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America's Voice for Conservation in the Deficit Debate
Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Hunters got a frightening wake-up call earlier this year. Cuts to the Federal budget seemed to rip into conservation more than other programs. It was like an 18-wheeler cutting us off on a highway. Here's what is going on: huge trends in Federal spending that started decades ago are squeezing conservation programs out of the Federal budget. Also, the political blame game is adding pressure as advocates pick sides and make it harder for Congress to reach agreement.

The answer is to push the other way -- toward an agreement on the overall Federal budget that protects conservation funding. This is what the Boone and Crockett Club -- along with more than 640 organizations -- is doing.

We have formed the America's Voice for Conservation, Recreation and Preservation (AVCRP). The coalition represents tens of millions of citizens with diverse political backgrounds who have united in support of conservation, recreation and preservation programs as a means to create jobs and improve the economy. The group is led by John Nau, Chairman Emeritus of the Civil War Trust, and Bill Meadows, the CEO of the Wilderness Society. The national groups and many regional and state groups are making our case to members of Congress, Congressional leaders, and the White House.

We started with a clear picture of the problem: every dollar coming into the Federal government each year is spent automatically. This is required by the laws for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other mandatory benefits-programs such as farm subsidies. Because of the $1.3 trillion annual deficit, all conservation and other discretionary spending is borrowed money and funded year-to-year. To close the deficit, Congress must amend the laws that automatically pay out benefits (which is politically challenging), find new sources of revenue (also a major challenge), or just spend less on everything else in year-by-year spending laws (which is comparatively easier).
This problem is getting worse because the automatic spending is automatically increasing.

Benefits programs grow automatically to keep up with new retirees and rising costs. Every analysis of the federal budget predicts large deficits for years to come. Because this hurts the entire economy, the pressure on Congress and the Administration is heavy. A June 2011 poll found that 81% of those polled were somewhat or very worried that the federal deficit would harm their children’s or grandchildren's future.

Of course, the other thing that will harm the future for children and grandchildren is a collapse in conservation.

The AVCRP effort is helping address the automatic spending problem, and showing how conservation programs create jobs and economic activity. This makes conservation more important to Congress financially and politically.

Our opportunity is that our federal programs support local economies, local jobs, and the well-being of our citizens. Most of these values come through grants for conservation projects. This means that even our small slice of the budget is a big help in improving the economy.

Our challenge is that conservation agencies have become more expensive to run. The cost of salaries, buildings, lights, and other overhead costs have been steadily increasing. These increases do not go away with budget cuts, so the cuts are often taken out of grant programs. This problem is especially painful because our small part of the budget (less than 1%) got a boost in the 2009 spending bill that was intended to stimulate the economy. This helped pay the overhead for a couple of years, which helped keep the grants flowing. Now that boost in 2009 makes conservation programs a target for cuts back down to usual amounts, but this will sharply cut grants and not overhead.

It is tempting to think that conservation's tiny bit of the Federal budget should simply leave us out of the painful cuts needed to balance the books. But the important thing is not how small we are: it is how large the automatic programs are. Growth in entitlement programs cannot avoid conservation any more than an elephant can avoid a beetle or an ocean tanker can avoid a Carolina skiff.

On the national level, the entitlement programs have the right of way, and national defense is also imperative. By supporting thoughtful changes to these programs, we can protect our small space in the federal budget. The Super Committee (Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction), formed to tackle the enormous federal deficit, will play a major role in how this turns out. Their report is due November 23rd, and Congress must vote on the report by December 24th or else automatic spending cuts are triggered in January 2012.

Without addressing the larger issues of the federal debt, the pressure to contain federal spending by further reducing conservation, historic preservation and recreation programs will continue. AVCRP is making a difference already. Since starting in June 2011, the Coalition has already convinced key lawmakers to try to reach middle ground on conservation grant programs.

 

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