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for people who care about the West

Natural resources and the fiscal cliff


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

As even people living in a cave know by now, if Congress doesn’t strike a deal soon, some combination of automatic tax hikes and draconian budget cuts will kick in. As early as January 2, the first round of sequestration cuts will be triggered.

I’ve heard little discussion of how this swan dive off the so-called fiscal cliff will affect our natural resources. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve found:

  • The Office of Management and Budget estimates that sequestration would cut $2.6 billion in fiscal year 2013 from the agencies that manage hundreds of millions of acres of public lands and waters.
  • Like all federal agencies, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) budget would be cut by as much as 8.2 percent. For the National Park Service that means a loss of $218 million. Closures of different degrees will likely be experienced at every park in the system and cuts could mean the downsizing of as many as 9,000 rangers.
  • A number of National Wildlife Refuges also face closures—meaning fewer places to hunt, fish and hike, and less of the $4.2 billion in revenue (and nearly 35,000 jobs) refuges contribute to local economies. In fact, all gateway communities that subsist on public land use are at risk.
  • One item on the chopping block is a $225 million cut in wildland fire prevention, putting at risk beloved recreation areas and adjacent communities.
  • Some $15 billion will be cut from science funding. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in particular, conducts science-based recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act, the single most important piece of species protection legislation.
  • The U.S. Forest Service, a unit of the Department of the Agriculture, will likely experience similar cuts (from 7.6 to 8.2 percent) to the DOI, which also administers the Bureau of Land Management. Together, these agencies make major contributions to the economy ($385 billion in 2011) through oil and gas leasing, mining, timber, grazing and recreation.
  • The production tax credit (PTC) for wind energy is set to expire at year's end. The wind sector employs 75,000 Americans and political uncertainty over the PTC extension has already led to significant lay-offs.
  • A reduction of law enforcement on public lands, a foreseen effect of budget slashing, will likely lead to an increase in poaching, vandalism, drug smuggling and other villainy.

Non-defense discretionary funding (i.e. money for public lands management, scientific research and conservation programs) didn’t get us into our debt hole—to the contrary, small investments in these areas are consistently shown to multiply revenue.

Part of any sensible budget negotiations have to prioritize funding for the agencies that grow our economy by managing, harnessing and safeguarding our natural resources.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Images courtesy National Park Service and Utah.gov