Chairwoman Krueger, Chairwoman Weinstein, Chairman Kaminsky, Chairman Englebright, and distinguished members of the New York State Senate and Assembly, thank you for granting Audubon New York the opportunity to offer testimony on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Budget proposal for SFY 2019-20. I am Erin McGrath, and I serve as the Policy Manager for Audubon New York.
As a leading state program of the National Audubon Society, Audubon New York leads our network of 65,000 members, 27 locally-affiliated chapters, seven sanctuaries and nature centers and our thousands of annual visitors, volunteers, and partners throughout the state. Audubon achieves its mission to protect birds and their habitats by connecting our vast and powerful network along the migratory flyways of the Americas through science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation programs.
Before addressing the Governor’s SFY 2019-20 Executive Budget proposal and Audubon’s 2019 budget priorities, I would like to extend our thanks to you and your colleagues for the environmental accomplishments achieved in the 2018 legislative session. Through your and Governor Cuomo’s leadership, New York State maintained unprecedented levels of funding for our state’s environment – providing critical resources to conserve open space, protect and improve water quality, upgrade aging infrastructure, prevent pollution, and make New York State more resilient in the face of climate change. Audubon looks forward to working with all of you to advance initiatives that protect our shared environment and benefit birds, other wildlife, people, and our economy.
Support Funding for Environmental Conservation
New York State has an ongoing obligation to provide reliable funding for environmental conservation. Recurring funding allows the State and its partners to establish long-term plans that are cost-effective, and which utilize both public and private funding for priorities such as land acquisition and increasing resiliency to climate change. For these reasons, Audubon supports the following budget proposals:
Environmental Protection Fund. An appropriation of at least $300 million for SFY 2019-20 will ensure that New York State is able to achieve its environmental and conservation goals, while once again demonstrating our state’s national leadership in protecting its environmental resources. The Zoos, Botanical Gardens, and Aquaria Program is of particular importance as it provides $110,000 in funding for Audubon’s nature centers and sanctuaries, which protect bird habitat and provide opportunities for educational programming. We urge the Legislature to maintain the $15 million in funding provided by the Governor for the Zoos, Botanical Gardens, and Aquaria program. If funding were cut from this program it would have a direct impact on the operations and staffing at our centers, including the Montezuma Audubon Center in Savannah, Constitution Marsh Audubon Center in Garrison, Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center in Oyster Bay, and Rheinstrom Hill Audubon Sanctuary and Center in Hillsdale.
Fund Capital Improvements in State Parks. Audubon and our locally-affiliated chapters partner with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (“OPRHP”) to advance bird conservation in our State Parks through the ‘Audubon in the Parks’ initiative. This public-private partnership addresses conservation needs through outreach, interpretation, and on-the-ground conservation in Bird Conservation Areas (“BCAs”) and Important Bird Areas (“IBA”) that are located in our State Parks. Because of this valuable partnership, we strongly support the restoration of New York State’s parks and historic sites through the New York Parks 2020 Plan. This plan, coupled with funding from New York Works, has revitalized our parks for people and wildlife, and has addressed the backlog of infrastructure needs at these facilities. We thank you for your past investment in our New York State Parks and urge you to maintain this year’s installment of New York Works funding for capital and natural infrastructure restoration at our OPRHP and Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) facilities, including at least $92.5 million for OPRHP and $40 million for the DEC as outlined in the SFY 2018-19 Executive budget.
Maintain Environmental Agency Budgets and Staff. We urge you to once again to support adequate staffing and operating budgets for our state environmental agencies. With regulatory, management, and stewardship responsibilities for the State’s open spaces and natural resources, OPRHP, DEC, the Environmental Facilities Corporation, the Department of State, and the Department of Agriculture and Markets are on the front lines of efforts to conserve and restore New York State’s environment. Past budget cuts endured by these agencies have impacted their ability to meet mandated activities, and we look forward to working with you and the Governor on a long-term strategy to reinvest in these agencies and ensure they have the resources and staff to appropriately safeguard our environment.
