Dear Congress: It’s time to give wildlands a pro-conservation federal budget

Mount Hood National Forest (Oregon).

Credit: Wendy, flickr.

President Barack Obama’s proposed 2016 federal budget can start to restore needed funding for conservation programs—if Congress lets it.

After years of fiscal neglect by the federal government, our country’s conservation programs are in serious need of restoration. A recent report from The Wilderness Society and other groups, titled "Green Investments," details what’s at stake. It points to dozens of programs that have been shortchanged in recent years, to the detriment of public lands conservation, national park maintenance, clean water and access to outdoor recreation, among others.   

The Wilderness Society applauds President Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget for restoring essential funding to programs that support our nation’s treasured public lands and address the harmful effects of climate change.

Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado). Credit: Bryce Bradford, flickr. 

Now it’s up to Congress to ensure that this funding is approved. In the coming months, the House and Senate will hold committee hearings and receive testimony on budget needs, followed by the introduction of appropriations bills that may or may not align with the president’s vision to fund conservation.  

Throughout this process, The Wilderness Society will actively work with lawmakers, urging restored funding for conservation programs in need. The national economy, healthy wildlands and well-managed landscapes depend on the repeal of these cuts, and we will make it our mission to see them through.

Here are some highlights of the essential conservation, energy and outdoor recreation programs that we support:

Investing in conservation

California Coastal National Monument, one of the BLM's National Conservation Lands. Credit: Bob Wick (BLM), flickr.

  • We must reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and restore full and dedicated funding to the program. Signed into law in 1964, the LWCF uses revenues from the depletion of one natural resource--offshore oil and gas--to support the conservation of another--our land and water. It is a critical tool to acquire inholdings (parcels of private land within the borders of parks, offered by willing sellers) and has protected everything from national parks—including American icons like the Grand Canyon and Everglades--to local trails and ball fields. Unfortunately, the LWCF is chronically underfunded. Over the course of its lifetime, more than $19 billion has been diverted from its trust fund by Congress, leaving many projects unfinished and pieces of land unprotected. Restoring full and dedicated funding to the LWCF would make good on a 50-year-old promise.
  • We must restore adequate funding for our National Conservation Lands. The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) National Conservation Lands encompass some 27 million acres of the agency’s most irreplaceable protected wildlands, from national monuments to wilderness areas. Stewardship of the Conservation Lands provides jobs for thousands of Americans and supports vibrant and sustainable economies in local communities—in addition to outstanding recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat, clean water and open space near. Despite their importance, the National Conservation Lands have been chronically underfunded, making it hard to meet basic maintenance and upkeep needs.
  • We must manage our national forests the right way. Important Forest Service programs need to have their funding restored to previous levels. These include the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP), which encourages ecosystem restoration in unique forest landscapes, helping repair damage from decades of unsustainable logging, road building, fire suppression and urbanization; the Recreation, Heritage and Wilderness Program, which allows the Forest Service to provide recreational access and help get volunteers out repairing our trails; and the Legacy Roads and Trails Program, which pays for sustainable road and trail maintenance on National Forest System lands to help restore watersheds damaged by decaying roads.
  • We must remedy our irresponsible approach to fighting wildfires. Wildfire management costs have increased from 13 percent of the Forest Service budget in 1991 to almost 50 percent today. To keep up, the Forest Service, is forced to divert funds from popular and effective programs like the (already cash-strapped) Land and Water Conservation Fund, Legacy Roads and Trails program and CFLRP--as well as wildfire mitigation programs, which are specifically intended to reduce the cost and severity of future wildfires. We must support the sustainable approach of paying to fight wildfires the same way we pay to deal with all other natural disasters, without robbing other critical initiatives.

Supporting a balanced approach to energy development

Credit: Mike Baker, flickr.

  • We must support “Smart from the Start” renewable energy development. It is vital that the U.S. transition to a clean energy economy by developing renewable energy resources responsibly. This means putting high quality wind and solar projects in the right places and avoiding harm to sensitive wildlands and the species that rely on them. The Department of the Interior needs more funding than previously requested to determine which renewable energy projects work, and where they can responsibly be sited. This will help us to compete in the global market of tomorrow. A commitment to clean energy projects on public lands is also important to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and decrease the use of energy that causes climate change.
  • We must  focus on oil and gas drilling reform. The Interior Department’s focus on inspection and enforcement of safety standards for oil and gas development is crucial for preventing oil spills or other environmental disasters. A funding boost for the agency will help reduce the chances of a major environmental disaster.

Encouraging outdoor recreation and a connection to nature

Denali National Park & Preserve (Alaska). Credit: Cody Badger, flickr.

  • We must fund programs to encourage outdoor recreation on public lands. The U.S. Forest Service’s budget for forest trails maintenance and reconstruction has suffered recent cuts and faces a $500 million maintenance backlog. The National Park Service is facing similar problems that adversely affect recreational access. It is time to restore funding for these programs.
  • We must make more special recreation permits available to get people outside. Another way to facilitate outdoor recreation is to provide more special recreation permits to outfitters, guides and nonprofit organizations that take people out on public lands. In recent years, land management agencies have not had enough staff to administer these permits. As a result, very few new permits have been issued. Without permits, small businesses and organizations cannot expand recreation opportunities for the public, and we lose out on chance to connect more people to America's public lands (as well as more chances to drive the local economy). The budget should provide the funding needed to make the special recreation permit system work again.

Read the "Green Investments" report