Whit Fosburgh

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February 3, 2015

Inside the President’s 2016 budget request

The President’s 2016 Budget Proposal. Image by the White House.

Today, President Barack Obama released his fiscal year 2016 budget request to Congress. The president’s call for doing away with sequestration and increasing spending by $74 billion would provide a welcome investment in sportsmen’s conservation priorities.  But the president’s budget request is just that – a request to a GOP-led Congress that will assuredly trim his proposals substantially.

Yet the president’s emphasis on increased investment in conservation programs represents a positive start to the federal budget process and certainly suggests an increased urgency by the administration to contribute more toward natural resource conservation. While a complete rollback of sequestration cuts is unlikely, these proposals enable us to see the reference points in the debate between the administration and Congress.

Many of the TRCP’s priorities received level funding or sizeable increases in the president’s budget request:

  • The North American Wetlands Conservation Act received $34 million, level funding for FY16.
  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that has historically been raided by Congress, received full funding – $900 million – for the coming fiscal year.
  • The State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program received $70 million, an approximate $12 million increase from FY15.
  • WaterSMART, a program that invests in collaborative efforts to better manage watersheds and preserve water for instream flow and wildlife habitat, received $58 million, a $7.5 million increase.

An additional $78 million was provided for the conservation of sage steppe landscapes. This funding will be critical in joint state/federal efforts to prevent the listing of the sage grouse and reverse declines in other game species like mule deer.

An additional $78 million was provided for the conservation of sage steppe landscapes. Image by Mia Sheppard.

The U.S. Forest Service would receive an increase of $30 million for the road and trail maintenance backlog, thereby helping provide public access to public lands. The budget would create a new pilot program, called the Integrated Resource Restoration Program, to address urgently needed road decommissioning, trail repair and removal of fish passage barriers, especially in areas where Forest Service roads may contribute to water quality problems in streams and water bodies. Decommissioned roads often cause blowouts and prevent access to the most popular recreation sites. This program is important for both sportsmen’s access and habitat restoration and enhancement. The budget also prioritizes “the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) to foster collaborative, science-based restoration on priority forest landscapes across the Nation.” The CFLRP would support jobs, provide a reliable wood supply, restore forest health and reduce the costs of fire suppression.

The proposed budget moves to end fire borrowing.

In addition, the president’s budget includes a vital provision to end wildfire borrowing. This reflects stipulations in the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, legislation re-introduced in Congress this year that would classify the most extreme wildfires as natural disasters, enabling the use of federal emergency dollars to fund their suppression. This provision calls for wildfires whose suppression costs exceed 70 percent of the 10-year suppression cost average to be funded similarly to other natural disasters, restoring upwards of $400 million to the U.S. Forest Service budget. The TRCP strongly supports this bill.

Unfortunately, the president’s budget request would compound the injury Congress inflicted when it cut $402 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Stewardship Program in last year’s “CRomnibus” funding bill.  The president’s budget would cut the CSP by $54 million annually beginning in 2017, or $486 million over the next 10 years.  Thankfully however, two priority programs at USDA would be well funded by the president: the celebrated new Regional Conservation Partnership Program would receive $330 million; the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which encourages private land owners to voluntarily open their land to hunters and anglers, has retained $40 million through 2018 as authorized by the Farm Bill.

Sportsmen should consider this budget a victory and sign of renewed interest by the president in conservation investments. This is only the beginning of the debate. Congress will rightly scrutinize the president’s budget request and advance its own plan. As Congress begins this process, the TRCP is ready to make the case that conservation is always a good investment.

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From the good news desk: Sportsmen, farmers and feds team up on local solutions that make healthy watersheds

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced close to $800 million in federal funding for locally led solutions to regional conservation challenges via its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The five-year, $1.2 billion federal program was authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill to award funds to projects that improve soil health, water quality, water use efficiency, and wildlife habitat, as well as activities that otherwise support natural resources on private lands. In 2015, USDA has awarded $370 million to 115 high-impact projects across all 50 states and Puerto Rico, which will be bolstered by approximately $400 million from stakeholders. TRCP is a proud partner of the following 2015 RCPP project leads: Ducks Unlimited, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited.

To read more about RCPP projects improving working lands and wildlife habitat, click here.

Image by Michael Misurek.

Water is deeply personal. We tend to take it for granted until something happens to the water we drink or fish in. Even when a chemical spill shut off water to hundreds of thousands of West Virginians, most of us probably looked at it as a tragic news story rather than as motivation to examine whether our drinking water source is vulnerable, if our favorite trout stream is impaired or if our local wetland is at risk of destruction.

