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U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks with Park Service employees

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks with Park Service employees Marc Zeidig, left, and Paul Austin after a meeting in West Glacier in March 2017. "We want to make the parks world-class," Zinke told the room full at the meeting. "The Department of Interior is going to be the best department in the government – that's the standard."

Repeatedly in his presentation to former House colleagues on Thursday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said “this is what a balanced budget looks like.”

Representatives around the committee table didn’t much like that look; reactions ranged from “flabbergasted” in Kentucky coal country about the elimination of abandoned mine reclamation funds to asking why nearly finished early-warning earthquake systems were getting canceled on the West Coast.

The former representative from Montana assured them he would work together to get priorities balanced.

But with a 13 percent cut pushing Interior’s 2018 budget down to $10.6 billion, a lot of zeroed-out line items will compete for that reassessment. The cuts will affect many Montana-centric activities, even as some activities get a boost.

The Interior Secretary’s own office would take the largest hit, cutting $596 million or 82 percent of its operating budget. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement would be cut by more than half, from $240 million to $129 million.

Increases would occur in the department’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes program (from zero to almost $400 million), and the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (zero to $138 million). Interior’s portion of the FLAME wildfire suppression reserve would be eliminated, saving $177 million.

It assumes the Land and Water Conservation Fund will expire at the end of the 2018 fiscal year, and “the Administration will review options for reauthorization, including consideration of a range of conservation-related investments that could be funded through the LWCF.”

At Thursday’s hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, Zinke said he remained a supporter of LWCF, and there would be money to maintain existing public lands. But he noted the program would not acquire new properties.

Conversely, the Interior budget document assumes the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act will be permanently reauthorized, “allowing Interior to dispose of lands with low conservation value and use the proceeds to acquire lands with high conservation values.”

Interior wilderness management would be reduced by $3 million to $15.5 million annually, “by reducing monitoring of wilderness values in Wilderness Areas and Wilderness Study Areas, among other measures” according to the budget report.

Abandoned Mine Lands and Hazardous Material Management (HMM) programs would take a $16 million combined hit, meaning “BLM will not undertake any new mine remediation work” and “HMM program will have reduced capacity to address existing and emergent environmental impact incidents and will also reduce facility environmental compliance monitoring.”

At the hearing, Zinke touted an increase of $35 million toward national park infrastructure needs. But John Garder of the National Parks Conservation Association said that figure’s misleading.

“It’s puzzling that in his confirmation hearing, Zinke outlined priorities on land use and front-line personnel and increases to deferred maintenance,” Garder said. “But in the case of deferred maintenance, they take credit for a 6 percent increase when in reality it’s a 9 percent cut of $34 million.”

That happens because the proposed budget bases its percentages off the fiscal 2016 budget rather than the FY 2017 continuing resolution passed in April, Garder said. On top of that, staff and funding cuts throughout the Interior Department mean there will be fewer people available to carry out those chores.

Zinke joked he was “making a lot of savings by not having anybody” on staff. The Interior Department staff would be reduced by about 4,000 full-time workers, from 64,025 to 59,968 workers.

That includes reductions of 674 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions in Zinke’s secretarial office through the dispersal of Office of Natural Resources Revenue duties to other areas, 1,062 FTE in the Bureau of Land Management, 1,089 FTE at the U.S. Geological Survey and 1,242 FTE at the National Park Service.

“The secretary said he will be an advocate for on-the-ground personnel, but the disappointing reality of this budget is with an 8 percent cut to operations and 1,200 Park service staff cut, the budget does quite the opposite. More than 90 percent of our parks would be significantly affected by these cuts," Garder said. "They mean eliminating large numbers of seasonal rangers, closing facilities or reducing hours. And that’s while parks are struggling with a 13 percent increase in visitation in the last two years.”

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