BOISE, Idaho - When lightning ignited a wildfire near Idaho's Sun Valley in 2007, environmental regulators used monitoring gear to gauge the health effects for those breathing in the Sawtooth Mountains' smoky, mile-high air.
That equipment sits idle today after the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality was hit by $4 million in spending cuts, a quarter of its budget, since the recession began. Water testing on selenium-laced streams in Idaho's phosphate mining country also has been cut back, as have mercury monitoring and hazardous waste inspections.
The cuts to environmental programs in Idaho provide a snapshot of a national trend. Conservation programs and environmental regulations have been pared back significantly in many states that have grappled with budget deficits in recent years.
Because environmental programs are just a sliver of most state budgets, the cuts often go without much public notice. More attention is focused on larger reductions in Medicaid, public education or prisons.
A 24-state survey by the Environmental Council of States, the national association of state environmental agency leaders, showed agency budgets decreasing by an average of $12 million in 2011. The Washington, D.C.-based group also says federal grants to help states administer new federal Environmental Protection Agency rules regarding air and water quality also have waned, falling by 5.1 percent since 2004.
Regulators in many states say they are trying to maintain fundamental environmental protections required by the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and other federal laws.
"Hopefully, even with all the cuts in place, we're still doing a good job of protecting that," said Martin Bauer, Idaho's air quality administrator.
Yet environmentalists and some state regulators are concerned that the budget cuts imperil programs designed to safeguard public health and safety.
In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican presidential candidate, signed a budget that cut funding for the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality more than 30 percent, from $833 million to $565 million. That included reducing air quality inspections and assessments.
Colin Meehan, of the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, worries that Texas will struggle to meet Clean Air Act obligations.
"We see this as not just a problem from a regulatory standpoint," he said. "It's a public health issue."
While the Texas agency reduced state incentive programs to cut pollutants, those were not required by federal law, agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said. The reductions "are only one part of the state's overall approach" to paring emissions, she said.
In some states where conservatives control the Legislature and the governor's office, environmentalists have been critical of deep cutbacks to the programs they had fought to implement. Some suggest the severity of the cuts is due as much to a political agenda to reduce government regulations as it is to cope with state budget deficits.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott's first budget included his veto of a $500,000 water quality study on Lake Okeechobee and some $20 million in cuts to Everglades' restoration. Scott, a Republican, said the steps were necessary to balance a state budget hard hit by home foreclosures and real estate losses.
But the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature also cut $210 million from property tax revenue intended for local water-management districts that protect Florida's swamplands. Environmentalists blasted those cuts, complaining they were meant to help Scott fulfill pledge to cut taxes.
"It would have been appropriate for there to have been some level of budget reductions," Audubon of Florida advocacy director Charles Lee said. "But it's clear what happened in Tallahassee in 2011 was targeted, ideologically driven, and I would add, mean-spirited."
Scott insists his administration uncovered overly generous pension payments and questionable purchases by the local water districts. He said water resources deserve protecting, but the agencies that oversee them also must be fiscally responsible.
Budget cuts have affected high-profile programs in several other states, as well.
In South Carolina, they mean health officials will not perform a statewide study of how mercury-tainted fish affect those who eat them. Contaminated fish have been found in some 1,700 miles of the state's rivers. That state's Department of Natural Resources' budget was cut more than 50 percent, dropping to $14 million from $32 million.
The state Department of Environmental Protection in Pennsylvania has seen general fund support slip from $217 million in 2009 to $140 million, levels last seen in 1994.
"This is a silent train wreck that's happening," said David Hess, the former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. "What these cuts do is cut the capacity and the ability of environmental agencies to do their jobs."
At best, states will know less about how their air and water quality are faring. At worst, they could become dirtier and more dangerous places to live, Hess said.
Oregon, for example, reduced air pollution monitoring, as the Department of Environmental Quality faces budget cuts through 2013. In North Carolina, lawmakers eliminated a $480,000 mapping program created after a landslide killed five people in 2004, jettisoning the jobs of six geologists who said more maps were needed to help protect Appalachian mountain residents by helping them decide where it is safe to build.
"It's very shortsighted," said DJ Gerken, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Ashville, N.C. "We've had 48 landslide deaths since 1916. What's changed is the appetite for building in these areas where risks are most abundant."
In some cases, it's difficult to know what effect the spending cuts will have over the long term because environmental problems often evolve over time.
When Washington's Legislature trimmed $30 million, or 27 percent, from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's budget, three employees who had been diving in the Puget Sound to hunt down invasive sea squirts lost their jobs.
The gelatinous invaders, known as tunicates, form a goopy mat on the sea floor, raising fears that they will hurt the shellfish industry, as they have in eastern Canada.
"We are basically addressing tunicates on an emergency basis only," said Allen Pleus, Washington state's aquatic invasive species coordinator.
While the state's oyster growers will not rule out the potential for future problems caused by the sea squirts, they say they do not see an immediate threat to their livelihoods.
"There isn't any place I'm aware of that the tunicates are causing harm on the shellfish farms," said Bill Dewey, of Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Wash.
Elsewhere, budget cuts to invasive species programs have caused more alarm.
The Hawaii Invasive Species Council, a main player in that state's fight against non-native plants and animals, saw its budget cut by more than half to $1.8 million.
Fearing "a collapse of our inspection capacity," spokeswoman Deborah Ward said her agency redirected 40 percent of its remaining money to preserve inspections that help keep invasive pests such as brown tree snakes from hitchhiking their way into the islands from Guam. Hawaii has no native snakes, so experts fears their arrival could decimate native bird species.
As the money was shifted, however, the state cut back on field crews who targeted invasive species already on the islands. Those include pigs, wild goats and sheep that can decimate an ecosystem full of plants that evolved without natural protections, like thorns.
"They're like bonbons for pigs," Christy Martin, a spokeswoman for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species in Honolulu, said of the state's native plants. "If there's nobody out there actually doing the work, you get astronomical reproduction. We have a year-round breeding season here, so everything goes crazy, and you lose ground."