Congress Just Ignored Trump’s Public-Land Cuts

Lawmakers didn't listen to the president’s call for less spending on land management and the environment—and put their foot down when it came to interior secretary Ryan Zinke’s reorganization plan, too

Donald Trump arrives at the White House after traveling to Southern California and St. Louis. March 14, 2018 (Getty Images)

Public-land advocates received a valuable civics lesson this week: the president can talk all he wants about budget cuts, but it’s Congress that decides where the money goes. Many of President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to public-land spending were nowhere to be seen in the bill Congress agreed to on Friday. In total, the budget for federal environmental and public-land agencies is up $3 billion over last year.

Here are the highlights for public-land users.

Interior’s Funded

Every major agency within the Department of the Interior received more money than Trump and interior secretary Ryan Zinke asked for. The Bureau of Land Management’s $1.3 billion budget is $200 million above Trump’s request, while the $3.2 billion set aside for the National Park Service is a $634 million jump. Tucked into the NPS budget is $175 million for the construction and maintenance backlog. (That’s still a far cry from the $12 billion it needs, but it’s a start.)

“The funding bill will provide a major boost for important road, bridge, and trail repair projects and for fixing historic sites,” Kristen Brengel, vice president for government affairs with the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement. “This is a necessary investment with broad returns, and we hope this trend continues in next year’s bill.”

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, used to purchase acreage that enhances outdoor recreation, received a $25 million boost over last year, to $425 million. 

No More “Fire Borrowing”

In recent years, megafires have burned through budgets as though they were stands of beetle-killed pine. So consider this the breakthrough development of the spending bill, one with pretty wide bipartisan support: a total of $3.8 billion has been allocated to fighting wildfires, a $500 million increase over last year. Another major improvement from Congress allows firefighting agencies to tap a disaster fund during over-budget fire seasons.

“In the wake of last year’s devastating megafires, today’s agreement is an absolutely essential step toward reducing fire threats and improving the safety of local communities,” Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement.

The relief program, however, doesn’t kick in until 2020.

Hands Off Alaska’s Tongass

Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski used last year’s tax cut to open up drilling in Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, but she had no luck with riders this time around. Proposals to exempt Alaska from the so-called Roadless Rule, which prevents construction on some national forest lands, were defeated. The rule has helped keep logging companies out of old-growth forests, and especially the Tongass National Forest, and environmental groups cheered the move.

“We are pleased by the rejection of provisions—pushed by Senator Murkowski—to undermine the National Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which would have allowed unnecessary road building and logging of old-growth trees in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska,” the Wilderness Society’s Drew McConville said in a statement.

DOI 2.0 Is Delayed 

If the secretary of the interior’s massive reorganization plan does happen, it all but certainly won’t be aligned by watershed, as Zinke originally proposed. A House committee report on the funding bill makes clear that “no agency shall implement any part of a reorganization that modifies regional or State boundaries” without congressional blessing. In other words, Congress isn’t going to just sign off on Zinke’s reshuffling.

Another endorsement of collaboration came on the sage grouse front. Interior was allocated $60 million for sage grouse conservation, and appropriators insisted that the BLM “continue working with States and other interested entities on the existing sage-grouse conservation plans.” The directive throws cold water on Zinke’s bid to rework the landmark 11-state conservation plan established under the Obama administration.

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