Izembek National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska), subject of a provision that would authorize the construction of an unnecessary road through designated wilderness.
Credit: Kristine Sowl (USFWS).
Federal funding runs out on December 9th, meaning that Congress is short on time to cobble together "must-pass" appropriations legislation that will pay for the day-to-day expenses of the federal government.
But in what has become a sad annual commentary on some leaders' dereliction of America's conservation tradition, the process is gummed up with counterproductive “riders” that have no place in the appropriations process, and would hurt wildlands right when they sorely need our help.
Annual failure to properly fund conservation
Funding for conservation—which includes national parks, forests and wildlife refuges—makes up barely 1 percent of the federal budget. These programs are enormously popular and contribute substantially to our local and national economies, generating up to $10 for every $1 invested, and creating high quality jobs that cannot be exported. Despite this, these programs are on the chopping block once again as Congress works to pass a budget to fund the government for another fiscal year.
As Congress works to pass an appropriations bill, we will fight for conservation funding, as well as working to keep the most toxic riders out of the budget. Here is our "top" eight list of the worst riders in the bill:
Since 1975, greater sage-grouse habitat has been cut in half, and grouse population numbers have likewise plummeted. But in 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released conservation plans determining the species is no longer facing imminent extinction and does not need to be listed as an endangered species. The plans were hailed as a major breakthrough that helps local communities. This rider would bar the Department of the Interior from listing the greater sage-grouse as endangered or threatened ever again, regardless of how those plans turn out, and would block implementation of the collaboratively developed conservation plans altogether.
If successfully attached to the appropriations bill, this provision would authorize the construction of an unnecessary road through designated wilderness in Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Not only would that do irreparable damage to an ecologically unique, internationally recognized wildland that is important to native Alaskans on the Bering Sea coast, but it would undermine the Wilderness Act in a stunning and precedent-setting way. This project has already been rejected by Congress and the federal government multiple times; Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected the idea in 2013 and the U.S. District Court subsequently upheld that decision. None of that has stopped Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) from trying again and again to effectively strip a public tract of land of its protected wilderness status for the first time ever.
The Obama administration has taken several steps to meet climate change goals by reducing methane emissions, but this rider would undermine that progress by preventing the Bureau of Land Management from implementing rules to reduce venting, flaring and leaks of methane from oil and gas development projects on public lands. A recent study by The Wilderness Society found that 21 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, can be traced to oil, gas and coal extracted from federal lands.
In early 2016, the Obama Administration announced a pause on all new coal leasing on public lands, to be followed by a review of the federal coal program that would assess its true costs to the climate, wildlands and taxpayers. If passed in the appropriations bill, this rider would cancel that review, snuffing out an attempt to finally fix a program that has allowed coal companies to mine on public lands for decades at rock-bottom rates, worsening climate change and scarring the landscape in the process.
Yet again, anti-conservationists in Congress are trying to tear down the Antiquities Act, which authorizes the president to designate national monuments, a rare political institution with bipartisan appeal and a century-long record of success. This rider would block the president from designating national monuments in several counties in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Maine—a swath of land covering nearly 8 percent of the continental U.S., and 25 percent of all federal lands. This will make it harder for local communities to collaborate and ask the president to protect places they care about, even though most voters, including 80 percent of those in western states, support presidents using the Antiquities Act to protect national monuments.
This rider is a last-ditch effort to block the implementation of the Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That plan recommended that Congress designate the fragile coastal plain and other areas of the refuge as wilderness; if passed in the appropriations bill, the rider would prohibit the Fish & Wildlife Service from managing this remarkable wilderness landscape in a way that prioritizes its priceless wildlife habitat, allowing big oil to get their hands on it instead.
As The Wilderness Society noted in a recent report, the oil, gas and coal industry has been paying incredibly low royalty rates for their operations on public lands, shortchanging local communities and prioritizing energy development above other uses without offsetting the impacts. This rider would prevent the Obama Administration from using its executive authority to address that imbalance by raising the royalty rate. That means companies will keep paying what they have been paying since the the 1970s (for coal) and 1920s (for oil and gas), even as technologies, markets and our understanding of the consequences of fossil fuel development have changed drastically.
This rider would create loopholes in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a decades-old bedrock conservation law, to exempt various harmful forest management practices from environmental review. This rider is so broad that potentially any forest management project up to 3,000 acres in size, including the controversial and damaging practices of clear cutting and salvage logging, would be considered exempt from environmental review and thus eliminating any opportunity for public input and participation. These harmful and unnecessary limitations on the NEPA process would harm both the public and economic benefits of our national forests, including clean drinking water, outstanding outdoor recreation opportunities, and fish and wildlife habitat.