Dan Ashe was wearing his game face when he met with writers for a roundtable lunch at the recent Utah conference of the Outdoor Writers of America. Cloaked in a shroud of bad news, Ashe, who was recently appointed director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, explained the GOP-controlled House Subcommittee on Interior and Environment Appropriations passed an appropriations bill that not only fiscally hamstrings his agency, but wages financial blitzkrieg on programs and policies intended to protect and restore the nation’s fish and wildlife habitat.
Despite its importance to a wide swath of everyday Americans, fish and wildlife conservation is just a flyspeck on the national budget, amounting to less than one percent of federal spending. Nevertheless, the House has slashed fish and wildlife program funding from 60 to 100 percent in the name of deficit reduction. While these cuts will devastate conservation efforts across the United States, they’ll do little to address the federal deficit. Ashe contends–and there is plenty of data to back him up–wildlife conservation actually stimulates the economy with spending on recreational activities such as hunting, fishing and wildlife watching.
“It’s a tough sell,” he says of convincing Congress of the value of conservation.
While Congress apparently isn’t willing to listen to an agency leader, As he hopes they will listen to voters. He encourages hunters and anglers to contact their members of Congress to remind them of the importance of healthy fish and wildlife populations. Elsewhere at the conferences, the staff of several national conservation organizations
made it clear their groups were fighting the good fight in D.C. They say the conservation community understands the need for budget reductions, but the cuts passed by the House will gut conservation programs.
While the final outcome of the federal budget is uncertain, it is likely conservation will receive better treatment from the Senate and the Administration. For instance, the Administration recommends full funding, $900 million, for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded with a fraction of offshore oil and gas revenues. The program has received full funding only once—back in 1965 when it was begun. In contrast, the House subcommittee’s appropriations bill proposes $61.8 million for the fund in 2012—an 80 percent reduction from the 2011 funding level.
In case you were wondering, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a go-to source for funding land acquisitions for parks, forests and refuges, as well as supporting state and local parks and recreation. In Minnesota, the loss of 2012 funding will affect federal conservation projects in Voyageur’s National Park, the Superior National Forest and the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. The lack of funds is even more acute when you consider federal funds are often matched with money provided by the state and nonprofit organizations who frequently work in partnership on land acquisition and habitat projects. Future federal involvement in such partnerships may be limited.
“There is no GOP support for the idea of making an investment in land conservation,” says Ashe.
But acquiring land is only one of many aspects of fish and wildlife conservation for which Ashe must find political support. He says when his purchased his first federal duck stamp 30 years ago, it cost $7.50. Today a federal duck stamp costs $15. Ashe, and most duck hunting organizations, believe it is time to raise the price of the duck stamp, perhaps to $30. It is very unlikely to happen. Even though the duck stamp is a user fee and the revenues derived from it are used for waterfowl management, the GOP has labeled raising the stamp price a tax increase and is unwilling to allow it to occur.
“Raising the duck stamp price would bring at least $25 million in additional funding, which could be used to leverage other dollars for wetlands conservation,” Ashe says. “Members of Congress need to hear from hunters on this issue.”
The Service is also responsible for the enforcement of federal fish and wildlife laws, including everything from waterfowl hunting to the importation of exotic pets to trade in illicit wildlife parts. The agency is authorized for 260 special agents and currently has about 220. Ashe says new agents are being trained to begin duty this year. However, the budget cuts proposed by the House will reduce the ranks of enforcement to “well below 200 agents.” No doubt, this will be welcome news to the crime syndicates and others involved in the illegal wildlife trade.
Another politically divisive issue is the management of wildlife species on the Endangered Species List. Ashe was well aware of the frustration felt in Minnesota regarding the delays and lawsuits which have prevented the state’s recovered population of gray wolves from being removed from the list.
“It’s long overdue,” said Ashe of wolf de-listing in the Great Lakes States. “We need to move on to more important pressing endangered species issues, such as sage grouse, western cutthroat trout and Hawaiian birds.”
The reason the restoration of endangered species is important, he explained, is because when landscapes are capable of supporting wide-ranging creatures such as wolves and grizzly bears, the landscape can also support all or nearly all of the many native species that comprise a healthy ecosystem.
“When we put the pieces together, we can start to see ecologically sustainability across landscapes,” he said.
When conservation becomes lost in the sound and fury that defines current politics, we can forget it is really about preserving and restoring the American landscape—one of the world’s great natural wonders. It is disappointing so many present members of the party of Teddy Roosevelt, who did so much to give us the natural landscape we have today, seem to have lost a basic respect for this land that is our land. We need to address the nation’s budget deficit, but it is unnecessary and unwise to destroy our proud heritage of fish and wildlife conservation in order to do so.