A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Conservation at Risk!

Programs to protect our water, air, wildlife and other natural
resources are at risk of major cuts or elimination.
State and Federal Conservation Programs Face Enormous Cutbacks

            The Republican president Theodore Roosevelt had it right in 1907 when he told a crowd in Memphis, Tenn., how important it is to protect America’s environment.
            “The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem,” Roosevelt said in his usual thundering, forceful voice. “Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others.”
            If TR was alive today, he might have a thing or two to say about our collective responsibilities toward protecting our environment.
Right now, the situation for conservation programs is bleak, at both the state and federal levels. Decades of carefully and deliberately built programs are now poised for elimination or draconian cutbacks. And while lawmakers are looking at ways to cut programs across the board -- including services for the poor, sick and elderly -- the cuts to environmental programs are disproportionately deep.
Federal Programs at Risk
Here’s a look at some of the federal programs that are on the chopping block. Some of these numbers are moving targets and will likely change up or down in the coming weeks.
     Land and Water Conservation Fund: After the House’s initial 90 percent beheading, it has proposed a 16 percent cut to this program that offers matching funds to protect lands and create parks (including this region). Established with bipartisan support in 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is funded primarily by royalties paid to the government by oil companies that drill in offshore waters.
     Forest Legacy: The House initially proposed cutting this program by 88.5 percent. Now wrapped into the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Forest Legacy will likely face additional cuts. The program has been critical to public/private partnerships in New Hampshire to protect ecologically important and publicly accessible places like Robb Reservoir in Stoddard and the Connecticut Lakes headwaters in Pittsburg. Future projects in New Hampshire are now at risk.
     Cooperative Endangered Species Fund: The House’s initial plan virtually eliminated this federal program to help states conduct conservation measures to restore endangered species. While cuts are certain, the extent is not yet known.
     State Wildlife Grants: This federal program helps states keep common species common and prevent them from becoming rare and more expensive to restore. The House initially proposed eliminating all funding. If enacted, that would have spelled the end of New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Nongame and Endangered Species Program and its work of restoring bats, the Karner blue butterfly and enacting the State Wildlife Action Plan.
     EPA Funding and Regulatory Authority: The House aims to slash EPA’s overall funding by one-third and cease its authority to regulate mountaintop removal for coal mining, mercury and arsenic pollution and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Dark Clouds Over N.H. Statehouse
            The same trends continue at the state level.
     Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP): After many years of minimal funding, the N.H. Legislature in 2007 established a dedicated funding source for the state’s program for protecting important lands and historical sites. The source has been a modest fee on documents recorded at county registries of deeds. In 2009 and again last year, the state raided that funding source and reallocated the money to the state’s general fund. Now the N.H. House of Representatives proposes raiding nearly the rest of it, leaving only a skeleton of $120,000. With existing funds from the state’s Moose Plate, the LCHIP program would have enough money to keep the lights on and office running, but barely enough to run a functional grants program -- nothing resembling the robust program created with strong bipartisan support to invest in New Hampshire’s natural infrastructure.
     New Hampshire Rail Authority: The N.H. House has passed a bill to abolish the small office created in 2007 that’s been working to restore passenger rail travel from Concord, Manchester and Nashua to Lowell, Mass., and beyond. Republicans leading the anti-rail charge contend that passenger rail needs to be subsidized and is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Rail supporters point out that passenger rail investment is a major boon to economic development that comes back as tax revenue, not to mention many environmental benefits for cleaner air, water and smarter land-use.
     N.H. Shoreland Protection Act: Also from the N.H. House, a bill to repeal the comprehensive act designed to protect New Hampshire’s lakes, ponds, rivers and streams from pollution and sediment. While it’s unclear whether the measure will pass, the program is likely to be scaled back.
     N.H. Department of Environmental Services: As with other state departments, the House plans significant cuts to N.H. DES. An Initial proposal was to cut half of the agency’s 150 positions. The House leadership has recently recommended cutting $3.3 million, or 20 positions. Among the programs slated for elimination are those that oversee pollution-prone shellfish harvest, manage clean water for rivers and lakes and prevent pollution.
     Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI): The N.H. House has passed a bill to repeal the cap-and-trade program that joins New Hampshire with nine other Northeast states. The program is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging conservation through strategic grants throughout the region. Among the beneficiaries in this region are the towns of Hancock, Jaffrey and Temple, and Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield for energy audits and efficiency efforts. While repealing RGGI would save the state little or nothing from its budget, New Hampshire communities would no longer receive grants from the multi-state program. Republicans clamoring for repeal oppose the concept of cap-and-trade programs and doubt the science of climate change.

Push Back and Adapt?
            There’s not enough room in this newspaper for the blizzard of ways that state and federal conservation programs are now under assault. These are programs large and small, some created during the New Deal to prevent future Dust Bowls. Some created during the 1970s, under President Nixon, to safeguard our nation’s air and water. Some (like RGGI) that cost no tax money or, if eliminated, save little at the outset and cost plenty more in the long run.
            In this year that New Hampshire is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act -- the landmark federal act that created the White Mountain National Forest -- there are so many moves to undue generations of wise conservation. What can be done?
            There is talk among New Hampshire’s philanthropic circles about “a new reality” of limited government spending. The thinking goes something like this: State and federal budgets are contracting, forced to do so by shrinking revenues. The money simply isn’t there. Conservation programs -- like all programs: social service, arts, education, you name it -- have to wake up to this new reality by doing two things: one, push back. Defend the need for public funding of these programs. And two: adapt. Find new, innovative ways to achieve the programs’ results, either through private partnerships, philanthropy or other creative measures.
            The question is, how much to push back and how much to adapt?
            “It’s a good question,” said Jim O’Brien, executive director of the organization Conservation New Hampshire. “These (state) programs are fundamental things that people expect from government.” Enacting all of the cuts proposed “would mean a real change to our expectations.”
            How should voters react to these proposals? “People should ask the question: ‘Is this what we really want for the state?’” O’Brien said.
We’re Not Broke
            There’s another reality lurking in the background, and it’s seldom mentioned. We’re not broke. Sure, state and federal budgets face major fiscal problems.  But, as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and others point out, there are “wiser and more sustainable solutions.” Fiscal issues, Dionne writes, “are just an excuse for ideologically driven policies to levy lower taxes on well-off people and businesses while reducing government programs.”
            It boils down to this: The enormous disparity of wealth in America. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont put it this way in his now-famous speech on the Senate floor: “In the year 2007, the top 1 percent of all income earners in the United States made 23.5 percent of all income.” That amount, Sanders pointed out, is more than what was earned by the entire bottom 50 percent.
            Put another way, in the past 20 years, 56 percent of all income growth went to 1 percent of top-earning households. What’s worse is that one-third of all income growth went to just the top one-tenth of 1 percent. Think about that.
            And meanwhile, government spending is getting slashed for society’s most vulnerable populations … not to mention the environment.
            The 2010 election, however, was not won by those advocating to fix this vulgar disparity in wealth. It was won by those who say government is too big and taxes are too high. And thus victors claim the agenda.
            In 1904, when Teddy Roosevelt was elected in a landslide, he claimed the agenda. He set out swinging against the excesses of corporate greed and argued successfully for long-lasting conservation programs, legacies that last to this day.
            While it’s easy to sink back and ask, “Teddy, where are you now?” There is a moral of this story, and Teddy, I’m sure, would approve: Learn. Ask questions. Speak out. Vote.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.
This Thursday, from noon to 1 p.m. at the Statehouse in Concord, there will be a rally to show support for the many programs slated for budget cuts.
For more information about programs safeguarding New Hampshire’s environment, visit