The nation's 12-member deficit-reduction super committee officially admitted defeat this week. Democrats claimed their Republican counterparts refused to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans to help ease the country's financial woes, while Republicans said Democrats were too gun-shy on Medicare and Medicaid reform.
So the debate about how to trim $1.2 trillion from the U.S. deficit continues—but the super committee's failure comes as particularly troubling news for conservationists who had hoped that the specially assigned congressional body might be able to safeguard some environmental funding.
In Montana, those concerns stretch from the banks of the Blackfoot River to the crop fields and ranch lands that dot the state. Federal funding for conservation has already been reduced by two-thirds in the last three decades, to about 0.6 percent of the entirefederal budget, says the National Wildlife Federation's David Dittloff. There's just not that much left to cut.
Dittloff and some of his colleagues in the conservation community have been acting largely on speculation since the super committee began its work two months ago. The NWF even went so far as to release a report this month entitled "Conservation Works: How Congress Can Lower the Deficit and Protect Wildlife and Public Health," with the goal of educating the public on what types of federal conservation programs may now be at risk.
Those suspicions seem well founded. Republicans in the House have repeatedly launched attacks on funding for conservation in 2011. Many seem to believe that gutting whole departments such as the Environmental Protection Agency would be a prudent way to help defuse the nation's financial crisis.
What may actually be at risk, Dittloff says, are a series of programs that benefit not only the environment but also farmers, ranchers, sportsmen and recreationists. As outlined in the NWF report, the U.S. Farm Bill is one of the largest sources of federal funding for conservation in the country—roughly $4 billion annually. In Montana, that impact is measured in millions of acres preserved and tens of millions of dollars spent.
"Farmers and ranchers participate in these programs all the time," says Deer Lodge rancher Kathy Hadley. Montana had more than 2.8 million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program last year, Hadley says, providing payment to farmers who leave private land fallow to preserve soil and water quality. Roughly 600 farmers signed on to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program in 2010, and the state received $22 million for projects and technical assistance, allowing those farmers to improve irrigation efficiency and prevent soil erosion.
"There's a lot of money at stake," Hadley emphasizes. "We're in the Conservation Stewardship Program. In the last two years, more than 750 Montana farmers and ranchers signed up for that program," which "really pays to implement conservation practices on your private lands."
Hadley says she used her involvement to install fences around riparian areas along the Clark Fork River and enhance grazing rotation on her ranch. Without well-funded financial incentives, she says, she doubts many farmers can afford such conservation practices.
Meanwhile, Dittloff worries about the ripple effect of even deeper cuts to conservation funding. He points to the Farm Bill's Conservation Reserve Program as a boon for hunters in the state. Removing sensitive farmland from production improves habitat for deer, elk and other species, he points out. Hadley, who hunts upland game birds in eastern and north central Montana, says that much of the publicly accessible private land in the state's Block Management Program is also part of the CRP—and makes for great hunting.
The cuts that Dittloff fears will be made to the Land and Water Conservation Fund would make large-scale conservation projects in Montana much harder to bankroll, he says. The state has secured an estimated $408 million from the fund for conservation over the last 40 years. That money has allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to purchase the largest conservation easement in the lower 48—more than 12,000 acres—to protect grizzly habitat on the Rocky Mountain Front. The Blackfoot Challenge has turned to the LWCF to coordinate the purchase of thousands of acres of former Plum Creek land in the Blackfoot Valley. This year, House Republicans proposed as much as an 80 percent reduction to the LWCF, which is funded entirely by offshore oil and gas revenues.
Members of Congress also pushed for as much as a $40 million reduction in Tribal Wildlife grants this year, another avenue of federal funding that conservationists fear will wind up on the deficit chopping block. The grants have provided the financial backbone for numerous efforts on the Flathead Indian Reservation, including costly big game monitoring and wildlife corridor enhancements like the overpass on Highway 93.
Tribes "don't have money to pull this stuff off," Dittloff says. "They don't have nearly as much money coming in from hunting and fishing license dollars as FWP does. They don't have general revenues to put into that kind of thing. This is one of the few places where they can look to fund some of the good things they're doing."
With the super committee throwing in the towel, there's a greater likelihood that a series of automatic cuts will take place across the government's entire budget. The NWF, in a blog response to the committee's failure this week, lamented that Congress lost the chance to close a number of tax loopholes for oil and gas interests.
There's still a chance that Congress can come up with a more focused and refined solution before the automatic cuts go into effect. That could play in conservationists' favor—or it could, as Dittloff fears, give opponents of such funding another opportunity to gut what they don't like.
"We're not saying that no conservation programs should be cut," Dittloff says. "We just think it's inappropriate for conservation to take an inordinate amount."