Last week, The Nature Conservancy made a difficult and unprecedented decision—we expressed our opposition to passage of the Interior Appropriations Bill for the Fiscal 2012 Federal budget when it comes before the full House later this month. Taking this step demonstrates the crisis facing conservation in our country; as well as the Conservancy’s evolution as a significant voice in the public debate about the future of America’s land, air and water.

Why did we do this, and, is our action consistent with The Nature Conservancy’s approach to legislative advocacy?

In the past the appropriations for land and water conservation have gone up and down, and while there have been some lean times, conservation has been accepted and funded as an important part of shaping America’s future. The Interior Appropriations Bill provides funding for several of the agencies most important to accomplishing The Nature Conservancy’s mission—the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency – and for many years we have been involved in the process because that’s where decisions are made about funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and other sources of money for conservation land acquisition.

More recently our interests in this part of the Federal budget have broadened as we have focused on improving fire management by the Forest Service, on programs to help private landowners manage habitat for listed species on their land, and as we have engaged in the restoration of large aquatic systems like the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.

So the Conservancy has always supported passage by the full House of the Interior budget proposal that emerged from the appropriations process.

But this year is different. While the Chair of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee remains, I believe, a solid supporter of America’s conservation tradition, he has been given inadequate funding to work with, so the budget reported out of the subcommittee and approved by the full Appropriations Committee of the House included very deep cuts to programs of critical importance to The Nature Conservancy and to other conservation organizations.

The Interior Appropriations Bill going to the House floor would reduce funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the lowest level in the 45 year history of the program, $66 million–a 78% reduction from the FY11. It would reduce the highly successful Forest Legacy Program by 94%, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act by 47% the Cooperative Endangered Species Program by 95%, and the State and Tribal Wildlife Grant Program by 65% from 2010. These cuts threaten to put an end to longstanding conservation activities with a proven and tangible record of success.

Moreover, the bill contains riders (legislative add-ons) that prohibit EPA from reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and refineries, prohibit EPA from protecting all of the waters of the United States from pollution, and prevent the Department of Interior from protecting threatened and endangered species.

In anticipation of these drastic cuts, the Conservancy has spent months trying to convey a clear message: while the deficit must be addressed and conservation should shoulder its fair share of budget reductions, conservation and the environment should not be cut disproportionately. The deficit should not be used as an excuse to decimate the conservation programs so essential to America’s future. Three weeks ago we signed a letter to budget negotiators with 400 other organizations that pointed out that conservation and environmental programs together account for 1.26% of the Federal budget and have remained almost flat for 30 years while the rest of the Federal budget grew rapidly. Conservation, the letter said, did not cause the deficit and cannot fix the deficit.

But the results of the House Interior Appropriations process are still very damaging to conservation and the environment. So we were faced with the questions: should we still support or, at least, remain silent about, the final bill, or should we, for the first time in our 60 year history, express opposition? It came down to two tests set out in the Conservancy’s policies:

  • Is this bill central to the success of our mission?
  • Can we make a difference in the outcome?

There is little doubt about the first question. Funding for land conservation, for the restoration of forests and estuaries, to protect wetlands and to deal with climate change is critical to protecting the lands and waters plants and animals need to survive and to sustaining the human benefits of natural systems.

Answering the second question with certainty is more difficult, but as America’s largest conservation organization with a reputation for being measured, non-partisan, place-based, and constructive, one would hope that Congress would listen when we register unprecedented concern.

Mark Tercek’s letter to the leadership of the House says that conservation should do its fair share in the budget cutting and offers the Conservancy’s help in making conservation by Federal agencies more efficient and effective, but it makes clear that we believe the Interior Appropriations Bill now before the House is a breach in the obligation of each generation of Americans to pass on an America whose land and water are clean, healthy, productive, beautiful and accessible for recreation in the outdoors.

While some will disagree with our position, I expect that both supporters and opponents will respect The Nature Conservancy more for standing up for our beliefs at a critical time in our nation’s conservation history.

(Image: Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary. Image credit: Jerry and Marcy Monkman)

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