Fiscal Year 2019
Happy Fiscal Year 2019. The big ball at Times Square did not descend to celebrate the October 1st event but believe it or not, for the first time in a very long time, the Congress is getting closer to passing all the appropriations measures. So far 9 of the 12 required funding measures are now law. For those not making it across the finish line, a short-term continuing resolution was passed to keep those agencies operating until the final work is completed. Better news yet, the President and the Congress agreed not to have a government shutdown like we have seen in past years.
Among those agencies covered by the continuing resolution is the Department of the Interior. The House finalized its action on Interior Appropriations, H.R. 6147, on July 19th. The Senate took similar action on August 1st. The House/Senate conference committee, whose job was to work out the differences between the two bills, met on September 13th. So far, the conference committee hasn’t completed its work, though Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby sounded a note of optimism when he said, “we are very close to locking this package down.” Funding for the Interior Department was included in the continuing resolution that is set to expire on December 7th. We anticipate that permanent funding will be resolved by that date.
I was traveling back from the State of Washington a few days ago, and the flight attendant announced that for those of us on the right side of the plane, if we looked out our windows we would see a wildfire burning out of control. Sure enough, we saw the burning edge of the fire with smoke bellowing upward for miles and miles. It looked as though there was only dry scrub in its path, but the fire was intense and fast moving. We flew for another 10 minutes or so before we finally got away the drifting smokescreen. It’s clear this wildfire season is not behind us.
So far this year more than 7.5 million acres have burned. Last year’s total was over 10 million acres. Total firefighting costs for 2017 measured more than $2.9 billion. Cost figures for 2018 have yet to be released, but we are preparing ourselves for sticker shock.
The current reauthorization of farm programs, H.R. 2, has a provision in it that deals with wildfires in that it would categorically exempt from environmental review forest projects of up to 6,000 acres. The idea is to expedite the harvesting of timber in national forests with insect infestation as an attempt to reduce hazardous fuel loads. When Congress passed legislation last year to provide a source of funding to fight wildfires, Public Law 115-141, a provision was included that exempted up to 3,000 acres from environmental review. H. R. 2 doubles that amount. The Senate version of the farm bill does not include this provision so this is an issue that needs to be resolved in conference. The conference committee has met but has not completed its task due to a disagreement over an issue unrelated to the wildfire language.
The House left Washington on September 28th with no expectation that it will return before November 13th. After all, it’s election season. The Senate will remain in session for another four weeks before making its own exit around the 29th of October.
Short Legislative Updates
Before leaving Washington, the House Natural Resources Committee took some significant steps in moving a series of public lands bill through the committee. Here are several that are of interest to ARRA.
- HR. 6510 would direct revenue generated from energy production on federal lands and waters to go towards funding the maintenance backlog for the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. With a combined backlog in excess of $16 billion, this new source of funding could be a game changer. There is companion legislation in the Senate, S. 3172, but it only covers the National Park Service. Left out of the equation altogether is the U. S. Forest Service. Nonetheless, these legislative efforts are of critical importance to federal lands and we think in due course all the federal lands agencies will begin to see some financial relief for tackling the huge maintenance backlog.
- HR. 502 would permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund with an authorized funding level set at $900 million. Appropriations would still be required, but the periodic reauthorization fight that has often paralyzed the fund will no longer have to be fought. Instead, efforts can be directed towards getting annual appropriations. H. R. 502 includes another provision that is a very good idea. It requires that no less than 1.5% of the annual authorized funding amount, or $10 million, whichever is greater, be used specifically for projects that secure recreational public access to existing federal public lands for hunting, fishing, and other recreational purposes. We like this idea.
- HR. 5727 is legislation that covers federal public lands in Emery County, Utah. ARRA has been working closely with other OHV organizations because this legislation would seriously affect OHV recreation in that county. A significant change was made during the committee mark-up when language was approved that specifically includes “motorized and non-motorized travel” in the purposes section of the bill. This was a significant change to the benefit of OHV recreation. There is one provision remaining that gives us serious concern. This is language that would prohibit the building of any new roads after the date of enactment. We continue to work on this issue because we don’t want the hands of land managers tied up in perpetuity from adjusting the road network (trails) on an as needed basis.
All of this legislation still has to go to the House floor and then onto the Senate for legislative action. So for any of these items to become law, they must be a part of the legislative agenda for the Lame Duck session that will convene on November 13th.
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access (ARRA)