Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Land agencies could endure heavy cuts

Gazette Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - President Bush's proposed 2009 budget would shrink the funding for every land management agency except the National Park Service.

Under Bush's plan, the U.S. Forest Service discretionary budget would fall $373 million from 2008 levels, to $4.1 billion. Money for state and private forestry programs, research, maintenance, management and law enforcement would decrease from 2008. Dollars would be cut from wildfire preparedness, hazardous fuels suppression and other fire operations but would be boosted for fire suppression.

The overall U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service budget would shrink by $65 million from 2008 levels, the Bureau of Land Management by $30 million and the Bureau of Indian Affairs by $100 million. While Bush proposes the levels as a first step, Congress has ultimate say over how much gets spent.

The Park Service would see a slight overall increase of $14 million, to $2.4 billion. While its operating budget would shoot up by $161 million, its finances for construction and maintenance would drop by $46 million and land acquisition would fall by $48 million.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne touted initiatives in the budget to fight the declining wild bird population, protect ocean and coast resources, boost border enforcement in the Southwest, combat drug cartels, improve education in Indian Country and help conserve and manage water across the country.

The overall requested Interior budget for fiscal year 2009 of $10.7 billion would be a drop of $638 million from 2008 levels. Interior officials said that cuts were made mostly in construction, land acquisition and congressional projects, while the land management bureaus got a 4 percent increase in their operating budgets.

While acknowledging that there are areas where people would say "we wish you could have done more here, or you would have addressed this," Kempthorne said, "But I think Congress will be happy to see many of the additions they have included we have retained and built upon."

The budget drew immediate criticism from key Democrats on Capitol Hill. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said the budget was skewed in favor of oil and gas drilling above other public uses of land.

"This is a true Groundhog Day budget that simply and agonizingly repeats the ludicrous budgetary policies that the Congress and the American people have consistently rejected year after year after year after year," Rahall said. "This budget axes forest programs, undercuts our wildlife refuges, puts programs to save endangered species under the knife, neglects the needs of our national parks and puts a stopper in important water programs."

The National Parks Conservation Association praised the boost in operating funds for national parks but criticized cuts to "other critical park programs that undermine this much-needed operating increase." It said the construction cuts would diminish the ability to address a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog.

The operational increase for the Park Service will allow another 3,000 seasonal park rangers, Kempthorne said.

The Forest Service, which falls under the Agriculture Department, asked for $982 million for fire preparedness, hazardous-fuels reduction and other fire operations, a decrease of $115 million from 2008. However, it proposed to boost suppression funding from $846 million to $994 million.

"Adequate funds are provided in fire preparedness to fund a minimum of 10,480 firefighters," its budget document says.

The Interior Department is requesting $850 million for fire preparedness, suppression, fuels reduction and burned-area rehabilitation. That's an increase of $42 million over 2008 if supplemental appropriations, which brought the 2008 total to $1.1 billion, are excluded.

Interior asked for $300 million for the Healthy Forest Initiative, including $203 million for the program to reduce hazardous fuels, a slight increase over 2008.

The BLM budget would shrink the amounts spent on land management and endangered species but increase the amounts spent on oil and gas management.

Interior wants to put $22 million toward the Healthy Lands Initiative in southwest Wyoming and seven other states. Kempthorne said it would allow the government to protect sage grouse habitat and other landscapes in the West.

The Indian Affairs budget request is $2.2 billion, a decrease of 4.4 percent from 2008. The agency would lose between $12 million and $30 million each for programs on land and water settlements, roads maintenance, housing improvement, education grants, welfare assistance and construction.

Interior officials said the housing and education programs duplicate programs already run by the Housing and Education departments.

The budget includes $195 million for Payments in Lieu of Taxes, $34 million below 2008. PILT compensates local governments for tax revenue lost on federal lands in their areas. It also includes an extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Act for three years, without selling any public lands as proposed in last year's budget.

The Fish and Wildlife Service budget request is $1.3 billion, a reduction of $65 million, with most of the reduction resulting from lower proposed spending in construction and land acquisition.

The budget proposes to raise the price of the Federal Duck Stamp from $15 to $25.

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