President Trump delivered his State of the Union address before a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday. As a part of that address, the President unveiled his plan for a massive infrastructure program to repair our nation’s decaying public works projects. Highways, bridges, railways and waterways are just a few of the areas to be covered by this legislation. We take particular note of this effort because the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) falls under the jurisdiction of the U. S. Department of Transportation. If and when this legislation begins to move through the House and the Senate, we hope to gain approval for a study to update the amount of fuel excise taxes paid by off-highway vehicle enthusiasts. The current study is outdated and since RTP funding is based on this study, it’s important to have up to date information to buttress our argument that RTP deserves greater funding.
The current continuing resolution, which was passed by the Congress to end the government shutdown, is set to expire on February 8th. At this juncture, we are not seeing significant progress in the negotiations to advert the need for another CR. It could be well into March before we see the final chapter written on this ongoing fiscal crisis.
Congress is currently working to see if an agreement can be reached on a two year budget resolution, FY 2018 and FY 2019. Until this is done, completing the appropriations process is impossible. Right now there is a significant difference, to the tune of $1 billion, between the House and Senate bills covering the funding of the federal land agencies. Both bodies fund the fighting of wildfires but their approaches are totally different. The Senate transfers wildfire funding away from the appropriations process into a disaster fund account similar to how hurricanes and floods are handled, while the House follows the traditional track of funding through annual appropriations. Our preference is the Senate approach though it’s impossible to predict a resolution or even when that might happen. We have provided comments to Congressional leaders urging that the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture be allowed to draw upon natural disaster funds for emergency response to catastrophic wildfires like we recently saw in California rather than having to divert funding from important programs such as recreation.
Secretary Ryan Zinke unveiled a plan to reorganize several agencies within the Department of the Interior. In addition to creating thirteen new regions that would be defined by watersheds and geographic basins rather than state boundaries, the Secretary also confirmed that he wants to transfer the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation to someplace outside of Washington, D. C. Current thinking is that the new location might be Denver.
The current regions for the various Interior Department agencies are not the same, making an overall consolidation a realistic approach from a management standpoint. The proposed configuration, however, might be problematic for some states. Under the new plan, many states would be in two regions and Oregon would be in three regions! For this reason, we foresee some congressional opposition to this proposal.
There is a concern by some that thousands of federal employees will be uprooted from Washington and transferred elsewhere, though that number might be far fewer than believed. For example, about 16 percent of current Interior Department employees are at retirement age and in five years that number will skyrocket to 40 percent. Rather than a need to relocate many employees or go through a massive reduction in force exercise, new hires would likely be located at the new headquarters site rather in the Nation’s Capital.
There are many other aspects of the reorganization plan, but we don’t have enough space in this newsletter to go into all the details. What’s important is how this reorganization plan would affect the recreational experience of our OHV community. If the agencies become more responsive to their customers, the American public, then the reorganization could end up becoming a good thing.
Not addressed in the Zinke reorganization plan is the U. S. Forest Service since it falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture. There has been talk about transferring this agency to the Interior Department, but at this point it is only talk. The Zinke reorganization plan will, to some extent, need congressional approval. Gaining such approval will be a multi-year effort beyond just 2018. We will be following closely as things evolve.
We continue to work on a host of legislative initiatives having to do with our public lands, many of which are highlighted on the ARRA website. We encourage you to visit our website often to get the latest news on federal land agency meetings as well legislation that might be of interest to you. We appreciate your activism. Working together we are making a difference.
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access (ARRA)
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