What we are asking for: a plan to fund conservation

A bighorn sheep in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, which is managed by the BLM as part of the National Conservation Lands. 

Credit: BLM New Mexico, flickr.

It’s time for Congress to restore proper funding to deteriorating government wildland programs.

In Congressional testimony offered on April 10, The Wilderness Society laid out funding  recommendations for the Interior Department and other agencies for the coming fiscal year.

In a hearing before a key House subcommittee, Senior Director of Government Relations for Lands Alan Rowsome urged lawmakers to carefully consider the full scope of the environmental, social and economic value of public lands and waters as they consider funding levels for the programs that manage them.

Here are The Wilderness Society’s top funding recommendations for keeping our wildlands healthy and well-maintained:

Wilderness management

Arizona’s Hummingbird Springs Wilderness, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Credit: Bob Wick (BLM California), flickr.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, it is important to recognize the great value of protected wilderness for conservation and outdoor recreation alike. Likewise, now is the time to consider the National Wilderness Preservation System’s chronic lack of funding.

What is missing: Sufficient trail maintenance, law enforcement, measures to fight invasive species, programs to monitor the effects of climate change and more.

What we are asking for: The Bureau of Land Management’s proposed budget for managing wilderness is 7% lower than in fiscal year 2011 and must be restored to adequately protect wilderness resources and ensure the safety of visitors. The Forest Service’s Recreation, Heritage and Wilderness Program must be restored to 2010 levels to connect more Americans to the land and help support the booming outdoor recreation economy. The National Park Service’s wilderness program must see increased funding in order to chip away at the backlog  wilderness maintenance and protection work, and to train staff.

Land and Water Conservation Fund

California's Muir Woods National Monument, which has benefited from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Credit: Selbe B, flickr.

Its name may be unfamiliar, but you have almost certainly enjoyed some of the places that the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has supported, from American icons like Denali National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Everglades National Park to local trails and ball fields. 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. Like the Wilderness Act, this program celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014--and it similarly demands our attention to gain adequate funding.

What is missing: The LWCF is chronically underfunded. Over the course of its lifetime, more than $18 billion has been diverted from its trust fund by Congress. In the last year, nearly $600 million was redirected away from the program, leaving many projects unfinished and pieces of land unprotected.

What we are asking for: LWCF must receive full and dedicated funding at $900 million, as was specified in President Barack Obama’s proposed budget.

Emergency wildfire funding

Fire suppression during the 2013 Rim Fire in California. Credit: Mike McMillan (USFS) via Stuart Rankin, flickr.

As wildfire seasons become longer and more severe, the Forest Service has seen the money it spends on fire management skyrocket--from 13% of the agency’s budget in fiscal year 1991 to almost 50% for the past few years.

What is missing: The Forest Service and Interior Department have been forced to divert funds away from conservation and wildfire mitigation programs (preparing for and minimizing the effects of wildfires ahead of time) to cover wildfire suppression (fighting the fires once they’ve started). This hurts land management in the long term and creates a vicious cycle.

What we are asking for:  In his proposed budget, President Obama offered a stable way to pay for fighting severe wildfires the same way we fund programs to address other natural disasters, without robbing other critical forest initiatives. Authorizing $954 million in new budget authority for wildfire suppression in this manner will eliminate the need to rob conservation accounts to pay for the very worst fires.

Climate change resiliency

Climate change is likely to worsen drought in some areas. Credit: behind.the.lens.jr, flickr.

Even as climate change is a great threat to public lands, these places offer some of the most cost-effective natural services for increasing habitat resilience in the face of climate change. This is especially true where areas of protected land link critical wildlife habitat, allowing species to adapt and find refuge, and buffer local (human) communities from the worst impacts of extreme weather events.

What is missing: Many public lands are ill-prepared for worsening climate change, which is set to bring more intense fire and drought seasons to the West, increased glacier melt in the Arctic and rising sea levels to sensitive coastal wetlands.

What we are asking for: As President Obama indicated in February, a $1 billion climate change resiliency fund will help federal agencies research the impacts of climate change and assist communities in preparing for them.

Offshore oil and gas drilling reform

A layer of oil on the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Credit: National Wildlife Federation, flickr.

The federal outfits within the Interior Department that oversee offshore oil and gas operations--the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and Bureau of Safety and Environment Enforcement (BSEE)--need to improve oversight to prevent oil spills, as seen in various reports released in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

What is missing: BSEE and BOEM each need to be funded at higher levels in order to increase the scope and frequency of their oversight, and BSEE must develop specific standards for Arctic Ocean oil and gas operations.

