Welcome to the House Committee on Natural Resources for the 110th Congress; this "week in review" diary is part of the Daily Kos Congressional Committees Project.
A hot topic last week for the House Committee on Natural Resources was the release of President Bush's FY08 budget for the Department of Interior. Among the budget topics Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (WV) addressed were National Parks funding, the new Healthy Lands Initiative, and aid for Native American communities.
The National Parks are working towards their centennial celebration, which will occur in 2016. Although the centennial is a long way off, the NPS has much work to do if the parks are to be presentable by then. In the FY08 budget, Bush attempted to move some much-needed money into the coffers of the NPS, in particular for the centennial celebration.
After release of President Bush's budget, the Department of Interior website boasted that:
Overall, the President's FY 2008 Parks budget, totaling nearly $2.4 billion, is the largest ever for park operations, and includes the highest increase ever in parks operations funding...The initiative will leverage public-private investment to generate up to $3 billion over 10 years to help parks prepare for their 100th anniversary in 2016.
But Chairman Rahall pointed out in a press release that -- not surprisingly -- there is much deception in Bush's budget proposal for the parks:
As the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary approaches, the Interior Department has proposed the creation of three new $100 million components of a National Park’s Centennial Initiative "...to prepare parks for another century of conservation, preservation, and enjoyment." However, only $100 million has been committed by the President’s budget.
"The rest of the funding is just an illusion conjured by this Administration," Rahall said.
The budget assumes passage of legislation to create a new mandatory spending program that would make up to $100 million available, but only if matched dollar-for-dollar by donations from the public. Additionally, the "new" funding is largely the result of shifting funds from existing important park programs, such as construction, into a new budget column with a new label.
"While many Americans value the role of private philanthropy in supporting our National Park System, the Administration’s increasing reliance on the private sector in this capacity is troubling. Our National Parks are national treasures – and their funding is a national responsibility," said Rahall.
What the Department of Interior website did not publicize is that last year the Bush administration privately communicated with the national park managers that they should prepare plans for a 20-30% cut in appropriations and "whatever shortfalls in support for essential operations that remain must be made up for with fee hikes, cost shifting or increased reliance on volunteers." This clandestine effort was reported by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in April of 2006.
The withdrawal of federal appropriations for public lands and reliance on private money and citizen volunteers is not new for President Bush. In the National Wildlife Refuge System, Bush is currently forcing the US Fish and Wildlife Service to cut 20% of the staff in every region of the Refuge System, while his administration has been encouraging volunteers to make up the difference in manpower. Already 40,000 Americans volunteer at our nation's refuges, and if Bush has his way, our national wildlife refuges will receive almost no federal money and be run by non-paid volunteers with little or no wildlife and land-use management training.
In the FY08 budget, Bush gave the National Wildlife Refuge System a meager 3.3% increase, which still leaves the Refuge System more than $55 million behind the inflation-adjusted 2004 funding level. At this time, refuges are making plans to reduce environmental education for schoolchildren, biological monitoring, invasive species eradication, hunting and fishing access, and law enforcement. Some refuges are being de-staffed completely and may close to the public entirely.
Healthy Lands Initiative
"Healthy Lands" -- sounds familiar, doesn't it? Remember that Bush has already tried to push his business-friendly "Healthy Skies" and "Healthy Forests" initiatives, both of which were revealed to be corporate-written, anti-environmental programs. Well, now he has a new initiative for the always beleaguered Bureau of Land Management, and it's called the Healthy Lands Initiative.
Chairman Rahall provided the necessary realism in his press release:
The FY 2008 budget also envisions a Healthy Lands Initiative under the Bureau of Land Management to address the growing conflict between oil and gas development on public lands with other uses, such as grazing, hunting and fishing. Responsible management of these land resources, wildlife and recreational opportunities have either been flat-funded or cut, while the President has proposed promoting oil and gas development activities by 30 percent over the last two years.
"It is heartening to see that the Bush Administration recognizes it has a problem in these areas," Rahall said. "It’s like the ‘Five Stages of Grief.’ Our parks are crumbling and our public lands are under assault, so at least the establishment of these initiatives tells us the Administration is now beyond the stage of denial."
"But funds for these initiatives would be much wiser spent if reflected in the accounts for the operation and maintenance of our National Parks and to more aggressively enforce oil and gas lease stipulations," Rahall said.
Chairman Rahall was also disappointed with President Bush's FY08 budget for Native Americans. Rahall stated the following:
"Founded on treaties and a trust responsibility between Native Americans and the U.S. government, our relationship with Indian Country is one we have to honor and respect," said Rahall.
"Yet, funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been on a downward spiral under this Administration – decreasing by $50 million since FY 2006, while at the same time military spending is increasing dramatically. Instead of escalating funding in foreign lands, I would much rather see an escalation of resources for the health and safety of our first citizens."
Chairman Rahall's press release also detailed the cuts:
While 40 percent of American Indians are currently underhoused, the Bush Administration has terminated the Housing Improvement Program – a vital initiative that provides native families with money to repair a leaky roof, or provide heat and electricity for their loved ones. Sanitation funding has also been slashed in the President’s budget, failing to take into account the long-standing backlog of needs for basic sanitation facilities and clean drinking water.
Compounding this is the fact the latest budget proposal fails to make a financial commitment to improving the state of native health care. Nearly 70 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in urban areas – yet the President has once again zeroed out funding for the Urban Indian Health Program, which will leave many with no access to essential health care services.
President Bush's budget did propose a new Safe Indian Communities Initiative, which will address methamphetamine abuse in Native American communities by increasing law enforcement, providing improved training to halt production and distribution of the drug, and raising the level of staffing for detention centers. But Bush provided no money for treatment or rehabilitation. Chairman Rahall also objected to the low funding provided:
"While certainly a laudable undertaking, the President’s budget allocates only $16 million to do the job! While it seems to realize there is a problem that needs attention, it is clear that this Administration cannot bring itself to do the work to fully address it."
Additional cuts included in the Dept. of Interior budget were:
- Land and Water Conservation Fund -- cut of more than 30%
- Endangered Species Recovery program -- cut of 7.5%
- Landowner Incentive and Private Stewardship Grants to protect endangered species -- cut $29 million, which will abolish the program
As we can see, much is riding on the Democrats ability to correct this highly flawed budget.