose out, but with such deep cuts in base funding there could be many losers. However, these proposals, both at the aggregate level and the specific program level, are just that—proposals. They are the administration’s ideas on how Congress, to whom the Blueprint goes next, should allocate dollars in each of these areas. While it needs to be taken very seriously as an indicator of the direction in which the President would like to head, it is only a starting point for the 2018 Federal Budget.

So over to you Congress… we  all need to be watching closely or better yet taking action.

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