How the Budget Bill Will Decimate Conservation

A Special Report by Bob Marshall, Conservation Editor

Unlike their counterparts at hard-line environmental groups, leaders of sportsmen’s conservation organizations tend to measure their words. They avoid hyperbole, don’t hyperventilate, and never hint that the sky is falling.

That changed when they got a look at the budget priorities unveiled recently by the House of Representatives. Now they’re all looking nervously at the sky and using words like disaster, eviscerate, and destroy.

The reason is “HR 1,” the GOP plan (it got no votes from Democrats) to begin reducing the nation’s budget deficit. It takes a deadly axe to fish, wildlife, and sportsmen’s programs while leaving unscathed habitat-consuming industries like oil and gas. In fact, many sections will not lower the deficit but simply take aim at environmental laws that polluting industries have opposed for years–laws that sportsmen’s groups support because of their ultimate impact on fish and wildlife habitat.

In sentiments echoed across the outdoors community, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said while sportsmen understand the critical need to reduce the deficit, they could not support this bill because it would “eviscerate funding for conservation programs critical to fish, wildlife and the future of outdoor recreation in America.”

Among the more odious features of the bill for sportsmen:

• Eliminate funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, which has contributed almost $872 million–and has leveraged private funds of more than $2.64 billion–to protect 25 million acres of wetlands critical to waterfowl. Ducks Unlimited leaders say this move could cripple waterfowl hunting.

• Reduce the Wetlands Reserve Program by 50,000 acres.

• Cut options for the Conservation Reserve Program, critical to upland birds, waterfowl and a whole other range of wildlife.

• Cut almost $400 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is composed of offshore oil lease royalties supposedly dedicated to wildlife habitat.

• Forbid the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing new guidelines for the Clean Water Act, which attempts to restore protections to 20 million acres of small wetlands and many of the nation’s streams–protections that were removed by Supreme Court rulings a few years back. This is just one of many features of the bill that have nothing to do with the deficit but just take aim at environmental rules opposed by major industries, such as energy and developers. Many of these features were actually added as riders.

• Forbid the EPA to enforce carbon-reduction regulations, the key greenhouse gas responsible for climate change, which wildlife officials say is the gravest threat to hunting and fishing–and which already is submerging key coastal estuaries along the Gulf Coast. The oil and power industries oppose the regulations.

• Gag and blind federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the subject of climate change by forbidding them from doing research and collecting data.

• Kill funding for the new BLM Wild Lands Policy, a hard-fought victory for sportsmen that reinstalled the agency’s mandate to study lands that might qualify for wilderness protection and be saved from energy development, something the Bush Administration had stripped. This is a key program to saving some of the most pristine pubic fishing and hunting acres left in the nation, but was also opposed by industry.

And that’s just for starters.

The depth of this assault on fish, wildlife and environmental quality took the sportsmen’s community by surprise. They expected a rough ride when last fall’s elections changed the political landscape in Washington, because many of the new GOP reps came with Tea Party backing and a single-minded mantra of cutting federal spending. But the cavalier approach to these programs was unexpected, because in many cases it will actually have a negative impact on the nation’s economy while harming fish, wildlife and sportsmen. The only beneficiaries in many cases are industries.

“The federal government spends about $5 billion a year in conservation programs that are essential to the habitat that supports hunting and fishing, but it gets back about $14 billion in direct tax payments from people who make their livings in those industries–and that’s a conservative estimate,” explained Dale Hall, Ducks Unlimited CEO and former Director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“This makes no sense. Yes, we need to cut, but we need to do it intelligently. And we have to look everywhere.”

Indeed, the long list of riders aimed strictly at environmental programs opposed by polluting industries has created an ominous feeling across the sportsmen’s conservation community. This majority will be in power for at least two years, and HR 1 only deals with what’s left of the current fiscal year. If this is their mission statement toward fish and wildlife, the first cut may not be the deepest.

That’s why groups like the TRCP are urging sportsmen to let their representatives know they’re not happy with the budget they passed, and to tell their senators–especially if they are Republicans–that they oppose these cuts. Find out how to contact your representatives and senators here. Read the letter from sportsmen’s groups to Congress objecting to proposed cuts here. See the National Wildlife Federation’s detailed list of conservation, fish, and wildlife programs targeted for cuts here.