"Great Outdoors" initiative inspires movement on several fronts
During the past four years, the Obama administration has moved on several fronts to expand land-conservation efforts.
America's Great Outdoors initiative
On April 16, 2010, Obama launched the America's Great Outdoors initiative and tasked the Interior Secretary, the Agriculture Secretary, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator and the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality to "develop a 21st-century conservation and recreation agenda.” Organizers held 51 public sessions across the country, with 10,000 people taking part and more than 105,000 submitted comments.
In February 2011, the administration released an agenda titled, "America's Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations.” We've found progress in the following areas from the report:
• Promote a 21st- Century Conservation Service Corps to engage young Americans in public lands and water restoration. In December 2011, an advisory committee for such a corps was established and its members selected; and it met four times in 2012.
• Support outdoor recreation access and opportunities on public lands by establishing a Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation. The council was established in June 2011.
• Establish the National Recreational Blueway Trails Initiative to increase access to recreation on waterways. In February 2012, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar officially launched a National Water Trails System.
• Promote tools to provide certainty to landowners who agree to carry out stewardship activities that benefit fish and wildlife and protect water resources. A new, $21 million effort called Working Lands for Wildlife exchanges habitat protection for regulatory predictability. In its first six months, 800 landowners signed up, affecting 310,000 acres of habitat.
• Targeting funding to leverage investment in new and enhanced urban parks and community green spaces. An administration progress report cites examples of federal funding helping advance projects in Chicago, St. Louis, New York, Denver, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.
Funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, established in 1964, offers money to federal, state and local governments to purchase land, water and wetlands for conservation, recreational, wildlife, scenic, historical and environmental protection purposes. Land is bought from landowners at fair-market value, unless the owner chooses to offer the land as a donation or at a bargain price. The fund comes mostly from fees paid by companies drilling offshore for oil and gas, plus the sale of surplus federal real estate and taxes on motorboat fuel.
Under Obama, the fund initially increased, then decreased. Here are the annual figures:
Fiscal year 2009: $304 million
Fiscal year 2010: $339 million
Fiscal year 2011: $339 million
Fiscal year 2012: $217 million
The administration's request for 2013 was $332 million, but since the president's requests have been repeatedly cut in recent years, the actual amount will likely be lower.
Agriculure Department funding
As we noted in a separate item, funding for the Agriculture Department's "Farm Security and Rural Investment Programs” -- which include such programs as the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Grasslands Reserve Program -- has risen 50 percent since Obama took office, but with an asterisk.
These are "mandatory” programs -- essentially entitlements -- with levels set by the Farm Bill of 2008, before Obama took office. Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said that Obama's budgets have consistently called for lowering the increases mandated under the 2008 Farm Bill. So while the numbers have generally gone up under Obama, they've gone up by less than they might have otherwise.
For the Conservation Stewardship Program -- which pays farmers to enact conservation practices on lands that are in production -- the administration has regularly proposed budget reductions, though Congress has generally provided more than Obama asked for, Hoefner said. For the Conservation Reserve Program -- which pays farmers and other landowners to take land out of agricultural production -- efforts did expand indirectly, he said.
The Agriculture Department also changed how it handles conservation efforts, prioritizing the most urgent cases rather than a "first-in, first offered” approach.
Collectively, these efforts are "one of the greatest conservation achievements of any administration of the last decade,” the Nature Conservancy said in a statement to PolitiFact.
All in all, the administration has moved on multiple fronts, not just rhetorically but also with creating programs and providing funding. The money the administration allocated has not always been the maximum possible, but taken as a whole, we find the administration"s efforts to have been substantial. We rate it a Promise Kept.
"America"s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations,” February 2011
"America's Great Outdoors: 2012 Progress Report," December 2012
Interior Department, budget in brief, for 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010
PolitiFact, "Partial progress on several elements of wetlands protection," Nov. 29, 2012
PolitiFact, "No tax incentives for new farmers, and less spending on conservation incentives than authorized," Nov. 28, 2012
Nature Conservancy, statement to PolitiFact, Dec. 13, 2012
Interview with Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Nov. 27, 2012
Obama has a mixed record on land conservation
Land and water conservation were an important part of Barack Obama's campaign platform, and he has made some progress on his promise to "put an unprecedented level of emphasis on the conservation of private lands" in several areas.
First, Obama included in his Interior Department budget about $420 million -- an increase of about $116 million -- for the Land and Water Conservation fund. He got more than he wanted; congressional appropriators approved $450 million for the program.
And the Agriculture Department funding bill included $887.6 million for conservation programs, an increase of more than $34 million over previous funding bills.
Nevertheless, Obama's budget shortchanged other key programs he talked about on the campaign trail, including the Conservation Reserve Program meant to encourage farmers to conserve more of their land. According to the White House's "Terminations, Reductions and Savings" document released along with its budget, the Conservation Reserve Program would lose a total of $178 million between now and 2019. Ultimately, Congress opted to fully fund the program in this year's Agriculture Department appropriations bill.
So, Obama's made some headway on putting more money toward land conservation efforts, but we're going to wait and see if Obama comes through on the last part of his promise -- to create new incentives for private landowners to protect vulnerable habitats. For now, we rate this one In the Works.
The White House, Terminations, Reductions and Savings , accessed Dec. 30, 2009
The House Appropriations Committee, Interior Department Conference Report summary , accessed Dec. 30, 2009
The White House, Department of Interior budget , accessed Dec. 30, 2009
The National Wildlife Federation, agriculture appropriations summary , accessed Dec. 30, 2009