That’s why solutions to our water challenges are most successful when driven by local participation: those closest to the water know it best and have the greatest interest in fixing it the right way. However, because local leaders often do not have sufficient financial or technical resources available, locally-driven solutions work best when integrated with resources from a variety of stakeholders, including federal agencies.

Recognizing this federal role in water conservation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture just announced nearly $800 million in funding through its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) for 115 locally-led solutions to regional conservation challenges. This effort will take $370 million in federal funds and match it with $400 million in funds committed by project partners. Many of these projects will be led by sportsmen’s organizations working together with local farmers and ranchers to protect our working landscapes and fish and wildlife habitat.

The Verde River in Arizona. Image courtesy of the National Wild and Scenic River System.

Take, for instance, the Verde River Flow and Habitat Restoration Initiative led by TRCP partner The Nature Conservancy (TNC). With $2.8 million in support from RCPP, The Nature Conservancy and five other partners in the Verde River Valley of Arizona will improve irrigation water management and irrigation water delivery on 1,000 acres of working lands, enhance 6,000 acres of riparian habitat, and protect 400 acres of agricultural lands through conservation easements over five years. Easements will be focused on lands that already have significant investment in on-farm conservation practices and are critical to ensure long-term investments are protected. TNC has been working in the Verde Valley for three years already to improve water conveyance infrastructure; now, their efforts will be supercharged with a greater on-farm focus.

As another example, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, along with 31 partners, is receiving $8 million from RCPP to modernize water management for agricultural uses in the Lower Gunnison River Basin. Many local efforts are underway already to improve conveyance and delivery of water as well as improve on-farm irrigation practices. With this grant, project participants will be able to integrate limited, disparate efforts under a coordinated leadership team, including local producers, to achieve greater water efficiency results and multiply environmental benefits. In addition, the partners will target areas with high selenium levels to reduce pollutant levels in the basin, producing water quality as well as water quantity benefits. This project will accelerate progress towards water users’ common goal: utilizing water resources wisely while ensuring healthy fish and wildlife populations and agricultural sustainability.

Both of these examples are localized so it may not be obvious why this new federal effort is so important to anyone outside the chosen project areas. But there are at least two reasons why we all should take note of this new conservation program. First, though the most direct benefits of river and habitat improvements will be felt in the project areas, these benefits accrue downstream, whether it’s through more water being left in the river for fish or fewer pollutants entering the watershed. Second, this model of locally-driven solutions coupled with broad stakeholder support should set the tone for conservation in the future, and the novel solutions it will produce will be replicated nationwide. Even if your favorite hunting and fishing grounds didn’t benefit from this first round of projects selected, the lessons learned from them should be coming to a watershed near you soon.

Want more on RCPP? Check out this handy USDA infographic here.

Ariel Wiegard

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posted in: General

January 21, 2015

Better together: Wildlife & working lands benefit from USDA partnerships

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced close to $800 million in funding for locally led solutions to regional conservation challenges via its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The five-year, $1.2 billion federal program was authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill to award funds to projects that improve soil health, water quality, water use efficiency, and wildlife habitat, as well as activities that otherwise support natural resources on private lands. In 2015, USDA has awarded $370 million to 115 high-impact projects across all 50 states and Puerto Rico, which will be bolstered by approximately $400 million from stakeholders. TRCP is a proud partner of the following 2015 RCPP project leads: Ducks Unlimited, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited.

To read more about RCPP projects improving water use efficiency, click here

RCPP projects from around the country. Is something happening in your state? Image courtesy of USDA.

When presented with 115 high-impact projects of all shapes and sizes, funneling about $800 million entirely into conservation…it’s difficult to name favorites. Thankfully, many of the just-announced Regional Conservation Partnership Program projects, such as the three examples below, stand out by their effort to balance the needs of production agriculture with the needs of fish and wildlife. RCPP shows that farming and conservation work better together.

 

Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program National Demonstration Project

Image from Minnesota’s prairie potholes.

USDA has awarded $9 million to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to help roll out to other states an innovative new pilot program. MAWQCP provides regulatory certainty to farmers who voluntarily enroll every single acre—crop and non-crop—of their farm operation in comprehensive water quality conservation planning for 10 years. In other words, program participants will automatically be declared in compliance with all new state water quality laws and rules that take effect during the next decade.

The idea of regulatory certainty might seem like “inside baseball,” but farmers and sportsmen alike should pay attention. If successful, Agricultural Water Quality Certification will be lauded as a win-win solution and held up as a model program for conservation on private lands. It will surely please those who champion working lands and tight government budgets; certification offers landowners freedom from increased regulation rather than the financial incentives usually offered for single-site, single-practice conservation. On the other hand, those who love fish and wildlife will have assurance that their state’s farmers are working long-term on a large scale for healthy soils and clean waters.  These decade-long, whole-farm solutions could inspire creative new opportunities for conservation.

