The Obama administration’s final proposal for an annual budget would allocate $13.4 billion to the Department of the Interior for everything from wildfire suppression to funding for scientific research. But in an election year with a Republican-led Congress, parts of the budget will likely be whittled away by September. In an unprecedented move, the chairmen of both the House and Senate budget committees have already refused to schedule hearings for the presentation of the president's budget.
During a midday press conference Tuesday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell touted her department’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2017, saying it allowed the kind of investments that would “reflect the kind of country we aspire to be.” In particular, Jewell emphasized the funding that would go toward building resilience to climate change, improving conditions on Indian reservations and educating the next generation on science and the great outdoors. She also called for permanent and full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“The department's budget lays the foundation for creating lasting change, building on the many successes we’re achieving through partnerships, the application of science and innovation to our maintenance, and balanced stewardship of our nation’s resources to support economic opportunity, innovation and conservation,” Jewell said.
The proposed total represents an increase of a half of a percent over the 2016 budget, which some would argue was already inadequate. But others will probably use the cost as an argument for getting rid of public lands.
For comparison, the administration proposed more than $582 billion for the Department of Defense.
A recent National Park Service report showed the park service fell even further behind in its annual maintenance to the tune of $440 million last year. A 2013 U.S. Forest Service report showed similarly dismal maintenance deferrals that are probably worse after another three years.
But Jewell tried to put a good face on the numbers.
In addition to the $5 billion proposed for the operation of all four federal land agencies, the NPS would get an additional $3.1 billion in honor of its centennial. That total would include a legislative allocation, yet to be passed, of $860 million to reduce the deferred maintenance backlog and $135 million in seed money to create a matching-grant program to provide additional maintenance. With the total NPS backlog amounting to $12 billion and record numbers of Americans flocking to national parks, several years of additional maintenance is needed.
“Every tax dollar invested in our parks returns more than $10 to the U.S. economy. It’s a great investment for the American people,” Jewell said.
The budget recognizes that drought, sea-level rise and wildfire are growing threats caused by climate change.
As a result, the U.S. Geological Survey would receive an additional $21 million to dedicate to its WaterSmart program to support research to improve water efficiency and drought planning, said deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor.
Montana was fortunate last summer in that it experienced fewer wildfires than its neighbors to the west. That could change this summer if the winter snowpack doesn’t improve.
Pointing to the crippling cost of last summer’s devastating fire season, Connor said fighting wildfires needs to be funded similar to other emergency disasters. So the proposed budget would appropriate the 10-year average cost for fire suppression of $276.3 million and add a budget-cap adjustment of $290 million for catastrophic fires.
Congress has recently proposed similar methods for funding wildfire suppression because in the past, once firefighting costs exhausted the budgeted amount, the U.S. Forest Service had to rob its own coffers to pay for the remainder of the fire season. As a result, a lot of USFS projects and research has suffered.
“This proposal will allow us to accommodate peak fire season but not at the cost of other (Department of the) Interior missions,” Connor said.
Jewell emphasized the energy-related portion of the budget, saying $800 million would be dedicated to both conventional and renewable energy development, a $42-million increase over the 2016 budget. As the Obama administration shoots toward its 2020 goal of 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy permitted on federal lands, it invests $100 million in renewable energy infrastructure. But the Bureau of Land Management will also receive an additional $20 million for the oil and gas program to streamline permitting and strengthen inspection programs. Part of that would be paid for through a hike in inspection fees of $48 million.
The numbers might sound good on paper, but some of the money depends on Congress passing legislation to increase or decrease subsidies and royalties. Oil and gas development on federal land brought in $7.2 billion in fees and royalties in 2015 but several analyses from the Inspector General and Government Accounting offices showed that taxpayers should be getting a better return.
But the oil and gas industry is already pushing back.
When asked about the repeals of oil and gas subsidies, Jewell said the proposal tries to make the playing field more level for all. She said the oil and gas industry already receives many tax credits but the renewable sector has struggled to defend what credits it has. Also oil companies operating offshore wells already pay inspection fees so the land wells should also, Jewell said.
Conservation groups praised the budget proposal.
Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said he hoped the proposal would start a bigger discussion about supporting conservation through appropriation.
“The TRCP is also thinking about the next administration and making it clear that sportsmen and women want a president who is prepared to make these investments in conservation. We won’t stand for seeing wildlife agencies bled dry while habitat suffers,” Fosburgh said in a release.
Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the proposal would be able to usher national parks into their next century.
“One of the most important ways Congress can support parks as they move into their next century of service is to make sure next year’s budget includes significant increases to the agency’s maintenance and operations accounts. The Park Service needs these resources to tackle overdue repairs, fill vacant ranger positions, leverage philanthropic support, protect parks from development, and allow our parks to thrive in their second century,” Peirno said in a release.