Wobbling out of Washington
On the last day of the 1st session of the 114th Congress, there was a mad dash by most members to get out of town for the holidays. But leading up to that very last day, the pace was more like a wobble because those final days of the session had a cliffhanger feel as the House and Senate grappled with approving an omnibus appropriations measure for FY 2016.
In the end, they got the job done. Here are some takeaways from the spending bill that I would like to share with you.
LWCF Renewal – The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) got a new three-year lease on life with a couple of policy changes included in the reauthorization. The use of eminent domain to secure new lands will no longer be permitted and funds will now be allocated at a state/federal split of 50-50. The funding level was set at $450 million. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, vows that he will continue to work on a major restructuring of the fund, but for advocates of the program, knowing that they have at least three years of certainty is good news.
Wildfire Suppression – Congress provided a $593 million boost in wildfire funding over what the government had spent previously. This infusion of additional funds will likely alleviate the need for the land agencies to reprogram funds in 2016 to cover the unexpected costs of fighting wildfires. This funding increase provides a bridge until Congress can work on a more extensive restructuring on how it provides funds to the Bureau of Land Management and the U. S. Forest Service for the containment of wildfires. This increase is welcome news, but a long term solution is still necessary and one we hope the Congress will address in coming days.
Sage Grouse Habitat – The spending bill earmarked $60 million for the Bureau of Land Management to be used to conserve sage grouse habitat. Funds can be used to remove juniper trees, prescribed burns as well as the eradication of invasive weeds, all designed to improve sage grouse habitat. This is a substantial increase over previous years.
National Park Service – The Park Service received an appropriation of $2.9 billion. This is a $237 million increase over 2015 funding and part of this increase is to be used towards the Park Service’s huge maintenance backlog, something that ARRA has been very concerned about.
Bureau of Land Management – The Bureau will receive an appropriation of $1.2 billion, a $117 million increase over 2015 funding levels. The $60 million earmarked for sage grouse habitat comes out of the $117 million increase.
U. S. Forest Service – The Forest Service will receive a $1.5 billion appropriation, a $69 million increase over 2015.
Pulling together an omnibus spending bill is a complicated, unwieldy process that no one likes. The stated goal of the Republican leadership for 2016 is to pass 12 separate appropriations measures, a process far preferable than the omnibus approach. Doing the separate measures requires a far more disciplined approach than the Congress has been able to muster in recent years. It would certainly be an improvement in legislating and we are hoping they can make this goal reality!
2016 is going to be quite a year. First, it will be President Obama’s final year in office. We expect that national monument declarations will continue to be front and center on his public lands’ agenda. We continue to have grave concerns over the power of the presidential pen when establishing usage policies for our public lands. Too often theses directives affect hundreds of thousands if not millions of acres of federal lands with little or no public input by those citizens living in the vicinity of the newly designated monuments.
Second, the entire election cycle will dominate the congressional agenda as well as the congressional schedule. While there will be many votes on controversial issues, the likelihood of major policy reforms being enacted into law is slim at best. We will be looking for small victories here and there while also realizing that we are going to have to wait for the results of the 2016 elections before we can gauge what to expect in terms of policy directions for keeping our access to federal lands.
Finally, in mid-December we sent out an alert about the 2016 Free-Fee Days on Federal Lands. This is a very good way to save money and to enjoy our public lands all at the same time. Click here if you would like to see what is available for free!
Happy New Year!
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access (ARRA)