Congress Picks the Wrong Battle on Public Land Sequestration

Capitol Building

Library of Congress

All parts of the country have felt the effects of sequestration. Sequestration was a tool supposedly so egregious that Congress would never let it happen.

 

Yet, here we are, with people and the government unable to stop furloughs, job losses, and lower revenue to keep the government functioning. Our public lands have certainly not been spared from this indiscriminate budget ax.

Over the last few months we have seen countless stories about how the sequester is harming the public’s ability to enjoy our public lands, including some of the most iconic national parks, wildlife refuges, and forests in the country. In Yellowstone National Park, funding shortfalls kept roads leading into the park unplowed and snow-covered, leaving many visitors helpless and unable to enter the park. Local businesses were able to pass a hat and pay for the plowing this year, but there are many more examples of sequestration hurting our public lands that have gone unanswered:

  • Santee National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina is now seeing dramatically reduced hours for its visitor center - closing it completely Saturday, Sunday and Monday every week. Closures like these are happening at Wildlife Refuges across the country.
  • John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Pennsylvania will be cancelling its annual Cradle of Birding Festival which brings in significant tourist dollars to the local businesses and the community.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park will see the closure of 150 campsites and will have limited capacity to respond to backcountry emergencies due to staff cuts.
  • The nation’s most visited National Park Service unit, the Blue Ridge Parkway, will see reduced hours at its visitor’s center, less educational opportunities, and a reduced amount of law enforcement officers.

These examples are just the beginning as we head towards peak season and Americans plan to visit their public lands in record numbers across the country.  In total, according to congressional staff, the National Park Service will leave 900 permanent jobs unfilled this year and will be hiring 1000 fewer seasonal workers. Access for our public lands will be cut at all 401 national parks, 155 national forests, 561 national wildlife refuges, and more than 258 public land units. All Americans own these public lands and their ability to enjoy them this summer will be severely hampered.

Even more startling is that sequestration will severely impair our nation’s ability to fight wildfires this year. The United States Forest Service will have to fight fires this season with 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer fire engines. As Ernest Mitchell Jr., the US Fire Administrator said, “When fires burn uncontrolled in our nation’s wildlands, it means a loss of homes, businesses . . . and all too often lives.” We are likely to see another historic fire season, similar to last year, and now have significantly less money to fight it.

With all of these issues bubbling up as a result of sequestration, one would think our Congressmen would be hard at work to fix it all. But no. Instead, members of Congress are unfortunately focused only on the narrowest and most parochial issues that are of immediate concern to locally powerful and loud constituencies.  An example – under the sequester, payments to states of royalty revenues from oil and gas wells on federal lands were cut, because that’s how the (stupid) law that Congress passed  works. So the reaction of both Republicans and Democrats in the states affected is to introduce bills that narrowly focus on making sure that western states get their share of money from federal oil and gas drilling revenues – but NOT working to make sure that communities facing a huge fire threat in drought-stricken parts of the country have adequate federal resources to address that life and property threatening problem, or that Americans have access to their national parks, forests and wildlife refuges for their summer vacations.

Now it’s no doubt important that states get the mineral revenues that have been sequestered.  But instead of focusing on such narrow issues, it is time for Congress to step up to the plate, get rid of the sequester altogether,  and restore all these critical funds necessary for Americans to benefit from and enjoy the public lands we all own.

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