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Bush Budget An Attack On Environment, Critics Say

by J.R. Pegg

Bush Too Soft On Environment, Says Conservatives
(ENS) WASHINGTON -- Leading conservationists are warning that the Bush administration's new budget proposal is littered with broken promises, and dramatically underfunds the agencies responsible for managing the nation's public lands and natural resources. Environmental groups said this week they believe the administration's rhetoric of increased spending for the national park system, for land conservation efforts and protection of the nation's forests, oceans and wildlife, is disingenuous and does not match the budget's reality.

Analysis of the budget trends "reveals the hidden anti-environmental agenda of this administration," said Wesley Warren, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) senior fellow for environmental economics.

The administration's budget presentations focused on comparison to its 2003 requests rather than the 2002 appropriated levels, Warren explained, in order to disguise the size of its spending cuts.

President George W. Bush has concluded that no more than a four percent increase can be justified for the entire federal budget. Yet the overall budget for the environment, according to the NRDC, is down $1.6 billion or six percent, compared to the money appropriated in 2002.

When inflation is factored in, the decrease in environmental spending jumps to $2.2 billion.

Critics point to the administration's presentation of its funding for the Interior Department's Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) as a specific example of how it is misrepresenting spending levels.

Interior Secretary Gail Norton promoted the Bush administration's claim that the new budget will fully fund the $900 million LWCF, a trust fund that takes revenues from oil and gas drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf to pay for land acquisition to protect land and water resources. But the $900 million figure for LWCF includes funding for some 15 unrelated programs and their budgets, masking a 50 percent cut in real funds available to LWCF.

"Fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund was one of the precious few environmental promises by the Bush campaign, and they can't even seem to keep that one," said Defenders of Wildlife president Rodger Schlickeisen. "It's become a sad routine for this administration to go out of its way to undermine wildlife and environmental protection, so it's unsurprising that their budget springs from the same mold."

During his campaign, Bush also pledged to eliminate the $4.9 billion maintenance backlog at the national parks by 2006. The president's proposed budget for the National Park Service (NPS) is $2.4 billion, up $8.3 million from the 2003 request. But NPS funding for land acquisition and state assistance is down $47.4 million.

Conservationists argue that the NPS is still in desperate need of increased operating funds and money to reduce its maintenance backlog. On average, U.S. national parks are operating with only two-thirds of the needed funding, according to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

Since he took office, Bush has only proposed an additional $366 million for maintenance, according to Blake Selzer, legislative analyst for NPCA.

"The administration is walking away from its commitment to the public and to our parks," added NPCA president Tom Kiernan. "The president promised the American public that he would 'restore and renew' America's national parks, but this budget makes it clear that the administration does not intend to keep that promise."

Within the fiscal year 2004 budget, the president has requested $1 billion for "deferred maintenance." Yet this pool of money will be used for more than just the maintenance backlog; some of it will be used for new building construction and new transportation infrastructure.

"The administration does a good job with their rhetoric," Selzer said. "But you have to step back and peel back the rhetoric to see that this is not much of an increase."

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would receive an increase of $42.8 million under the president's spending plan, which according to BLM Director Kathleen Clarke reflects that the department is "more committed than ever to our multiple use mission."

But conservationists argue that the primary mission of BLM under the Bush administration is to open public lands to oil and gas development, mining and logging. The budget contains speculative revenues of $1.2 billion from drilling within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), despite fierce opposition to the plan from many Congressional Democrats and some Republicans.

"By including the speculative revenues from proposed lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in his FY 2004 budget blueprint, the president has signaled a stubborn unwillingness to accept the clear opposition of the American people and bipartisan defeat of this scheme by the Senate last April," said Schlickeisen. "Instead, this budget tracks the fondest wishes of the administration's big oil constituency."

Some $10 million in additional money is earmarked for oil and gas production on BLM lands, and the budget contains a pledge by BLM to process 90 percent more applications for drilling permits and an additional 400 leases for oil and gas development. Land acquisition funds at BLM are cut by some $21 million, putting them close to 50 percent below enacted 2002 levels.

The total firefighting budget within the Interior Department and the Forest Service is $2.2 billion, an increase of $219 million over last year's request. But this is still drawing the ire of many conservationists, who see misguided priorities within the administration's wildfire policy.

The Forest Service's budget includes an additional $3 million for its tree thinning program, and critics argue the Bush administration's so called Healthy Forests Initiative is a thinly disguised payout to the logging industry.

After analyzing the details of the budget, Bonnie Galvin, director of budget and appropriations for The Wilderness Society, said there is "only a one percent increase to reduce threats upfront and this money is going to get directed to thinning of forests in remote areas far from communities."

The president's spending proposal for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is $1.3 billion, only $4 million above the 2003 request. Funding for the operations and maintenance of the National Wildlife Refuge System received an increase of $25.5 million, putting its budget at $402 million.

Yet land acquisition, a critical component to protect National Refuges, is cut by $29.6 million from the 2003 request and some $56 million from the 2002 enacted total. State and tribal wildlife grants issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are cut by just $17,000 from last year, but when compared with 2002, this cut rises to some $26 million.

Cuts to state grants seem at odd with the Bush administration's ideology of increasing the role of states in environmental protection, Galvin said, and "this is the kind of program you'd think they'd really like and support."

"This budget will leave America with smaller, more degraded wild lands," Galvin added.

The president has increased the money available for administering the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by $3 million compared to his 2003 request. The total of $128.7 million is still well below what even the agency estimates it needs to administer ESA.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that its endangered species listing program faces a back log of some $137 million, with more than 250 species awaiting protection under the Act.

The U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) budget is proposed at $895.5 million, up some $28.2 million from last year's request, but down some $18 million from 2002 enacted funding.

Programs for mapping, remote sensing and geographic investigations are down $12.6 million from 2002. Water resources investigations face a cut of $6.3 million from 2002, but biological research is slated for an increase of $2.6 million.

The budget tricks alleged by conservationists appear to also be present in the proposed spending levels for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA). Administration officials boasted of a $190 million increase, which brings the agency's budget to $3.3 billion. But compared to enacted 2002 levels, this increase shrinks to $63 million.

The National Oceanic Service's budget is cut some $100 million from the 2002 level and the Bush spending plan eliminates the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program. NOAA's Oceanic and Atmospheric Research fares even worse, with proposed spending of $380.6 million compared to the $383.6 million appropriated in 2002.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), an often criticized maligned federal agency, receives an increase of some $30 million over the 2003 request. But this is a decrease of some $67 million from what was appropriated in 2002.

Although NMFS is known to need improvement in its monitoring and assessment of U.S. fish stocks, the administration proposes an increase over its 2003 request of just $6 million for these efforts.

"NMFS has responsibility for managing more than 900 fish stocks in the U.S. and it has a terrible track record," said Eli Weissman, ocean governance program manager for the Ocean Conservancy, adding that NMFS has fully assessed the status of only 23 percent of the 900 U.S. fish stocks.

Also of concern to conservationists is the proposed $90 million for the Pacific Salmon Recovery Fund is $20 million less than what was enacted in 2002. This is despite campaign promises by the president to support a fund many believe is critical to restoring salmon habitat up and down the West Coast.

"We are looking at the Bush administration budget cutting five percent since last year on the plan to restore salmon," said Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director of Save Our Wild Salmon. "This kind of a reduction shows a real lack of support for a program the President, when he was campaigning, pledged to fund and support."

© 2003 Environment News Service and reprinted with permission

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