Conservation Did Not Cause, Will Not Fix Budget Deficit

Written by Robert Bendick on . Posted in Act, Learn, The Wonk Room

This was previously published by the National Journal.

All of the conservation and environmental activities of the Federal government amount to just 1.26% of the budget. In real dollars, total funding for the environment and conservation has been almost flat for 30 years. Conservation did not cause the budget deficit and cutting conservation cannot fix the deficit.

Yet the Interior Appropriations Bill now going before the full House contains just the latest in a series of deep cuts to environmental and conservation programs that, along with legislative riders, threaten to reverse this country’s 100 year tradition of conservation and environmental progress.

My organization, The Nature Conservancy, is dedicated to finding constructive and cooperative strategies for the conservation of the natural resources and natural habitat so important to the welfare of people in the U.S. and around the world. We have long provided ideas and input to the Interior and other appropriation bills. We understand the budget crisis facing this country. We believe that all Federal programs, including conservation programs, should share a fair proportion of the spending reductions needed to address the deficit, but the cuts proposed in the Interior Bill (and in other appropriations legislation) are far from proportional.

For example, the Interior Appropriations Bill, as it passed out of the full Appropriations Committee, would reduce funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the lowest level in the 45-year history of the program, $66 million – a 78% reduction from the FY 2011. It would reduce the highly successful Forest Legacy Program by 94%, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act by 47%, the Cooperative Endangered Species Program by 95% and the State and Tribal Wildlife Grant Program by 65% from FY 2011, and it would make deep reductions to the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes restoration programs.

Moreover, the Interior bill contains a long list of riders, including those that prohibit EPA from reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and refineries, prohibit EPA from protecting all of the waters of the United States from pollution, and prevent the Department of the Interior from protecting threatened and endangered species.

While the leadership of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee faced daunting challenges in constructing a bill with very limited resources, and we recognize some positive elements of the bill, such as support for forest restoration, for the first time in the 60-year history of the Conservancy, we saw little choice but to oppose the Interior Appropriations Bill as it is currently written.

The disproportionate cuts to the whole range of natural resource and conservation programs and legislative riders are puzzling because they seem to ignore the importance of conservation and natural resources to the country’s economy, the services provided to people by natural systems, and the ongoing support for conservation by the American people:

Natural resources were the foundation upon which American prosperity was built and still have a big impact on our economic health. Farms provide about 24 million jobs in the United States. Forest industry accounts for approximately 5 percent of the total U.S. manufacturing GDP, produces about $175 billion in products annually, and employs nearly 900,000 people. Commercial fishing supports one million full- and part-time jobs and generates $116 billion in revenue. Hunting, angling and other recreational activities dependent on wildlife contribute $122 billion annually to our national economy.

In the Mississippi floods this spring, the undeveloped floodplain of the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana effectively accommodated flood waters that otherwise might have inundated Baton Rouge and New Orleans. And in an area of investment that is recognized in the proposed Interior budget, forest thinning saved communities from catastrophic damage from the recent fires in Arizona.

A broad range of Americans still believe strongly in the value of conservation. A month ago, The Nature Conservancy signed onto letters with 400 other forest, farm, hunting and fishing, and recreation and conservation organizations making the case for reasonable funding for conservation and the environment.

And despite these hard economic times, public opinion polls continue to show support for conservation. A poll last spring sponsored by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Program and done by a team of Republican and Democratic pollsters reveals that, among voters in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico:
• Only 11% of voters say environmental laws are too strict while 66% say they should be strengthened or better enforced
• 87% believe having clean water, clean air, natural areas and wildlife is extremely or very important to the quality of life in their state
• 84% agree that even with state budget problems, we should still find money to protect land, water, and wildlife
• 70% consider themselves “conservationists,” and that figure holds for those who identify themselves as Tea Party members
• And 77% feel that we can protect land and water and have a strong economy

There is, finally, a sad irony in all this. In recent years, the most significant trend in conservation has been a bi-partisan recognition that diverse interests can work together to conserve the human and ecological benefits of large areas like the Blackfoot Valley in Montana, the Hudson Valley in New York, the Northern Sierra in California and the Great Lakes. Hunters and anglers are working more effectively than ever with private landowners to protect fish and wildlife habitat. The programs of the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill are demonstrating how the right incentives can improve farm practices and take land unsuitable for cultivation out of production. Innovative developers and corporations have seen how cooperative planning can produce more rapid approvals and a cleaner environment. It is just this new generation of hopeful, constructive, and cooperative conservation and environmental initiatives that will be damaged most by the deep budget cutting and altered regulatory regimes contained in the bill now before the House – moving us back to an era of un-necessary environmental conflict.

While we don’t want to leave it to our children and grandchildren to deal with the budget deficit, neither do we want to leave them a deficit in the stewardship of the air, land and water upon which all our lives depend. Addressing one problem while creating another would be a tragic mistake.

To speak up on this important issue, please visit the Conservancy’s Use Your Outside Voice page, and tell Congress that the protection of our lands and waters is important.

Robert Bendick is director of U.S. government relations at The Nature Conservancy

Photo by: Erika Nortemann/TNC (Children enjoy a beautiful spring afternoon on a farm in Lithonia, Georgia)

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