 

Delaware River Watershed Working Lands Conservation Protection Partnership

Here is a perfect example of the public-private partnership RCPP was intended to foster. USDA awarded $13 million to help restore the Delaware River, matching an $18 million private-sector investment in the long term health of the watershed. That’s $31 million for working lands conservation in the region—far more than either the government or private actors would be able to commit alone. Experts will provide over 1,200 farmers and forest landowners with technical assistance to restore fish and wildlife habitat and funds to protect working agricultural and forest lands from development.

Therein lies the key theme that runs throughout the new RCPP: while much of USDA’s past conservation focus has been on individual farms, RCPP enables multiple actors to rally around landscape-scale programs to achieve greater impact. That’s an organizational model that TRCP can stand behind.

 

Rice Stewardship Partnership—Sustaining the Future of Rice

Image by Dusan Smetana.

Lastly, we shine a spotlight on “Sustaining the Future of Rice” for its ambitious scope: this project will span six states from California to Mississippi, involve more than 40 partners, and employ $10 million in RCPP funds to help 800 rice producers conserve waterfowl habitat.

A recent Ducks Unlimited study found that rice lands in the project regions provide more than 35 percent of the food resources available to wintering dabbling ducks, and that over 50 percent of all dabbling ducks that winter in the U.S. do so in the project regions. (These statistics don’t even count the benefits that these working wetlands provide to geese and other animals and fish.) Unfortunately, rice landscapes are threatened by limited water in drought-stricken California, changing agricultural practices, and long-term declines in rice acreage on the Gulf Coast. The key to observing and hunting waterfowl across the continent may depend on the future of rice, and we salute the Rice Stewardship Partnership for taking up the challenge.

* * * * *

Over two-thirds of our nation’s land—including some of the most important fish and wildlife habitat—is in private hands, and the downstream effects of conservation practices on those lands can be profound. Through initiatives such as the RCPP, farmers and foresters are every day enhancing opportunities for hunters, anglers, and wildlife enthusiasts of all stripes. We look forward to enjoying the results.

Want more on RCPP? Check out this handy USDA infographic here.

Whit Fosburgh

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posted in: General

The Sportsmen’s State of the Union 2015

November’s elections proved that change is a constant in Washington; today’s majority can swiftly become tomorrow’s minority. But regardless of which party controls the agenda and the gavels of Congress, it remains imperative for America’s hunters and anglers to make clear our priorities: excellent access to quality fish and wildlife habitat. Communicating that message to decision makers is the mission, indeed, the very reason the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership was created.

2015 promises to bring many changes and challenges, both positive and negative, to the sportsmen’s community. The TRCP and our partners will be closely tracking the following issues, all of which have the potential to significantly impact our ability to hunt, fish and otherwise enjoy what Theodore Roosevelt called “the strenuous life.”

2015 promises to bring many changes and challenges, both positive and negative, to the sportsmen’s community.

Our community of 40 million American hunters and anglers continues to be one of the very few stakeholder groups that pays our own way. Through license fees, excise taxes and membership to groups like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, who leverage every federal dollar they receive three or four times, we support our outdoor way of life. While so many citizens expect more from the government, sportsmen are a group of citizens who continue to pay more. We remain one of the very best investments the federal government makes. As an example, this year waterfowl hunters have elected to pay just a little bit more for Duck Stamps, as we asked Congress to raise the price from $15 to $25. Few walk the halls of the Capitol lobbying for increased fees, but sportsmen understand that tomorrow’s outdoor opportunities require conservation today.

2015 may well be the “year of the sage grouse,” but whether this will be a story of failure or a conservation success story for the ages remains to be seen. The continued commitment of state and federal land managers to take the steps necessary for durable conservation of both the bird, and more importantly the sage ecosystem on which hundreds of other species depend, will be vital to sustain both the grouse and species like mule deer and pronghorn antelope. Getting it right on sage grouse now will go a long way towards avoiding a veritable cascade of listing decisions that may well cripple the American West in a way that works for no one.

Public lands hunt
Photo courtesy of Jarred Kay.

On our national forests, the pendulum has swung away from active forest management, resulting in fuels accumulating, an increased risk of wildfire and fish and wildlife habitat in dire need of restoration. Even the most straightforward forest management projects frequently wind up in court, delayed unnecessarily for years while forest conditions deteriorate. A bipartisan, multi-stakeholder opportunity exists to improve the health of our national forests – and subsequently improve the forest-dependent economy. Short-sighted, single solution approaches that seek to return to the other extreme are no more workable than the status quo, but in this Congress TRCP believes the leadership and the will exists for pragmatic forest legislation, sportsmen look forward to being part of that conversation.