Green Futures Fund. Adequate funding is essential to achieving our shared goal of protecting New York State’s environment and natural resources. The Green Futures Fund proposal will provide $10 billion in critical funding for clean water, renewable energy, climate resiliency, and our parks. We support this substantial investment and ask that the Legislature maintain this funding.
Support Healthy Forests for New York State
New York State’s forests provide important breeding, migratory stop-over, and wintering habitat for more than one hundred species of birds. One of their most important ecological functions is to provide breeding habitat for several dozen bird species, many of which are experiencing population declines due to habitat fragmentation and the loss of quality habitat., Quality forest habitat for birds and other wildlife means intact, healthy, resilient, regenerating, and diverse forested landscapes. The diversity of forest habitat can greatly impact the breeding success of birds, as each species has different habitat requirements. Some bird species prefer to nest in mature forests with a relatively closed canopy, while others prefer to nest in young forest habitat that has shrubs and sapling-size trees.
Audubon has identified more than 45 priority forest bird species that would benefit from improved forest health. In response, Audubon developed the Healthy Forests Initiative. This initiative provides outreach, technical assistance, and habitat management recommendations to foresters, public and private landowners, and other partners to improve forest habitat quality for birds while also achieving timber management objectives. Through this work, Audubon encourages the use of forest management practices that preserve intact forests, diversify age classes, and increase the types of trees and other plants that provide essential habitat for forest birds. These silvicultural recommendations create favorable conditions for birds and ensure that forests are resilient to undesirable stressors such as climate change and invasive species. Healthy forests also provide critical ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration, watershed protection, and flood control, as well as forest products and recreational opportunities.
To support and supplement Audubon’s efforts, we urge New York State to develop and fund programs that support the conservation and restoration of quality wildlife habitat, increase forest regeneration and resiliency, discourage land conversion, and encourage the use of sustainable forestry practices. For these reasons, Audubon supports the following budget proposals:
Create Private Landowner Incentives. We urge the Legislature to support the creation of private landowner management incentives for ecosystem products besides timber; such as the management of threatened or endangered wildlife, the maintenance or improvement of water quality, and management for carbon sequestration. Landowner incentives that are financed by the State provide an important source of funding that encourage landowners and municipalities to pursue alternative sustainable forest management practices, and complement the work currently being undertaken by Audubon through its Healthy Forests Initiative. These programs will support declining woodland birds, provide ecosystem services, and allow landowners the option to pursue forest management strategies that not dependent on the production of forest products.
Establish Regenerate NY. Audubon supports the creation of the “Regenerate NY” program to assist forest landowners in addressing the difficulty in regenerating forest due to over-browsing by deer and interfering vegetation. In 2010, studies by Cornell and the Nature Conservancy showed that approximately 70% of New York State’s forested lands were not able to regenerate desirable hardwood tree species, such as maple and oak, due to selective browsing by deer. 
In addition to the economic impacts, over-browsing and the proliferation of interfering vegetation also destroys wildlife habitat. Intermediate forest levels, the understory, and young forest, which provide habitat for declining forest birds such as Wood Thrushes and Ovenbirds, are all negatively impacted by over-browsing. Forests that cannot regenerate also produce less oxygen and fail to sequester carbon. The overabundance of deer also contributes to 65,000 deer-vehicle collisions annually, $59 million annually in deer-related crop damages, and increased populations of ticks that carry Lyme disease.
Current strategies to manage deer more effectively include increased availability of hunting permits, exclusion fencing, forest harvests that provide sufficient browse for the existing number of deer, and the reduction of deer populations through “nuisance” permits. However, these strategies cannot be scaled to the state’s 18.9 million forested acres due to the costs associated with exclusion fencing, the mobility of the deer population, the prevalence of passive forest management, and sanctuaries such as posted properties and suburban environments. To address these issues, we encourage the Legislature and DEC to continue discussions with the Restore NY Woodlands Coalition to ensure that successful and affordable deer management strategies are implemented as part of or alongside the Regenerate NY program.
