Interior Dept. faces resistance in push for more public lands

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 15, 2012 

WASHINGTON — It's cost $15 to shoot a duck since 1991, but that will change if President Barack Obama gets his way. Under the president's new budget proposal, the cost of the federal duck stamp required for hunting would rise to $25 next year, a move aimed at making it easier for the Interior Department to buy more land for migratory waterfowl.

It's just a small example of how the Interior Department wants to get both larger and leaner in the coming year, relying more on fees and less on tax dollars.

Seeking a budget of $11.5 billion, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has big plans. He wants to make the U.S. the world's top tourist destination and to get more visitors into the national parks. Appearing before a House of Representatives committee Wednesday, Salazar called the parks "the envy of the world."

The department, which already controls 20 percent of the nation's public lands, is proposing to use $212 million in public funds to buy land for more parks and wildlife refuges, including multiple sites to commemorate the Civil War.

In addition, the department wants to buy more land with $450 million from the nation's Land and Water Conservation Fund, a 30 percent increase from this year's purchases. It's a separate fund that doesn't rely on tax dollars, instead using royalties from oil and gas drilling.

In Washington state, for example, the Interior Department wants to use $1 million from the special fund to acquire 226 acres to expand Mount Rainier National Park, and another $1 million to pay for a 201-acre expansion of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Supporters of the Rainier expansion project say it would allow the National Park Service to protect the wild Carbon River — a habitat for salmon and steelhead — and give the public more recreational opportunities. Nisqually provides a habitat for waterfowl, songbirds, raptors and wading birds.

Since the conservation fund was created in 1965, it's helped protect many Washington state icons, including Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades national parks, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

The expansion plans could pose a big challenge for the National Park Service, which runs 397 parks in 49 states but would lose 218 employees under the new budget. Like most other federal workers, the remaining 25,000-plus employees would get pay raises of 0.5 percent next year, coming on the heels of a salary freeze this year.

It also could be a heavy lift for Congress.

Critics, including Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, contend that the federal government already has too much property to maintain.

When Salazar pitched his plan to the committee Wednesday, Hastings said it would be far better if the Interior Department focused instead on improving its current holdings.

"The Interior Department continues to have a maintenance backlog on federal lands that measures into the billions," Hastings told Salazar. "The bottom line is that we should not be increasing spending for land acquisition when the government cannot maintain the land it already owns."

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., a committee member, told Salazar that Congress should find even more money to reduce the backlog, saying that Americans are "shortchanging their heritage" by letting the maintenance work pile up.

Salazar said the Interior Department planned to do "more with less" in 2013, noting that the entire department — which includes the Park Service, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management — would lose 591 positions through attrition and buyouts.

He said the department planned to downsize several programs, saving more than $517 million, and that it would reduce the costs of travel, supplies and administrative expenses by another $207 million. Salazar said he was asking Congress to approve "a squeeze budget" that included painful spending cuts while making plans for new expenses, such as $2.6 million for the U.S. Park Police to provide security and "visitor orientation" for the presidential inauguration next Jan. 20.

Hastings acknowledged that the department's funding increase amounted to 1 percent over this year but said that "simply freezing and holding the line on spending is not enough." He said the department should promote more oil and energy development to boost the economy and hold down the rising cost of gasoline, which he said had increased by an average of $1.68 per gallon since Obama took office three years ago.

"By locking up the Atlantic, Pacific and parts of the Arctic, the Obama administration is forfeiting the production of new American energy, the creation of over a million new American jobs and the generation of new revenue," Hastings charged.

Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the committee's top Democrat, defended Salazar's proposal and charged that Republicans were most interested in an "oil above all" approach. He said the GOP was promoting "phantom revenues" because there weren't enough votes in Congress to allow more drilling in the Alaskan wilderness or off the coasts of California and Florida.

As Congress debates the proposed Interior budget, conservation and recreation groups said the stakes were high.

In 2010, the last year for which statistics are available, U.S. parks, wildlife refuges and historic sites drew more than 437 million visits, contributing $48 billion in economic activity and 388,000 jobs, according to the Interior Department. The department wants more international visitors, and Salazar told the committee that the average foreign tourist spends $4,000 on each U.S. visit.

In Washington state, officials said outdoor recreation supported 115,000 jobs and contributes more than $11.7 billion per year to the state's economy.

Joanna Grist, the executive director of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, a nonprofit citizens group that comprises more than 250 organizations, applauded Obama for calling for "robust funding" of the conservation fund that would pay for the projects in Washington state.

"Safe, close-to-home recreation opportunities are essential to our health and quality of life," she said.

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