Trump budget could impact nearly 14,000 environmental workers in Colorado
BLM manager: “There’s a lot of nail-biting, a lot of anxiety among the staff right now. Nobody’s clear how the cuts might hit us.”
The Trump administration released its budget proposal Thursday, after sending clear signals that proposed defense spending will swell and non-defense budgets – particularly of federal agencies working on environment or climate change – will be slashed by $54 billion. Here in Colorado, where federal agencies that fit this description employ nearly 14,000 people, the impact of the expected cuts could be devastating.
“The effects will be enormous, not just in terms of people’s jobs, but in terms of the loss of the important work they’re doing,” said John O’Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees AFGE Council #238, which represents 9,000 employees of the Environmental Protection Agency nationwide.
Here in Colorado, the EPA employs 610 workers, many at its Region 8 headquarters in downtown Denver. New EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is notorious for having sued the agency he’s now running. Under Trump’s “skinny budget” for fiscal year 2018, EPA is expected to face a 25 percent reduction. Pruitt has signaled that Region 8 – which covers Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, North Dakota, South Dakota and 27 tribal nations – may be “consolidated” with another region, meaning the Denver regional office could hit the chopping block.
Among the focuses of Region 8 is the redevelopment of “brownfields” – lands that sit unused because of real or suspected contamination – a program it carries out in partnership with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, a state agency. The program has enabled development in formerly blighted areas of the Front Range, which has been facing a housing crunch.
A senior scientist at the Region 8 offices says the proposed budget cuts will include drastic reductions to brownfields work in particular.
“That one is a real surprise. Developers love it because they can build in urban areas. It’s great for the environment because it lessens pressure on greenfields development” and has support from most Republicans, said the source who, in his agency’s uncertain political climate, asked not to be named. “I think it just really speaks to our president’s cluelessness.”
Another key EPA program is the cleanup of the region’s 52 Superfund sites – the nation’s most toxic lands, including 25 in Colorado alone – where contamination by radioactive substances, heavy metals and other toxins can require generations of maintenance to protect surrounding communities, ecosystems and the water supply.
According to the advocacy group Save EPA, an alliance of retired and otherwise former EPA professionals, Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate or drastically reduce funding in every environmental program the agency runs. Those include the popular Energy Star program, which promotes cost-saving energy efficiency measures, and programs seeking environmental justice for poor and underrepresented communities that face more than their fair share of problems related to lead paint, pesticides, and industry and transportation pollutants.
“This is going to have extreme impact on the EPA’s ability to protect human health and the environment,” O’Grady said about the impending cuts. “I’m at a loss as to why (the Trump administration is) going in this direction other than it appears they’re laissez faire capitalists who don’t concern themselves with the general welfare of all Americans and it’s all about profits.”
Although the EPA is the highest profile of the environmental agencies whose work and workers are at risk under Trump’s proposed “skinny budget,” a host of other federal agencies working in Colorado employ many more workers whose job security is also in question.
Federal environmental and land-use programs here range from the well-recognized to the obscure. Beyond just the prominent cluster of national laboratories in Boulder and regional headquarters offices at the Denver Federal Center near Lakewood, these agencies also have dozens of local and satellite offices throughout the state. Employees in those offices work on agriculture and soil restoration, public lands conservation, species monitoring and protection, water and air quality improvement, renewable energy research, climate change mitigation and more. Taken as a whole, they seek to manage Colorado’s natural resources, flora and fauna in the face of human development.
On the eve of Trump administration cuts, The Colorado Independent looked at each of those agencies and how many Coloradans they employ. Those numbers aren’t fully available on any single website or from any one federal agency. But the D.C.-based U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) published a quarterly report in September 2016 that includes data on full-time, part-time and seasonal federal employees in each state. Contract workers aren’t counted, nor are the numerous university institutes, private partners and other partners who work in collaboration with, or with the financial support of, these agencies. Here’s what we found:
The U.S. Department of the Interior employs by far the most Coloradans – nearly 7,000 workers throughout the state – and has the largest presence in terms of work on the environment. All 12 of Interior’s agencies address environmental protection issues in one form or another, with oversight of the water, ranch land, mining, fish and wildlife, national parks and other sectors that are essential to Colorado’s economy, culture and quality of life.
