Dollars and Sense: Budgets Reveal What We Value

Jared Mott, IWLA Conservation Director
Capitol Dome framed by leaves

Budgets are all about priorities. How we spend reflects our decisions about what’s important. That’s why a cursory glance at my personal budget would reveal to any onlooker how seriously I take my time outside, especially hunting and fishing. I buy gear, save for hunting trips, and keep a supply of funds ready to repair the boat motor when it invariably conks out during duck season or the crappie spawn. My budget reflects my priorities.

Remembering that budgets reflect priorities is especially important now that Congress has begun its annual appropriations process. To "appropriate" means to devote assets to a specific purpose. The appropriations process is just Congress making the federal budget for the next fiscal year.

The first step in that process is for the Appropriations Committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to draft bills detailing how much spending will be appropriated for each government agency, and how those funds are to be used. When that steps happens, the public gets its first look at what priorities Congress wants to emphasize.

The first spending bills – including the appropriations for agencies tasked with conserving and protecting our natural resources – are rolling out of the House Appropriations Committee right now. What can we learn about the House’s priorities for natural resources by looking at the budgets they’re passing?

First, the House is generally prioritizing conservation and protecting our natural resources. Budgets for the Department of Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Agriculture are increased over Fiscal Year 2019 levels. However, a couple of areas of particular interest to Ikes are not prioritized by the Committee as much as we would have liked. Here’s a quick breakdown of a few important programs and how the House Appropriations Committee is proposing to fund them in Fiscal Year 2020.

The Good News

Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) – $524 million

This vital conservation program uses royalties paid by offshore energy developers to fund improvements to access to outdoor recreation, whether that’s purchasing easements to provide access to public lands, constructing boat ramps, or building baseball fields in urban areas. The League is pleased to see the House increase funding for LWCF to $524 million.

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) – $305 million

The GLRI is the Environmental Protection Agency’s primary program devoted to  conserving and restoring the Great Lakes ecosystem. GLRI funds facilitate matching funds from states and other partners to restore wetlands, protect drinking water, and fight aquatic invasive species like Asian carp. The League applauds the Committee for increasing the appropriation for GLRI by $5 million for Fiscal Year 2020.

Chesapeake Bay Program – $78 million

The Chesapeake Bay Program is vital for improving water quality in the nation’s largest estuary and throughout the heavily populated Mid-Atlantic region. The program funds partners, including the League, to drive solutions to water quality problems like runoff from farms and urban development. The Committee increased the appropriation for the Bay Program by $5 million for Fiscal Year 2020.

National Wildlife Refuge System – $514 million

Operations and maintenance activities that are vital for wildlife conservation and public safety on America’s wildlife refuges have been chronically underfunded for the last decade. The Committee’s appropriation of $514 million is a welcome step towards fully funding America’s refuges, which are America’s only public lands dedicated to wildlife conservation.

State and Tribal Wildlife Grants – $71 million

Grants for states and tribes fund state wildlife action plans. These plans represent road maps that state and tribal wildlife resource management agencies have laid out to keep species from becoming threatened and endangered. Proactively managing wildlife species before they become endangered is not only the right thing to do, it’s cheaper and more efficient than the “all hands on deck” approach that is mandated once a species becomes endangered. These grants help states and tribes keep wildlife from becoming endangered, and we’re pleased that the Committee increased the appropriation for Fiscal Year 2020 by $6 million, to a total of $71 million.

Upper Mississippi River Restoration – $33.2 million

The Upper Mississippi River is one of the most complex ecosystems on Earth, and has been heavily degraded by alterations made to the river for flood control and navigation. The League was glad to see the Committee fully fund the Upper Mississippi Restoration Program so that restoration of critical fish and wildlife habitat can continue.

The Bad News

Missouri River Fish and Wildlife Recovery – $17.8 million

The League is disappointed that the Committee appropriated less than $18 million for Fiscal Year 2020, when the Army Corps of Engineers has said that it needs at much as $40 million annually to implement the Missouri River Recovery Plan.

South Florida Ecosystem Restoration – $63.25 million

The Committee’s appropriation for the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration program, an ambitious plan to restore the Everglades and protect the drinking water for 8 million Americans, falls woefully short of the $200 million needed to adequately fund badly-needed work on the ground.

The Next Steps

These budget proposals are only first drafts. As the spending bills move through the remainder of the appropriations process, the League will work to protect the programs that are slated to receive the funding they need, and will fight to secure sufficient budgets for programs that were not prioritized in this first round.

You can help. Stay up to date with our work, and get notified of opportunities to tell decision makers what your priorities are.

Take action NOW to demand permanent full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.