Bush Budget Termed Irresponsible, Cynical

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 14, 2005 (ENS) – The Bush administration’s fiscal year 2006 budget proposal slashes total federal spending on the environment and natural resource conservation by more than 10 percent, environmentalists say.

The proposal cuts discretionary environmental and conservation spending some $3.3 billion, according to national environmental groups, who labeled the plan the "most anti-environmental budget blueprint" to date.

"The administration’s budget demonstrates a stunning and irresponsible disregard for environmental safeguards," said Wesley Warren, deputy director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Bush

President George W. Bush is applauded at the Detroit Economic Club, the day after his 2006 budget was introduced. February 8, 2005 (Photo courtesy The White House)
At a press briefing Wednesday with several other environmental organizations, Warren told reporters the proposed cuts represent "the biggest percentage reduction ever proposed by this administration."

The overall numbers cited by the environmental groups center largely on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and some conservation programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Cuts highlighted by environmentalists include a $700 million decrease for clean water projects, a $750 million cut to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and a $333 million decline in spending for NOAA.

The NOAA budget reduction includes a 12 percent overall cut to NOAA Fisheries, a 53 percent cut to programs aimed at protecting marine mammals and sea turtles, and a $29 million decrease in funding for the federal salmon plan.

turtle

Body of a sea turtle entangled in derelict gillnet (Photo courtesy NOAA)
It also reduces the National Ocean Service budget by $255 million, according to Oceana federal policy director Ted Morton, slashes 29 percent from NOAA’s program to manage marine sanctuaries and eliminates an initiative to tackle marine debris.

The budget disregards the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy which last year issued a comprehensive report warning that marine resources are in crisis and proposing to pay for their recovery with oil and gas revenue.

Within the Interior Department budget, the environmental groups honed in on a two percent cut to the operating budget for endangered species programs, an eight percent decrease in funds for endangered species recovery efforts and a three percent cut to overall funding for the National Park Service.

The budget targets "programs that are directed to protecting our most special places and our most threatened wildlife," said Linda Lance, a policy analyst with The Wilderness Society. "Once lost, these are not retrievable."

Lance criticized the administration’s decision to once again use the budget to showcase its intent to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The budget "cynically scores $2.4 billion in revenues" from leasing in ANWR, Lance said, even though drilling in the refuge is "illegal under current law.

Bush administration officials held their own press briefing Wednesday and defended the president’s budget as fair given the fiscal restraints of the massive budget deficit and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Norton

Gale Norton was Interior Secretary during President George W. Bush's first term and has stayed for his second term. (Photo courtesy DOI)
The budget follows and "reaffirms" the president’s focus on voluntary, cooperative conservation efforts, said Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

From his first day in office, the president has made it clear that he believes the best thing we can do for conservation is to tap into the energy, ingenuity and love for the land of the American people," Norton said.

Officials touted a 4.1 percent increase in the USDA’s conservation reserve program, which encourages private landowners to plant grass and trees on retired agricultural lands, as well as $500 million for the Forest Service to aid trail construction, watershed restoration and efforts to reduce the risk of forest fires.

"The heart of voluntary conservation programs is cooperative conservation," said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. "Partnerships at the local, state, and federal levels with landowners, tribes, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations are critical in this effort."

Environmentalists view the administration’s concentration on voluntary partnerships as little more than a smokescreen for efforts to undermine federal conservation efforts.

They note that the Forest Service budget increases money to clear hazardous fuels from federal land, but includes a 30 percent cut to community wildfire assistance grants.

fire

Fire menaces homes in Bend, Oregon 2003. (Photo courtesy OSU)
Those grants aid localities with protecting lands in and immediately adjacent to communities, Lance said, and they are far more important that increased funding for efforts to clear trees from national forests.

"Most of the land that is fire prone and threatens communities is not federal land, it is state and private land," Lance said.

It is not just funding levels that have environmentalists at odds with the Bush budget.

Language in the spending plan asks Congress to form two commissions to analyze and determine the efficiency and productivity of federal programs based on White House performance ratings – and allow the commissions to automatically downsize or terminate programs that do not meet their criteria.

Warren said the commissions would grant "the executive branch the authority to sweep aside innumerable environmental, consumer, and labor protections under the guise of government effectiveness."

Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP America) Policy Director Jim DiPeso calls the budget "a mixed bag."

"President Bush made the right call in proposing to close down oil and gas research programs, which would save $80 million," DiPeso said, reasoning that, "Oil and gas production is a mature, profitable industry that ought to stand on its own."

REP America also likes the proposed $18 million boost in the Everglades budget and the near doubling of funds proposed for restoring Louisiana’s endangered coastal wetlands.

A proposed 38 percent increase in the Forest Legacy program would allow expanded acquisition of private forests, either outright or through conservation easements to prevent loss of private forests to urban sprawl, says DiPeso.

But the Republican environmental group criticizes this budget for cutting energy efficiency spending and for the 33 percent reduction in the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund, which supports repair and construction of sewage treatment plants.

Criticizing the President's insistence on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, REP America says, "Even if the administration’s projection of $2.4 billion in drilling revenues is accurate, opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil production is poor energy policy."

"Federal studies show that oil from the refuge would do little to lower oil prices or reduce America’s oil imports." DiPeso said, "Since oil is bought and sold in a global market, opening the refuge would simply feed the oil dependence that exposes America to supply disruption and price shock."