Interior Appropriations — Dead on Arrival and Live at Five

June 27, 2017

TipSheet: Interior Appropriations — Dead on Arrival and Live at Five

The secretaries of the Interior and Energy departments last week faced congressional hearings about the Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget proposals, and members from both parties made clear that many of the scorched-Earth proposals would not fly. The Interior appropriations and hearings, in particularly, are a grab-bag of news for environmental journalists.

One reason many deep Trump cuts are likely dead on arrival is that almost every cut happens in some Congress member’s district. Collectively, they won’t get the votes.

Also, in recent years, Congress has been slow to act on individual appropriations bills — leading to an “omnibus” bill wrapping up all the stalled bills into a single stop-gap measure at the end of the fiscal year. The so-called “continuing resolution” tends to settle most unresolved issues by carrying over spending levels from the previous year.

At a hearing June 20, Senate Energy Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that most of Trump’s proposed cuts were going nowhere. Murkowski’s opinion matters because she also chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that handles Interior spending.  Even Zinke was unhappy with the budget proposal before the White House adopted it.

Reporters can follow the locally based projects and programs in presidential budget proposals and the appropriations that do the actual spending. Studying the language (and accompanying reports) of the appropriations bills, while difficult, will pay off. A copy of the House bill for 2017 is here. A useful chart allowing comparisons with past years and the continuing resolution is here.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah on May 17, 2017. The monument's status is under review.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah on May 17, 2017. The monument's status is under review. PHOTO: Department of Interior

The Interior Department is spread across the United States, and is especially a presence in Western states. Trump proposed cutting Interior’s budget by a whopping 11 percent, while increasing fossil fuel drilling.

Here are some ways to localize the Interior Department funding story.

Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF draws its revenues mainly from federal offshore oil and gas leases, and the money goes mostly toward acquisition of land and water for parks, forests and wildlife areas. A political football in recent years, its reauthorization has been in doubt as members of Congress opposing federal land acquisition struggled with those favoring it. It is currently on only a short-term authorization. The LWCF involves states matching federal funds, and many states like it because it stretches their parkland dollars. Environmentalists too. For 2018, Trump proposed a drastic cut to the LWCF. Don’t bet the ranch on that. But do check in with your state land agencies to see what they hope the LWCF could fund locally.

Bureau of Land Management. The BLM manages more than 247 million acres of multiple-use federal lands, mostly west of the Mississippi. Often, they are the “open range.” For management, BLM lands are organized into units, which are put to different uses. Grazing permits, their price and the revenue they bring are an issue of huge controversy in ranching areas. Oil, gas and other energy leasing is another revenue-producer, not only for the U.S. Treasury, but for local drilling industries. Mining and minerals development on BLM lands is likewise important to local economies. Most newsworthy of these is coal leasing on public lands — a Trump reversal of Obama policies with huge implications for federal revenues and the energy economy. And BLM lands host all kinds of recreation and tourism, which mean dollars for local economies. Find a list of BLM state offices here.

U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS is primarily a science agency, studying a lot more than geology. It looks into many environmental issues, including water quantity and quality, wildlife biology, environmental chemistry, volcanoes, ice and even climate. One thing to realize is how geographically distributed are its many labs and science facilities. A map and list can be found here. Will any be closed in your area?

National Park Service. Called “America’s best idea” by some, the National Park System is certainly a source of wonder and enjoyment for many Americans. Technically, by the way, not all of the 417 units in the national system are “parks” (for example, the Assateague Island National Seashore). But whatever it’s called, there is probably one near you, and its funding would probably be cut under Trump’s proposal. Here are a list of all the units in the National Park System and an index searchable by state. How will the 2018 budget affect maintenance at the parks near you — or increase fees?

Fish & Wildlife Service. The FWS does many things, but one of the most important is running the nation’s network of some 562 National Wildlife Refuges, wetlands and other conservation units. You can find a list of all the units in the National Wildlife Refuge System here, arranged by state. There is probably one near you and your audience probably cares about it. Many refuges are underfunded and some are barely staffed. When it comes to refuges, though, the biggest fight may be over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which both Trump and Senate Energy Chairman Murkowski want to drill. That is a local Alaska issue, but also a national environmental issue that has been fought over for decades.

Offshore Drilling Agencies. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management leases offshore federal tracts, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is supposed to enforce safety and environmental requirements. Its work is primarily an issue in states along the Gulf of Mexico — unless Trump’s proposal to drill the Atlantic coast becomes reality. Trump generally proposes more drilling — but the oil and gas markets may not be able to absorb the additional energy resources at prices favorable to the U.S. Treasury. Historically, Atlantic states like Florida that oppose drilling have used appropriations riders to prevent it.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 26. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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