Sportsmen readily admit that management challenges exist on America’s public lands, but the sale of those public lands, an idea that seems to arise once a generation or so, remains a worrisome proposition. America’s public lands are interwoven into a sportsmen’s heritage that is more than a century old, and their accessibility to Americans of all stripes stands in stark contrast to the private ownership and moneyed access of privileged European monarchies. Few more un-American ideas exist than the notion that private economic interests should gain title to a large swath of the American legacy, and the TRCP and our partners remain committed to thwarting misguided attempts to sell, transfer or otherwise divest the federal government of its irreplaceable public lands.

Image courtesy of Howard Polskin.

Management challenges are not limited to the land, of course, but also extend to our oceans and coastal resources. Congress in 2015 may well continue to examine the law managing our nation’s fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, with an eye toward making changes in the next round of reauthorization. 2016 will be the 40th anniversary of the act. Over the past four decades, recreational saltwater fishing has grown up, but the Magnuson-Stevens Act hasn’t kept the pace. Communities that once depended on commercial fishing now just as surely depend on recreational anglers for their economic livelihoods. As congressional leaders from a variety of coastal states review American fisheries management, they would do well to consider the health of recreational fisheries on equal footing with commercial fisheries. The TRCP will continue to stress that ignoring recreational angling equates to bad economic policy.

Opportunities and threats exist, much as they always do. The theme of 2015 will be balance. With a thoughtful and open-minded approach, threats can become opportunities, and the collective interests of all Americans can be addressed. An “us versus them” mentality draws lines in the sand unnecessarily and assures that division remains the status quo.

The TRCP will seek collaboration where we can and defend strongly our rock solid principles where they are threatened. In so doing, we will make sure that the future of hunting and angling dawns bright for future generations of Americans.

John Hamill

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January 15, 2015

Public lands: Sportsmen’s most precious resource

Growing up in a small farming and ranching community in Central California in the 50s and 60s, I had access to private lands for hunting and fishing.  My brothers and I could literally walk out the back door of our home to hunt for doves and rabbits on our neighbor’s ranch. Larger, family-owned ranches in the area were readily accessible for deer and quail hunting and fishing for coastal steelhead.

Times have changed, and many of the lands I visited as a kid are no longer accessible. Some have been turned into subdivisions, and most of large ranches are either closed to public access, or hunting privileges have been leased to elite clubs where only the wealthy can afford to hunt. Fortunately, I have lived most of my adult life in Colorado and Arizona where there are abundant public lands available to pursue my passions.

Image courtesy of John Hamill.

Opportunities to hunt, fish and recreate on public lands are under attack in nine Western states, however, led by special interests intent on passing legislation that would require the transfer of federal lands to the states. This includes our national forests, national wildlife refuges and public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Attacks like these are not new. In 2012, the Arizona legislature passed a bill, vetoed by the Gov. Jan Brewer, that would have required Congress to turn over 25 million acres of public lands to the state by the end of 2014. Proposition 120, a ballot measure defeated by two thirds of Arizona voters, would have amended the state’s constitution to “declare Arizona’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources within the state’s boundaries.” On the surface this may not seem like such a bad idea. However, when you dig into these proposals you find that the primary motivation can be to facilitate the sale of public lands to private interests to generate revenues and enable development.

Image courtesy of John Hamill.

Western states have a long history of selling their lands. In Nevada, nearly 2.7 million acres of state land have been sold; Utah has sold more than 50 percent of its land grant. The question of how the states would pay for the management of these lands complicates the issue further. Maintaining roads and recreation facilities, fighting wildfires and similar activities require funds that these states simply do not have. The only practical means to raise the funds would be to charge higher user fees, open more lands to development or sell the lands to private interests.

The transfer or “divestiture” of federal public lands to the states poses a threat to hunting and fishing as we know it today. While sportsmen may be frustrated with the federal government’s management of our public lands, transferring public lands to the states and making them available for sale to private interests is not in the best interest of fish and wildlife or hunting and fishing. Sportsmen need to fight to maintain control of and access to our most precious resource: our public lands.

To make you voice heard, I encourage you to write or call your elected official or support organizations like the TRCP, which is leading the fight on behalf of sportsmen. Finally, consider attending the sportsmen’s rallies in Santa Fe, Denver and Boise in the coming months. This is the time for action – not complacency!

HOW YOU CAN HELP

WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?

The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.

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