Sequestration continues to threaten national parks, wildlife and public safety

U.S. Route 34 closure through Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, due to excess snow accumulation.

Yuya Sekiguchi, flickr

Mandatory funding cuts and dwindling budgets present a serious challenge to conservation programs.

Federal agencies managing our national parks, forests and wildlife refuges have faced a series of cuts to their budgets in recent years, resulting in declining public access and enjoyment of these lands. Most recently, a mandatory indiscriminate cut known as the “sequester” was applied across the government, sending the agencies that protect these public resources scrambling to minimize the sequester’s impacts.

Like other recent budget cuts, the effects of the sequester were not all immediately apparent. As the impacts continue to compound, we are reminded that no American is untouched by these reductions in funding. There is evidence from around the country that the impact the sequester has had on our nation’s parks, wildlife and outdoor recreation has been severe.

Fire in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, Oregon. Photo: BLM Oregon, flickr

Programs and initiatives adversely affected by the sequester include:

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.

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.

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.

Water chestnut (an invasive species) removal in Ellicott Creek Park. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, flickr

These budget cut impacts represent just a small portion of the effects being felt. The sequester has also hit critical programs for Native American communities, youth environmental education initiatives and renewable energy research and development. Without a balanced solution to the federal deficit, important programs like these will continue to be reduced or even eliminated.

Though 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. Conservation 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. 

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