Fresh off the re-election of President Obama, the U.S. is already embroiled in another bitter political fight. At issue is the so-called “fiscal cliff,” a metaphoric ledge created by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA).

Because the BCA’s 12-member supercommittee failed to reach a compromise last year, a package of deep spending cuts and steep tax hikes is now slated to take effect at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the Mother Nature Network reported.

Unless Obama and Congress agree on a Plan B, the fiscal cliff (aka sequester) will lead to dramatic cuts at the Defense Department and many domestic agencies, including several that handle environmental protection. At the same time, some alternatives to the budget cuts could actually be ecologically astute.

According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, for example, taxing $20 per metric ton of carbon emissions “would generate approximately $88 billion in 2012, rising to $144 billion by 2020” and “would reduce the 10-year budget deficit by 50%.” And by creating a financial incentive to phase out carbon-heavy fossil fuels, such a tax could also help slow the onset of global warming.

Obama and lawmakers are working to avoid the sequester, but they’ve also repeatedly let budget deals die in the past. As Congress begins its lame-duck session this week, here’s a look at some potential environmental victims of the fiscal cliff:

National parks and wildlife refuges

Under the sequester — which amounts to 8.2% cuts for “nondefense discretionary funding,” according to the White House — the National Park Service would likely have to close some national parks, campgrounds and visitor centers. Park ranger jobs would be on the chopping block, and as the Natural Resources Defense Council points out, “monitoring of endangered species and other scientific work would likely be delayed or dropped.” Meanwhile, the National Wildlife Refuge System could lose 200 science jobs and see law enforcement cut by 15%.

Some 300 million people visit U.S. national parks every year, according to the NRDC’s fiscal cliff report, supporting 258,000 jobs and $31 billion in economic activity. Another 45 million people visit national wildlife refuges, generating $4.2 billion and sustaining 35,000 jobs. Even wildlife research can be an economic boon, protecting species and ecosystems whose hidden services help fuel the U.S. economy. Federal scientists are currently fighting white-nose syndrome in bats, for example, which threatens an animal that saves U.S. farmers an estimated $3.7 billion per year by eating pests.

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