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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Conservation Funding on Chopping Block

Air Date: Week of

As Washington seeks ways to shrink the national debt, Republicans propose deep cuts to public lands programs. A House bill for next year's budget would drain funding for new land purchases, and a five-year plan would cut funding for all natural resources and environment programs by more than 40 percent. Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Mitra Taj reports on concerns that spending cuts could leave the country with a nature deficit.


YOUNG: Washington is mired in negotiations over the national debt. Nearly everything is on the table when it comes to spending cuts. As fiscal-conservatism dominates the debate, some fear environmental-conservation will be sacrificed. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj explains how this might play out on our public lands.

TAJ: To get a feel for Republican spending priorities on the environment consider the recent markup of a House spending bill for 2012


TAJ: The bill would cut EPA funding 18 percent, and keep the agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. That's no real surprise -- Republicans have vowed to limit the EPA’s power since winning a majority of House seats last year. More surprising are deep budget cuts to popular public land programs, like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses oil and gas royalties to provide matching grants for conservation projects —cut 80 percent. Or a federal program that encourages voluntary efforts to keep species from becoming endangered — cut 95 percent. Overall, funding for new land acquisition is drained. This year the President asked for $900 million to help establish public lands. Instead:

SIMPSON: We fund it at $62 million in this bill to complete land acquisitions currently under consideration. While I would personally like to see more funding, the problem is, we just don’t have the money.

Congressman Mike Simpson chairs the House Appropriations Committee Mark-up. (Photo: U.S. House of Representatives)

TAJ: Mike Simpson, the Republican chair of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, easily pushed the spending through the full appropriations panel dominated by his party, but not without a fight from Democrats like Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia.

MORAN: This bill is too short on needed funds, and too long on anti-environmental riders. It’s not so much a spending bill as a wish list for special interests.

TAJ: Moran opposed many of the couple dozen riders that were voted onto the bill, like one that would open land around the Grand Canyon to new uranium mining.


TAJ: While committee members voted on amendment after amendment, the ghost of President Teddy Roosevelt lingered in the halls outside the meeting room, in the form of Roosevelt impersonator Joe Weigand, sent by Pew Environment Group as a reminder of the Republican Party’s conservationist roots.

WEIGAND: A century ago I said, “Do nothing to the Grand Canyon - that man can only mar it,” and I think we see that uranium mining is just the sort of marring of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River of which I spoke.

TAJ: Marring of the nation’s wetlands might also result. The bill takes a 60 percent cut to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, which provides matching grants to preserve the habitat of migrating birds. Mary Pope Hudson is a council member of the fund. She says healthy wetlands are important economic drivers:

HUDSON: The 1.8 billion dollars in federal funds over the past 20 years has added about 3.5 billion in additional economic activity. You know, waterfowl hunting has generated 2.3 billion in total economic output, birding is a significant portion creating close to 700,000 jobs.

TAJ: But tough economic times call for tough decisions, says Chairman Mike Simpson of Idaho:

SIMPSON: I wish we had more money to spend on a variety of programs that I, and other members, believe are important. I also wish we didn't have a 1.6 trillion dollar deficit this year. I wish the economy were booming and the unemployment was something you only read about in history books. Unfortunately, wishing does not make it so.

TAJ: Proposed cuts to conservation funding now could foreshadow cuts in years to come. Debt negotiations behind closed doors between Republican leaders and the President could lock Congress into a funding pattern for the next ten years. Bob Bendick is the legislative director of The Nature Conservancy:

BENDICK: We hope those negotiators, somewhere in the back of their mind, keep in mind that conservation is an important part of the future of America.

TAJ: Bendick says deep cuts in conservation could leave the country with a nature deficit.

BENDICK: It certainly means that some land that everybody agrees ought to be public, will never be purchased. Shorelines that could be places for the public to go and enjoy will be condominiums. I don’t want to leave my grandchildren a big bill to pay, but I also want to leave them a nation with clean water and clean air, really the basis for our survival.

TAJ: Spending on natural resources and the environment might make up just 1 percent of the federal budget now, but spending is spending, and the Republican proposal to reduce the deficit over the long-term, would cut that by 43 percent in the next five years. At a recent event at the National Press Club, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, called on Obama to defend conservation.

BABBITT: It's clear to me now that the House of Representatives will not only block progress, but will continue to sustain this assault on our public lands and water. Therefore, it's imperative that President Obama take up the mantle of land and water conservation – something that he has not yet done in a significant way.

TAJ: The House will vote on the Interior and Environment spending bill later this summer, as negotiators try to wring out an agreement on the debt ceiling by August 2nd. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.



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