The White House has warned it will veto the House Interior spending bill, in part because of its cuts to the conservation fund program. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a telephone interview that the bill would bring conservation “as close to zero as it’s been in modern times.”
The fund is supposed to receive $900 million each fiscal year out of U.S. offshore oil and gas revenue to pay for federal land acquisitions. But with the exception of fiscal 1998, its funding has consistently fallen well short of that mark. The 2011 operating plan provided $300.5 million, and although Obama asked for $900 million for fiscal 2012, the pending House appropriations bill for Interior allocates just under $95 million.
“The cuts that have been made are devastating cuts to conservation,” Salazar said, as he drove through Utah late last month. He added that as he met with oil and gas industry representatives in Utah, “I’ve been reminding them about the importance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and there is such an economic return if we invest in conservation.”
But Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands, said Salazar got a “tepid” reception in Utah when he delivered that message and needs to accept the fact that the federal government owns too much land already.
“It is mind-boggling stupid to think the federal government should own one-third of America and not be satisfied with that,” Bishop said in a phone interview. “It’s impossible, when you’re trying to contract the budget and get some savings. Nobody with a straight face can say that we should be expanding our holdings.”
Roughly half of the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s money goes toward federal land acquisition, while the rest goes to state and local grants that support recreation areas, as well as habitat and forest protection.
In part, the program’s obscurity makes it a tempting target for budget cuts. In the 1960s, the idea of tapping oil and gas royalties for conservation attracted the attention of American luminaries such as the writer Wallace Stegner, who helped draft legislative language for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In 1960, Stegner laid out the reasoning for it in a piece that became known as his “Wilderness Letter.”
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the last wilderness be destroyed, if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books or plastic cigarette cases . . . . And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it,” he wrote.