Proposed 2018 Federal Budget Leaves Little Room for Birds or Conservation

If the administration's proposed budget signals its values, one thing is clear: protecting birds and the places they need is not high on the list.

Last night, the Trump administration released its long-awaited budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 and, as expected, it features sweeping cuts to domestic programs and increased funding to defense and border security. The nearly 50 pages of tables, which project spending changes in millions and billions of dollars over the next 10 years, identify few specific domestic programs that will be de-funded or eliminated. Yet even its scant details display a disregard for environmental pollution and the conservation of habitat that birds need.

It’s important to note that this budget isn't final. “This is a proposal and a statement of values from the administration,” says Sarah Greenberger, Audubon’s vice president of conservation. “It’s up to Congress to determine what will be funded and what the final funding levels will look like.” Regardless, the budget signals intent, and the intent here is to save money by eliminating programs that are vital to protecting our wildlife and the environment for future generations. 

Here are three major changes outlined in the Trump administration’s new budget that put birds and their habitats at risk. This list is not close to inclusive—the budget includes many other threats to clean air, clean water, and ecosystems—but it gives a taste of what birds stand to lose.

Oil Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the northeast corner of Alaska is critical habitat for birds and other wildlife. More than 200 bird species migrate thousands of miles from across the world to nest in the pristine coastal plain and take advantage of its summertime surge in plant and insect life to feed their chicks. These include shorebirds and other species threatened elsewhere in their ranges by development, pollution, and other threats that come with human settlement. At the Arctic Refuge, at least, they have a safe place to breed.

But President Trump’s budget proposes opening the refuge, which has been protected since 1960, to oil and gas drilling, with projected revenues of $1.8 billion over the next decade.

This proposal is particularly confounding because some 30 million acres of unleased land are already open to drilling in the area surrounding the Arctic Refuge, including in the nearby National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska, half of which is open to leasing. Indeed, in March, 1.2 billion barrels of oil were discovered on land west of the refuge—the largest on-shore oil discovery in 30 years.

“Streamline” Farm Bill Conservation Programs

Despite its name, the Farm Bill remains the largest source of conservation funding in the federal budget: In 2017, $6.7 billion was set aside to pay farmers to act as environmental stewards of their land. This sort of stewardship has a broad definition under the Farm Bill. Some of these funds help farmers reduce erosion or pesticide runoff, practices which benefit farmland and also prevent harm to wildlife downstream. Others support the restoration or protection of important wildlife habitat on farms.

This funding has led to measureable success in helping birds. The Conservation Reserve Program, funded by the Farm Bill, has increased waterfowl populations in the Great Plains’ Prairie Pothole region by around 2 million birds each year. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which funds the Tricolored Blackbird Project, has saved 57,000 of the endangered birds—over one-third of the species’ total population—on nearly 400 acres of California farmland. The Conservation Stewardship Program, also funded by the Farm Bill, has helped develop conservation plans for the Greater Sage-grouse and Lesser Prairie Chicken, among others. And those are just a few of the Farm Bill programs important to birds.

The new budget calls for a cut of $84 million to Farm Bill conservation programs in 2018, with cuts ramping up each year to total $5.7 billion “saved” over the next 10 years. Trump’s budget doesn’t specify individual programs, but the budget released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture intends to eliminate the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, including the Tricolored Blackbird Project it funds, and end new enrollment in the Conservation Stewardship Program. This would result in fewer partnerships between farmers and conservation groups, like the unprecedented, cooperative management plan for the Greater Sage-Grouse.

Cut the EPA Budget by 31 percent

As promised repeatedly on the campaign trail, Trump’s newly released budget proposes to slash the EPA. A proposed cut of 31 percent would reduce funding from $8.2 billion in 2017 to $5.7 billion in 2018. The budget doesn’t provide any detail about how he intends to cut one-third of EPA’s budget (except for a single line item: “expand use of pesticide licensing fees” by $5 million in 2018). But a draft EPA budget, leaked by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, fills in some details.

Most crucial to birds, Trump’s EPA budget would eliminate funding for geographic programs, which pay for environmental cleanup and restoration of degraded sites in the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, and more. That comes to a total loss of $421 million in funding for these programs, which have restored tens of thousands of acres of critical bird habitats. It would also de-fund the National Estuary Program, which has protected or restored 2 million acres of estuaries since 2000. 

The leaked EPA budget also displays an alarming disdain for any programs that would prevent environmental pollution. Just a sampling: It would eliminate programs that prevent and clean up leaks from underground tanks storing oil; that minimize and recycle waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; that prevent toxic pollution and assess the risks of toxic substances, including lead and endocrine disruptors; and that provide more than $160 million in grant funding to prevent nonpoint pollution. 

Additionally, the budget proposal would do away with the Greenhouse Gas reporting program, which tracks carbon pollution from the country’s largest sources. This information is necessary to protect the more than 300 North American bird species threatened by climate change.

And those are only some of the programs that would be eliminated in their entirety (others include the environmental justice program and assistance to Alaska villages). Many more would see cuts in funding, resulting in reduced staff and capability.