BUDGET “HIGHLIGHTS”

The House Appropriations Committee has approved an FY 2006 $26.1 billion Interior spending bill, and it’s on the way to the House floor. Among legislators who say they will oppose the bill is Rep. David Obey, Ranking Member of the Appropriations Committee, who says the funding level is woefully low for tribal programs ranging from natural resource management to education. The measure would provide 2.2 percent less than programs under its jurisdiction received in FY 2005. The Appropriations Committee had released subcommittee discretionary allocations which Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-CA, said would result in spending cuts to 3 of the House’s 11 appropriations bills from current levels – Energy-Water, Interior-Environment, and Labor-HHS-Education, and a spending freeze for agriculture. There is continued commitment to move all 11 bills through the House by the July 4 recess. The programs/tax cuts are not specified, but the instructions to the authorizing panels foreshadow policy decisions. Thus, battles over cuts to specific programs may continue, as authorizing panels work to meet the standards set by the resolution. The blueprint, which provides for $2.6 trillion in FY 2006, binds the hands of appropriators by setting a discretionary spending cap of $843 billion. The bill is to be considered by the full House May 18. Agency funding in the bill includes the following:

  • BLM: $1.8 billion, $4 million below the Administration’s request and $62 million below FY 2005;
  • Fish and Wildlife Service: $1.3 billion, $17 million below the request and $26 million below FY 2005;
  • EPA: $7.7 billion, $187 million above the request and $318 million below FY 2005; National Park Service: $2.2 billion, $20 million below the request and $137 million below FY 2005;
  • Forest Service: $4.2 billion, $182 million above the request and $499 million below FY 2005.

Northwest Interior Budget

The Appropriations Committee attempted to restore school construction and education funding in the Interior bill. But natural resource funding efforts have come up somewhat short. The Forest and Fish Report (FFR) and Mass Marking (MM) was $3.75 million, with $1 million earmarked for MM ($1.25 million is needed). The FFR amount should have been $3.08 million, so the budget is short there, too. A $2 million line item in the Fish and Wildlife budget could potentially help fill the gap. Hatchery Rehab/Reform monies do not appear to be included (although there are funds for the Hatchery Science Review Group and Long Live The Kings). Thus, implementing the Hatchery Management Plan changes tribes want may be problematical.

Senate

There are many unknowns in the Senate. Its budget could be better. But Sen. Murray (not on the subcommittee) has said, “Since President Bush forwarded his budget to Congress in February, I’ve been fighting as a member of the Senate Budget Committee to win back the investments our state needs to stay strong. This budget saddles our children with a massive $382 billion deficit while opting to hand out $106 million more in tax cuts. While this budget resolution is non-binding, it sets our priorities for the coming year, and I’m disappointed that Republicans in the White House and Congress have chosen to shortchange Americans in so many critical areas.” Sen. Maria Cantwell added, “This budget accomplishes a truly unfortunate feat of Enron-style accounting. It cuts vital healthcare and education programs for Washington state families, at the same time it manages to saddle future generations with a soaring national debt. It sets the wrong priorities for America’s future.”

ENERGY BILL A MAJOR ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERN

HR 6, The Energy Policy Act, has been passed by the House, and is seen as one of the biggest slams on the environment in recent years. As the bill makes its way to the Senate floor, Bush continues to promote the legislation as a cure-all for our dependence on foreign oil. Opponents continue to point out it will not reduce U.S. dependence, but actually increase imports by more than 80 percent—even as it offers billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies for the oil and gas industry to expand domestic energy production. It exempts industry from water contamination clean-up. This provision helped halt the energy bill in the Senate last year. But this year could be a different story. Aggressively supported by Rep. Tom DeLay, R-TX, the bill exempts the oil and gas industry from lawsuits over liability for water contamination caused by the gasoline additive, methyl-tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). It includes a liability waiver that protects producers, distributors, and users of MTBE from cleaning up their own contamination. Instead the burden is shifted onto the taxpayer. MTBE has been found in groundwater in 35 states and thousands of families across the country have been sickened by the pollution.

The energy bill also exempts the oil and gas industries from liability for water contamination caused by an extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing. The procedure, invented by Halliburton Co., eases natural gas extraction by injecting highly pressurized chemical fluids beneath the ground, often contaminating ground water in the process. Outraged by the effect on their water, communities across the nation have sued oil companies. The proposed energy bill however, will bar communities from being able to sue. The bill also invokes detrimental changes to the Clean Air Act. Noteworthy is the fact that House Energy Committee members received $166,028 in campaign contributions from energy producers in the first quarter of this year alone. Energy Committee Chair Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, received $34,000 from energy companies, including oil giants Exxon Mobil, Shell, Marathon and Sun Oil. Halliburton contributed $2,000 to Rep. Barton’s campaign committee. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the driving force behind the bill in Congress, received $43,500 since the beginning of the year from energy companies. He’s received more than $1 million from energy and natural resource interests since 1989.

