INTERIOR

Bill delays sage grouse listings but rejects wildfire disaster aid, rural schools funding

A $1 trillion bill to fund most federal agencies through the end of next September would ban the Fish and Wildlife Service from proposing or finalizing Endangered Species Act listings for sage grouse during that time, a major blow for wildlife advocates that is likely to please ranchers, oil and gas drillers and miners fearful of potential new regulations.

The bill also lacks funding for Secure Rural Schools (SRS), a program that aids forested Western counties coping with the loss of timber revenue, and rejects President Obama's call to overhaul how the nation pays for wildfires, moves that will disappoint members on both sides of the aisle.

The sage grouse, SRS and wildfire provisions were major concessions to Republicans, who enjoyed a favorable bargaining position in bicameral spending talks given their takeover of the Senate next month. The GOP is poised to pass bold proposals next Congress to revive timber harvests on federal forests and expand drilling, leaving potential tough veto decisions for Obama.

The omnibus bill, negotiated by leaders on the appropriations panels in both chambers, is expected to pass Congress without amendment within the week.

The bill would provide $30.044 billion for Interior, Forest Service and U.S. EPA, down from Obama's $30.620 billion request but just $14 million below current funding levels.

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But what has generated significant controversy is a rider that says FWS cannot "write or issue" listing rules for four grouse species: proposed rules for the greater and Columbia sage grouse and final rules for the bi-state and Gunnison sage grouse.

If passed, it would be the most controversial wildlife rider enacted by Congress since April 2011, when members legislatively delisted the gray wolf in Idaho and Montana. It harkens back to 1995, when Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, a bill placing a moratorium on all new species listings and critical habitat designations.

The language is identical to what was passed by the House Appropriations Committee last summer and could throw a major wrench in Interior's wildlife agenda. But there is significant ambiguity in how it would apply.

Interior is under court order to decide by Sept. 30, 2015, whether to propose listing the wide-ranging greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered, or to decide that protections are no longer needed. On its face, the omnibus bill appears to delay that listing decision by a day, given that the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

But the language may block Interior from drafting, meeting or even talking about whether to list the bird. If so, that would likely push back an initial listing determination many months into fiscal 2016.

It will be up to Interior's solicitors to decide what is possible.

"It comes down to the definition of 'write,'" said Mark Salvo of Defenders of Wildlife, who has worked on sage grouse issues for well over a decade.

Here's another twist: The rider would prohibit Interior from issuing a final listing rule for the Gunnison sage grouse, which roams western Colorado and southeast Utah. But Interior issued a final listing rule for that species last month.

It is unclear whether Interior's "threatened" listing for the Gunnison sage grouse would stand -- that rule doesn't technically take effect until later this month -- as well as whether Interior could still issue a special rule, known as "4(d)," meant to alleviate some land users from Gunnison sage grouse regulations.

And there's another potential unintended consequence: FWS Director Dan Ashe last weekend said he believes the agency will be able to withdraw a proposed listing rule for the bi-state population of greater sage grouse along the Nevada-California border when the deadline rolls around in April.

But it's not clear whether the omnibus rider would allow rule withdrawals. It could cause major uncertainty for ranchers in the area.

Regardless, the language infuriated conservationists and upset Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who has argued that delaying ESA deadlines will hamper efforts to protect Western rangelands.

"The congressional rider is disappointing," said Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw. "Delay is not a solution. The Interior Department will not slow its unprecedented collaboration across 11 Western states to put strong conservation measures in place. However, the rider undermines efforts to provide certainty to states, ranchers and energy developers who are working to protect the habitat and the Western way of life."

Conservation groups, including the Wilderness Society and Defenders of Wildlife, blasted the move.

"It is outrageous that Congress would include such a grossly irresponsible rider on this omnibus," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders. "This is yet another example of the recent political attacks on our nation's wildlife and natural heritage, with Congress once again meddling in what should be science-driven decisionmaking and ultimately placing an imperiled species at grave risk."

But the Environmental Defense Fund took a softer position.

"Delaying the process can work if and only if there is no delay in aggressive, creative, on-the-ground efforts to protect the species," said Eric Holst, senior director of working lands for EDF. "Otherwise, further declines in the next year could lead to even greater threats to the bird and to local economies."

The Western Grouse Coalition, which has lobbied Republicans to push delay legislation, praised the rider, saying the rush to list sage grouse was not in the bird's best interest.

"This is an important first step in allowing states to finalize their statewide management plans and ultimately to implement these efforts," said WGC President Allen Freemyer.

