Washington Watch, September 2015
The U.S. Congress returned from an extended "state and district work period" on September 8, which means that it will be a very busy September, and beyond. Most immediately, Congress will need to debate how to keep the government up and running since the current fiscal year comes to an end on September 30 and not one funding bill for next year has been approved. There are other urgent and timely matters to debate as well in the coming months, and we expect Congress to work deep into December again.
A great deal of action took place in Congress over the past several months since our last report from Washington, which leads to this fall's legislative challenges. Here's a summary of where things stand:
The House of Representatives came very close to passing all 12 appropriations bills, but the controversy over the placement of the Confederate flag on federal property forced leadership to pull the FY 16 Interior and Environment bill (which includes funding for many land protection programs). It is unlikely the controversy will be resolved anytime soon, so we will not likely see the bill come up on its own again. The Senate is in far worse shape, with none of the 12 bills even debated on the Senate floor yet.
Compared to the past two years, the proposed House FY 2016 Interior and Environment appropriations bill takes a more favorable approach to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) by recommending $248 million, instead of zero (FY 14) and $150 million (FY 15). However, it is a 20% reduction from last year's level of $306 million and well below the President's budget level of $900 million.
Outside of LWCF, the Community Forest Program is funded at the President's budget level of $1.683 million, a slight cut from the $2 million enacted level, and North American Wetlands Conservation Act is level funded.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is cut by 9% overall, with most of that aimed at climate, clean air and clean water enforcement. The Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water SRFs are cut by $500 million, for example. There are also numerous provisions aimed at restricting EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases, other air pollution and water quality.
In the Senate's proposed bill, LWCF fares better overall, with a topline level of $306 million (same as last year) and a more equitable balance between state grant and federal agency acquisition programs compared to the House proposal.
Like the House bill, the Senate takes on a number of EPA regulations and cuts some key programs at EPA. So the bill is somewhat contentious, as usual, and will likely not be brought to the Senate floor.
Needless to say, it appears highly unlikely that Congress will pass 12 appropriations bills before the end of the current fiscal year on September 30, so all signs point to at least one short-term Continuing Resolution that keeps the government running temporarily, with possibly more "CRs" before a final funding agreement is reached for FY 2016. The possibility that automatic across-the-board cuts will go into effect remains real.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, the federal government's premiere land conservation program, is set to expire on September 30. The program, which began in 1965 and uses offshore oil and gas revenue to fund the program, was last reauthorized 25 years ago. This would be the first time Congress has allowed the program to expire if they do not act by September 30.
The Trust for Public Land is deeply involved in the legislative and media campaign focused on renewing this critical law. Please sign and share our petition to tell Congress, "Don't let America's most important conservation program expire." For more information visit www.lwcfcoalition.org.
There are currently several bills pending in the House and Senate to reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. We don't expect any of them to move forward individually, but there was significant action in the Senate on reauthorization of LWCF that we hope gives us good momentum going into September for further legislative action. In late July, as part of the Energy Policy Modernization Act, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) – Chair and Ranking Member, respectively, of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee – agreed on a compromise on LWCF that would permanently reauthorize the program. The bill also creates a new national park maintenance fund using new offshore oil and gas drilling receipts and reauthorizes the Historic Preservation Fund.
The LWCF provision includes a first-ever guarantee of no less than 40 percent for the state grant programs now funded out of LWCF, including Forest Legacy, American Battlefield Protection Program, Section 6 and the state and local parks program. The provision also retains the 40 percent commitment to federal agency needs (NPS, USFS, BLM and FWS) and leaves flexibility for Congress to address annual needs through the 20 percent that is unallocated. LWCF would still be subject to the annual appropriations process, however, so LWCF proponents continue to seek a more stable and consistent level of annual funding for LWCF.
Now that the energy bill has been reported out of the Senate Committee to the full Senate, LWCF's congressional champions can use the Murkowski-Cantwell LWCF provision as the legislative framework for LWCF reauthorization. LWCF supporters are hopeful that the provision can be added to "must-pass" legislation that comes before Congress prior to September 30.
The Trust for Public Land successfully partnered with the cities of Atlanta, Bridgeport, and Denver on three of the eight grants awarded nationwide for the initial round of the newly created LWCF urban competitive grant program, the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program (ORLPP).
Since that time, The Trust for Public Land has been working with U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on legislation to address city park needs. We are excited to report that Senator Schumer, who will soon become the Democratic Leader in the Senate, introduced a bill on August 4 (S. 1995) that would direct 20% percent of the annual mandatory revenue currently flowing to the LWCF state and local assistance program (AKA stateside) to city parks. Over time, this would provide a baseline of guaranteed funding for this program, over and above any funds allocated through the annual appropriations process.
NOTE: The source of this guaranteed LWCF funding is the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA) of 2006, which opened up new offshore areas in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling. A portion of those new revenues was directed – without further appropriation by Congress – to the LWCF stateside program, thus creating the only source of "mandatory" funding for LWCF. While the GOMESA revenues have been capped for the past 10 years, those caps are lifted in 2017 such that up to $125 million per year will be available to the stateside program. The Schumer legislation proposes to take 20%—or up to $25 million—and direct it to the LWCF urban parks program.
