We have written about this before, but the issue of unfilled executive positions in the Trump Administration is drawing more and more attention. Senators and Representatives have begun to express concern about the vacancies with one Senator making reference to the fact that it is difficult to find the right person in an agency without someone in charge. We are still awaiting word on who will fill the top spots at the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Speaking of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Secretary Zinke in comments before the National Petroleum Council, said that he has figured that at least a third of his workforce at Interior remain loyal to the previous administration (meaning that they generally oppose his policies). He went on to say, “I had a Fish and Wildlife Service that hated people to a degree.” Ouch!
National Monument Recommendations
Secretary Zinke’s recommendations on revising some of the existing National Monuments are still pending at the White House. No information is available as to when the President might take some action on the recommendations though some information is beginning to become known generally because the Secretary has discussed some of the details with other public officials and they couldn’t wait to share the news with others. For example, Governor Gary Herbert, Utah, told local media that the Secretary said that the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was an “abuse of the Antiquities Act” and suggested that maybe it should be carved up “into smaller monuments – two or three.”
Interim Funding for the Federal Government
The Congress passed legislation that extends funding of federal agencies until December 8, 2017. In most cases, federal agencies received status quo funding, meaning they have the same level of funding to work with as they did in FY 2017. The Congress did provide the Forest Service and the Interior Department with $300 million in additional funding to replace those funds used from other accounts in order to pay for the cost of fighting wildfires.
The overall fire season has not been kind to public lands. Through FY 2017, which ended on September 30th, more than 8.2 million acres of public lands have been burned. Given that the 10-year average of public lands burned stands at 5.5 million acres, the FY 2017 number is a sizeable increase. The mechanism by which we fund wildfire suppression efforts remains a political conundrum. There are several legislative solutions pending before the House and the Senate, but the lack of a compromise solution continues to threaten the financial integrity of our public lands agencies. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue highlighted the severity of the problem when he said, “Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent…we end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires.” And, we might add, the problem of “hoarding” not only extends to fire prevention programs but to recreation programs as well. So, OHV recreation is adversely affected when there are fires and in anticipation of fires. The Congress needs to fix the wildfire funding problem!
H.R. 1913, Clear Creek National Recreation Area and Conservation Act
As we have reported previously, the House of Representatives approved Rep. Panetta’s legislation that would restore OHV recreation to the Clear Creek Management Area in California. This area has been closed by the Bureau of Land Management over concern that naturally occurring asbestos in the soil could pose a health risk to recreationists. Studies commissioned by the California Parks Division have shown this is not the case, hence approval of this legislation by the House.
Now that the measure has been referred to the Senate, we have begun an extensive effort to educate the members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the merits of the bill. After a couple of days over in the Senate, I can tell this is going to be tough sledding for a while. The mere mention of the word “asbestos” sets off alarm bells. We feel that the science is on our side, but it is going to take a while to raise the comfort level on this issue. Being a realist, it is going to be the second session of this Congress before we can expect Senate action on the measure.
In last month’s newsletter, we led off writing about neighbor helping neighbor in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. That was a mere 30 days ago and that seems so long ago. Since then, we have witnessed the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria and the deadly earthquakes in Mexico. In every case, we continue to see acts of sharing. One story has a man in Puerto Rico who found that his cell phone had a signal so he took it to the local general store so others might call their loved ones. The phone was passed around for all to use until the battery finally gave out.
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access (ARRA)