Senate Republicans said the listing was halted for only a year because of the temporary nature of the underlying appropriations bill, which expires at the end of the fiscal year. But some predicted it would be included in future spending measures if a more permanent legislative fix were unavailable.

"Obviously, our first choice would be to authorize something we think make sense," said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a member of the Appropriations Committee. "We'll do that if we can get Democrats to work with us, but if not, then yeah, we'd look at doing it again in the future."

Rural schools, other provisions

The funding bill also provides no funding for Secure Rural Schools, a significant setback for forested counties in the West that depend on the program to cushion a major decline in federal timber harvests.

House leaders intend to extend the program in the first quarter of 2015, while also pushing legislation to streamline timber sales, a move sure to ignite major policy battles with the White House.

The bill does provide funding for payments in lieu of taxes (PILT), which, combined with money provided in the National Defense Authorization Act also expected to pass Congress this week, would fully fund PILT, according to Republicans.

Republicans generally support SRS but resist extending it, arguing that it is costly and distracts from the need to generate logging jobs.

"If the Senate would have acted on federal forest policy reform, it would have gone a long way towards providing a long-term solution to actively managing our forests to grow jobs and revenue," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). "But I remain strongly supportive of getting the job done with a viable pay-for once and for all without political gimmickry."

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) blasted House Republicans for blocking SRS, saying it will hurt Oregon counties' ability to fund law enforcement, roads, firefighters and schools.

"Rural Oregonians deserve better than to have politics put on hold this essential lifeline," he said.

Conservation groups yesterday praised appropriators for maintaining level funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which funds the acquisition of new federal lands and the preservation of private lands, among other provisions.

"By maintaining previous-year funding levels for LWCF, this bill represents a significant endorsement of the program," said the LWCF Coalition. "At the same time, the bill funds LWCF at only one-third of the program's authorized level and the administration's [fiscal 2015] request."

The bill also rejects two of the Bureau of Land Management's key proposals for fiscal 2015 to implement new inspection fees for oil and gas wells and to establish a BLM charitable foundation.

The bill would provide the following funding for Interior bureaus and the Agriculture Department's Forest Service:

  • $2.615 billion for the National Park Service, $55 million above current levels.
  • $1.086 billion for the Bureau of Land Management, $13 million more than current level.
  • $1.440 billion for the Fish and Wildlife Service, $13 million more than current levels.
  • $2.402 billion for the Forest Service's non-wildfire accounts, which is equal to current levels.

The bill would provide $5.1 billion total for the Forest Service, which includes the full 10-year rolling average for wildfire suppression. It also contains $526 million for hazardous fuels reduction activities, which is $21 million above Obama's request.

The bill would deny Obama's request to overhaul federal wildfire funding, a major defeat for conservationists, sportsmen, loggers and other forest users. Obama's proposal, which was included in a draft funding bill by the Senate Appropriations Committee but not in the House, where it was opposed by budget hawks, sought to prevent the Forest Service from having to siphon money from forest stewardship programs to fight wildfires.

FWS

FWS's budget would increase nearly $13 million but still fall $36.4 million short of the administration's request.

The bill specifies which land acquisition projects it would fund, cutting $10 million from the White House's $35 million request and all of the $465,000 requested for land protection planning. Those cuts were offset slightly by a $3 million addition for Highland Conservation Act Grants, which the bill's justification noted "have a record of more than a 2 to 1 ratio in non-Federal matching funds."

The bill would fully fund the service's law enforcement efforts and provides nearly all of the requested sum for international affairs, giving them budgets over $66.7 million and $14.5 million, respectively. But it also would require FWS to submit a status report within 90 days, detailing the specific steps the service is taking to address wildlife trafficking and illegal natural resources trade, including its efforts to coordinate with other agencies and implement the president's National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking.

Lawmakers are also attempting to use the measure to exert tighter control over the service's actions. The bill would block FWS from seeking "compensation from responsible parties who injure or destroy National Wild Life Refuge System or other Service resources" and removes language that would have allowed the agency more flexibility in spending its budget. Committees overseeing the agency "have been concerned in recent years with actions taken by the Service that have the appearance of attempting to sidestep" congressional appropriation instructions, the budget said.

The bill would provide $1 million to compensate ranchers for livestock killed by wolves, $2 million to stop the spread of invasive quagga and zebra mussels in the West, and $5.5 million to stop the spread of Asian carp into the Great Lakes, according to a House Appropriations Committee summary. The legislation also would continue funding for state wildlife grant programs and includes funding and a directive to ensure national fish hatcheries remain open and at full production, it said.

Reporters Nick Juliano and Corbin Hiar contributed.

Twitter: @philipataylor | Email: ptaylor@eenews.net

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