Working Forests Conservation Easement Program. Audubon supports the creation of a Working Forests Conservation Easement Program that will provide financial incentives to private landowners who consent to having easements placed on their property. This program will help to ensure that private forests are not converted to uses that reduce or eliminate forest ecosystem services and habitat for threatened or endangered birds. Working forests provide important habitat to many bird species while also producing forest products, meeting timber management objectives, and sequestering carbon. With 63% forest cover in New York State, and 75% of that privately owned, successful efforts to conserve private forestland will significantly influence declining bird populations and our state’s ability to meet carbon objectives by improving forest resiliency and preserving the opportunity to pursue carbon sequestration objectives.
Protect Our Water and Coasts
Protecting and restoring coastlines and waterways will provide quality habitat for birds while increasing resiliency, mitigating erosion, improving water quality, and combating the effects of climate change. Audubon’s water and coasts strategies focus on the most threatened and iconic bird species that rely on these habitats and target the most important breeding, stopover, and wintering sites. For these reasons, Audubon supports the following budget proposals:
Ban Oil and Gas Drilling. In 2017, the Trump Administration called on Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to develop a new Five-Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The proposed program opened up the overwhelming majority of the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf for potential leasing, including the federal waters surrounding New York State, which are part of the North Atlantic Planning Area. Currently, there are two lease sales proposed for 2021 and 2023, which are opposed by every state in the North Atlantic Planning Area, with the exception of Maine.
Audubon strongly supports legislation that would prohibit the leasing of New York State’s underwater coastal lands for oil and gas drilling and bar the DEC and the Office of General Services from authorizing leases that would result in an increase of oil or natural gas production from federal waters. Exploration and drilling for oil or gas would have serious repercussions for New York State’s marine and coastal ecosystems, which are critically important to the survival of hundreds of bird species, including at-risk species like the Red Knot, Piping Plover, and Roseate Tern.
Habitats for birds and other wildlife are already threatened by a multitude of issues, including a changing climate, pollution, pressure from human development, and rising sea levels. Another threat does not need to be added to the mix. Audubon has witnessed firsthand the long-term impacts of other oil spills, like BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which polluted shorelines from Texas to Florida, harming birds, fisheries, and ocean and estuary habitats., An equivalent disaster in the Atlantic Ocean would coat beaches and estuaries in the North Atlantic Planning Area – with a particularly devastating effect on New York State’s 117.5 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline.
New York State’s coastal communities and economies also depend on a healthy ocean. Hundreds of thousands of New York jobs and billions of dollars of the State’s gross domestic product depend on clean water, beaches, and abundant fish and wildlife. Ocean and coast-dependent tourism contributes $50 billion to New York State’s GDP and supports over 826,000 jobs; commercial fishing provides $5.3 billion in sales, 44,000 jobs, and $1.1 billion in wages; and recreational marine fishing adds $424 million to the GDP, 5,000 jobs, and $276 million in wages. It is unnecessary to expose these communities to the risks posed by offshore drilling, especially when the economic benefits of an unspoiled coastline far exceed those that might result from oil and gas exploration.
Reduce Our Reliance on Single-use Plastics. Plastics have become an abundant pollutant in our oceans and pose a major threat to marine and coastal wildlife. Scientists now estimate that 99 percent of all pelagic birds will have consumed plastic at some point in their lives by the year 2050.
An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic enter oceans around the world each year due to littering, illegal dumping, and poor waste management. Discarded plastic products, like bottles, straws, clothing, bags, and packaging, eventually break up into small fragments when exposed to sunlight, seawater, and wave action – forming microplastics that can be inadvertently consumed by birds and other wildlife.
