Sage grouse, parks among omnibus winners

By Phil Taylor | 12/16/2015 01:22 PM EST

Congress’ sweeping funding deal offers perks for the sage grouse and the National Park Service and contains almost no policy riders that would hamstring the Obama administration’s agenda on public lands, energy and wildlife.

Congress’ sweeping funding deal offers perks for the sage grouse and the National Park Service and contains almost no policy riders that would hamstring the Obama administration’s agenda on public lands, energy and wildlife.

The $1.15 trillion spending package for fiscal 2016 contains $12 billion for the Interior Department, including substantial boosts to its three main land management agencies.

It also includes a three-year extension and a one-time funding boost for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a partial victory for conservation groups, sportsmen, the Obama administration and pro-LWCF lawmakers from both parties.


It was also a partial win for LWCF reform proponents including House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who had indicated last week he would accept a short-term extension in exchange for a Republican proposal to lift restrictions on exporting crude, which the GOP got.

The short-term extension also forces lawmakers to continue debating whether the 50-year-old LWCF is in need of structural reforms, as proposed by Bishop and other fiscal conservatives.

But the bill still provides $450 million for LWCF, a near 50 percent increase over current levels, and still allocates about half of the funding to federal land acquisitions that reform proponents have sought to curb.

"The congressional budget deal announced tonight is a disappointing mixed bag for America’s land, water and parks," said Alan Rowsome, senior director of government relations for lands at the Wilderness Society. "Handed a huge opportunity to do right by the Land and Water Conservation Fund after allowing it to expire in September, Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by failing to permanently renew and fully fund this important program."

The biggest winner in Interior spending might be a plump, brown bird.

The bill earmarks $60 million for the Bureau of Land Management to conserve sage grouse habitat in the West, including through activities like the removal of juniper trees, eradication of invasive weeds and prescribed burns. That’s roughly a fourfold increase over current funding levels for grouse.

BLM plans to use much of the money to support "the increased workload and commitments required" to implement its sage grouse conservation plans spanning roughly 50 million acres in 10 Western states.

A contingent of counties, mining companies and grazing interests, along with Nevada’s attorney general and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R), are seeking to overturn those plans in court, arguing they stifle the economic use of public lands. A coalition of Western Republicans including Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson were fighting hard to include curbs on those plans in the omnibus, but to no avail.

The omnibus does include a one-year prohibition on Fish and Wildlife Service listing the greater sage grouse or Columbia Basin sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species, though it will have little practical effect. FWS decided in September that birds in Washington state’s Columbia River Basin were not a separate listable species and that the broader, 11-state population does not warrant Endangered Species Act protections.

The service is unlikely to revisit those decisions unless Congress or a federal court prompt it to do so.

The funding boost gives BLM the tools it needs to begin restoring native bunchgrass to the sage steppe landscape and rebuilding the sagebrush canopy that has been lost over the past century of human intervention, said Brian Rutledge of the National Audubon Society.

"This earmark gives us license and wherewithal to move forward" on "the biggest land conservation deal we’ve ever made," Rutledge said. "This is exciting — just a couple of years ago we had nothing protecting the sage brush."

‘Major victory for wildlife’

In a surprise to many, the omnibus also did not contain a rider mandating that FWS delist the gray wolf in Wyoming and the Great Lakes.

While the rider was strongly opposed by environmentalists, it carried bipartisan support and was similar to a rider in 2011 that delisted wolves in Montana and Idaho. Capitol Hill insiders believed the Obama administration would have quietly supported it, or at least not opposed it, given that Fish and Wildlife had previously delisted wolves in those regions.

But environmental groups say wolves would be imperiled under state management and see congressional meddling in ESA decisions as a slippery slope. They claimed this as a big victory.

"Wolf delisting had no basis in science and couldn’t hold water in court," said Collette Adkins, an attorney and biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "That rider was an ugly political ploy that would have ended with thousands more dead wolves at the hands of state wildlife managers."

Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said the exclusion of species riders from the bill is "a major victory for wildlife."

The National Park Service would see a big funding boost under this bill as it approaches its 2016 centennial.

The spending measure provides $2.9 billion, an increase of $237 million above the 2015 enacted level, and includes major boosts for park operations and construction in order to chip away at the agency’s deferred maintenance backlog.

"We are very, very grateful to appropriators for restoring funding to parks as they head into their centennial," said John Garder, director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association.

The $94 million boost to park operations — currently funded at $2.276 billion — "will go a long way to serving visitors as they go to parks for this historic occasion," Garder said.

It’s among the highest funding levels ever for operations and on par with 2011 levels when accounting for inflation.

The bill also provides $15 million for the Centennial Challenge, a program that requires an equal or greater match from nonfederal partners to support projects like construction and education to burnish the parks system ahead of its centennial. That’s $5 million above the enacted level, but well short of the administration’s $50 million request.

BLM and FWS also saw large overall boosts, thanks in large part to the bipartisan budget deal struck earlier this year to raise overall discretionary spending caps.

BLM would receive $1.2 billion, a $117 million increase over current levels. FWS would get $1.5 billion, a $69 million boost.

Funding for key wildlife and habitat programs within the FWS budget were sustained at nearly the same funding levels, including the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, and State and Tribal Wildlife Grants.

Notably, the bill did not contain a rider pushed hard by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to authorize a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in her state. The rider was urged by citizens in King Cove, Alaska, who see the road as crucial for access to medical care, but the administration had rejected it and was unwilling give on this issue, according to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

While the bill does contain modest funding increases for the Forest Service for the removal of hazardous fuels and logging sales on federal forests, it does not contain a bipartisan deal to fundamentally change how the Forest Service and Interior pay for wildfire suppression and provide new authorities to expedite approval of forestry projects (E&E Daily, Dec. 16).

This was a crushing defeat for a range of interest groups — namely conservationists, sportsmen and loggers — as well as the administration, which was said to be calling Capitol Hill last night in desperate attempts to get the deal included.

"This is a tremendous missed opportunity, which perpetuates a legacy of fiscal mismanagement with profound national costs," said Whit Fosburgh, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which had pushed hard for a "policy fix" for fire borrowing.