Bush budget pitch gets mixed reviews

Washington – It’s been since 1991 that the price of the federal
Duck Stamp has increased, but that could change under the 2009
budget President Bush proposed Monday.

A $10 stamp increase is just one part of Bush’s overall federal
budget plan, which includes $10.7 billion for the Interior
Department. Of that, $2.2 billion would go to the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service.

That figure is made up of $1.3 billion in discretionary funds –
a decrease of about $65 million from 2008 – and $947 million in
permanent appropriations.

The reduction reflects lower proposed spending for land
acquisition and construction. The proposal, however, includes
$434.1 million for refuges. That’s similar to last year, an
increase of $35.9 million over 2007, and 44 percent higher than the
2001 refuge budget, according to the USFWS.

The refuge funds should help stem the loss of refuge personnel
that’s taken place over the past few years. In Region 3, which
includes Minnesota, there are about 50 staffing vacancies the
Service hasn’t been able to fill, said Tom Worthington, deputy
chief of refuges for the region.

Minnesota has more vacancies than any others in the region.

“It certainly is slowing it down a lot, and hopefully we can
start rebuilding some of our capabilities,” Worthington said. “We
are hopeful we can start re-filling (positions).”

The budget proposal seeks savings through reduced spending on
construction and acquisition, and just two projects are proposed
through Land and Water Conservation funds. One is in Alaska, while
the other is in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and
Fish Refuge. Bush’s proposal is to spend $500,000 to acquire a
piece of property in Wisconsin that’s between Winona and La Crosse,
Wis.

Bush’s budget proposal now goes to Congress, and the land
acquisition piece, especially, could be changed.

“When they get the budget, this is a place where Congress
sometimes exerts (a lot of) influence on the budget,” Worthington
said.

Worthington and other officials have seen an overview of the
budget proposal, but expect more details in a month or so.

But he and others praised the proposal to increase the price of
the Duck Stamp, which, according to the USFWS, will allow for the
acquisition of an additional 6,800 acres of migratory bird habitat
and 10,000 acres of wetland easements per year across the
nation.

“When you look at the cost of inflation on securing habitat,
especially in the face of rising commodity prices and land values,
the cost of doing duck conservation has gone up, and it has been
going up for some time,” said John Devney, of Delta Waterfowl.

While Delta and other groups still are hopeful stamp prices will
increase through the Wetlands Loan Act – a bill that’s been in play
for more than a year, but that hasn’t received significant action –
they say the increase will help protect valuable land.

“We still favor the Wetlands Loan Act, but we desperately need
to save these threatened grassland and wetland habitats as soon as
we possibly can,” he said. “If a fee increase is what’s needed to
get that done, then so be it.”

The stamp fee hasn’t increased since 1991, which is the longest
period of time without an increase since it started in 1934, said
Scott Sutherland, director of the government affairs for Ducks
Unlimited.

“The price of land has skyrocketed since that time, hence the
stamp’s power to protect waterfowl land is miniscule compared to
the land prices and the need for habitat,” he said.

There was mixed support for waterfowl programs in Bush’s
proposal, according to DU. The Wetlands Reserve Program in the
budget would get enough funding to meet its current acreage cap,
but, if it’s not re-authorized in the Farm Bill, would be
discontinued after the budget.

The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and the Grasslands
Reserve Program, having reached their maximum acreage allotments
and without re-authorization, would be cut to zero, according to
DU, and the budget doesn’t include large-scale enrollment for the
Conservation Reserve Program.

The budget proposes $42.6 million for the North American
Wetlands Conservation Act, which is on par with fiscal year 2008
funding.

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