Proposed Trump budget threatens Superfund, National Park Service

Montana conservation groups were quick to voice opposition Monday after President Donald Trump released a proposed federal budget that would further slash environmental protections and agency budgets, among other cuts.

On the heels of his State of the Union address, Trump proposed a record $4.8 trillion budget for fiscal year 2021 that prioritizes the military and border patrols and walls.

In order to shunt more money to the military, which already receives more than half of the federal budget, Trump proposes to cut about $2 trillion from environmental programs, student loans and safety net programs including Medicaid.

The Environmental Protection Agency would see the deepest cuts. Its already stretched budget would be cut by about a quarter, and 50 programs would be eliminated.

If Congress were to back the budget, cuts to the Superfund program would restrict or potentially eliminate the cleanup of contaminated sites around Missoula. Progress on the cleanup of the Smurfit-Stone Mill site is already at a snail’s pace, and the EPA has had to replace three associated employees in the past year.

Meanwhile, the Clark Fork River Superfund cleanup upstream of Missoula continues, but progress could stall on final critical projects if the budget cuts go through. The new budget also guts funding for the cleanup of abandoned mines and tailings, putting both habitat and public health at risk.

Clayton Elliott, Montana Trout Unlimited conservation director, said the cuts could significantly accelerate the degradation of Montana’s streams, reducing wild trout fisheries and the local economies they sustain.

“This is an alarming opening salvo out of the appropriations starting gate, but the process is far from over,” Elliott said in a statement. “Montana’s coldwater fisheries and anglers deserve better, and we appreciate Senator Daines’ and Tester’s leadership on the Senate Appropriations Committee to continually keep those interests – from LWCF to habitat conservation – at the front of these discussions.”

As justification for some of the EPA cuts, the budget proposal claims that air pollution has decreased since Trump took office. However, a Carnegie Mellon University study conducted in October showed that fine particulate pollution started to climb in 2016.

With its inversions, Missoula can suffer from concentrated particulate pollution, which can pose a human health risk, especially for those with breathing problems.

“This proposal is like cutting the fire department’s budget as fires are burning all over town. To propose a 27 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency and a 13 percent cut to the Department of the Interior — after another year of horrific, climate-fueled floods, fires, hurricanes, and water crises, and during a growing wildlife crisis — is incredibly irresponsible,” said Collin O’Mara, National Wildlife Federation CEO.

“We urge Congress to set aside the president’s budget request and instead invest in reducing climate pollution, bolstering community resilience, protecting clean drinking water, safeguarding wildlife, and conserving America’s outdoor heritage.”

In addition to cuts to the Interior Department budget, Trump’s proposal promotes more development of oil and natural gas and would almost eliminate the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“In order to balance other parts of the federal budget, the Administration is proposing yet again to raid the Land and Water Conservation Fund – which isn’t even funded by tax dollars – and slash funding for discretionary wildlife conservation programs,” said Dave Chadwick, Montana Wildlife Federation executive director.

“This is just one more reminder why Montanans need Congress to act now to pass permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.”

Less than a year ago, conservation groups celebrated when bipartisan legislation made the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanent. Since then, lobbyists have tried to ensure the LWCF receives the full $900 million in offshore oil royalties it’s supposed to receive annually. Trump’s proposal almost zeros out that funding, leaving about 2% of what the fund should receive.

The National Park Service would suffer the loss of $581 million to its already diminished budget at a time when national parks are seeing near record visitation.

More than 3 million tourists visited Glacier National Park in 2019, down slightly from its record visitation in 2017. However, the park lost its shuttle service on the Going to the Sun Highway at the end of the year because it hadn’t had enough money to increase payments for the shuttle service since 2007.

Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said a decade of budget cuts have taken their toll, causing park staffing levels to drop. The remaining skeleton crews lack the enforcement officers to properly protect the public and the workers needed to reduce the maintenance backlog that can reduce public enjoyment.

“This administration has a consistent history of enacting policy that undermines the ability of the National Park Service to ensure that our national parks are protected for the enjoyment of future generations by proposing budgets that put our wild spaces and public lands at risk,” Francis said.

“Make no mistake – with these cuts, the Trump administration and Interior Secretary (David) Bernhardt would rob our communities and put our most iconic landscapes and waterways on the chopping block to make space for backroom deals to sell-off public lands to oil and natural gas executives. Hopefully, this budget will be dead on arrival when it reaches Congress.”

It’s unlikely that Congress will approve Trump’s budget as it stands.

In fact, on Monday, Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said he would not bother to hold a committee hearing on Trump’s budget, according to Politico. Enzi and others think the having the White House weigh in on the federal budget process is ineffective.

It’s even worse now that past budgets, and especially recent tax cuts, have allowed the deficit, or the gap between what the federal government spends and the revenue it takes in, to exceed $1 trillion this year.

“Nobody has listened to the president in the 23 years that I’ve been here,” Enzi said.

For the past three years, the Trump White House has submitted budgets with drastic cuts to domestic programs that Congress has later amended. But in a nod to the White House, some of the cuts are allowed to remain. That’s what worries those who care about Montana’s outdoor heritage.