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How Does Trail Funding Work?: Before Trails Can Be Built, the President and Congress Make a Budget

The presidential administration's budget proposal could have a huge impact on trails, but first it has to be negotiated in Congress. And that's a long trail ahead indeed.

Do you remember the Schoolhouse Rock video, "I'm Just a Bill on Capitol Hill"? It featured a sometimes-discouraged piece of paper making the long trek up the Capitol steps in D.C., trying to get signed into law after going through Congress.

Last week, a budget that could have a huge impact on our trails and wildlands began that same journey.

The presidential administration's budget proposal for fiscal year 2017 (or FY 2017) could have a huge impact on trails. First it has to be negotiated in Congress, and that's a long trail ahead indeed.

Fiscal year 2016 started last fall and will run until October. Negotiations for FY 2017 begin now while the Senate, House of Representatives and the President's office work together to negotiate a deal.

Funding can mean the difference between a trail getting repaired or completely lost

In December, we told you about WTA's efforts to find Lost Trails. Trail funding is a major reason why a trail might get lost in the first place.

For example, a 2014 report form the Government Accountability Office stated that maintenance funding in 2012 only funded 37 percent of maintenance needed on National Forest trails. Underfunding causes trail experiences, access and wildlife habitats like watersheds around the trails to become degraded. Organizations like WTA work hard to bridge the backlog with volunteers, but even that is impacted by the federal budget.

WTA and other nonprofits that conduct maintenance on federal lands receive government grants to fund our work. We leverage those dollars to rally volunteers and to have an even greater impact. For example, since 1996, the federal Recreational Trails Program (funded through the transportation budget) has contributed more than $2.3 million to WTA volunteer trail projects. Our volunteers donated time worth about $9 million, creating a total investment worth $12 million.

The federal budget also funds everything from employing National Park and Forest Rangers, repairing roads that let everyone access trails, campgrounds and bathrooms within parks and much more. It takes a lot of funds, but it generates many returns, too.

In Washington alone, outdoor recreation is a nearly $22 billion industry supporting about 200,000 jobs. That kind of economic impact wouldn't be possible without robust support for the public lands we all share.

So, what do the budget numbers say right now?

Funding for treasured landscapes and the trails that allow us to visit them make up a small portion of the multi-trillion dollar budget required to run the country. Highlights for trails from the President's proposed budget include:

  • A policy proposal to revise how funding is distributed for catastrophic wildfires to prevent agencies from having to raid other areas of their budgets, like the Forest Service was forced to do in 2015
  • $250 million (9 percent) increase in funding for the National Park Service (NPS) including:
    • Funding for the NPS Centennial
    • An increase of $20 million for the Every Kid in a Park initiative, which promotes free visits to federal lands for 4th graders and their families
  • The budget asks for less funding ($787 million less) for the National Forest Service than last year. According to the Forest Service, they still hope to meet demand for forest restoration and reduce wildfire threats while increasing efficiencies in other budget items.
  • Full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million

Generally speaking, this administration has set a high bar with its budget proposals. We can expect that some of these numbers will be whittled down during negotiations. In the last budget process, the President proposed $2.5 billion in funding for the National Park Service. When the budget was signed into law, the final NPS budget was $2.3 billion, a 4 percent increase over the previous year. That extra $.2 billion might seem like small potatoes, but every little bit helps when we consider that past under-funding has left our parks with a $12 billion maintenance backlog.

Next steps on the path to funding trails

Step 1. The President's budget will now be submitted to the Congressional Budget Office as well as the House and Senate Budget Committees.

Step 2. Other committees in both houses of Congress submit their own budget requests. Washington's own Senator Maria Cantwell is a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which discusses the many funding venues for public lands.

Step 3. The respective budget committees have to submit budget resolutions to the Senate and House by April 1. Think of these as proposed edits to the President's budget.

Step 4. If both the House and Senate pass their budget resolutions, ranking Representatives and Senators negotiate in order to produce a final budget.

This negotiated budget is not law, it is simply a guiding document for the next step.

Step 5. The budget is actually funded through appropriation bills, which must again go through committee, be voted on in each chamber of Congress, and finally signed into law by the president.

Step 6. After the law is passed, then agencies like the National Park Service and the National Forest Service receive their funds, which is what finally allows trails to be built, facilities to be maintained, roads to be repaired and more.

How agencies decide what to do with their budgets once they receive them will be covered later in this series.

How you can help

Congress makes decisions based on the needs of constituents like you. The best way to show that you care about trail funding is to contact your elected officials. To learn about opportunities to contact Congress as they happen, sign up for WTA's Trail Action network.

You can also take the pledge to speak for trails in 2016 by taking five easy steps.

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