One of the worst kept secrets in D.C. for the last few weeks was how the Trump administration would gut the budgets of a number of critical federal agencies. This included persistent chatter that the Department of Interior, an agency charged with overseeing our nation’s natural resources, would be asked to cut 10 percent from its 2018 Fiscal Year budget. After years of being severely shortchanged by the budget process, the newly confirmed Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke shared his displeasure about these rumored cuts, telling Interior staff and reporters, “I looked at the budget. I’m not happy, but we’re going to fight about it, and I think I’m going to win at the end of the day.”
Well, it was a short fight. Two weeks later, not only did the administration move forward with those cuts, they formally proposed an even larger 12 percent overall reduction of the Interior Department’s budget. All told, a 12 percent cut would eliminate $1.57 billion dollars from the previously enacted $13.4 billion budget. One would think that cutting an additional $262 million would have drawn an even stronger rebuke from Sec. Zinke, but the Secretary issued this inconsistent statement: “I can say for certain that this budget allows the Interior Department to meet our core mission and also prioritizes the safety and security of the American people.”
One has to wonder what changed in those two weeks to convince Sec. Zinke that all is well in terms of these drastic budget cuts. Unfortunately the administration’s budget proposal is absent specifics, but what is clear in the document is that this administration is certainly not interested in a budget process that will seek cuts evenly across projects and programs—as has been the practice over the last few years. And while we don’t know what might happen to a number of key programs, it is clear that the budget will certainly favor the fossil fuel industry who stand to benefit the greatest by these proposals. The budget document states that the Interior Department will "…streamline permitting processes and provide industry with access to the energy resources America needs.” In sharp contrast, the budget would eliminate $120 million in funding for land and water conservation acquisition. It’s a severe departure for a 164 year old agency that describes itself “as the nation’s principal conservation agency.”
What might be lost in these often abstract discussions about how best to spend billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money is the fact that the mission of the Interior Department matters greatly to our nation’s well being. The Interior Department is one the most critical federal agencies, responsible for the protection of our environment and the health of the American public, while stewarding over 500 million acres of lands and water. For better or worse, the agency is responsible for managing approximately one-fourth of the nation’s energy production. It is also home to some of the richest renewable energy resources found anywhere. It is vested in protecting our wildlife, our clean water systems, and the parks where we recreate. The Interior Department also has a profound moral and legal obligation to ensure that our nation’s obligations to Native Americans are met. The agency also oversees the nation’s most beloved areas, including the National Parks: Yellowstone, Joshua Tree, and the Grand Canyon. Last year, the National Park Service hosted a record 331 million visitors. And the Interior's work helps drive our economy. Case in point, in 2015 Interior lands and waters generated $46 billion in economic output, supporting nearly 400,000 jobs.
Most of all, what the Interior Department represents is legacy; it oversees our nation’s special places so that future generations will have the same opportunity to enjoy them as we do now. Hence, budget numbers matter. And in that regard, our lands, waters, and wildlife deserve better than an administration that is not committed to honor that legacy.