Washington Watch, April 2015

The 114th Congress convened in early January and jumped into immediate action on several fronts affecting conservation programs and worked on them through the end of March, when it took a two week break. What follows is a recap of conservation-related action during those first 100 days and a peek into the next several months.

Contact information for your Senator or Representative to communicate on these or any other issues:

Find U.S. Senators
Find Members of Congress

Land and Water Conservation Fund Reauthorization—Expires End of September 2015

Action on the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) reauthorization began unusually early in the first session of the 114th Congress with introduction of an amendment by Senators Burr (R-NC), Bennet (D-CO) and Ayotte (R-NH) during the Senate’s consideration of the Keystone pipeline legislation. This bipartisan amendment proposed permanently authorizing LWCF, whose current authority expires on September 30. The amendment was called up on the Senate floor on January 29 with supporting statements from Sens. Burr and Bennet. Under the Senate rules for the Keystone debate, all amendments had to meet a 60 vote threshold to pass. The Burr-Bennet-Ayotte amendment fell just short of that test, failing by a vote of 59-39 after a bit of drama in which three Senators initially voted “aye” but were persuaded to change their vote to “nay”.

Another amendment relating to LWCF reauthorization offered during the Keystone pipeline debate by Senator Daines (R-MT) was also defeated 47-51. The amendment was simply a “Sense of the Senate” stating that LWCF reauthorization is important but suggesting that unspecified reforms are needed. The ambiguous language about the need for “reform” led many of our LWCF champions and supporters in the Senate to oppose the Daines amendment.

The week following the Keystone debate, Sens. Burr, Bennet and Ayotte introduced a bill to permanently reauthorize this important conservation program. S. 338 has since gathered ten co-sponsors. LWCF supporters should urge their Senators to cosponsor this bill and thank those who have already signed on.

A bill to permanently reauthorize and fully fund LWCF was introduced on March 26 by Senators Cantwell (D-WA), Wyden (D-OR), Heinrich (D-NM), Tester (D-MT), Bennet (D-CO) and Udall (D-NM). S. 890 is similar to legislation introduced in the previous Congress that gathered over 40 bipartisan cosponsors, and LWCF supporters should urge their Senators to cosponsor this legislation, too, and thank the bill’s sponsors and cosponsors.

The next action expected to occur regarding LWCF reauthorization is a hearing in the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands on April 15 that will look into federal land acquisition activities and it is expected that LWCF funding to federal land management agencies will be under discussion. There is an LWCF program oversight hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on April 22. The Committee will discuss the history of the fund and possible reforms of LWCF programs.

Legislation to fully fund and permanently reauthorize LWCF is expected in the House after Congress returns the week of April 13.

Fiscal Year 2016 Budget and Appropriations Process is Underway

President’s Budget—The first step in the annual budget process is release of the President’s Budget, which occurred this year on February 2. The President’s FY 2016 budget proposal includes funding for a number of conservation programs including a proposal to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million and ensure that it is spent on conservation purposes and not diverted away for other uses. Overall, the President’s budget assumes that the “sequester”—automatic across-the-board cuts—will not be triggered, but Congress needs to reach a new budget agreement in order for that to happen.

Following the release of the President’s budget proposal, Congress began a period of review, with oversight hearings held in committees with program jurisdiction. The Administration’s budget proposal for fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund was reviewed by the House Natural Resources and Senate Energy and Natural Resources committees and the House and Senate Subcommittees on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. These committees heard from the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture as well as agency level directors, such as the Chief of the US Forest Service and National Park Service Director. The last of the congressional budget hearings for these agencies occurred on March 24.

During this same period, Members of Congress and Senators were able to make specific requests for programmatic funding and express support for programs of interest to them. This often takes the form of group sign-on letters. As in past years, bipartisan letters were circulated in both the House and Senate this year supporting robust appropriations for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and its component programs, to excellent result. In the House, a record number of signers—195 Representatives from both sides of the aisle—sent a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the House subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, and in the Senate 47 Senators from both sides of the aisle sent a similar letter to their respective appropriations committee as well. The number of signatures in both houses and from both parties is rare on Capitol Hill these days and demonstrates the breadth of support for LWCF.

In testimony presented to the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, The Trust for Public Land argued for the full $900 million for LWCF in FY 2016 as proposed by the President and provided examples of why LWCF funding through its various programs is critical to communities throughout the country.