Under the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees 8.3 million acres of public lands and 27 million acres of mineral estate in Colorado, which together contribute $6.6 billion to Colorado’s economy. According to data for fiscal year 2014, the bulk of the value generated by Colorado’s BLM lands, $4.7 billion annually, comes from oil and gas leasing, and the second largest chunk, $1.2 billion annually, from coal operations. The remaining revenues come from recreation, grazing, timber production and non-energy minerals extraction on BLM lands.
Trump’s new Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, has been clear that he values the economic contributions of public lands, and has been particularly vocal in his opposition to any form of sale or transfer of the lands now under his management. That includes the sale or transfer of BLM land, for which many federal and state Republican lawmakers increasingly have been clamoring.
With offices in Lakewood, the BLM employs 1,030 workers throughout the state. They oversee oil and gas drilling and other energy development on BLM land, manage iconic national conservation areas like the Gunnison Gorge in the southwest and Dominguez-Escalante on the Uncompahgre Plateau, and help oversee recreation areas such as Arkansas Headwaters in Salida, one of the most popular rafting and fishing destinations in the U.S.
“There’s a lot of nail-biting, a lot of anxiety among the staff right now. Nobody’s clear how the cuts might hit us,” a BLM middle manager told The Independent.
Hands-down the best known of Interior’s agencies is the National Parks Service, which employs 1,548 Coloradans and runs the four national parks within Colorado’s borders – Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde – and manages the federal historic sites, trails and recreation areas in the state. NPS also runs five of Colorado’s eight national monuments: Colorado National Monument, Florissant Fossil Beds, Yucca House, Hovenweep and Dinosaur, which both jut into Utah. While the US Forest Service manages Chimney Rock National Monument, the BLM manages Canyons of the Ancients, and the two agencies co-manage Browns Canyon, the state’s newest national monument.
According to federal data, national parks in Colorado drew nearly 7.1 million visitors and generated more than $450 million in economic benefits in 2015. On top of his opposition to public lands giveaways – including national parks – Interior Secretary Zinke has said he’ll push Trump to include the estimated $12.5 billion in maintenance and repair needed across the U.S. national park system in his budget.
Another sizable presence in Colorado is the U.S. Geological Survey, which, as the sole science agency within the DOI, does far more than just “survey” federal lands. USGS activities in Colorado cover a range of geophysical, geospatial and hydrological research and programs. This includes its Water Science Center, with four locations statewide studying precipitation, streamflow, snowpack, erosion and flooding. USGS has 1,124 employees across seven offices in Colorado, and its research informs activities across the spectrum – recreation as well as conservation, fossil fuel extraction as well as climate mitigation.
The Bureau of Reclamation, also under Interior, is sometimes called the agency that built the West, and not without controversy. Over its 115-year history, it has managed two critical aspects of the Western environment: water and power. Its dams, hydroelectric power facilities and other water projects have largely dictated where cities and population centers have taken root across the water-scarce West. It’s the agency responsible for the more than 100 dams along the 1,450-mile Colorado River, whose over-appropriated waters must supply the nearly 30 million people who rely on it. It also manages industrial, agricultural, environmental, recreational and hydropower uses, a struggle exacerbated by factors like population growth, drought and climate change. Reclamation employs 1,109 Coloradans in offices in Denver, Loveland, Durango, Grand Junction and elsewhere in the state.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for conserving and protecting flora, fauna and habitat across the U.S., including threatened and endangered species and the National Wildlife Refuge System. It’s the agency at the crux of efforts to protect the greater sage grouse, drive black-footed ferret recovery and steer grizzly bear recovery in the region. With its Mountain-Prairie region headquarters in Lakewood and another 23 stations around the state, the USFWS employs 438 biologists, ecologists, analysts and others in Colorado.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs is best known for its work with native people and their economic development and social issues, but is responsible for natural resource management, as well. This includes managing millions of acres of surface and subsurface mineral estates, governed by distinct combinations of federal law and tribal law for each of the two tribes in Colorado – Ute Mountain, with agency offices in Towaoc (serving 2,012 tribal members and nearly 900 square miles of reservation) and Southern Ute, with agency offices in Ignacio (serving 1,375 members across more than 1 million square miles of reservation). With its southwest regional field office in Denver, the BIA employs 92 people in Colorado.