A recent Brazilian study documented that American Oystercatchers – which breed on our beaches on Long Island – are consuming discarded plastics and then suffering from poisoning or starvation. Researchers found an average of 29 pieces of plastic in each Oystercatcher surveyed and a maximum of 140 pieces inside a single bird. Some birds consume plastic because it looks like prey, but for other species it is impossible not to consume because microplastics have become so abundant in our environment.
Plastic-packed birds often have little food in their stomachs, suggesting that they stop eating when the materials remain undigested in their stomachs, possibly because of a false sense of fullness. Ingested plastics can also block the digestive tract, leach contaminants, and cause other physical damage. Plastics can collect toxic chemicals like DDT and PCBs and those chemicals can then be released in a bird once consumed. Plastics can also leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals like biphenyl., The growing body of evidence indicates that plastics can be a serious concern for birds and their conservation.
Banning the use of plastic bags in New York State is an important first step in reducing our consumption of single-use plastics and will help inform future efforts to phase out other widely-used plastic products. Given the pervasiveness and global nature of the plastics problem it is critical that we take immediate action to begin mitigating the impacts of plastics on birds and other wildlife.
Expand and Strengthen the Bottle Bill. Audubon strongly supports efforts to strengthen and expand the current Bottle Bill, including proposals that would place a five-cent deposit on non-carbonated beverages. Non-carbonated beverage containers litter our beaches, parks, Audubon IBAs, and other important wildlife habitats throughout New York State – and are also contributing to the proliferation of microplastics, which have direct impacts on our coastal and marine birds. The Bottle Bill must be expanded to promote increased recycling of these products and decrease waste and the threats posed to our environment. Unredeemed deposits are also an important funding source for the state's Environmental Protection Fund and will help to expand New York State’s support for projects that support environmental conservation.
Continue Funding for Clean Water Infrastructure. New York State’s investments in clean water infrastructure have provided significant and needed funding that will improve our wastewater infrastructure and provide increased source water protection. However, New York State has estimated that its combined wastewater and drinking water infrastructure needs will exceed $80 billion over the next 20 years. While past appropriations have made a significant down payment on this balance, the State will need to continue to appropriate funds to address these infrastructure issues so that the cost of future repairs does not fall to New York State ratepayers. We are pleased that the Executive budget proposes to continue the State’s $2.5 billion investment in clean water pursuant to the Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017 and provides an additional $2.5 billion in funding, with a $500,000 allocated for this year. We strongly encourage the Legislature to support this proposal.
Protect and Restore New York State’s Wetlands and Coastlines. Protecting and restoring coastlines, especially salt marshes and other wetlands, will increase climate resiliency and support vulnerable populations of coastal birds. We urge New York State to finalize and adopt updated state coastal erosion hazard area and wetlands maps, which will help agencies to better manage these important resources and assist localities in making decisions about future coastal development and resiliency strategies. To ensure that these efforts are expedited, we support the Governor’s proposal to eliminate the certified mailings that are currently required as part of the statutory requirements for updating our wetland maps. This is cost-prohibitive and has delayed the adoption of new maps that will ensure that these fragile resources are protected. We believe that the intent of the statute will be served if notice is delivered via regular mail and there are opportunities to submit public comment.
Audubon also asks that the Legislature consider expanding the regulatory jurisdiction of the DEC, which is currently limited to wetlands larger than 12.4 acres or wetlands of “unusual local importance.” This is particularly important in light of the rollback of the Waters of the United States rule, as the federal government will no longer regulate wetlands that are less than 12.4 acres in size. We believe that it would be pertinent to expand the DEC’s jurisdiction to any wetland that is greater than 1 acre in size and enact this amendment alongside the changes to the notification requirements so that updates to the current maps can be made in as comprehensive a manner as possible.
Confronting the Climate Crisis
Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of citizen-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change. Our work defines the climate conditions birds need to survive and then maps where those conditions will be found in the future as the Earth’s climate responds to increased greenhouse gases. It’s the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, and the closest thing we have to a field guide to the future of North American birds.