Congressional budget resolutions—Following the release of the President’s budget, the House and Senate budget committees prepare non-binding resolutions that set general funding levels and provide policy direction. Here is a summary of conservation related action:

Senate—The process for consideration of the annual budget resolution on the Senate floor is always a whirlwind of activity. This year, the Senate budget resolution (S.Con.Res 11) was considered in late March, with over 200 amendments filed on a host of topics and a marathon of votes scheduled at the end. In that process the Land and Water Conservation Fund fared well.

Prior to the full Senate’s consideration of S.Con.Res. 11, there were two amendments offered to the Senate Budget Resolution during the committee process concerning LWCF—one from Senator Wyden (D-OR) and one from Senator Ayotte (R-NH). Both passed with solid support:

  • Wyden would create a Deficit Neutral Reserve Fund (DNRF) providing increased flexibility for funding the Payments in Lieu of Taxes, Secure Rural Schools, and “federal programs for land and water conservation” including LWCF.
  • Ayotte would create a DNRF providing increased flexibility for funding LWCF, as well as a low income energy assistance program and an energy efficiency program.

For those not steeped in the federal budget process, DNRFs are written as a way of eliminating the threat of a parliamentary maneuver known as a budget “point of order”. A DNRF allow budget committees to adjust their spending allocation to accommodate certain programmatic funding increases after the budget resolution has been adopted. Though this likely won’t have an outsized impact on LWCF’s topline funding level in FY 2016, it is another important demonstration of bipartisan support for the program.

With its inclusion in the committee-approved resolution, LWCF was not debated again when the full Senate considered the FY 2016 budget, but various other issues of interest did come up. Several amendments were debated relating to the need to address climate change—pro and con. Senator Murkowski (R-AK) offered an amendment to protect future efforts in Congress to transfer or sell federal public lands to states and local governments. Some in Congress argue that this should occur with “no strings attached” despite possible significant adverse impacts on the public’s ability to use and enjoy these national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other public lands. The Murkowski amendment squeaked through on a 51-49 vote.

The Senate budget resolution was approved 52-46.

House—In the House, there was no major action on LWCF related to its version of the FY 2016 budget resolution. However, the House Budget Committee’s report page 119, includes language related to federal land acquisition and encouraging the transfer of federal public lands to states and localities.

The House budget resolution was approved 228-199, securing only Republican support.

What happens next? Should the House and Senate go to “conference” and negotiate a final agreement on the FY 2016 budget resolution, that document, while not binding, will be a guide for the House and Senate Appropriations Committees as they head into writing their annual appropriations bills.

It is worth noting that the House and Senate Budget Resolutions differ by about $2 billion dollars in the total amount of funding that each recommends for the Interior Appropriations bill ($36.3 billion in the Senate and $34.3 billion in the House). This could have a significant impact on the ability of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee’s to allocate adequate funding to conservation programs that are covered by the Interior Appropriations bill.

Policy and funding debates on the future of LWCF and public lands in general is generating a great deal of discussion. The New York Times published an op-ed by The Trust for Public Land’s President, Will Rogers. The op-ed, “Our Land, Up for Grabs,” details the coming fight over protecting land for the public, whether federally through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or locally in states such as Florida, Maine, and New Jersey, where voters overwhelmingly passed spending measures dedicated to protecting special places.

Other legislation

Permanent Conservation Tax Incentive

Before adjourning last year, Congress retroactively reinstated the conservation tax incentive for calendar year 2014. Unfortunately it was in effect only until December 31, 2014. Efforts are underway to extend the incentive for 2015 and beyond.

The incentive allows taxpayers who donate property interests for conservation to take a larger deduction than otherwise permissible for charitable donations. Landowners can deduct up to 50% of adjusted gross income (AGI) rather than 30% of AGI, and the carryover period for conservation deductions is extended from five to fifteen years (for a total of 16 years in which the deduction can be taken). Farmers and ranchers who donate conservation easements can deduct up to 100% of AGI, a provision that is particularly helpful for landowners who are land-rich but cash-poor.

On February 12, 2015, by a vote of 279 to 137 the House of Representatives passed a bill including a provision to make the conservation tax incentive permanent. The bill has been referred to the Senate, where it awaits further action. In the meantime, Senator Dean Heller of Nevada and Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan have introduced S. 330 to make the incentive permanent. So far there are eight additional cosponsors of S. 330, and more senators are being encouraged to express their support by signing on to this important legislation. Call your Senator to urge them to support this legislation. The President’s Budget for fiscal year 2016 also included support for permanent extension of the conservation tax incentive.