While this bill will still need to move through the legislative process to become law, it's an important statement of support for funding urban parks from one of the most influential leaders of the U.S. Senate. The Trust for Public Land is very excited to be the lead organization on this effort.
In July, the Senate Finance Committee considered legislation to extend certain tax provisions that had expired at the end of 2014. Among them was the conservation tax incentive, which provides an enhanced deduction for conservation donations. Although many senators, including the committee chairman, voiced support for a permanent extension, budget process constraints caused the committee to approve an extension for only two years, retroactive to the beginning of 2015. Earlier this year, the House passed a permanent extension. It's conceivable that a permanent provision, along with some other "extenders," could be attached to must-pass legislation before Congress adjourns for the year. A Senate bill, S. 330, which would extend the conservation tax incentive permanently, now has 41 cosponsors. The Trust for Public Land is part of a large coalition led by the Land Trust Alliance working to ensure permanent treatment of the conservation easement tax incentive provision.
Congress had until the end of July to act on transportation legislation before the expiration of the Highway Trust Fund. In the end, both chambers sent to President Obama a three-month extension, setting a new deadline for the end of October. However, on July 30 the Senate also passed a new six-year transportation authorization bill — called the DRIVE Act. Senators reached a deal that provided three years (out of the six years covered) of funding. Within the bill are several updates to transportation programs of relevance to parks, trails and other activities.
The House did not work on a long-term transportation bill and has expressed little enthusiasm for the Senate's plan, so it remains to be seen what the appetite will be for addressing a long-term transportation bill in the fall.
Legislation is circulating in Congress to address the escalating budgetary challenge of wildfire suppression. The growing cost of wildfire suppression squeezes federal agency budgets and has forced the US Forest Service to divert funds from unrelated programs, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Community Forest Program. This year, wildfire suppression will consume more than 50% of the USFS budget. If it continues to grow unabated, it will reach two-thirds in ten years. The US Department of Agriculture and US Forest Service issued a report on August 4 that details this budgetary challenge.
Currently, wildfire suppression is funded through the annual appropriations process—specifically, via the Interior and Environment Appropriations bill (which also provides funding for LWCF). The appropriations bill includes funding for wildfire suppression at a level based on the 10-year average of wildfire costs. However, when wildfire costs exceed the appropriated amount, the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior are forced to "borrow" funding from other programs to cover the deficit. These borrowed funds can result in delayed or stranded projects—land acquisition or otherwise. Due to the increased costs of wildfire suppression, fire borrowing has occurred in eight of the past 10 years.
The Trust for Public Land is working in a coalition with other major conservation organizations to urge Congress to approve bipartisan legislation which would resolve this longstanding challenge. The bill would treat catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters—the major events (which represent just 1% of wildland fires, but make up 30% of the suppression costs) would be funded as national emergencies, just like hurricanes or tornadoes.
Negotiations are ongoing in Congress to determine precisely how to pay for wildfire suppression, including the level at which they should be funded through the Interior and Environment appropriations bill. However, the broad support for legislation to address this problem has moved the debate in a positive direction to ensure that wildfire suppression is responsibly paid for without the need to raid other critical programs.
The Department of Defense Appropriations bill passed the House of Representatives on June 9. It included $75 million for the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the same amount when it considered the bill in June, but the bill has not yet gone to the full Senate for a vote. This funding level is a 24% increase over last year's appropriation of $60.25 million.
In other REPI news, the High Peaks REPI Challenge Grant proposal submitted by The Trust for Public Land's Maine office has been awarded $2.05 million. A total of $8 million had been available for challenge grants and three projects were selected. The High Peaks grant will help protect 22,000 acres of working forests and buffer 31% of the Redington SERE Base boundary in western Maine. This is the second challenge grant that The Trust for Public Land has received since the REPI Challenge began in 2012.
On June 10, President Obama established the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. It was one of three new national monuments proclaimed that day. The Trust for Public Land's California office is engaged in land protection efforts in close proximity to this new monument in Northern California and supported its designation.
Also in California, we've been supporting national monument designation for Coast Dairies on the Santa Cruz coast. The Trust for Public Land donated nearly 6,000 acres last year to the Bureau of Land Management. Coast Dairies had been acquired by The Trust for Public Land in 1998 with philanthropic support. On August 4, Senator Barbara Boxer introduced S. 1971 to expand the California Coastal National Monument to include several federal units ranging from Humboldt County in the north to Orange County in the south. Among them is Coast Dairies, now known as Cotoni-Coast Dairies in recognition of the indigenous people who first populated the area. Previously in March, Congresswoman Anita Eshoo had introduced H.R. 908 to expand the California Coastal National Monument just to include Coast Dairies.
On August 13, 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the FY 2015 round of grants from the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, also known as Section 6. The funding for the acquisition components of this program are derived from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This year funds were awarded to projects in 17 states to protect habitat for threatened and endangered species, including $2 million for grizzly bear and Canada lynx habitat near Whitefish, Montana – a signature land protection project of The Trust for Public Land's Northern Rockies office.