ENERGY BILL A BOON FOR THE HYDRO INDUSTRY, TOO

In a letter to members of the House Committee on Energy Resources dated April 11, NWIFC urged that the licensing provisions found in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 be cut. Specific concern was expressed about Section 231, Alternative Conditions and Fishways (Subtitle C of Title II of the bill). As written, the Energy Bill’s provisions for re-licensing require agencies to consider the private economic interests of dam owners above those of tribes, states and federal agencies. They diminish environmental standards of review and provide for only the license applicant to challenge final FERC recommendations.

Puget Sound Energy has recently claimed that FERC’s post-licensing change is a violation of the constitutional separation between church and state. (FERC wants Puget to increase flows to enhance the impact on tribal religion at Snoqualmie Falls. But the utility says FERC is forcing it “”to endorse” tribal religious practices. PSE also argues the order was arbitrary and usurps the State of Washington’s authority over water quality issues. Puget Sound Energy says FERC’s latest order in the Snoqualmie Falls relicense process violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, better known by Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 description of it as creating a “”wall of separation between church and state.””

ROADLESS RULE GUTTED: CANTWELL OBJECTS

The Bush Administration has formally gutted the U.S. Forest Service’s 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, endangering over 2 million acres of pristine federal forests in Washington State. The 2001 rule was developed after unprecedented outreach and study, including 45 public meetings in this state alone and 4 million public comments from Americans nationwide. Bush’s new plan includes a controversial state-by-state petition process that Sen. Cantwell says defies scientific and economic reason. “It will open up previously protected areas of our federal forests to logging, mining, and drilling. We already have a $10 billion forest road repair backlog, and now the Administration wants to build new roads. This is not only fiscally irresponsible, it’s environmentally irresponsible. These wild areas should be preserved so that future generations can enjoy clean drinking water, salmon habitats, and outdoor recreation opportunities.” Cantwell says she plans to reintroduce her bipartisan legislation to repeal the new rule, and restore protection for forests. “I’ll also use my seat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to keep working on this issue,” she said. The final rule and the notice announcing the establishment of the advisory committee will be published as available here

BUSH AND “COOPERATIVE CONSERVATION”

A high level conference has been slated for August 28-31 in St. Louis related to President Bush’s 2004 Executive Order on “”cooperative conservation”” that directed relevant federal agencies to promote such in full partnership with states, tribes, local governments & individuals. In fact, the Executive Order directed the Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality to convene such a conference. It will be co-hosted by the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Defense & EPA. One of the White House’s anticipated outcomes is to expand state, tribal and local communities roles in cooperative conservation.

REGARDING THE ESA RECOVERY RECORD

Because only a handful of domestic species, 10 of more than 1200, have been recovered and removed from the endangered species list, House Committee on Resources Chairman Richard W. Pombo, R-CA, asked the Government Accounting Office to review how U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allocates funds to recovery efforts. He noted that the resulting GAO report indicates that not a single plant or animal with the highest recovery priority was among the 20 species receiving the most recovery dollars. The report compared federal expenditures on listed endangered species to USFWS recovery-priority rankings between FY 2001 and 2003. Results noted that while the Service spent its recovery budget in accordance with priority guidelines, 92 percent of all species were ranked in the upper-half of the priority system. “”The GAO’s numbers show that the Service’s priority system is not efficient,”” Pombo said. “”In practice, it is like having a huge ‘To Do’ list and putting a star next to every item because it’s the most important. The priority becomes everything, but nothing gets done. It shouldn’t be a surprise that less than one percent of listed species have recovered if we can’t establish meaningful priorities,”” Pombo said. “”Congress bears just as much responsibility for the poor track record as the agencies implementing the law. This is just another symptom of a law that desperately needs updating.”

The House Resources Committee Pombo chairs is booking field hearings on ESA. There has been no word of times or places, and no response regarding this from Committee staff. However, Pombo also indicated there would be tribal input at the hearings and that tribes should be thinking about whether they’d be willing to participate. More information will be distributed when available.

COLUMBIA RIVER RESTORATION PLAN ENDORSED

Federal authorities recently endorsed the first formal plan for restoring salmon species in the Columbia River basin—more than a decade after the first runs were declared threatened and endangered. The recovery plan endorsed by the National Marine Fisheries Service calls for restoring salmon species such as chum and chinook as well as steelhead trout in watersheds that drain into the lower Columbia River. The plan includes analyzing fishing, hatchery management and hydroelectric operations to determine how the fish populations were prevented from expanding over the years and strategies for overcoming those obstacles. Other recovery proposals are expected from Oregon, Idaho and the rest of Washington by the end of the year. The Service plans to roll those plans into a comprehensive initiative to be finalized next year.

