The original article was posted on E&E News by Scott Streater. To read the original article click here

Congress is set to significantly increase funding for the first time in a decade for a Bureau of Land Management program that oversees 35 million acres of some of the federal government's most culturally diverse and scientifically important lands.

The fiscal 2023 omnibus spending package unveiled by Congress early Tuesday includes $61.5 million for BLM's National Conservation Lands system, which includes 28 national monuments, 17 national conservation areas, more than 260 congressionally delegated wilderness areas, 2,700 miles of national wild and scenic rivers, and nearly 6,000 miles of national trails.

If approved, that would represent a $12.3 million increase over the fiscal 2022 enacted funding level of $49 million, but still less than the $68 million that President Joe Biden requested in his funding proposal to Congress earlier this year.

Regardless, the $61.5 million would be the largest congressional allocation to the National Conservation Lands system in more than a decade, when Congress approved $60 million in the fiscal 2009 budget cycle for the system that accounts for almost 10 percent of BLM's total landholdings and roughly 25 percent of the total annual visitors to agency-managed sites. "This is a moment to celebrate," David Feinman, government affairs director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, which advocates for National Conservation Lands, said in an email.

Congressional appropriators that the National Conservation Lands system has "been chronically noted in a bill summary underfunded," and that the additional funding in fiscal 2023 is needed for, among other things, "recreation and management planning for new, expanded, and restored monuments."

"We thank Congress for approving this historic and necessary investment in America’s National Conservation Lands and the agency that manages them," Feinman added.

The proposed 25 percent funding boost for the National Conservation Lands system comes as the Biden administration has tabbed the program as a critical component of its "America the Beautiful" initiative to conserve 30 percent of the nation's lands and waters by 2030.

The administration is expected to add new lands to the National Conservation Lands system to help meet that goal (Greenwire, May 6).

The conservation lands system had already been growing significantly over the past two decades, even as funding dwindled. Feinman noted that since 2000, the National Conservation Lands system "has nearly doubled in size, growing by more than 100 units and 11 million acres."

Congress slashed funding for the program in the fiscal 2010 budget by nearly half — to $31 million from $60 million in fiscal 2009, records show — mostly due to the economic recession gripping the country at the time. Program funding would remain at $31 million for the next five fiscal budget cycles, increasing only to $36 million in the final two budget cycles of the Obama administration. Funding has not come close to returning to pre-recession levels.
Boosting funding for the program has been a top priority among some congressional Democrats. Last spring, Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette (D) got 25 fellow House members — all Democrats — to sign onto a letter she sent to the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee encouraging them to allocate $78 million in the fiscal 2023 budget. Feinman said that while "a large gap continues to remain between the expansion of National Conservation Lands and funding to adequately care for" the lands in them, the fiscal 2023 omnibus funding levels "is a strong step toward resolving the historic lack of funding.
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