All natural resource programs of the U.S. government amount to a little more than 1% of the Federal budget. This proportion has declined sharply over the last 30 years because funding for natural resources and the environment has been level during that time while other government spending has increased dramatically. So conservation programs did not cause the deficit and cutting conservation programs can’t fix the deficit.
Yet this past year of budget cutting has revealed that America’s natural resource funding is, for some in Congress, a target for deep cuts. Will these programs be cut even more in the Budget Control Act process?
While conservation should shoulder its fair share of budget reductions, the kind of drastic cuts to natural resource programs we saw in the debate over the FY 11 budget (like the attempt to zero out the North American Wetlands Conservation Act) are not proportional and represent a frightening departure from America’s longstanding, wise and highly successful conservation tradition.
So we could wring our hands about the bad things the Super Committee might do, but it is more useful to consider the remarkable opportunity before that committee to put forward a long term vision for funding natural resource and environmental programs — an approach that could allow us to actually do a better job as stewards for our nation’s land and water. Here’s how this could happen:
- The Super Committee is supposed to think ahead 10 years. Having worked at on-the-ground land and water conservation and restoration projects around the U.S. for more than 30 years, my experience suggests that there is nothing so helpful as reliable funding over time to allow conservation to move forward with sound planning, thorough involvement of citizens, fair dealing with landowners, and figuring out how to make every conservation dollar count. The Committee could set out a long term environmental investment strategy and projected funding levels for programs like the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the large scale restoration programs of the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and NOAA (for places such as the Great Lakes, Puget Sound, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Everglades) and then let Federal agencies, state and local governments, non-profits and private landowners figure out how to spend that money as creatively and cost-effectively as possible. Compared to the on again/off again budgeting process we often use today, this long range funding approach can make Federal natural resource agencies more efficient. And long-term partnerships with other levels of government and the private sector can leverage federal investments by adding money from other sources to conservation and environmental initiatives.
- The Super Committee could also figure out a way for America to pay for a big piece of such programs by dedicating revenues from the use of public natural resources to protecting, managing and restoring public natural resources. In fact that was the idea of the Land and Water Conservation Fund when it was created more than 40 years ago — some of the royalties from oil and gas drilling in Federal waters should go to purchase critical conservation lands and build recreational facilities at parks and preserves. While that promise was broken, the approach still makes sense (and a recent public opinion poll revealed that more than 75% of voters agree). There are other revenues derived from the properly valued use of public resources that could be added to offshore oil receipts. These are not taxes. They are the American people getting fair value for what they own. This income could be deposited into a national trust fund for the care of America’s land and water that could supplement regular appropriations.
The use of reliable sources of Federal money can be made still more effective by managing our natural resources on a large scale — in an integrated, whole of government, and whole watershed/whole natural system basis with particular attention to investment in the kind of green infrastructure (such as forested watersheds, floodplains and coastal wetlands) that provides lower-cost benefits to this country’s communities. This scale of conservation can ensure that the results are durable, that government agencies work together across traditional boundaries, and that the needs of communities are balanced with the needs of the environment.
So we shouldn’t fear the Super Committee’s impact on our environment, but urge it to take the long term and comprehensive view of the funding that environmental stewardship requires. Yes, there may be a bit less money overall, but if the amounts are reliable and predictable over time, if the use of natural resources helps to pay for the protection of natural resources, if Federal money is spent cooperatively with other public and private funds, and if spending is focused on solving the most critical problems of larger natural systems, then the Super Committee could really be super when it comes to protecting our environment.
Our environment is not a luxury. It is a foundation for our economy, the source of our food and water, an essential ingredient of the quality and character of life in America. We should expect that the Super Committee and the Congress understand this and will act accordingly.
(Image: Fakahatchee Strand in the Everglades. Image source: Jeff Ripple).