It's Obama/Biden vs. McCain/Palin. The 2008 marathon nominating process for presidential candidates is finally over. Our attention now turns to the November general elections. We all may have our favorite candidate or political party and although we may get tired of watching the political pundits on television, it is exciting that we get to choose our leaders. The political process is ours. Washington, that city most politicians love to run against is our national capital. And those we send to Washington to serve in our government are, in fact, our representatives.
Sometimes, the national electorate decides to throw the bums out and start over, and sometimes, the decision is to stay the course. But, whatever the result, the decision always rests with the people of this nation. Our democratic process has evolved much over 230 years. We are a far different nation than the one created back in 1776. What has remained constant and has grown in strength is the concept that the common citizen, you and I, decides who will succeed or fail at the ballot box. That's an awesome responsibility we share.
The next Administration and Congress will face some daunting problems. In this newsletter, we will touch on some of those issues relating to outdoor recreation and OHV recreation in particular. It's not the first time you have heard about these issues nor will it be the last time. Looking into 2009, I am convinced more than ever that we have our work cut out for us.
Recreational Trails Program Under Attack
In the April newsletter, we wrote about the coming reauthorization of the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) and the challenges we face in getting this done. Those stakes recently became even higher when the current Secretary of Transportation, Mary E. Peters, released recommendations to the Congress on the need to restructure and reform federal funding of transportation projects. Secretary Peters said, "Without a doubt, our federal approach to transportation is broken. It is time for a new, a different and better approach." Part of the Secretary's "new and better" approach is to recommend the cancellation of the Recreational Trails Program.
We don't underestimate the need to restructure our highway funding mechanisms, but eliminating the Recreational Trails Program, a program with an annual budget of $80 million, isn't going to solve Secretary Peters' concerns about an aging interstate highway system. For example, it's going to cost $234 million to replace the bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. If Secretary Peters gets her way, a very important and successful program that builds trails for hikers, bikers, and OHV enthusiasts would bite the dust, all in an attempt to put a little more money into highway construction. $80 million doesn't go very far in funding highway construction but it can do an amazing amount of work in building recreational trails. This is one reform idea we need to make sure is dead on arrival when it comes before the next Congress. In the coming months, you can join us in the fight to save RTP.
Budget Woes Fighting Forest Fires
This fire season has been particularly tough for areas like California. Fire suppression costs (that's a bureaucratic term for fighting forest fires) will exceed the 2008 budget by more than $400 million. Unless Congress provides the Forest Service with more money, it will have no other choice but to cut funding for other programs such as recreation, funding the implementation of the Travel Management Rule and the acquisition of paper clips. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating about the paper clips, but things are dire and programs across the board are feeling the impact of these budget cuts.
Over the past ten years, fire suppression costs for the Forest Service have grown dramatically to the point that approximately 48% of the total budget of the Forest Service goes towards firing fires. Many factors contribute to creating an environment for deadly forest fires including prolonged drought conditions, climate change, housing developments built too close to national forests, and the change in forest management techniques including the decline in timber harvests. It's an unfortunate fact that during the past two decades, our national forests have become kindling just waiting for any spark to ignite them with deadly results. Fighting fires means the Forest Service has little time or funds to attend to other important core mission responsibilities such as providing expanded opportunities for recreational activities.
There has to be a better way in terms of funding "fire suppression costs." Recently, the House of Representatives passed H. R. 5541, the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act or FLAME Act. The FLAME Act (appropriately named) would establish a separate fund (the FLAME Fund) for catastrophic, emergency wildland fire suppression activities. Call it a rainy day fund, if you will, since it would be an account established at the Department of the Treasury that could be tapped when annually appropriated funds are insufficient to meet this need in any given year. The existence of the FLAME Fund would mean that the Forest Service would no longer have to borrow money from other existing Forest Service accounts when its fire suppression accounts were depleted.
H.R. 5541 has now been sent to the U. S. Senate and is pending before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The Senate still has time this session to take a responsible step by passing this legislation so that by the time the next fire season rolls around, the FLAME Fund would be available. If you are interested in contacting your Senators about this important legislation, please visit the ARRA website.
Johnson Valley OHV Area Threatened
The OHV community has known for some time that the Marine Corps was looking to expand its training operations into the existing Johnson Valley OHV area, one of the premier OHV recreation areas in the country, just east of Los Angeles (San Bernardino County). Well, the other shoe dropped on August 13th when the Marine Corps filed the necessary paperwork with the Bureau of Land Management requesting that approximately 421,270 acres of land be withdrawn from public use and eventually designated for the exclusive use of the Marine Corps for training exercises "in the interest of Homeland Defense and the War on Terrorism."
Because of the size of the land transfer, approval of this request requires action by the Congress. For those of you not familiar with Johnson Valley, this is the largest open OHV area in the country, 189,000 acres to be exact. The possible closure of this area to OHV recreation could have a devastating impact on OHV recreation in southern California.
The review process for considering the Marine Corps request has just begun. Until a final decision has been made, OHV recreation will continue to be allowed in the Johnson Valley area. OHV leaders in southern California are working to identify potential alternative sites for OHV use in the event Congress approves the transfer from the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management to the Marine Corps. ARRA will keep you informed on further
Congress Returns to Washington
On September 8th, the Congress will return to Washington in an effort to try and clean up its legislative agenda before adjourning for the November elections. Top on the list of must pass legislation is the funding of the federal government for FY09, which begins on October 1st. As we reported earlier, a massive continuing resolution seems the most likely scenario. Partisan gridlock is likely to prevent much else from happening, though we believe that work on a focused energy program is desperately needed. Other than possibly a symbolic vote by the House of Representatives on the off-shore drilling issue, we don't expect to see real action until the new Congress and the new Administration take office in January, 2009.
Meanwhile, gas prices and the price of heating oil will remain high affecting the overall economy and the pocketbooks of those Americans who are least able to afford high energy costs, senior citizens on fixed incomes and poor and middle class families. The political gridlock must come to an end if we are going to have a comprehensive energy policy that gets our country back to a position of energy independence. Without it, our economy will continue to lag behind and Americans won't be able to afford some of the more pleasant aspects of life, like visiting their
favorite public lands.
National Public Lands Day
September 27th is National Public Lands Day. Despite the high cost of gas, please make a point to go to your favorite forest or park and participate in a variety of activities to care for the lands we all love. Last year, more than 100,000 volunteers worked in 1,300 locations on various conservation and
improvement projects. Project organizers are hoping that this year's participation will exceed last year's impressive turnout.
You can find a volunteer activity near you by going to the National Public Lands Day network calendar: http://www.publiclandsday.org/calendar/search
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access