A bipartisan pair of senators on Wednesday called on Congress to approve billions in new funding for states to manage wildlife recovery.
During a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sens. Martin Heinrich, DN.M., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a bill introduced this year would help protect 1,600 endangered species, ease the burden on state wildlife organizations and prevent 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 work on species conservation. It would be paid for with revenue from enforcement actions against those who violate environmental regulations.
Representatives Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., introduced accompanying legislation in the House.
Heinrich and Blunt have won bipartisan support for the bill, although senators from both sides of the aisle warned Wednesday that the revenue source was too unpredictable — and perhaps too measly.
Heinrich said the additional federal money for state and local efforts would be a critical resource for species recovery. The number of threatened or endangered species has continued to increase, despite the successes of state programs and federal conservation of endangered species, he said.
“We have a unique opportunity to change this paradigm and save thousands of species with a solution that fits the scale 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 will enable only 5% of the actions called for in state plans, she said.
“The states have done their part, really without the funding,” she said. “We have been given a mandate. The funding has not come.”
While increasing federal money for conservation, the bill also aims to keep federal involvement in species management at bay, in part by removing species from the endangered species list.
“A key part of the goal here is to work with these government agencies so that the federal government never has to be involved in an endangered species situation,” Blunt said.
Collin O’Mara, the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation advocacy group, told the panel that Endangered Species Act designations resulting from inaction would be much more expensive for the federal government and the private sector.
“Imagine the monarch butterfly being on the list. The impact on farms across the country is huge,” said O’Mara, referring to the insect’s famously wide distribution in the Western Hemisphere.
“I am convinced that we can save most species by proactive, collaborative work and saving hundreds of billions of dollars in costs to the private sector.”
The funding would help prevent 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.
Financing fines, penalties
The bill would use money raised through criminal fines and penalties for violations of natural resource and environmental laws.
Committee leaders, Chair Thomas E. Carper, D-Del., and leading Republican Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, expressed concern that the bill’s source of funding could be too unstable to support ambitious spending.
“As drafted, the legislation identifies a source of funding that may not be reliable or not fully pay for the bill’s expenses,” 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 we need to consider amid the growth of our debt and deficit during this pandemic.”
Blunt said he and Heinrich “found a funding source that we believe is working.”
Carper also said he wanted to see more funding for federal agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“While we absolutely must 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 also co-sponsored the bill, although neither Carper nor Capito added their names.
Capito said on Wednesday that she was “eager” to work with Heinrich and Blunt to improve the bill and hoped the bill could move forward.