INTERIOR:

New budget reflects shift in priorities

After years of flat or declining funding, natural resource agencies expect to see a significant boost in the 2010 budget along with a leftward shift in policies and priorities.

Beyond the increased funds for many Interior Department agencies, the budget proposal as President Obama has outlined thus far focuses on acquiring more public land, addressing climate change issues and raising fees on the oil and gas industry.

"It's a shift in priorities by this administration, giving us a much better budget to work on," said House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks (D-Wash). "I'm very pleased."

Dicks said the change will reverse years of neglect under the Bush administration.

From 2001 to 2007, there was "a 16 percent cut in Interior, 29 percent cut in EPA and, if you take fire out, a 35 percent cut at the Forest Service," Dicks said. "So these agencies have been really hammered."

Likewise, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said the budget will make the nation's parks, forests and refuges a greater priority. "I hope that particularly with our new secretary of Interior there we'll see an increased focus on the nurturing of the public lands, the stewardship of the public lands," he said. "I think Secretary [Ken] Salazar is going to prove very aggressive in advocating for attention to these issues."

Democrats may have a fight on their hands over some of the increases. In recent days, Republicans have begun to criticize the budget as another piece of legislation that will significantly expand the scope of the federal government and drive up the deficit. GOP members are also likely to attack any provisions they see as limiting access to or raising prices on domestic energy sources.

Funding increases

The change began with the recently passed economic stimulus, which will send $3 billion to the Interior Department and $7.2 billion to U.S. EPA.

On top of that, Obama's 2010 budget blueprint would increase national park funding by $100 million and add $130 million for monitoring and adapting to climate change by land management agencies. It would slowly bump up money for the Land and Water Conservation Fund until it reached full funding of $900 million by 2014.

In an interview last month, Salazar said he would try to figure out how to "create sustainability" in the park system through its funding, even in the tough economic climate.

"One of President Obama's priorities and one of my priorities in the Department of Interior is to enhance our national landscapes and other manifestations, that's the national park system, it's the national conservation areas, it's the wildlife refuge systems, it's all of our landscapes, including our partnerships with private landowners," Salazar said. "And so there's a lot of work that we have to do there and we will be prioritizing our national landscapes for our budgets and our initiatives as we go forward."

While the administration will not release detailed budget numbers until next month, the increased funding for land management agencies likely will receive strong support from key appropriators.

Dicks said Obama's budget blueprint reflects many of his priorities, especially for parks, the Fish and Wildlife Service, EPA and the Clean Water and Drinking Water state revolving funds, which receive a $2.4 billion increase. Dicks also supports increased money for climate change priorities.

Funding for those agencies has increased somewhat since Democrats took control of the House. "But we're still way behind," Dicks said. "If the agencies from 2001 forward had just gotten a cost of living adjustment we'd be way ahead of where we are, even with the Obama budget. But it's a much better budget."

Dicks said he would like to see more money for trails, roads and other infrastructure projects, including more transportation grant money for rural areas.

Land conservation

One of the biggest changes in the proposed budget is conservation of new lands. "While Americans can take great pride in our existing national parks and other public lands, there are many landscapes and ecosystems that do not have adequate protection," Obama's budget outline says.

Salazar last week noted that the Land and Water Conservation Fund as envisioned by President John F. Kennedy is authorized at $900 million a year but funded only at about 10 percent of that. Obama's budget said the increased funding would be used to acquire easements on forested lands under significant development pressures along with new parks and public lands, "with a focus on ecosystems that do not yet have the protection they deserve."

That has pleased environmental groups. Alan Front, senior vice president of the Trust for Public Land, said the fund has been the mainstay for protecting critical landscapes but that even with Democrats in charge of Congress "it's been on a respirator the past couple of years."

"With this budget it really has a new lease on life," Front said. "This really is a watershed moment for watersheds and for parks and for forests."

Overall, the budget marks a significant shift in direction, he added.

"The last administration, to their credit, looked to score a few very targeted and significant conservation successes, but those came in an overall climate of cost reduction and constrained resources and constrained ambitions," Front said. "This is the first concrete demonstration that this administration is putting its money where its ideals are. And the public lands base is going to be the better for it."

Salazar said the Land and Water Conservation Fund budget increase could be paid for by increased royalties on oil and gas production on federal lands.

Obama's budget proposal would repeal several oil industry tax incentives while imposing new taxes on Gulf of Mexico producers to close "loopholes" that have allowed companies to avoid royalty payments. The overall budget eliminates $31.5 billion in "oil and gas company preferences" over a decade, the budget summary says.

The provisions are certain to prompt resistance from the oil industry and from Republican and Democratic lawmakers from oil-producing states. The plan drew a swift rebuke from the oil industry's most powerful trade group, which called the measures a bad idea, especially during a recession.

"New taxes could mean fewer American jobs and less revenue at a time when we desperately need both," American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said in a statement.

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