Congress must reinvest in conservation and resist bad riders

Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) has been the beneficiary of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Credit: Simon, flickr.

Congress should save itself the headache and refrain from further complicating the budget process with damaging anti-environmental riders.

It’s only April, but Congress already has less than 80 legislative days left in which to pass a budget for the coming fiscal year, which starts on October 1st. The congressional calendar is truncated due to the upcoming election, making it much tougher for Congress to pass spending bills before current funding runs out on September 30th.

Congress should save itself the headache and refrain from further complicating the budget process with damaging anti-environmental riders.

What’s a Rider?

What are riders? That’s the inside-the-beltway term for amendments or policy provisions that are tacked onto bills to which they are otherwise unrelated. In recent years, the federal budget process has been severely hampered by attempts to include highly controversial anti-conservation riders. Because spending bills are considered “must pass” – because without them the government would shut down – they are irresistible targets for all sorts of untenable proposals which could never pass through Congress under their own weight.

"Now is the time for Congress to reinvest in conservation ... and abandon the pursuit of controversial anti-environmental riders."

In the past few budget cycles this unacceptable hail-Mary approach to legislating has been used to attack everything from the President’s authority to designate national monuments, to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) – America’s most successful conservation program – to bedrock environmental laws like the Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Senator Murkowski of Alaska, for example, has consistently used her position as chair of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Committee to attempt to include a rider which would authorize a road through the Izembek Wilderness; if passed it would establish a terrible precedent that would put wildlife refuges and wilderness areas everywhere at risk.

In other words, riders are essentially a last ditch effort to get pet projects to the President’s desk. These pet projects used to be called earmarks, but earmarks were eventually banned after substantial public opposition made them politically toxic. Well, riders are the new earmarks. And they’re no less insidious and destructive to an already difficult legislative climate in Washington.

Shortchanging Our Public Lands

Conservation and our public lands have suffered from chronic underfunding for years, and controversial anti-conservation riders will only ensure this trend continues. In recent years these funding shortages have been due in large part to something known as sequestration. Sequestration imposed caps on the total amount the federal government can spend every year. But, last year Congress reached a deal to temporarily lift these caps and begin restoring much needed funding for all aspects of the federal government.

Conservation programs stand to benefit substantially from the agreement to increase spending levels. However, if riders are included in spending bills it will be difficult to impossible for them to pass through Congress. That would mean critical conservation programs, like LWCF, the BLM National Conservation Lands and the Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails program, would be shortchanged yet again.

Dear Congress:  HELP!

Our land management agencies need more resources to get back on track. It’s important to remember that merely one percent of the federal budget goes to conservation of our nation’s parks and wild places – which received more than 300 million visits last year.  

The relatively miniscule federal investments in conservation yield enormous dividends for our national economy. The funds help keep our public lands healthy, well-maintained and open to all Americans. Our public lands promote exercise and public health, protect wildlife habitat, provide clean air and water and help local economies and gateway communities all across the country benefit from the more than $646 billion outdoor recreation economy.  

Now is the time for Congress to reinvest in conservation, because it’s so clearly a win-win for the environment and the economy. In order to make these prudent investments Congress must abandon the perilous pursuit of controversial anti-environmental riders.