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Budget battleground.

In the decade of the 1980s, the federal government of the United States dramatically altered its spending patterns.

The national politics of the decade were dominated by a President whose goals included the strengthening of the nation's defense establishment and the reduction of spending on domestic programs, Those goals, although accepted only reluctantly and partially by the Congress, were largely realized through the federal budget process.

Defense spending rose dramatically, and when other programs could not be cut enough to offset that spending (and taxes were lowered), the result was a huge federal deficit.

Throughout the decade, public support for the President's policies remained high, despite the spiraling deficit.

The budgets for federal natural-resource programs clearly reflected the impact of those spending policies. A review of the federal spending trends as documented annually by the Office of Management and Budget in its massive federal budget documents shows the magnitude of the changes.

The trend in federal spending for Natural Resource and Environment (NRE) programs is shown as a percentage of total federal outlays.

Within the federal budget, the NRE sector contains five major groups of programs and agencies. They include Water Resources (Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers); Conservation and Land Management U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Soil Conservation Service, Mining Reclamation, Conservation Reserve); Pollution Control and Abatement (Environmental Protection Agency, Superfund); Recreation and Parks (National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service)- and Other (U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Mines, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

In total, this NRE budget accounts for the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, along with huge chunks of the Departmentof Agriculture and portions of the Departments of Commerce and Defense. In 1989, the total dollar outlay for all these programs was somewhere in the range of 16.5 billion, out of total federal outlays of about $1,137 billion. (That's 1.1 trillion dollars, for those who like big numbers.)

As can be readily seen, the portion of total federal spending dedicated to environmental programs peaked in 1978, when it reached about three cents out of every federal dollar. It dropped dramatically during the final years of the Carter Administration and the early years of the Reagan Administration, falling to 1.5 cents by 1982. In general, it has remained at that level since that time, as the graph indicates.

(Most people feel that the biggest drop in federal attention to natural-resource spending came under President Reagan.

The big drop in proportionate spending occurred in 1979-1981, before the change in Administrations. The public pressure and political shifts were already in place, and perhaps Reagan's election victory in 1981 was more of a reflection of the strength of this trend than a cause of it.)

It is important to realize that these figures reflect the budget priorities that resulted from Congressional action, not the proposals contained in each year's Presidential budget. Each year, the Reagan Administration tried to cut far more from the natural-resource budgets than the Congress would allow. In 1989, for example, the President would have lowered natural-resource spending to barely one cent out of every federal dollar if his proposals had been accepted by Congress.

Several times during the decade, the elimination of entire agencies or program areas in the natural-resources field was proposed by the President. Each time, these proposals were rejected by the Congress.

Included in these "zero-out" proposals were the Soil Conservation Service, the Extension Service, and virtually an of the state and private forestry programs of the U.S. Forest Service.

Several programs did suffer significant reductions, and in others, money collected from the public for a conservation purpose was simply never used for the intended purpose.

Massive reductions in the spending allowed from the Land and Water Conservation Fund brought federal land purchases for parks, as well as grants for purchasing state and local parkland, dramatically downward. The Fund grew, as offshore oil revenues continued to pour into the federal treasury, but those revenues were not spent.

Similarly, funds continued to be collected from coal taxes to finance the reclamation of abandoned mined lands, but those funds were, for the most part, retained in the Treasury to offset the deficit rather than being spent on land reclamation.

Proposals to do similar "containment" of dedicated funds, such as the WallopBreaux funds that are dedicated to sportfisheries restoration, met with such intense political backlash that they were stopped.

Major spending increases were also recorded in some programs during the 1980s. In the pollution arena, the huge budgets for Superfund cleanup of toxic waste sites caused spending to rise, in real terms, between 1984 and 1989.

Land Conservation and Management rose dramatically between 1984 and 1989, due to the impact of the Conservation Reserve Program contained in the 1985 Farm Bill.

(Here, we need to recognize that a bookkeeping change also impacted the apparent trends. Farm Bill set-aside programs prior to 1985 were contained in the agriculture section of the federal budget. The 1985 program, because it was heavily slanted toward soil conservation, was moved into the NRE accounts. Thus, what appears to be a dramatic rise in federal spending for conservation was, in part, simply a shift of programs from one account to another.)

It is also interesting to note from Figure 2 that even though it was widely reported that projects for the development of water resources were largely a thing of the past, federal spending for water-resource programs rose steadily, in real terms, throughout the decade of the 80s.


The eight graphs that follow are (Graphs not shown) an attempt to break down various agency budgets into their functional effects-a far more difficult task than simply looking at federal budget documents. Here, we have tried to estimate how much of each agency's budget was assigned to various conservation functions.

Sometimes the agency's budget documents,reflect this split, but often they do not, and some judgments must be made. Additionally, agency budget lines change periodically. Following functional spending over a multi-year period runs afoul of changing terms, definitions, and budget formats.

Regardless of the challenge, several natural-resource professionals representing a variety of conservation organizations have been trying for several years to keep track of these trends. With the assistance of budget staff people within the agencies, and some educated guessing, the following charts have been developed. Again, it should be recognized that these data should not be compared with any one agency's budgets, because most of them come from a composite of several agency programs.

It should also be noted that the 1990 figures shown are those that were proposed by the final Reagan budget. The message of these graphs is fairly clear. In every functional area but soil conservation and fish and wildlife, the President's budget would have resulted in reductions in spending power from those functions of a decade ago.

(As this issue of AMERICAN FORESTS goes to press, Congressional action on the 1990 budget was still not complete. We know for certain that Congress has restored many of the cuts proposed by the President, but the final accounting may not be possible until some time in early 1990.)

The spending increase shown for soil conservation is the result of the Conservation Reserve Program, as discussed earlier, and the increase in fish and wildlife appears to be the impact of the changes in WallopBreaux funding. The President's budget proposed to cap Wallop-Breaux funding in 1990 at $100 million, but Congress balked at that idea, so fish and wildlife may look even better in the final accounting.

So what is the final result of all these changes?

That's a little hard to tell, because the record is clearly mixed. Agencies such as the Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service have seen staff levels drop since 1980, as budgets have risen far slower than the inflation in costs. Even with the lowered rates of inflation in the 1980s, increasing costs coupled with stagnating budget levels continue to cut into personnel.

On the other hand, the increased public attention to natural resources and the environment that was reflected in the new programs enacted in the 1985 Farm Bill, the enhanced WallopBreaux funding for fisheries programs, and the huge effort devoted to the Superfund, among others, sends the message that natural-resource programs are still important in the eyes of the American public.

As we enter into a new decade, President George Bush has vowed his support for increased attention to natural resource and environmental issues. But the Bush Administration has been saddled with a massive federal deficit that will make increased spending exceptionally difficult, so it will be interesting to see what kinds of priority shifts in federal emphasis can take place.
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Sampson, Neil
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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