The New Congress – What’s Ahead for National Wildlife Refuges?

The 114th Congress convened on January 6 with new Republican leadership in the Senate and continued Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, as President Barack Obama serves the last two years of his presidency.

So what does this mean for America’s national wildlife refuges?

While issues like immigration, the Islamic State and tax reform are likely to get top-tier attention in the session’s early days, wildlife refuge issues will surface, but how far they will progress is unclear.

With the Senate now controlled by the Republican Party, committees overseeing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service budget and operations have changed leadership. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, now heads the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee and she also heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

While Murkowski’s effort to move legislation through the Energy and Natural Resources Committee authorizing the Keystone XL Pipeline has dominated the news this week, we expect she will soon turn her attention to longstanding state issues like building a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

We also anticipate the release of a new Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Arctic refuge sometime this year.

Funding Threats; Policy Challenges

We’re going to be working harder than ever this Congress to ensure adequate funding for refuge operations and maintenance. With Congress in a deficit reduction mode, most conservation-related programs will be vulnerable to budget cuts.

We have been working hard to make sure the president’s 2016 budget request for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reflects the increased responsibilities he gave the agency in September when he expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. With that expansion, the Service now has management responsibility for more than half a billion acres.

We’ll be following the president’s State of the Union Address on January 20, and looking forward to the release of his 2016 budget proposal in February.

Of course, operations and maintenance is just part of the funding equation for wildlife refuges. Still woefully underfunded, the Refuge System needs increases in a number of areas. We’ll also be pushing to increase funding for fire management; the Land and Water Conservation Fund; Refuge Revenue Sharing and conservation programs, including the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the Coastal Program, state wildlife grants, multi-national species grants, the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Fund and the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund.

Transportation is Key

This year, Congress is due to reauthorize a five-year transportation bill that we hope will include $100 million for refuge road infrastructure for the millions of refuge visitors. Reauthorization of current programs is expected to be a Congressional priority and roads, trails and other modes of transportation to and on refuges will be a part of the deliberations. Many past transportation bills have been bipartisan efforts and could again in the 114th Congress.

Some other issues we’re keeping an eye out for:

  • Retaining the executive branch’s ability to create new refuges or expand existing ones;
  • The Resource Protection Act, a bill to allow the Service to collect compensation from parties that damage or destroy refuge resources;
  • Refuge revenue sharing and payment in lieu of taxes, enhancing commitments to localities;
  • Reauthorizations including —
    • North American Wetlands Conservation Act
    • Partners for Fish and Wildlife
    • Land and Water Conservation Fund
    • Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act
    • Refuge System Volunteer Act

We anticipate some ‘unfriendly’ measures as well, and we’ll need all of our activists to help educate Congress on the value of our wildlife refuges. Among the measures we expect to come up, are bills to:

  • curtail or eliminate the executive branch’s existing authority to expand refuges or create new refuges, known as “refuge establishment authority”;
  • expand or allow resource extraction, like oil and gas, on public lands;
  • build more roads on public lands;
  • limit agency actions under the Endangered Species Act; and
  • investigate executive branch agencies’ practices and programs such as a hearing in November questioning curtailed activities at the Midway Atoll NWR due to budget cuts.

Whatever the Congressional dynamics, conservation advocates should remind Congress that conservation is a priority of the American people, as evidenced by the nearly $13 billion in conservation measures approved in state and local ballot initiatives in November. In efforts to trim federal spending, our already-underfunded refuges should not be blamed for the federal budget deficit or sacrificed to reduce it.        

To stay informed about legislative issues confronting America’s national wildlife refuges, join our Refuge Action Network.


Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2015/01/the-new-congress-whats-ahead-for-national-wildlife-refuges/

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