One final DOI agency, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, employs 84 Coloradans. The agency oversees state and tribal surface mining regulations. According to its mission, OSMRE works to protect people and nature from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations, while factoring in what it calls the “need for continued domestic coal production.”
Perhaps surprisingly, several agencies within the Department of Commerce oversee major environmental programs, and are part of the cluster of national laboratories for which Boulder is renowned. There’s the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which, together with its affiliate National Weather Service, employs 373 people in Colorado and about 12,000 people worldwide. Recent reports say NOAA – whose mission is to understand changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts, and to manage coastal ecosystems – could lose 17 percent of its funding under the Trump budget. In a time when the new administration has swiftly and deliberately deleted mention of climate change from the White House web pages, NOAA’s homepage still displays a number of stories related to unprecedented warmth and rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Also within Commerce, the Boulder-based National Institute of Standards and Technology is one of the oldest physical science laboratories in the U.S. The lab’s work supports a vast range of technologies and infrastructure, from nanotechnology in microchips to entire energy grids. NIST employs 482 people in Colorado, but as with so many other federal agencies, its impact extends beyond just its direct staff. Since 1962, the agency has operated a joint laboratory in partnership with the JILA program on the University of Colorado Boulder campus, filled with astrophysicists, biophysicists, nano-engineers and other highly specialized scientists, including a few Nobel laureates.
Also in Boulder is the National Center for Atmospheric Research, managed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and funded by the National Science Foundation based in Washington DC. Together, as of last fall, the NCAR/UCAR partnership employs 1,231 people across its five offices and research facilities in Colorado.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, headquartered in Golden, is perhaps the best known national lab on the Front Range. Run by the Department of Energy, it’s responsible for research, development, commercialization and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technology across 13 research programs, three national centers and 684 active partnerships with private businesses, government agencies and research institutes. NREL is viewed as critical to the nation’s transition to cleaner energy, helping develop better and better technologies for wind and solar, battery storage and other key elements of updating the nation’s energy grid. NREL directly employs nearly 1,700 Coloradans.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has 30-plus separate agencies, including at least three whose work affects environmental conservation and climate. The largest of these is the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), which manages and protects national forests and grasslands, including through forestry research and fighting wildfire. It manages nearly 68 percent of Colorado forests – that’s 11.3 million acres, about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. USFS is at the forefront of critical Western forestry issues, like the destructive bark beetle epidemic and wildland fires management, both of which are exacerbated by a changing climate. At its Rocky Mountain Headquarters in Golden, its Research Station in Fort Collins and outposts across the state, the USFS employs 2,068 Coloradans.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service is a USDA agency less known among city folk, but vital to providing technical and financial resources to help farmers care for the land. In Colorado, NCS has 290 employees across three regional “areas” and 54 field offices throughout the state. Another USDA agency whose work touches Colorado’s environmental health, the Agricultural Research Service conducts research to develop solutions to agricultural problems. One ongoing study, for example, seeks to improve the greenhouse gas emissions and air quality impacts of cattle production. Another aims to improve the ecological health and productivity of grazed lands. The ARS, headquartered in Fort Collins, employs 216 people in the state.
Adding it all up, that’s 13,712 federal employees working on a vast range of environmental programs and protections across the landscape – and the atmosphere – in Colorado. That work dovetails with state and local programs. And progress – or lack thereof – in one program affects progress in many others.
”We’re no longer in a situation where you can separate out climate work from other air work and water work and public land use,” said former Governor of Colorado Bill Ritter, known for pushing to make the state a leader in clean energy. “It all matters…it’s all connected.”
It’s yet unclear how, if at all, all of these federal agencies and their workers will be affected under the Trump budget. But if the administration’s strong hints of “deep cuts” to “most” federal environmental programs and “historic” federal agency contractions come to fruition, and Trump’s proposed budget is enacted, watchdogs say the impact is bound to be severe.
”The draconian budget cuts that the Trump administration is proposing will have major impacts on Colorado, which is a hub of environmental research and science,” said Jessica Goad of Conservation Colorado, a statewide nonprofit that pushes for conservation-minded policymakers.
“These cuts also will affect real jobs here in Colorado. The men and women who work at federal agencies in our state are doing incredibly important work for the nation…We should be supporting these public servants, not undermining them.”
Photo taken in San Isabel National Forest by Christi Turner.
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