ecosystem blog

Public Lands Pitted Against Climate Action in New Senate Bill

By Emily Hernandez

In 2016, America’s National Parks celebrated 100 years. Next year, 2018, the National Trails System will celebrate its 50th anniversary. It is unfortunate then, that in the year between these two celebrated times, the current administration has proposed a budget for 2018 that would see the funding for trails, and the agencies that manage and maintain them, exorbitantly cut.  

In the most general sense, the Administration’s budget would undo years of work by state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, and volunteers. Furthermore, these budget cuts would affect the livelihood of the 1.8 million Americans whose jobs depend directly on trails and the recreational opportunities the trails create. In Florida alone, the Outdoor Industry Association found that active outdoor recreation supports $58.6 billion in consumer spending and 485,000 jobs, which generate another $17.9 billion in salaries and wages.

One such agency being affected is the U.S. Forest Service, which would experience budget cuts of 84% under President Trump’s proposed budget. In 2017, Congress passed the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, which was termed “the most bipartisan bill in Congress.” The Act was meant to aid in the reduction of maintenance backlog on 156,000 miles of trails in National Forests. The President’s budget cut would cut already depleted funding from an agency working to maintain our outdoor places and also goes against the bipartisan intent of Congress.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is similarly threatened by this proposed budget. LWCF costs taxpayers nothing, instead, it uses royalties paid by offshore oil and gas leasing to buy up private land located within national parks as well as land around national forests, refuges, and recreation areas in order to conserve them. Funds are also used to establish and maintain trails and bike paths. Congress is in charge of allocating the funds to proposed projects. Unfortunately, the proposed budget cuts the LWCF by 84% in comparison to the budget already approved by Congress in 2017. Below is a map that shows five LWCF projects that were proposed in 2016 in Florida, which might be affected by these cuts. Closer to home, here in South Florida LWCF grants provided $2.25 million for the acquisition of the land that became Cape Florida, over $700,000 for the acquisition and development of Alice C. Wainwright Park, and $683,353 for the development of Tropical Park. For a more extensive list of LWCF grants in Florida dating back to 1965 see this website.

Many of LWCF’s projects offer unique opportunities to acquire private lands that would aid in the protection of trails or the closing of existing gaps between sections of trails. Without LWCF working to obtain sections of land to bridge private and public land gaps in trail systems, trail users are forced onto roads and highways, which must be shared by motor vehicles, causing dangerous situations. 

This map of Florida shows the proposed Land and Water Conservation Fund projects from 2016. It’s these same projects from which funding is being cut. 

America’s trails are monumentally important to outdoor recreation. They provide a necessary gateway to the other outdoor recreational activities that take place on public lands, such as fishing, hunting, and camping. A failure to manage and maintain these trails, something practically guaranteed in this budget, would impact park visitation, visitor safety, the ability of the people to access the lands, and the nation’s economy.

Beyond just budgetary proposals, which promise to neglect our public lands and thus cause environmental harm, a bill speedily making its way through the Senate could also cause irreparable harm. Within the 900-page Senate Bill 1460, named the Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017, there is distinct pro-fossil fuel agenda. Though the Bill, co-sponsored by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA), touts a name that sounds vaguely pro-environment, it seeks to fast-track environmental review processes for export facilities and gas pipelines, make the nation more reliant on natural gas and fracking, and spend taxpayer dollars on methane and coal research. It is worth noting that methane is a greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide. Pushing an agenda that promotes fossil fuels at this point, when there is wealth of information condemning them, is irresponsible. Such a bill assures further pollution of our air and water, and does so under false pretenses of faux-environmentalism.

This type of legislative action, where harmful practices are mixed into the language of a bill, draws attention away from that and towards the included renewable energy provisions. It is a purposeful distraction. It is also not a new strategy. Back in November, Florida voters rejected Amendment 1, a purposefully misleading bit of legislation that sought to limit rooftop solar expansion for the benefit of utility companies hoping to gain a monopoly on solar. The Amendment was asking Floridians if they would like to have the right to own or lease solar, while hiding its true intentions. In SB 1460, we see some worthwhile provisions such as permanently reauthorizing the LWCF program – a program that fills a very real need for public spaces and coastal access in South Florida. But, it does so at the expense of another very real need – the need for society to transition away from fossil fuels. The bottom line is that there should not be a push for one environmental interest over that of others because they are all uniquely important parts of a whole. No one environmental interest can adequately cover for the absence of another, nor should it have to.

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