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FY18 Omnibus Appropriations Bill — What’s In It?

On March 23, 2018, President Trump signed a final omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018 (FY18) which included many wildlife conservation priorities. The fiscal year officially began on October 1, 2017 but the government has been funded through a series of “Continuing Resolutions” since then. This funding bill will fund the government until September 30, 2018. In the meanwhile, work is already underway on fiscal year 2019 bill.

So – what was in the final law?

Refuge System Operations and Maintenance Funding

The Refuge System received a slight increase of $3 million to be spread across refuge programs nationwide. While that’s only about a half of one percent, the Refuge System did get significant emergency supplemental funding to address damages from Hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Irma in the budget deal – to the tune of $210 million – in February.  The spending bill specified there would be flat funding for the Urban Refuge Program.

Land and Water Conservation Fund

The Refuge System received an increase in funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to $64 million – but only about $31 million went to refuge-specific projects. Those projects are listed below.

Congress also specified that the Administration must provide them with a list of potential land acquisition projects – in priority order  – within 30 days of enactment – so about April 23, 2018. And hereafter, the Administration must provide that list within 30 days of the release of the President’s budget request. This shows the broad, bi-partisan support the LWCF program has in Congress. Although this administration has not requested funding for land acquisition, Congress is essentially telling them that they are still going to fund the program regardless and thus, they must create priority acquisition lists.

Here’s why that’s important – right now, Congress has a strict no-earmark policy and if they were to decide for themselves where the money would go, it would be considered as such. That means the decision-making process for what land acquisition projects get funded lies squarely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Regions will submit their priorities, which will be fed into a larger national matrix. Projects are prioritized based on science and immediacy for which projects need to occur.

Construction

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received $66.5 million for their Construction account – including a one time, $50 million bump to be spent on deferred maintenance projects at refuges and fish hatcheries nationwide – the Service must let Congress know who they intend to spend that $50 million within 120 days.

Projects approved for funding include:

 

OK Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge(NWR) $3,800,000
AK Alaska Maritime $2,235,000
IL Crab Orchard NWR $300,000
MO Mingo NWR $800,000
GA Okefenokee NWR $80,000
ID Bear Lake NWR $50,000 
WA Inland Northwest NWR Complex $70,000

 

Fire Funding Fix

Very importantly, the final bill included what we call a “fire fix” – this will treat catastrophic wildfires as natural disasters and allow them to eligible for disaster funding. Most of that helps the US Forest Service – but it has huge implications for DOI too – including refuges. Because these huge wildfires cannot be allowed to burn out of control, the Refuge System uses regular funding to fight them, diverting money from things like prescribed burns to react to these fires that seem to be occurring more and more. This fire fix will now keep funding in the prevention pots where it is desperately needed. Fire is perhaps the most important management tool of refuges nationwide – this should provide more steady and dedicated funding for prescribed burns at refuges.

Permanent Reauthorization of the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA)

This bill contained a permanent fix for FLTFA, which has been expired since 2011. FLTFA is a land exchange program used in the west that increases access to public lands and consolidates land ownership. Certain Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands that are considered dispensable are sold, with the proceeds going into a pot of money to be used for additional land purchases by the BLM, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This funding will be used to purchase inholdings and provide recreational access to lands otherwise inaccessible. We have supported FLTFA reauthorization for many years, and are thrilled to see a permanent fix for this bi-partisan program.

No Border Wall at Santa Ana NWR, TX

The Appropriations Subcommittee for Homeland Security included language prohibiting funds from being spent on any border wall construction at the Santa Ana NWR in Texas. While we had hoped for a broader funding limitation affecting all refuges and public lands along the southern border, this was an enormous win. However, the prohibition only lasts until September 30th so we will have to work to retain the language in future appropriations bills. The Refuge Association has been very engaged since the summer when plans emerged to build portions of the wall on some of the most sensitive habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley at the Santa Ana Refuge. In January, we worked to grow awareness of the issue at a rally with the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor and other partners during the refuge’s 75th Anniversary.

Other Appropriations Language  

Appropriators include specific guidance as to how they expect funding to be used – it is their intent and can be binding, such as “The Committee Directs…” or can be suggestions, such as “The Committee recommends….” This year included many – some of interest are highlighted below.

  • DOI Restructuring: Final Committee language included reprogramming guidance that no agency can implement any part of a reorganization plan that would modify Regional boundaries that were in effect as of March 23, 2018. This means that Secretary Zinke’s potential reorganization of the Department of the Interior will need Congressional review and approval before any funds are spent.
  • New Refuge at Green River, KY: The Service is directed to approve the establishment of the Green River National Wildlife Refuge in the Green River Bottoms area near the confluence of the Green River and Ohio River in Henderson County, Kentucky. Within 120 days of March 23rd, the Service is directed to report to the Committees on its progress toward establishment of the refuge.
  • Management Decisions on Islands in the Maritime NWR, AK: The Service is prohibited from conducting a caribou hunt on Kagalaska Island and from removing invasive cattle from Chirikof and Wosnesenki Islands.
  • Visitor Center at Canaan Valley NWR, WV: The Service is encouraged the Service to prioritize funding for a new visitors center at Canaan Valley NWR.
  • Wheeler NWR, AL: The Service is encouraged to work with local stakeholders and consider prioritizing enhancements at the Wheeler Refuge in its internal budget processes – including new trails, visitor center exhibits, and other infrastructure priorities – to improve the visitor experience for the increasing number of visitors at the refuge.

Fiscal Year 2019

The President’s FY19 budget request was released in February and now that Congress has completed the FY18 funding, they can move on to FY19. Given this is an election year, we anticipate final appropriations bills could again be punted well into the fall and past the election. In the past 40 years, Congress has only passed all twelve appropriations bills by September 30th, four times. In it hard for us to imagine this year will not follow the now normal process which is not regular order.

The Refuge Association will be submitting written testimony to the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Interior and we will encourage Refuge Friends groups to do the same. Testimony is due to both the House and Senate by May 18th. Our priorities for the next year will be increased funding for the Refuge System’s Operations & Maintenance accounts, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and keeping damaging riders out of final bills.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2018/03/fy18-omnibus-appropriations-bill-whats-in-it/

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