NOAA ACCEPTS PUGET SOUND STEELHEAD PETITION

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service has accepted a Washington State citizen’s petition to list Puget Sound steelhead under ESA, saying the petition describes significant short and long-term downward trends for steelhead in a wide range of rivers emptying into the sound. Although acceptance of the petition doesn’t guarantee that Puget Sound steelhead will ultimately be listed under the ESA, it does mean the fisheries agency will conduct its own full-scale biological review of the population and solicit public comment on the status of the stock. A final decision about whether to propose listing is expected by September 13, one-year after NOAA received the petition from Sam Wright of Olympia, a former State Game employee. If Puget Sound steelhead are proposed for listing, the listing wouldn’t become final until September, 2006. NOAA last conducted a biological status review of Puget Sound steelhead in 1996. While the agency said at the time that a listing wasn’t warranted, it said it was concerned about harmful effects on wild steelhead of hatchery-reared steelhead. The petition has new information that there may be “”significant interbreeding and competition”” between hatchery and wild steelhead in spite of efforts by the WDFW, which says it operates the hatcheries to isolate the two.

NEPA USED AGAINST TRIBES

The Bush Administration has apparently used the National Environmental Policy Act against the tribes by being inconsistent in its enforcement of the nation’s oldest environmental law. The Administration has streamlined the NEPA process to assist industrial development while strictly enforcing the law when, for example, landless Native American tribes seek to obtain land trusts. Designed to protect the nation’s natural resources and support public participation in government, NEPA requires federal officials to make a careful assessment of potential environmental damage for a proposed project, and offer alternatives when necessary. But an attorney specializing in federal Indian law, speaking anonymously, says “”Because the Bush Administration is hostile to the idea of Native Americans gaining more land, they have been hiding behind the NEPA process.”” Landless tribes must pay for their own Environmental Assessments, which contributes to a process the attorney called, “”slow-rolling.”” This occurs when the EA is not paid for by the government– thus decreasing the urgency of the project, and lengthening the review process. After a year or more a tribe is often told it must go back and conduct an EIS, a costly, time-consuming process that it was not instructed to perform at the outset of its application. An EIS can cost more than $800,000, and require an extensive assessment of alternatives. These barriers have made efforts to attain land trusts very difficult for tribes. “”Completing an EIS can be very difficult for a tribe. It increases the cost, and demands a list of alternatives that just aren’t feasible. Basically the EIS asks tribes to consider an alternative to living on a reservation– and NEPA is not meant to do that,”” says NCAI General Counsel John Dossett.

While the federal government has used NEPA to hinder Native American efforts to obtain land, the law has been used the opposite way to benefit industry. Environmental lawyer Douglas Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel and author of the book, “”Redefining Federalism,”” says the gas industry has been particularly skillful in using NEPA to its advantage. In his first two years in office, the Bush Administration was involved in 172 NEPA cases. In 94 of them, the Administration presented arguments aimed at weakening the application of NEPA. Meanwhile, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) chair of the house committee studying NEPA, has repeatedly criticized NEPA as an overly burdensome process for industry.

APOLOGY RESOLUTION

An apology to tribes has again been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS. He was joined in the introduction of SJR 19 by Senators Byron Dorgan, D-ND and Christopher Dodd, D-CT., who say tribes deserve an apology for what he calls the government’s “”poor and painful past choices.”” Brownback called the apology resolution “”a step toward healing the wounds that have divided us for so long – a potential foundation for a new era of positive relations between Tribal governments and the federal government. It is past time for us to heal our land of division, and bring us together as one people.” NCAI President Tex Hall says Brownback is a “”true champion”” for Indian Country but stressed the resolution does not include or endorse financial reparations.

LOBBY SCANDAL

As the Jack Abramoff scandal continues to unfold, attention turns toward lobbying rules affecting tribes. Legislation proposals aimed at overhauling the way lobbyists work is common fare these days. But so far none of the proposals directly address the millions tribal governments spend to advance their interests. But SCIA Chair Sen. John McCain, R-AR, is leading the investigation into how six tribes spent an estimated $82 million on lobbyists, e.g., he has questioned if DOI officials should be allowed to lobby for tribes soon after leaving office. Under existing law, those who represent tribal governments aren’t subject to a one-year “”cooling off”” period imposed on other lobbyists. The exception was drafted so that tribes could hire people with knowledge of their issues, as is often the case with Interior employees. But “”there have clearly been abuses of that.””

The next hearing in the lobbying scandal is set to take place in late June.