WASHINGTON, D.C. ― U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, helped lead a hearing Wednesday on the president’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget request for the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Udall welcomed proposals for increased funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and mandatory funding for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program.
He also pressed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on several other issues important to New Mexico communities, including curbing natural gas waste, continuing a smooth transition of the Valles Caldera National Preserve to the National Park Service, restoring elevator service at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and hardrock mining reform.
“Events like the Gold King Mine disaster should serve as a wake-up call for all of us,” Udall said in his opening remarks, which are available in full here. “We have to get serious about cleaning up abandoned mines. There are abandoned, toxic mine sites throughout the West. These mines are ticking time bombs. They are releasing a slow motion stream of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other toxins into water supplies — water we need for drinking, irrigation, and recreation. … The cost of inaction on mining reform has been too great already. We can’t afford to wait, and it’s time that we act.”
Udall has introduced legislation to reform the nation’s antiquated 1872 mining law and ensure mining companies pay royalties for the privilege of extracting mineral resources from public lands. The president’s budget request also takes steps to reform hardrock mining and proposes a Hardrock Abandoned Mine fee to address legacy cleanup issues. Udall has also called for the mine site to be placed on the Superfund National Priorities List.
Udall thanked Secretary Jewell for proposing a 9 percent funding increase for national parks, which would help reduce a maintenance backlog at parks nationwide, including at New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
“The public elevators at Carlsbad Caverns National Park have been out of service since early November, leaving visitors to hike in and out of the caverns if they want to visit. Obviously, the lack of elevator service creates a problem for visitors who have accessibility issues as well as a problem for the general public,” Udall said, reminding Jewell that he had raised the issue with her previously. “You know how important it is to me for the Park Service to restore temporary elevator service at the park as soon as possible, and to come up with a plan to permanently upgrade the elevators.”
The budget request also includes $3.3 million to continue funding the Valles Caldera National Preserve, which recently transitioned to National Park Service management. “Now that you’ve visited, I know you’ll agree with me that the Preserve is one of the crown jewels of the national park system,” Udall told Jewell. “What makes it so special is not just that it’s a stunning landscape, however — there’s recreation, hunting, fishing and grazing at Valles Caldera. And all those make it a vibrant part of New Mexico’s community and our local economies.”
Udall raised concerns about delays in approving traditional grazing permits on the Preserve for the upcoming season. “The law that transferred Valles Caldera to the National Park Service allows these longstanding permits to remain in place while the Park Service develops its long-term management policies,” Udall said. “These ranchers deserve to know now that they can count on their grazing permits for this season.” Jewell committed to working with Udall to avoid further disruption of traditional grazing permits, saying that resolving the issue remains a high priority for the Park Service.
Udall also asked Jewell for an update on the Valles Caldera forest restoration stewardship contract with Jemez Pueblo. “This project supports vital landscape restoration work and jobs for Tribal members,” Udall said. Jewell responded that funding is included in the budget request to continue the program and thin about 1,200 acres to help prevent future wildfires.
Finally, Udall discussed the administration’s proposal to curb natural gas waste from oil and gas operations, the suspected source of a massive methane hot spot over the San Juan Basin: “As you know, I am very supportive of the department’s efforts to develop new rules related to methane venting and flaring. New Mexico’s natural resources provide jobs and royalty payments that are an important part of our state’s economy. But outdated requirements are resulting in over $100 million worth of natural gas being wasted, which has cost my state $43 million in lost royalties since 2009. There is also a serious health component to this issue.”
Jewell told Udall that they are continuing to take public comments on the proposal — including at a recent listening session in Farmington — and will be factoring that input into the final methane rules.