Government reopens: Will America's environment continue to be a victim of congressional clashes over budget?

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park

Alaskan Dude, flickr

The federal government reopened Thursday, Oct. 16 after Congress passed a short-term budget deal to fund the government through Jan. 15. 

As a result, federal agencies like the National Park Service have been allowed to reopen. At least, for now. 

In order to understand what's in store for America's beloved public lands and environment, let's take a walk down memory lane. First there was sequestration, then a 16-day government shutdown and, pretty soon, there's going to be another confrontation over sequestration and the 2014 budget.

Will America's public lands and wildlife continue to be the victims of congressional clashes? (Hint: The answer is "yes" if Congress continues to balance the federal budget on the backs of important environmental programs, allows conservation funding levels to hit a record low.)

Here's a rundown of this past year's budget crises and the ways they have harmed important environmental programs.

What did the sequester and the shutdown mean for America's environment?

Even before the shutdown, sequester cuts seriously lamed most federally-funded environmental programs. Earlier this year, the mandatory budget cuts to already poorly-funded environmental programs had a devastating impact on America's national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests and other wildlands.

Among the things the sequester has undermined are access to public lands, natural disaster and fire response capabilities and efforts to manage invasive species and illegal animal trafficking. 

If the sequester is here to stay and Congress decides to rearrange where the spending cuts come from (for example, shifting non-defense dollars to defense), the future of the nation's environment could be disastrous. 

Blocked entrance to Saguaro National Park. Photo: 666ismoney, flickr

Drastic sequester cuts gutted conservation programs

These budget cut impacts represent just a small portion of the effects being felt. Without a balanced solution to the federal deficit, important programs like these will continue to be reduced or even eliminated.

Fire Prevention and Suppression – Wildfires across the Western U.S. have claimed lives, homes and thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. Despite the enormous threat that this year’s fire season poses, the U.S. Forest Service has reduced their force by 500 firefighters and 50 fire engines in an attempt to save the $50 million mandated by the sequester. Budget cuts have also forced the agency to focus on fighting fires instead of implementing efforts to prevent them, which has resulted only in more severe fires.

Access to Public Lands – Mandatory funding cuts threatened to delay the opening of one of our nation’s most iconic national parks—Yellowstone. Though park managers saved more than $30,000 per day by pushing back snowplow operations by two weeks, this suspension would have blocked public access without intervention. The economies of surrounding communities are dependent on tourists and outdoor enthusiasts visiting the area, prompting business owners and other private donors to write personal checks to keep the snowplows operating and the park open. Other public lands have met this budget challenge by closing campgrounds, postponing trail maintenance and reducing facility services, all of which hurt the visitor experience and diminish the local economy.

Law enforcement and public safety – Public perception of short-staffed law enforcement at national parks may also lead to an increase in vandalism and other criminal behavior. During that last government shutdown, national parks employees at several sites in California also reported vandalism and graffiti to natural features, like rocks and canyon walls. 

Natural Disaster Preparedness – Several agencies have reduced funding for important programs that help forecast severe weather events such as tornados, hurricanes and floods. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration was forced to cut an innovative weather monitoring satellite system in order to prevent the furlough of weather forecasters. The U.S. Geological Survey has taken similar steps, reducing gauges that monitor stream flow for potential flooding and seismic devices that predict volcanic eruptions. Making matters worse, $900 million in cuts to FEMA’s budget will specifically impact the agency’s ability to provide disaster relief to affected communities. These decisions hurt the ability of land managers to plan for the effects of climate change and be prepared for severe weather events, ultimately costing them more money to clean up after natural disasters.

Hunting and Fishing – State fish and wildlife departments are losing financial support from Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Programs. These programs operate as trust funds and the sequester is preventing the disbursement of critical money to state agencies. The hunting and fishing conservation programs supported by these funds include wildlife conservation, habitat restoration and public access to these resources. These funds oftentimes support the majority of state fish and wildlife departments’ budgets, meaning any loss of these funds could be devastating to wildlife management.

Climate monitoring and research – The government's decision to shut down access to websites and data sets has made research difficult for many weather and climate researchers. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration labs that analyze samples of greenhouse gases collected from around the world by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration risked losing access to computers and data.

Animal Trafficking – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s work to thwart the illegal animal trade is taking a hit with the loss of important funding. A reduction in wildlife inspectors and forensic wildlife experts means that efforts to reduce the trade in live animals and animal products will be hampered. With fewer investigations, the U.S. will be an easier target for wildlife smuggling rings. Poaching has increased in recent years and threatens endangered species worldwide, including elephants, tigers and gorillas.

Invasive Species Control – Invasive species are one of the greatest threats to our nation’s public lands. One of the largest invasive weed management programs—approximately one million acres in Oregon—is being threatened by budget cuts. Invasive management initiatives are being scaled back this year, with reductions in weed removal, field studies and invasive plant monitoring. Without a stable base of funding to sustain weed control efforts, the past successes of these programs will be quickly undermined, threatening native habitats, wildlife and the activities they support.

Though environmental conservation funding accounts for just one percent of the federal budget, its economic contribution is substantial. Outdoor recreation alone generates $646 billion every year and supports more than 6 million direct jobs. Environmental programs have already taken a disproportionate share of budget cuts in recent years. Additional indiscriminate cuts like those implemented through the sequester are having drastic implications for the management of our natural resources, the communities that depend on them and the Americans that enjoy them.

Why did the sequester happen and what did it do?

The sequester is a series of annual spending cuts to the federal government, from Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 to FY 2021. Since it went into effect on March 1, we’re living through it right now. Divided evenly between defense and non-defense funding, it cut $85 billion from public programs, projects, and activities in FY 2013 and making an even deeper cut in FY2014 (up to $109 billion) — and every year, until it finally expires. 

Congress originally included the threat of sequestration in the Budget Control Act of 2011 as a way to encourage compromise on deficit reduction efforts (a congressional committee needed to find $1.5 trillion in savings over a 10-year period, or else face the sequester’s much harsher mix of automatic cuts). However, Congress couldn’t agree on a budget by the deadline set in the Budget Control Act, so mandatory budget cuts were scheduled to go into effect on January 2, 2013, but were later pushed back until March 1, 2013.

If the sequester is carried out as it was designed, the total program cuts will amount to roughly $1 trillion, plus another $200 billion or so in reduced debt-service payments, for a total of $1.2 trillion over the course of nine years.

President Obama has not made any demands to cancel the sequester, calling only for replacing it with smarter cuts in a budget deal. This means that cuts to certain programs could be rolled back in exchange for a more balanced budget.

How did the sequester factor into the shutdown?

In order to finally end the government shutdown, Congress agreed on a short-term continuing resolution that caps government spending levels at $986 billion, reflecting cuts from the 2013 sequester. After the government re-opens, Congress will reconvene for negotiations on a broader solution.