A Return to Environmental Funding

Smokey Mountains, North Carolina. Courtesy of NPS.

There’s an old saying about “death by a thousand cuts.” Those words could easily be used to describe how federal environmental programs fared during the eight long years of the Bush administration.

Throughout those years, in agency after agency, programs vital to the health of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the well-being of our nation’s beloved forests, parks, and wildlife refuges were systematically bled of the money they needed to assure their survival.

Here are just a few of the many examples of the damage:

  • The Forest Service:
    • Without dedicated funding for fire suppression, close to half of the Forest Service’s budget was reallocated to fight wildland fires at the expense of other vital forest programs.
  • The National Wildlife Refuge System:
    • The refuge system racked up a $3.5 billion backlog of operations and maintenance needs. As a result:
      • Roads and visitor centers have closed.
      • Viewing platforms and trails have fallen into disrepair.
      • Biological, educational, hunting and fishing programs have been eliminated.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
    • The Service lost about 800 staff members between 2004 and 2008.
    • It has fallen woefully far behind in its responsibilities to list and protect threatened and endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.
  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund:
    • This program is a critical tool for the federal government to acquire and preserve ecologically important land, yet funding for the program was cut by 75 percent between 2001 and 2006.

The Wilderness Society, along with some 25 other national conservation organizations, knows just how devastating these cuts have been, and has laid out a blueprint to reverse the years of neglect.

“Many of these programs have been systematically marginalized and ignored over the past eight years, and we must begin to restore adequate funding to them through the regular budget process,” said Bill Meadows, President of The Wilderness Society.

Our new “Green Budget” report outlines what it will take to resuscitate federal environmental programs. It was delivered to members of Congress in late February as they began their annual budget deliberations. In it, we detailed the funding needed to sustain clean air and water, lands, oceans and wildlife over the long haul.

The Green Budget arrived on Capitol Hill just before President Obama delivered his own budget framework to Congress. While the President’s final budget request won’t be released until sometime in April, the initial outline is encouraging, Meadows says.

“The announcement of the President’s budget priorities mirror some of the priorities we identified in the Green Budget. It’s clear that the President understands that investing in our natural resources will provide our country with long-term, lasting benefits that include economic growth in perpetuity,” he said.

To be clear, the funding we are asking for is different than funds from the recent economic recovery package. Those stimulus funds are short term funds designed to jumpstart the economy and cannot substitute for the yearly programmatic needs the agencies have.

Over the next few months, the Wilderness Society’s staff will be working side by side with the land management agencies, the Office of Management and Budget, the Obama Administration and congressional budget staff to shine light on the most important funding priorities for public lands and other environmental spending.

We’ll be giving testimony before the budget committees in mid-March. As Congress marks up the budget bills and sends them to the full House and Senate in early summer, we’ll be analyzing bill language, proposing changes and working with the appropriators to ensure that the final bills being passed represent the priorities and needs of the agencies and programs we care about.

The Wilderness Society will be working hard to:

  • Increase dedicated funding for suppressing wildland fires.
    • We’re pressing for a separate emergency fund for fighting unanticipated large fires, so that the U.S. Forest Service can adequately fund other critical programs and operations.
  • Increase funding for land acquisition.
    • The Land and Water Conservation Fund is authorized to receive up to $900 million each year, yet in fiscal year 2008, the fund received only $154.3 million. As global warming continues to imperil plant and animal species, acquiring and preserving ecologically important land will be critical to helping our national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges adapt to the affects of global warming.
  • Add critical funds for the National Wildlife Refuge System.
    • The Refuge System has been crippled for years by severe funding shortfalls. Current operations and maintenance backlogs total more than $3.5 billion, and recent natural disasters have taken a $300 million toll—equal to almost three-quarters of the system’s current yearly budget. The Wilderness Society will be working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Congress to get the increased dollars.
  • Fund needed scientific research on global warming.
    • The Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service must continue to fund scientific research and programs that will help our lands remain resilient in the face of climate change. We’ll be working to assure that programs like the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center, the Cooperative Endangered Species Fund, and the Bureau of Land Management’s Landscape Scale Habitat Conservation receive additional funds so that we can learn more about how global warming affects ecosystems and how we can help our treasured lands adapt to these changes.

photo: Smokey Mountains, North Carolina. Courtesy of NPS.