Today, President Barack Obama released his fiscal year 2016 budget request to Congress. The president’s call for doing away with sequestration and increasing spending by $74 billion would provide a welcome investment in sportsmen’s conservation priorities. But the president’s budget request is just that – a request to a GOP-led Congress that will assuredly trim his proposals substantially.
Yet the president’s emphasis on increased investment in conservation programs represents a positive start to the federal budget process and certainly suggests an increased urgency by the administration to contribute more toward natural resource conservation. While a complete rollback of sequestration cuts is unlikely, these proposals enable us to see the reference points in the debate between the administration and Congress.
Many of the TRCP’s priorities received level funding or sizeable increases in the president’s budget request:
- The North American Wetlands Conservation Act received $34 million, level funding for FY16.
- The Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that has historically been raided by Congress, received full funding – $900 million – for the coming fiscal year.
- The State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program received $70 million, an approximate $12 million increase from FY15.
- WaterSMART, a program that invests in collaborative efforts to better manage watersheds and preserve water for instream flow and wildlife habitat, received $58 million, a $7.5 million increase.
An additional $78 million was provided for the conservation of sage steppe landscapes. This funding will be critical in joint state/federal efforts to prevent the listing of the sage grouse and reverse declines in other game species like mule deer.
The U.S. Forest Service would receive an increase of $30 million for the road and trail maintenance backlog, thereby helping provide public access to public lands. The budget would create a new pilot program, called the Integrated Resource Restoration Program, to address urgently needed road decommissioning, trail repair and removal of fish passage barriers, especially in areas where Forest Service roads may contribute to water quality problems in streams and water bodies. Decommissioned roads often cause blowouts and prevent access to the most popular recreation sites. This program is important for both sportsmen’s access and habitat restoration and enhancement. The budget also prioritizes “the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) to foster collaborative, science-based restoration on priority forest landscapes across the Nation.” The CFLRP would support jobs, provide a reliable wood supply, restore forest health and reduce the costs of fire suppression.
In addition, the president’s budget includes a vital provision to end wildfire borrowing. This reflects stipulations in the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, legislation re-introduced in Congress this year that would classify the most extreme wildfires as natural disasters, enabling the use of federal emergency dollars to fund their suppression. This provision calls for wildfires whose suppression costs exceed 70 percent of the 10-year suppression cost average to be funded similarly to other natural disasters, restoring upwards of $400 million to the U.S. Forest Service budget. The TRCP strongly supports this bill.
Unfortunately, the president’s budget request would compound the injury Congress inflicted when it cut $402 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Stewardship Program in last year’s “CRomnibus” funding bill. The president’s budget would cut the CSP by $54 million annually beginning in 2017, or $486 million over the next 10 years. Thankfully however, two priority programs at USDA would be well funded by the president: the celebrated new Regional Conservation Partnership Program would receive $330 million; the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which encourages private land owners to voluntarily open their land to hunters and anglers, has retained $40 million through 2018 as authorized by the Farm Bill.
Sportsmen should consider this budget a victory and sign of renewed interest by the president in conservation investments. This is only the beginning of the debate. Congress will rightly scrutinize the president’s budget request and advance its own plan. As Congress begins this process, the TRCP is ready to make the case that conservation is always a good investment.