What would a 16-percent cut in federal funding do to your family’s favorite fishing hole? If Congress has its way, we’re going to find out. A House and Senate Conference Committee just released their budget for fiscal year 2016, in which funding for conservation would be cut back to 2006 levels. Accounting for inflation, this amounts to a funding cut of over 16%. A vote on the resolution could come as early as today in the House.
For hunters and anglers, this would mean 16 percent fewer dollars for public access projects, habitat improvements, road and trail maintenance, invasive species control, and hazardous fuels reduction.
Sportsmen have a long history of investing in conservation through our license fees, excise taxes, and sweat equity. Congress, on the other hand, spends just one percent of its budget on conservation. That’s down from two percent in the late 1970s. Clearly, federal spending on conservation didn’t cause our deficit problems, and cutting conservation won’t solve our deficits either. In fact, completely eliminating all federal spending on conservation would reduce the anticipated 2016 deficit by less than 9 percent, but Congress would still be putting about $360 billion on the annual credit card.
Conservation is one of the best investments the federal government can make. Our public lands, clean water, wetlands, and marine fish stocks drive $646 billion in consumer spending on outdoor recreation each year. To put that in perspective, Americans spend only half that amount on pharmaceuticals.
In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt said, “We are prone to speak of the resources of this country as inexhaustible; this is not so.” Congress’s budget may take us back to 2006 in terms of funding for conservation, but in terms of mindset it takes our country much further back, to the pillaging of our natural resources that Theodore Roosevelt railed against. The 20th century was unique in human history, because it saw a society flourish both economically and ecologically. Wild turkeys, bald eagles, and elk all bounced back from dwindling numbers at the beginning of the 1900s. And, to paraphrase Bill Ruckleshaus, all our rivers may not be fishable and swimmable, but at least they are no longer flammable. This double-bottom-line growth was achieved on the backs of wise policies put in place by Theodore Roosevelt and successive leaders, who knew that sustained economic growth required sustained investments in the natural resources of our country.
There are wise leaders in Congress today who care about conservation. Just two weeks ago, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership honored two of them—Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Senator Patty Murray of Washington—for their years of bipartisan work to steward the resources of our country, at our annual Capital Conservation Awards Dinner. We need them and other lawmakers of their caliber more than ever.
Congress’s budget isn’t the final word on conservation funding—legislators must still pass annual appropriations bills, which write the checks for various programs and agencies. Our leaders need to come together on a fiscal deal that avoids sequestration, invests in programs that have proven bang-for-their-buck, and gives certainty to the American economy—that includes ensuring that the great American outdoors remains a viable infrastructure for our hunting and fishing traditions, which have been proven to drive the economy.
Who will lead? Who will pick up the big stick for conservation?