Will Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt put some money where his mouth is?

With growing bipartisan support for conservation, Acting Interior Secretary Bernhardt will soon propose next year’s budget. Despite the momentum in Congress, history for strong conservation funding isn’t promising.

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt | U.S. Department of Interior

Breaking through the gridlock on Capitol Hill, Congress recently passed a sweeping package of public lands legislation, widely celebrated as a historic success for American public lands and conservation. President Trump is expected to sign the bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, in the coming weeks. The legislation, which would establish new national monuments, wilderness areas, and expand national parks, stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s anti-conservation record.

Following the public lands bill’s passage, Acting Secretary David Bernhardt and the Department of Interior expressed support for the bill and attempted to frame themselves as a part of its success. After reading Bernhardt’s claims, it is instructive to look back at the administration’s most recent Interior Department budget proposal, which would have slashed funding for conserving our parks and public lands — including specific programs that Congress just voted to support.

Over the last two years, the Interior Department has dismantled national monuments, left national parks vulnerable to vandalism during the government shutdown, and proposed budgets that would gut agency staff.

Although Congress ultimately rebuked many of the proposed funding cuts, actions speak louder than words, and the Trump administration’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal, released one year ago, made it clear that conservation is not a priority. Here are a few examples of the disparity between the Interior Department’s words and actions.

Zeroing out the Land and Water Conservation Fund

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is a program that uses royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to support conservation efforts. It has received bipartisan support since it uses no taxpayer money and supports a wide variety of outdoor recreation and conservation projects, protecting millions of acres across the country. In Colorado College’s 2019 Conservation in the West Poll, 83 percent of westerners supported safeguarding the future of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

In the 54 years before LWCF expired in September 2018, the fund protected threatened lands and provided recreational access in all 50 states, from Acadia National Park in Maine to a neighborhood park in Seattle, Washington. Even though it was reauthorized through the public lands package, annual funding for the program still goes through the appropriations process.

The Interior Department’s most recent budget request slashed funding for the program by 95 percent. Sure, LWCF was “included” in the budget, but under Interior’s proposed budget, funding would have been effectively zeroed out.

Trimming funding for outdoor recreation

In 2017, with the support of Deputy Secretary Bernhardt and Interior Secretary Zinke, President Trump attempted to shrink two national monuments in Utah. In total, the administration cut over 2 million acres of protected land, including 46 percent of Grand Staircase-Escalante and 85 percent of Bears Ears. The action, currently being challenged in federal court, opened up large swaths of environmentally and culturally important lands to coal, oil, and uranium mining. In addition, the proposed 2019 budget would have slashed more than $10 million from funding for national monuments and national conservation areas within the Bureau of Land Management — nearly a 30 percent cut.

Whittling down funding for wildlife conservation

The Department of Interior’s proposed 2019 budget made it clear that habitat management and conservation was not a priority for this administration. The budget included a $22 million cut to habitat conservation within the Fish and Wildlife Service, a $7.5 million cut to the National Wildlife Refuge System, and a $30 million cut to state and tribal wildlife grants.

In a press release on March 1st, Acting Secretary Bernhardt celebrated the success of projects funded and supported by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, which funds and supports conservation projects on private land. However, Interior’s 2019 budget would have reduced funding for this program by over $15 million, a far cry from Bernhardt’s apparent support.

In addition, oil and gas leases approved during this administration have directly conflicted with wildlife migration corridors. Although the Interior Department released a Secretarial Order to improve habitat and migration corridors for big game, Interior seems to disregard this intention when it comes to leases for oil and gas development. On average, nearly 20 percent of leases offered in each state during the Trump administration were located in priority areas for big game. In New Mexico, it’s 82 percent. Not only is this detrimental to threatened wildlife, but it also affects the $26 billion hunting economy with 11.5 million participants.

Cutting back support for wildfire prevention

Under the Interior Department’s 2019 budget proposal funding for Wildland Fire Management would be decreased by $116 million, a devastating cut to an increasingly important area of land management that would limit support for preparedness and suppression in fire-prone areas. With fires burning longer and hotter across the West, decreased funding could have disastrous effects.

According to Colorado College’s Conservation in the West Poll, 63 percent of Westerners cite living near and being able to recreate on public lands as a significant reason why they live in the West. Congress understands this; the vote on the public lands package demonstrates that outdoor issues have increasing bipartisan support in Washington. The Interior Department’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget is expected next week, and despite the widespread support for conservation and public lands, it is unlikely that the priorities of this administration will have changed.


For more information, visit westernpriorities.org. Sign up for Look West to get daily public lands and energy news sent to your inbox, or subscribe to Go West, Young Podcast.