Bipartisan Senate Sportsmen’s Act

The Bipartisan Senate Sportsmen’s Act was introduced in the 114th Congress on February 5 by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM), with a strongly bipartisan group of cosponsors. This legislation, similar to bills introduced in previous congresses, would first require that federal land managers consider the impact of land-use decisions-including travel management and energy development-on hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting opportunities. The bill further clarifies that lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management should be considered open for these activities, unless they are specifically closed. A provision often referred to as Making Public Lands Public, which has garnered significant bipartisan support as a standalone piece of legislation, is also a part of the package. It requires that at least 1.5 percent or $10 million of annual Land and Water Conservation Fund monies be made available to establish and expand recreational access to federal public lands. Another provision in the bill would help prioritize access projects and the potential expansion of recreational opportunities by identifying landlocked public lands and plan ways in which access to those lands might be improved.

The bill would also reauthorize several important conservation funding programs, including the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act which, prior to its expiration in 2011, had leveraged strategic federal land sales to fund 39 priority conservation projects, including many that expanded sportsmen’s access to world-class hunting and fishing opportunities. S. 556 would also reauthorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, both of which provide critical funding for wildlife habitat protection. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee met on March 12 to hear testimony on S. 556. The witnesses at the hearing included Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership President and CEO Whit Fosburg, who stated at the hearing: “Hunting and angling will continue to thrive so long as the federal government continues to invest in the outdoor recreation business plan: improving access and conserving habitat. The legislation before the committee today excels on both fronts, and helps to ensure that future generations of Americans will continue to have opportunities to enjoy our federal lands.”

Since 2012, three bipartisan sportsmen’s bills have failed to reach the President’s desk, due to partisan politics and gridlock. However, there is optimism that S. 556 will move forward quickly in the Senate with strong bipartisan support.

Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act Reauthorization

The Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA), established through legislation passed in 2000, expired in 2010. During that time, however, it made millions of dollars available for the acquisition of inholdings and significant edgeholdings of national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, and certain types of BLM units like national monuments and areas of critical environmental concern. Since the expiration of the program, there have been continuous efforts to reauthorize FLTFA, which is essentially a self-funded program using the proceeds from the sale of BLM lands identified for disposal following a thorough planning process. Reauthorization is supported by over 150 organizations, including The Trust for Public Land. When it existed, FLTFA funding provided an excellent complement to LWCF funding in western states and helped protect important conservation lands. As noted above, FLTFA is currently included in S. 556, the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act, which has a good chance of passage in the Senate. On March 26, 2015, H.R. 1651 was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Dan Newhouse of Washington. H.R. 1651 would also reauthorize FLTFA. Congressman Newhouse is a member of the Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over this legislation. Though FLTFA is applicable in 12 western states, it provides an additional source of conservation funding and thus eases the stress on programs like LWCF. Members of Congress from all parts of the country should be urged to sign on to H.R. 1651.

Grant program news

Comments Welcomed on the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is soliciting comments on its draft rule for the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) – the consolidated program that encompasses the functions of the repealed Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, and Grasslands Reserve Program. Comments are due to NRCS on or before April 28, 2015.

The Trust for Public Land, along with many other interested parties, will submit comments to NRCS that provide our recommendations for changes and clarifications, such as the need for greater language flexibility in the NRCS standard cooperative agreement, amending the “eligible landowner” definition, seeking greater transparency in the parcel ranking process, clarifying application language related to landowner donations, broadening the eligibility of ACEP for use in conserving nonindustrial private forestland, and loosening the impervious service limit.

Related links:
Summary of the major changes
Draft ACEP rule
NRCS minimum easement terms

Agricultural Conservation Easement Program Application deadline is May 15.

NRCS has announced that May 15, 2015 is the national application deadline for ACEP funding in federal Fiscal Year 2015. There is $332 million available nationwide for ACEP projects.

In FY 2014, NRCS used $328 million in ACEP to enroll approximately 145,000 acres in the program, including TPL projects in California and New Hampshire.

Be sure to contact your state NRCS office to begin the ACEP application process. List of state NRCS websites.

Pre-Applications Due for TIGER Grants

In early April, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued its FY 2015 Notice of Funding Availability for TIGER Discretionary Grants. DOT is authorized to award $500 million through this competitive grant program. Nonprofits can not apply directly, but can act as a sub-contractor or partner for projects. Pre-applications are due May 4, 2015, with final applications due June 5, 2015.

This program provides capital funding for transportation infrastructure projects that have significant impact on the nation, a metropolitan area, or a region. In addition, TIGER funds have been used to fund park, green infrastructure, and trail elements of these infrastructure projects. Unlike last year, there is not a category for funding planning and design; however, these activities may be eligible to the extent that they are part of an overall construction project.

Contact your local state, local, or tribal government; transit agencies; port authorities; or metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to discuss possible projects. More information about the TIGER program.