The Federal Budget Cannot Be Balanced on the Back of America's Lands and Waters

Recently I sent a letter to members of the House of Representatives opposing passage of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill for 2012 that will go to the House floor this coming week. As I said in that letter, The Nature Conservancy has long provided ideas and input to the Interior appropriations process, but never before in our 60-year history have we opposed passage of this legislation.

I came to The Nature Conservancy from the private financial sector. I understand the gravity of the budget crisis facing this country. We at The Nature Conservancy believe that all Federal programs, including conservation programs, should share a fair proportion of the spending reductions needed to address the deficit. We understand, as well, that the leadership of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee faced daunting challenges in constructing a bill with very limited resources, and we recognize some positive elements of the bill, such as support for forest restoration.

But, overall, the deep cuts to conservation spending contained in this bill undermine just the kinds of cooperative, results-oriented conservation programs we know to be both popular and effective. And the bill includes policy riders that damage the ability of government to continue protection of our nation's air, land and water.

All the conservation and environmental activities of the Federal government amount to only a little more than 1% of the Federal budget. In real dollars total funding for the environment and conservation has been almost flat for 30 years.

Conservation did not cause the budget deficit and cutting conservation cannot fix the deficit.

So, as the floor debate nears, I've been trying to think of what arguments we can make again to influence the House to re-consider the appropriations bill now moving forward:

A very broad range of Americans still believe strongly in the value of conservation. A month ago The Nature Conservancy signed onto letters with 400 other forest, farm, recreation and conservation organizations making the case for reasonable funding for conservation and the environment.

And despite these hard economic times, public opinion polls continue to show support for conservation. A poll last spring sponsored by the Colorado College, State of the Rockies Program and done by a team of Republican and Democratic pollsters, reveals that, among voters in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico:

  • Only 11% of voters say environmental laws are too strict while 66% say they should be strengthened or better enforced
  • 87% believe having clean water, clean air, natural areas and wildlife is extremely or very important to the quality of life in their state
  • 88% would rather spend free time outdoors than in a city
  • 84% agree that even with state budget problems, we should still find money to protect land, water and wildlife
  • 70% consider themselves "conservationists" and that figure holds for those who identify themselves as Tea Party members
  • And 77% feel that we can protect land and water and have a strong economy at the same time
Natural resources were the foundation upon which American prosperity was built and still have a big impact on our economy. Farms provide about 24 million jobs in the U.S. Forests account for approximately 5 percent of the total U.S. manufacturing GDP, produce about $175 billion in products annually, and employ nearly 900,000 people. Commercial fishing supports one million full- and part-time jobs and generates $116 billion in revenue. Hunting, angling and other recreational activities dependent on wildlife contribute $122 billion annually to our national economy.

And healthy natural systems provide very real services to people. In the Mississippi floods this spring, the undeveloped floodplain of the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana effectively accommodated flood waters that otherwise might have inundated Baton Rouge and New Orleans. And in an area of investment recognized in the proposed Interior budget, forest thinning saved communities from catastrophic damage from the recent fires in Arizona.

We are grateful that the Obama Administration has embraced these and other arguments on behalf of our environment and has just issued a strong and specific Statement of Administration Policy opposing passage of the Interior Appropriations bill as written because of the damage it could do to America's air, land and waters.

I am, however, saddened that investment in conservation has become yet another point of conflict.

Conservation has long been a bi-partisan issue in America, and there have been great advances with the leadership of both parties. The membership of my organization is about evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. These folks support us because, despite their differences on other issues and, like the great majority of the American people, they share a deep respect for this country's legacy of mountains, productive farm and ranchlands, forests, prairies and rivers running to our magnificent seacoasts.

I know that I can speak for our one million members in expressing our hope that, while recognizing the need to better manage this country's budget, we can find common ground in valuing investments in the health of air, land and water so critical to the future of our children.