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Udall Questions Zinke On Inadequate Interior Budget, Reorganization Proposals

May 10, 2018

VIDEOhttps://www.appropriations.senate.gov/hearings/hearing-to-review-the-fy2019-budget-request-for-the-us-department-of-interior

Commentary: WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, the lead Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees funding for the Department of the Interior (DOI), pressed DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke about the department’s inadequate fiscal year 2019 budget request, serious management concerns under Zinke’s watch, the administration’s continued attacks on America’s public lands, and other issues affecting New Mexico’s economy and way of life.

Credit Office of US Senator Tom Udall (D-NM)

During a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, Udall told Zinke that his proposed budget makes unacceptable cuts to programs that New Mexicans and Native Americans depend on. “For starters, your budget request walks away from the decades-long federal commitment to the Land and Water Conservation Fund by ending federal land acquisition and cutting most discretionary grant programs,” Udall said.

“You have said repeatedly that you want to provide more resources to the field. But the budget request slashes funding for most land management and science bureaus by double digits, and proposes to cut thousands of jobs -- including positions that are on the front line of caring for our public lands,” Udall continued. “It also proposes cuts for many of the department’s partners – and doesn’t include the full funding our counties depend on from the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program. You have said you want to uphold our nation’s trust and treaty responsibilities and support tribal self-determination. But tribal programs are decimated by this budget. Funding for BIA is cut by 21 percent—including significant cuts to education, public safety, and natural resources programs.”

Earlier this year, Udall secured strong investments in vital programs like LWCF, PILT, Tribal health and infrastructure programs, and other key initiatives for New Mexico in the omnibus appropriations bill to fund the government for 2018. “I’m concerned by reports that the department has been slow to spend the funding Congress provided in fiscal year 2018,” Udall said. “Members of this subcommittee want to make sure that these funds get spent as Congress intended, and ensure that the department doesn’t walk away from the bipartisan budget that Congress passed and the president signed.

Udall said his concerns with Zinke’s management of DOI are not limited to the budget. “I have serious questions about a number of management issues at the department, starting with the reassignments of career members of the Senior Executive Service and the lack of documentation and transparency regarding these moves,” Udall said. “Mr. Secretary, you want our permission to reorganize the entire department. But it’s not even clear whether you have the right policies in place to manage your most senior career staff members. The department has not provided sufficient detail on its actual plan for the reorganization, including how much it would cost, to Congress or the public.  And I am particularly troubled by the lack of tribal consultation so far.”

“The monuments review that the department conducted -- and the decision to eviscerate Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante -- are a travesty,” Udall continued. “I have serious doubt whether these actions will survive scrutiny by the courts. And until that question is answered, I believe that moving forward with land management plans that will open these iconic areas to development is reckless.”

The full text of Udall’s opening statement is available below. Video of the full hearing is available here.

Mr. Secretary, thank you for appearing before the subcommittee as we begin our examination of the Fiscal Year 2019 budget for the Department of the Interior.  We appreciate being able to hear from you, and to ask questions about your budget request.

I also want to welcome Ms. Olivia Ferriter, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget, Finance, Performance, and Acquisition, and Ms. Denise Flanagan, Director of the Department’s Office of Budget. 

This subcommittee couldn’t do our job without the support of the department’s budget office.  So I want to recognize the terrific work that Ms. Ferriter and Ms. Flanagan—and their staffs—do every day, especially in the face of a challenging budget request. Thank you.

And as we begin to talk about the department’s budget, I want to emphasize just how important the department is to my home state of New Mexico.  The decisions made by the department determine whether our natural and cultural resources are protected and managed responsibly.  And whether we uphold our trust and treaty responsibilities for the tribes and pueblos who live there. 

So that’s why I want to begin by thanking you for taking three important actions within the last year to help New Mexico.

First, I appreciate that you personally helped work through a number of issues to allow land to be donated—at no cost to the taxpayer—to finally provide public access to the Sabinoso Wilderness.  Sabinoso is a stunning landscape that’s now open for hunting, fishing, and recreation.  Public lands boost our local economies and add jobs.  And special places like Las Vegas, New Mexico benefit greatly.

Second, I want to recognize the department’s efforts to finalize the contract to build the new Laguna Elementary School—which was just signed in the last week.  I have been working with the pueblo and BIE for several years to replace this school, and this funding is great news for the entire Laguna Pueblo community.

