Well, it finally happened. Congress passed an omnibus spending bill early this morning and along with it, a load of other legislation including some big provisions about the outdoors. Somewhat unexpectedly, there’s a lot of good news for public lands.
(A little background on what this bill is: Last month, after a brief government shutdown, Congress passed a 1-month spending bill and set the broad parameters for spending for the rest of its fiscal year (through September 2018). Congress is supposed to pass a whole set of spending bills for individual agencies or program areas, but because it’s not able to get much done these days, it’s often had to resort to “omnibus” spending bills that enact spending for the entire federal government all at once. There’s a lot going on in this bill, but when it comes to the public lands corner of this 2000-page-plus piece of legislation, we are feeling pretty jazzed about how things shook out...and your outreach to members of Congress definitely helped make a difference.)
Here’s some of what we’re stoked about:
- Fire funding fixed. For years now, we’ve been pressing Congress to address the dysfunctional way we’ve budgeted for fire suppression on public lands. We’ve asked you to write your members of Congress heaps of times, and by keeping the pressure up, we’ve finally succeeded in getting this across the finish line. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal this is for maintaining the ability of the Forest Service to deliver on ALL of its varied responsibilities. Until this point, when the Forest Service exceeded its appropriated dollars for fighting fires, it was forced to “borrow” from other agency accounts, meaning that all sorts of other agency responsibilities—including things like trail maintenance and planning—went unaddressed. The provisions in the omnibus will end fire borrowing and address the erosion of agency budgets over time by freezing the amount of money the agency is responsible for paying for fire suppression before it’s able to access disaster relief money. We’re also really stoked that the trade-off for this important fix—some modest changes to analysis requirements for fire-prevention-related logging projects—maintain solid environmental and public participation sideboards. Again, it’s hard to overstate what a big deal this is, and we are grateful to all of you who’ve reached out to your members of Congress on this over the years and made it happen.
- Roadless Rule went untouched. As previously mentioned, the Roadless Rule is a big deal for backcountry recreation. It protects some incredible backcountry land on our National Forests from timber harvesting and major development, including some of our favorite less-traveled mountain biking, climbing, backpacking, backcountry skiing, and paddling destinations. It was a very real possibility that the spending bill could have included a precedent-setting exemption to the Roadless Rule that would put a lot of these places at risk of inappropriate development. Outdoor Alliance (and other groups) rallied a TON of folks to speak up about this particular threat, and we were able to successfully defend these backcountry areas. Thank you for sharing your voice over the past few weeks — it made a huge difference.
- FLTFA reauthorization. The Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act is a program—expired since 2011—which allows BLM to retain funds from the sale of “lands identified for disposal” through a planning process, and use those funds for high-value conservation acquisitions. This program helps the BLM thoughtfully address less-than-ideal land ownership patterns (like the checkerboard pattern common in the West) and helps put valuable lands for conservation and recreation into public ownership. This is another program we’ve worked to see reauthorized for years, and we’re incredibly stoked to see its reauthorization.
Additional news that’s got us feeling good:
- Land and Water Conservation Fund got a budget increase. Called America’s “most successful conservation program,” LWCF reinvests revenue from offshore oil and gas drilling back into protecting land. It’s been used in every state and virtually every county in the country to protect all sorts of land, from National Parks to trailheads to creating new baseball fields and playgrounds. LWCF got a 10% budget increase (which is big considering that the President’s budget recommended slashing the program by 85%) to $436 million. Although LWCF will expire at the end of September unless Congress reauthorizes it before then, this reflects the program's popular, bipartisan support.
- Zinke’s reorganization plans to get Congressional oversight. You may have heard that the Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, had big plans to reorganize the entire agency, plans that have been met with major concerns. In report language accompanying the bill, Interior is reminded that reorganization plans require oversight from Congress. Requirements for committee approval include, "closures, consolidations, and relocations of offices," and "no agency shall implement any part of a reorganization that modifies regional or state boundaries for agencies or bureaus" without approval from Congress.
- Agency funding levels. Despite proposals from the Trump Administration for deep cuts to funding for land management agencies and environmental protection, most agencies received stable funding or modest increases. This is great news and evidence that our community’s advocacy is working.
Before cracking open a victory beer, there’s one other thing that we have to do… Thanking public officials, especially those who worked hard to get these important measures across the line, is an important piece of being a good advocate and making long-term change. It’s important to note here that Congress overwhelming ignored the administration’s requests for deep budget cuts to the land management agencies. Congress recognizes that public lands are important to all of us, and that’s only happening because you all are reaching out and letting them know it.