The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed budget for the U.S. Forest Service completely eliminates funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund has disbursed $272 million for recreation and conservation projects over the past 50 years in Colorado, and the proposed budget cuts are at odds with the U.S. Senate’s overwhelming support for the program.
The fund was permanently reauthorized last year by Congress, and legislation is pending to provide permanent federal funding for the program, since the forests protected by the programs provide clean drinking water and recreation areas for states like Colorado.
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources questioned the chief of the USDA’s Forest Service, Victoria Christiansen, about the proposed budget cuts during a hearing Tuesday.
“I can’t tell you how popular that program is,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It is “the one place where you get sportsmen and conservationists on the same page,” Heinrich said.
Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the proposed budget cuts to the Land and Water Conservation Fund are as “dramatic of a disconnect from public sentiment as you can find.”
“Eliminating funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund would sabotage months of work that so many stakeholders have put into the San Juan National Forest,” Pearson said.
In northern Colorado, Sweetwater Lake and the 488 acres of land around it above the Colorado River have been popular camping grounds for many years. When residential developers eyed buying the property, the Conservation Fund and Eagle Valley Land Trust joined the White River National Forest to apply for $9 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to buy and protect the land.
But the project is pending, and for President Donald Trump’s administration, land protection is not a priority, Christiansen said.
“Some difficult choices and trade-offs were made in this budget decision,” Christiansen testified.
But Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., doesn’t see a complete lack of funding as a trade-off.
Gardner said counties in Colorado like Summit County passed a tax increase to pay for things that the USDA won’t, such as a firefighter staff to prevent and mitigate wildfires.
“Billions are being shouldered by the community” for wildfire prevention methods like large air tankers, Gardner said during the hearing.
These air tankers can put out fires in a single day, instead of allowing them to burn for 20 days, Gardner said in a brief interview with The Durango Herald after the meeting. Appropriate funding for wildfire mitigation from the USDA is important to prevent tax increases, he said.
Christiansen testified that the USDA “will have the most air tankers we’ve had in 10 years this fire season.”
Mike Lester, state forester and director of the Colorado State Forest Service, said 40% of his budget comes from federal funding, so this is a “big deal for Colorado.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund supports the Forest Legacy easement program, which gives the state the development rights on historic forest lands. People can live on the land and even graze their cattle, but if the state owns the development rights, it protects the land from being developed for condos.
“Development pressure hops around in ways that surprise you,” Lester told the Herald. Big chunks of undeveloped forest land protect Colorado’s clean air and water, and provide a source of carbon sequestration.
“Even if you never set foot on that land, you benefit from it,” Lester said.
Executive Director of the Colorado Timber Association Molly Pitts said more support is needed from the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program for active forest management, especially for staffing at the Forest Service to prevent and mitigate wildfires.
While the Natural Resource Conservation Service does a lot, there is “never enough funding,” Pitts said.
And Lester said the NRCS is “never going to have enough money to do what we need to do.”
“We take the money we have, and we are pretty strategic with it, but limiting that money is not helpful,” Lester said.
Because of the strong bipartisan support in Congress for both the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program, Pearson and Lester both said the proposed budget cuts are dead on arrival, and the Senate Appropriations Committee will not approve it.
Pearson said the budget shows “what the interests of the Trump administration are,” which is resource extraction over research and conservation.
“We do important work for Colorado with that funding,” Lester said.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.