Budget bill is a good start but public lands still in dire need

Arizona's Tonto National Forest.

Credit: flickr, Garry Wilmore.

A new federal appropriations bill provides some needed relief, but public lands remain chronically underfunded.

A federal appropriations bill released Jan. 13 allocates about $30 billion for agencies that manage our public lands, representing a welcome change from crisis-to-crisis budgeting in Washington. However, parks, monuments, wilderness areas and other cherished places, which only command about 1 percent of the federal budget, still face shortfalls that demand our attention.

Tell Congress to make sure public lands and the agencies that manage them have the resources they need.

“We commend Congress for working collaboratively to restore much needed funding for conservation,” said Paul Spitler, director of Wilderness Campaigns with The Wilderness Society. “But at the end of the day, the figures are still inadequate to ensure our public lands have the staffing, resources, and scientific research they need in a world of increasing wildfires, wildlife loss, additional recreational pressures, and a changing climate. It’s time for Congress to prioritize stewardship of our public lands every fiscal year. The American people ask for it again and again.” 

The omnibus spending bill, which covers the entire federal discretionary budget for fiscal 2014, provides some much-needed relief from the indiscriminate "sequester cuts," and it does set aside money for important programs. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, a nearly 50-year-old tool that reinvests offshore oil and gas royalties to create and protect national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other areas, was funded at a level equal to that in last year’s budget. Funding for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) National Conservation Lands, which provides money for field teams that carry out basic maintenance and upkeep of historic and cultural sites, also stayed at roughly the same level.

However, funding is down elsewhere. The U.S. Forest Service’s Legacy Roads and Trails Program (LRTP), which pays for sustainable road and trail maintenance on National Forest System lands, saw a $10 million decrease.

Land managers and visitors alike feel the impact of underfunded public lands and conservation programs. A few examples:

At Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, overseen by the BLM, insufficient funding has resulted in reduced staff and fewer river patrols along the 149-mile Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River. In turn, this has reduced the cleanliness of the river itself and campsites alongside it, as well as posing a threat to visitor safety. 

Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana. Credit: flickr, Bureau of Land Management.

In Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest, less money for the LRTP could mean a lack of funds needed to improve Eckman Road—a key route for community access to the forest, along which deteriorating road conditions have caused sediment buildup in important trout habitat. 

Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon. Credit: flickr, koocheekoo.

U.S. Forest Service field offices across the country are short staffed, underfunded, and unable to complete basic on-the-ground management. In Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, near Phoenix, there are no full-time wilderness rangers left to monitor environmental conditions or make backcountry visitor contacts on more than 800,000 acres of wilderness.

Tonto National Forest in Arizona. Credit: flickr, August Rode.

Final passage of the budget bill is expected by the end of this week, but regardless of the outcome, our public lands are in a precarious position—and so are nearby communities, many of which depend on the revenue they generate.

Ask Congress to adequately fund our public lands programs every year.