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APPROPRIATIONS:Simpson makes good on threat to zero out conservation programs

Phil Taylor
E&E reporter
Last April, the chairman of the House subcommittee that funds the Interior Department and Forest Service warned outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that some of his favored conservation program might be slashed to meet draconian spending cuts.
“Do we come to the point where we say there are just some things we’re not going to do, and eliminate them, and at least concentrate on the parts that we do well?” Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson said at that hearing (E&E Daily, April 12). “That’s a tough choice.”
Now — more than three months later — the Idaho Republican has made good on that threat.
Simpson’s subcommittee yesterday approved a $24.3 billion fiscal 2014 spending bill that for the first time zeroes out the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, state wildlife grants and the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, among other programs.
“Funding reductions and, yes, even terminations of some programs are necessary in order to provide critical funding for higher-priority human health, public safety and treaty obligations and responsibilities,” an uncharacteristically somber Simpson said during a subcommittee markup of the bill Tuesday (Greenwire, July 23).
“I fully expect to take a lot of heat over these decisions, but my intent is to show what happens when Congress allows mandatory spending to grow and grow, and places the burden of cutting spending solely on the discretionary side,” Simpson said. “It’s an unsustainable pattern that must be addressed, and soon.”
Simpson told reporters in a brief interview off the House floor that his subcommittee’s work — and the appropriations process in general — was being overshadowed by the larger conflict over how to manage the federal deficit.
The cuts to programs like LWCF, which allows for the acquisition of new federal lands, conservation easements on private lands and grants for states to promote urban recreation, were particularly painful for Simpson, who has broken from Republican ranks to support the Obama administration’s call for full funding for the program.
It’s “something that I don’t particularly like, but that was necessary,” he said during the markup.
While House appropriators have cut conservation programs to bare bones in recent appropriations cycles, Democrats, environmental groups and sportsmen said the decision to zero out many of those programs sets a new precedent for the chamber.
Virginia Rep. Jim Moran, the subcommittee’s top Democrat, acknowledged that some of those cuts were unavoidable, considering that Simpson was given a funding allocation more than $5 billion beneath current spending levels.
In addition, Simpson faced pressure to significantly boost wildfire prevention and response — base and emergency wildfire funding is $559 million, or 16 percent, above the fiscal 2013 enacted level — in addition to providing close to half a billion dollars for payments in lieu of taxes, whose mandatory funding expires this year.
But Moran did not hide his frustration that the bill — by his count — eliminates funding for 20 programs while boosting funding for oil and gas development and offering regulatory relief to “the polluters, the grazers [and] the snowmobilers.”
Other programs include Fish and Wildlife Service construction, Forest Service planning, U.S. EPA brownfields and American Indian and memorials programs, according to a listcompiled by Moran’s office.
“This bill is a disgrace,” he said before leaving the markup in protest.
Simpson, who faces a tough primary challenger next year backed by the influential Club for Growth, said in a statement later that he had to distinguish “critical ‘must-do’ priorities,” such as funding American Indian programs, county payments and wildfire funding, from “those that are nice or even very important.”
The House bill, which Simpson predicted would be marked up by the full Appropriations Committee next Wednesday, is not expected to become law.
The discrepancy in overall funding levels between the House and Senate — in addition to a bevy of policy riders in Simpson’s bill — suggests the Congress will again pass a continuing resolution keeping the government funded at current levels.
‘Tough and ugly’
But sportsmen’s and conservation groups said they remained deeply troubled at the signal the House was sending in eliminating programs outright.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Paul Schmidt, chief conservation officer for Ducks Unlimited. “They’ve had some ups and downs, but never that low. You can’t get lower than zero.”
Ducks Unlimited is a leading proponent of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, a program that typically leverages $3 or $4 for every federal dollar to promote the restoration and acquisition of wetlands that provide habitat for waterfowl and flood control and erosion benefits to communities, Schmidt said.
The program is currently funded at roughly $33 million and is capped at $75 million, he said.
The bill also zeroes out funding for state and tribal wildlife grants, he noted. Currently funded at about $60 million, the grants assist states in conserving habitat in order to prevent non-game species from being listed under the Endangered Species Act, such as the wide-ranging greater sage-grouse, Schmidt said.
Miles Moretti, president of the Mule Deer Foundation, said eliminating LWCF funding will strand the $900 million that is set aside each year from offshore oil and gas drilling revenues.
“Americans expect offshore oil and gas revenues to go where they were told they would go: protecting working lands, expanding outdoor recreation opportunities, and conserving public land access for future generations,” he said in a statement.
One former House Appropriations Committee aide said he recalled only one time when Congress provided LWCF funding only for agency staff to complete existing projects and land exchanges. He said Congress has never zeroed out the program entirely.
At the end of the hearing, Simpson said critics have neglected the “tough and ugly” funding cuts state legislators have already made all over the country to balance their own budgets in slim fiscal times.
“But we act here like because we’ve got a printing press, we are exempt from making those tough decisions,” he said. “We’re not exempt. We’re $17 trillion in debt.”