Our research shows that roughly half of all North American bird species are threatened with the loss of at least 50 percent of their current range by 2080. To address this threat, our climate strategy has two key elements: protecting the places that birds need in a warmer world and advocating for significant public policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels to mitigate climate change. For these reasons, Audubon supports the following budget proposals:
Support the Climate Leadership Act. Birds are vulnerable to subtle changes in their environment, such as availability of food, water, and habitat, which can cause them to shift or lose their ranges. Our peer-reviewed research shows that at least fifty of New York State’s birds are vulnerable to climate change, including the Common Loon, Bald Eagle, and Wild Turkey. Audubon and other leaders in the science and conservation space agree that in order to help prevent species extinctions and other catastrophic effects of climate change we must reduce carbon pollution as quickly as possible. This will require us to rapidly increase energy efficiency, expand energy storage, modernize transmission capabilities, and accelerate the development of renewable energy.
The Climate Leadership Act, as proposed by the Executive budget, will allow New York State to develop a roadmap to success while codifying our goals of achieving 100% clean energy by 2040 and paving the path to a carbon-neutral future. It is critical that we focus our efforts on taking affirmative steps to reduce major contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, including curtailing emissions from electricity production (25% of GHG), agricultural practices and food waste (24% of GHG), manufacturing (21% of GHG), transportation (14% of GHG), and buildings (6% of GHG).
We also strongly support the inclusion of natural climate solutions as part of New York State’s strategy to combat climate change, and as part of the charge made to the Climate Action Council. Recent studies have found that better management of our forests, grasslands, and soils could offset as much as 21 percent of our annual carbon emissions. The U.S. Climate Alliance has also identified better land management practices as a critical tool in combatting climate change, and the Alliance’s Natural and Working Lands Initiative is working to develop strategies to increase the volume of carbon stored in ecosystems, reduce losses of already-stored carbon, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions caused by poor management. Replanting trees, promoting forest resiliency, and using sustainable forestry management techniques will be essential to achieving the full potential of these offsets.
Accelerate the Development of Responsibly-Sited Offshore Wind. Wind power is an important component of New York State’s renewables portfolio, and Audubon strongly supports the investment of $1.5 billion in offshore wind and other renewables to help reduce the threat of climate change. Achieving 9,000 MW of offshore wind by 2035 is an ambitious goal and we look forward to continuing to work with New York State to make sure that new wind projects are responsibly planned, sited, and operated in order to minimize harm to birds and other wildlife. Simple steps, such as avoiding migration corridors and critical habitat, can reduce bird collisions and other negative outcomes while allowing for the continued development of offshore wind.
Wind power is currently the most economically competitive form of renewable energy. As of January 2017, the wind facilities installed in the United States provided more than 82,000 MW of capacity. With our current transmission infrastructure, the Department of Energy estimates that wind has the potential to generate 20 percent of the nation's energy. If the United States obtains 20 percent of its electricity from wind power by 2020, it would be equivalent to taking a quarter of US cars off the road or planting 104 million acres of trees, which would cover an area the size of the state of California.
Audubon advocated for the inclusion of environmental guidelines in the New York State procurement process for offshore wind and provided technical expertise that will help minimize threats to birds and other wildlife by ensuring that turbines are properly sited and monitored. We will continue to work with the Public Service Commission and NYS Energy Research and Development Authority to refine these guidelines and promote the adoption of best management practices for the construction and operation of wind turbines in New York State’s coastal waters.
Meeting the demand for improvements to our environment and protecting bird species from further decline will take creativity and a commitment from all levels of government. Audubon New York once again urges the Legislature to support historic funding levels for the Environmental Protection Fund, funding and programs that help improve our forests and state parks, and pragmatic solutions to address the threat of climate change.
Thank you again for allowing me to testify today,
Policy Manager, Audubon New York
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