And finally, I want to say thank you for continuing the landmark joint BLM and BIA planning efforts started under the previous Administration to ensure that energy development does not encroach on culturally significant areas around Chaco Canyon. 

I am also pleased that BLM recently walked back the decision to offer lease sales in the area -- which is particularly important since this planning process is still underway. 

But I remain concerned that there is a still a directive in place for BLM to offer quarterly lease sales that have the potential to impact Chaco.

And I am also concerned how recent changes in the BLM planning process will impact the ability to protect the significant cultural resources at Chaco and in other places across the country.  

I also want to say that I appreciate that your focus on improving outdoor recreation and public access.  And that you are committed to working with Congress to address the deferred maintenance challenges at the National Park Service and other Interior bureaus -- something that this subcommittee has also made a priority.

But frankly, Mr. Secretary, your goals don’t match the reality of your budget request.

For starters, your budget request walks away from the decades-long federal commitment to the Land and Water Conservation Fund by ending federal land acquisition and cutting most discretionary grant programs. 

Given your previous support, you have to know how critical that LWCF is for recreation -- whether it be funding projects to acquire inholdings so we can manage federal lands more efficiently, providing access to landlocked pieces of public land, or even funding parks and other projects at the state and local level.

You have said repeatedly that you want to provide more resources to the field.  But the budget request slashes funding for most land management and science bureaus by double digits, and proposes to cut thousands of jobs -- including positions that are on the front line of caring for our public lands.   

It also proposes cuts for many of the department’s partners – and doesn’t include the full funding our counties depend on from the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program.

You have said you want to uphold our nation’s trust and treaty responsibilities and support tribal self-determination.  But tribal programs are decimated by this budget.  Funding for BA is cut by 21 percent—including significant cuts to education, public safety, and natural resources programs.  

My concerns are not limited to the budget.  And it’s my job to speak up when I see policies and actions that I believe are flat-out wrong.   

The monuments review that the department conducted -- and the decision to eviscerate Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante -- are a travesty. I have serious doubt whether these actions will survive scrutiny by the courts.  And until that question is answered, I believe that moving forward with land management plans that will open these iconic areas to development is reckless.

I couldn’t disagree more with the decision to roll back the previous administration’s rule to reduce methane waste, or with the lack of meaningful public involvement as BLM crafts the new rule. 

I don’t support the administration’s efforts to move full steam ahead on the plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  And I still believe the plan to develop this pristine landscape will not stand up to environmental review. 

I am concerned about the recent decision to hike fees at national parks -- which will put a bigger financial burden on the American families we want to visit our parks.  

I remain concerned that today, on the 146th anniversary of the 1872 mining law, we still are not having the necessary conversations about reforming this antiquated law. We are allowing nearly 161,000 abandoned mines throughout the west to go unaddressed, while at least 33,000 of these mines are documented to be contaminating our environment. 

The next Gold King Mine disaster is around the corner, like a ticking time bomb. And the budget reduces already inadequate resources for abandoned mine land clean up at the same time that you are boosting mineral development.

I have serious questions about a number of management issues at the department, starting with the reassignments of career members of the Senior Executive Service and the lack of documentation and transparency regarding these moves.

Mr. Secretary, you want our permission to reorganize the entire department.  But it’s not even clear whether you have the right policies in place to manage your most senior career staff members. 

The department has not provided sufficient detail on its actual plan for the reorganization, including how much it would cost, to Congress or the public.  And I am particularly troubled by the lack of tribal consultation so far.  

Finally, I’m concerned by reports that the department has been slow to spend the funding Congress provided in fiscal year 2018. 

We enacted an omnibus bill that included more than $860 million dollars’ worth of program increases for the Interior Department this year, including major investments in national parks and tribal infrastructure. 

We also provided $425 million dollars in total for Land and Water Conservation Fund priorities at the Interior Department and Forest Service. 

The members of this subcommittee want to make sure that these funds get spent as Congress intended, and ensure that the department doesn’t walk away from the bipartisan budget that Congress passed and the president signed.  

The administration is not proposing to rescind any funds from the Interior Department at this point. So there is no excuse not to get funds into the field as quickly as possible.  

As you can see, Mr. Secretary, we have a lot to talk about this morning. I look forward to hearing your testimony and to delving into the issues I raised when it’s time for questions. Thank you for being here.