What we are asking for: The Interior Department needs a 20% funding boost for offshore drilling regulation agencies to make sure recommended reforms are developed and put in place before another major oil spill.

Renewable energy

Power tower heliostats. Credit: langalex, flickr.

It is vital that the U.S. transition to a clean energy economy by developing renewable energy resources responsibly. Renewable energy is an appropriate and necessary use of our public lands when sited appropriately in areas screened for habitat and natural resource concerns.

What is missing: The Department of the Interior needs even more funding than previously requested to determine which renewable energy projects work, and where they can responsibly be sited. Currently, there are dozens of applications for projects waiting to be permitted. With increased funding, the department could work through this backlog and speed America’s transition to a clean energy economy.

What we are asking for: We support increased funding for renewable energy programs across the Interior Department, including the president’s request to fund BLM’s renewable energy program at no less than $29 million and increase funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service to review renewable energy projects on public lands.

Sage grouse conservation

Greater sage grouse. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The iconic greater sage grouse, known for its elaborate courtship ritual, is at-risk, as oil and gas drilling, road development and other activities have eaten into habitat and led to significant population declines. In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the bird warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.

What is missing: More than 9 million acres of sage grouse habitat have already been lost to development. Now, it is imperative that we protect the last remaining western grasslands that could support them.

What we are asking for: We support the White House’s $15 million request for the BLM’s National Greater Sage Grouse Planning Strategy. If successful, it would lead to recovery of this important western game species without the necessity of a listing under the Endangered Species Act.

BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System

California’s Fort Ord National Monument, which is part of the National Landscape Conservation System. Credit: Bob Wick (BLM California), flickr.

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) National Conservation Lands System is the newest branch of protected federal public lands, encompassing some 27 million acres of BLM’s most undisturbed wildlands, including national monuments, wilderness areas and other public lands. The National Conservation Lands receive about one-third of all visitors to BLM lands (despite representing only 10 percent of those lands). This introduces wear and tear to these areas and puts tremendous pressure on field offices to maintain road safety and monitor protection of archeological resources.

What is missing: Since their inception, the National Conservation Lands have been chronically underfunded. Additional funding is needed to meet basic maintenance and upkeep of sites like New Mexico’s Río Grande del Norte National Monument and Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

What we are asking for: We support the president’s recommendation of $66.5 million for fiscal year 2015 to ensure the continued protection and restoration of these public lands.

National Wildlife Refuge System

Florida manatees at Florida’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: David Hinkel (USFWS), flickr.

The 111-year-old network of national wildlife refuges established by President Theodore Roosevelt has more than 560 units, protecting (and in some cases restoring) about 150 million acres as habitat for thousands of species, many threatened or endangered. These refuges represent the best chance many Americans have of seeing rare wildlife in a natural setting.

What is missing: Recent hardships--exemplified by the cancellation of National Wildlife Refuge Week in 2013 due to the government shutdown, as well as chronic budget shortfalls--have only underscored the importance of these places for conservation and education. Even as wildlife refuges support thousands of jobs and contribute millions in tax revenue each year, they are increasingly operating under a strained budget, with a maintenance backlog of over $3 billion.

What we are asking for: Congress should support funding for the National Wildlife Refuge System at President Obama’s recommended $476.4 million.

National Forest roads and trails

A trail in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Credit: Gila National Forest USFS, flickr.

Roads in the National Forest System provide recreational access, a major economic driver to rural communities, and allow necessary transportation in support of every Forest Service program. Meanwhile, the National Forest System network of trails allows access to activities like cross-country skiing, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and off-road vehicle use to millions of visitors each year.

What is missing: Adequate funding for the U.S. Forest Service road system is needed to address public safety issues and the negative effects of roads on wildlife and water, and provide high-quality recreational access to the American public. Over the past four years, Forest Service roads funding has been cut by 30%. Additionally, the budget for forest trails maintenance and reconstruction has suffered recent cuts and faces a $500 million maintenance backlog. The Forest Service’s Legacy Roads and Trails Program (LRT), which pays for sustainable road and trail maintenance on National Forest System lands, was cut in half in fiscal year 2011 and was then cut further in 2014.

What we are asking for: We must restore LRT funding to $45 million within the Capital Improvement and Maintenance budget. It is also vital to fund Capital Improvement and Maintenance Roads at the running 10-year average of $207 million, and Capital Improvement and Maintenance Trails at $85 million, in fiscal year 2015.