By Jacob Fischler, Michigan Advance
A bipartisan pair of senators on Wednesday called for Congress to approve billions in new funding for states to manage wildlife recovery work.
At a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sens. Martin Heinrich, (D-N.M.), and Roy Blunt, (R-Mo.), said a bill they introduced this year would help protect 1,600 threatened species, relieve the burden on state wildlife agencies and spare private landowners from having to deal with federal regulations related to the Endangered Species Act.
The bill would provide $1.3 billion annually for states, tribes and territories to do species conservation work. It would be paid for with revenue from enforcement actions against those who violate environmental regulations.
Reps. Debbie Dingell, (D-Dearborn), and Jeff Fortenberry, (R-Neb.), introduced companion legislation in the House to commemorate Earth Day.
“The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act represents a strong commitment to addressing the current biodiversity crisis using innovative, on-the-ground collaboration that will protect our nation’s environmental heritage for years to come,” Dingell said in April.
Heinrich and Blunt have won support from both parties for the bill, though senators from both sides of the aisle cautioned Wednesday that the revenue source was too unpredictable — and perhaps too paltry.
Heinrich said the extra federal cash for state and local efforts would add a critical tool for species recovery. The numbers of endangered or threatened species have continued to increase, despite the successes of state programs and federal Endangered Species Act protections, he said.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change this paradigm and save thousands of species with a solution that matches the magnitude of the challenge,” he said.
Sara Parker Pauley, the director of the Missouri Department of Conservation, told the panel the bill would help states complete federally mandated conservation plans. Current funding only enables 5% of the actions called for across state plans, she said.
“The states have done their parts, really without the funding,” she said. “We’ve been given a mandate. The funding hasn’t come with it.”
While boosting federal money for wildlife conservation, the bill is also meant to distance federal involvement in species management, in part by keeping species off the Endangered Species Act list.
“A significant part of the goal here is to work with these state agencies so the federal government never has to be involved in an endangered species situation,” Blunt said.
Collin O’Mara, the president & CEO of the advocacy group National Wildlife Federation, told the panel that the Endangered Species Act designations that would result from inaction would be much more costly to the federal government and private sector.
“Imagine if the monarch butterfly ends up listed. The impact on farms all across the country is massive,” O’Mara said, referring to the insect with a famously broad range in the Western Hemisphere.
“I’m convinced we can save most species through proactive, collaborative work and save hundreds of billions of dollars of private-sector cost.”
The funding would help keep species numbers from reaching critical lows, O’Mara said. Working to protect species before they reach endangered status is more cost-effective and gives species a greater chance of survival.
Funding from fines, penalties
The bill would use money raised through criminal fines and penalties from violations of natural resource and environmental laws.
Leaders of the committee, Chairman Thomas E. Carper, (D-Del.), and ranking Republican Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, raised concerns the source of the bill’s funding could be too unstable to support the ambitious spending.
“As drafted, the legislation identifies a funding source that may not be reliable or fully pay for the bill’s spending,” Carper said.
“As I understand it, the bill will still result in $14 billion in direct, mandatory spending over a 10-year period,” Capito said. “This is an issue that we need to consider against the background of the growth of our debt and deficit during this pandemic.”
Blunt said he and Heinrich “found a funding source we believe works.”
Carper also said he wanted to see more funding for federal agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“While we should absolutely address the funding needs of our states and tribes, we cannot afford to ignore the legitimate needs of our federal agencies and other partners,” he said.
In addition to Blunt and Heinrich, 16 Democrats and 15 Republican senators co-sponsored the bill, though neither Carper nor Capito have attached their names.
Capito said Wednesday she was “eager” to work with Heinrich and Blunt to improve the bill and was hopeful the bill could move forward.
Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.