Senate subcommittee hears testimony on Interior budget

Emily Ronis

Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was discussed during the Senate hearing on the Interior Department’s proposed budget. ©Diana Robinson

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testified last week on the department’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 in front of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

The discussion at the hearing largely focused on Interior’s $16 billion in deferred maintenance projects, Zinke’s proposed reorganization of the department and funding cuts for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which supports land acquisition for recreation and conservation purposes.

In opening statements, committee members expressed concerns over elements of the proposed budget. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) criticized the administration for decreasing the budget from this year’s $13.5 billion to a proposed $11.8 billion for FY2019. Ranking member Tom Udall (D-NM), said Zinke’s “goals don’t match the reality of [the] budget requests,” pointing specifically to the budget’s request for $8.1 million for the LWCF, compared with the $290 million the fund received in FY2018.

“The budget clearly lays out the administration’s top priorities,” Zinke said in his opening statement, “of strongly rebuilding our infrastructure, fixing our schools, achieving energy dominance, and being fiscally responsible.”

Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) asked Zinke to update the subcommittee on the planning process for his proposed reorganization of the department.

Zinke explained that his plan would divide the department’s operations across new regions based on science, ecosystems and watersheds to help streamline and unify natural resources management across agencies and bureaus.

Sen. Udall disagreed with the plan. “Bureaus have management issues because, by law, they have conflicting missions,” he said, “and I don’t see how changing regional boundaries resolves the fact that the BLM has a different legal responsibility… than the Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.”

When asked by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) to justify the proposed budget cuts for the LWCF, Zinke explained that rather than acquire more land through the fund, the department will focus on improving and maintaining the infrastructure of its current holdings.

The proposed Public Lands Infrastructure Fund would use revenue from energy development on public lands to help address the departments $16 billion maintenance backlog. The National Park Service alone has $11.6 billion in deferred maintenance projects, and the U.S. Geological Survey is facing a backlog of about $400 million.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) asked Zinke to clarify the implications of the recent reinterpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). The memorandum detailing the new interpretation states that the MBTA only prohibits the intentional — not incidental — harming or killing of migratory birds.

“The change to the Migratory Bird Act had to do with ‘accidental,’” Zinke said, providing an example of an oil company employee driving and accidentally hitting a migratory bird. Zinke argued that individual should not be held criminally liable, though Van Hollen countered that the MBTA has never been used as the authority to pursue charges in such a situation. He asked if a company responsible for an oil spill would still be held liable for harming migratory birds.

“There are multiple paths to keep a company responsible on migratory damages, and [the reinterpretation] in no way affects that,” Zinke said.

The Wildlife Society submitted written testimony on FY2019 appropriations, asking for increased funding for wildlife-related programs in the Interior Department, including the State and Wildlife Tribal Grants program and the USGS Cooperative Research Units.

The Senate process mirrors discussions in the House of Representatives, which held its own hearing on the proposed Interior budget last month and recently released a draft bill.

Emily Ronis is a Policy Communication Intern at The Wildlife Society. Read more of Emily's articles.