With all the drama surrounding the White House negotiations to raise the nation's debt limit without doing further damage to the country's fiscal profile, legislation still working its way through the House of Representatives understandably takes a backseat.
But as crafted, the proposal concerning Fiscal Year 2012 funding for the Interior Department stands to do more than a little harm to the National Park Service's fiscal fitness, and also threatens to degrade the watersheds that drain into the Colorado River as it runs through Grand Canyon National Park.
"In its current form, it's deeply damaging to our national parks, Grand Canyon in particular," John Garder, the National Parks Conservation Association's budget and appropriations legislative representative, said Monday.
As it stands, the bill would, if enacted, reduce overall funding for the Park Service, weaken air and water regulations that are needed to protect park resources, and stall efforts to let the agency acquire a private 1,400-acre inholding in Grand Teton National Park.
The legislation, which was scheduled to be considered by the full House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, has drawn criticism from a number of groups concerned about its environmental impact.
Trout Unlimited issued a release last week that condemned the bill, saying it "cuts funding for essential conservation programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund and North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and contains harmful riders that undermine the Clean Water Act and other protective rules for rivers and streams."
“Fishing and hunting generate $76.7 billion annually in economic activity in the U.S.,” said Steve Moyer, vice president for government affairs at Trout Unlimited. “We can’t expect to sustain this powerful economic engine if we’re removing the very conservation programs that make it run.”
At the Natural Resources Defense Fund, Scott Slesinger, the group's legislative director, said the legislation "is a contract on America masquerading as a spending bill. It’s nothing short of a declaration of war on our most basic health protections."
"It would do away with fundamental safeguards that keep our air, water and lands clean. Worse than making deep budget cuts, the bill is chock full of gratuitous policy riders that are unprecedented in number and scope. They have no place in a budget -- or anywhere else.”
Back at NPCA, Mr. Garder said one of the most egregious riders, or amendments, to the bill would block efforts to continue a moratorium on new mining claims on 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park for 20 years.
“What really put us over in the edge in opposing this bill were the policy riders, in particular one that would undermine protections for the Grand Canyon," he said during a phone call from his Washington, D.C., office.
The proposed 1 million-acre buffer was identified "through a public process that allowed for public comment, and 300,000 people commented and the determination was that it is appropriate for the protection of Grand Canyon and for the 25 or so million people who rely on the Colordao River for drinking water and their uses," said Mr. Garder.
If the moratorium is not put in place and uranium mining claims are allowed, “It is not unfathomable to imagine that those who are hiking around the Grand Canyon would have to note in which streams there is uranium contamination and carry their own water," he added.
Conservation groups are not the only organizations that support the 20-year moratorium, said Mr. Garder, noting support for it from the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona Project, and Native American tribes in the Southwest.
Other sections of the proposed legislation the NPCA takes issue with include:
* Efforts to weaken or remove Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gases;
* Efforts to weaken EPA regulation of coal ash;
* Efforts to weaken oversight of stormwater discharges, something that can lead to degredation of waters such as the Chesapeake Bay;
* Cuts to the Land and Water Conservation Fund that would zero out funding for Park Service lands acquisition;
* A $7 million cut in National Park Service funding.
“That is less than 1 percent," Mr. Garder said of the $7 million, "but it is on top of the cuts that park operations received last year. Something that concerns us is backtracking on funding for an account that is essential to ensuring our parks operate essentially.”
The Park Service already is underfunded by roughly $600 million a year, according to the NPCA, and this proposed cut, while small, would nevertheless have to be absorbed by the parks, he said.
Without the LCWF land acquisition funding, the Park Service also might not be able to move forward with the $107 million purchase from the state of Wyoming of 1,400 acres inside Grand Teton. The administration had been counting on the LCWF funds to start the purchase with a $10 million downpayment in the coming fiscal year, according to Mr. Garder.
“But when there is an effort to prevent any new land acquisition projects in FY12, that’s going to seriously undermine that multi-year effort, and the threat of development there should not be underestimated," said Mr. Garder. "It’s critical that this bill go through if we’re going to prevent the building of trophy mansions or subdivisions in the middle of Grand Teton National Park.”
The House measure also carries an 18 percent cut to the Park Service's construction budget, which the president had already reduced by $50 million in his budget proposal, said the NPCA budget analyst.
“If you look at the suite of those (construction) needs, there are some projects in there that are clearly very important for the protection of visitor safety and the protection of the historic and natural resources,” Mr. Garder said.
For instance, at Grand Canyon National Park there's a $16 million need for a storage system for potable water for park visitors, and at the Statue of Liberty National Monument there's a need for asbestos abatement work, roofing, sidewalk repairs, and seawall repairs that alone are estimated to cost nearly $11 million, he said.
“Many of those jobs are contracted to businesses, and so there is a direct jobs loss component when you are reducing the ability for the Park Serivce to engage in some of those contracts to do some of those basic repairs,” said Mr. Garder.
How the legislation will fare after the House Appropriations Committee deals with it remains to be seen, he said. The full House might take it up next week, or possibly not until September. And the Senate has not even started its work on the Interior Appropriations measure, he said.
Of course, the lawmakers could find themselves having to go back to square one, depending on how negotiations over the nation's debt limit go with the White House.