By Matt Kearns, West Virginians for Public Lands
The 2018 federal budget was more than a “day late,” but it was not a “dollar short” when it came to public lands funding. Overall, most land-management agencies and conservation programs saw an increase in appropriations. The National Park Service gets an additional $175 million to chip away at their $12 billion maintenance backlog. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) received a 9% bump, up to $425 million, but is still well short of the $900 million needed to fully fund the program. With this modest increase, West Virginia should see additional access projects in the Gauley River National Recreation Area. And the Forest Service will soon have their long overdue “fire fix” to help shift the rising costs of firefighting away from their everyday operations budget.
Addressing the rising costs of firefighting, currently over 60% of the United States Forest Service budget, with a dedicated appropriation will reduce the need to borrow against non-fire accounts within the Forest Service, ultimately freeing up more money for recreation and other forest management programs. The “fire fix” did come with compromises, as some members of Congress insisted upon reforms as part of the deal. These include NEPA categorical exclusions and a streamlined review process for certain fire prevention activities, including firebreaks and hazardous fuel load management.
The FY18 budget is also a win for public lands in terms of what was left out. The omnibus agreement avoided controversial “riders” or amendments that would have weakened important conservation mechanisms like the Endangered Species Act or the Forest Service’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Senator Murkowski’s attempt to exempt Alaska’s national forests from the Roadless Rule would have set a bad precedent for other states to seek exemptions, ultimately threatening renowned backcountry like Seneca Creek, North Mountain, and Roaring Plains here in West Virginia. Our roadless areas remain protected, for now. Harmful riders can accompany nearly any bill and we must remain alert.
Because the 2018 budget was passed so late in the fiscal year, it will only be a few short months before Congress is back at negotiations for FY19. The Administration’s proposed budget suggests deep reductions to public lands and conservation. The Department of the Interior and the Park Service would see a 17% cut. The Land and Water Conservation Fund takes a 98% cut.
The decisions made in Washington matter to West Virginians. Our state’s outdoor economy and the quality of life for all Mountaineers is dependent upon access to public land. We thank Senators Manchin and Capito and Representatives Jenkins and McKinley for supporting increased public lands funding in the 2018 budget. We ask them for their continued support for robust funding for our land management agencies, conservation, and access programs in 2019.