Ariel Wiegard

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May 6, 2015

CRP: Beloved by sportsmen. Critical for wildlife. Ignored by USDA?

You probably know about the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, because you’ve hunted on CRP lands. And if you live anywhere near farm country, it’s no wonder—CRP essentially incentivizes farmers to cultivate wildlife on lands that would be less productive for crops. Ducks, deer, pheasants, sage grouse, and many other game species have found habitat and forage in farm country thanks to CRP. Since its creation 30 years ago, CRP has been one of the nation’s most important programs for hunters and wildlife—and for farmers.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

CRP lands can have many other benefits, too. If you follow the news, you’ll recognize that there’s a need to protect water quality from agricultural runoff; provide habitat for pollinators like bees and butterflies; prevent soil erosion and enhance soil health; mitigate the impact of floods and drought; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. CRP lands do all of that and more. For the breadth and depth of its achievements, CRP is highly cost-effective, making up just a fraction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget.

And yet, 15 months after passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, the USDA has not taken the steps needed to maximize this critical and versatile program.

Some background: About once every five years, through the Farm Bill, Congress can adjust the number of acres that America’s farmers may enroll in CRP. In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress established acreage caps that are progressively lower each year through 2018, scaling way down from 32 million to 24 million acres. This was in reaction to an ever-tighter federal budget (the USDA had less financial support available for farmers) and record-high prices for commodity crops like corn and soybeans (farmers were eager to plant more to earn more, rather than leave land unplanted for conservation purposes).

The 2014 Farm Bill makes it possible for farmers to enroll up to 26 million acres in CRP this year, but there are only 24 million acres currently enrolled, and enrollment could sink as low as 22 million acres by September—far below the allowed cap, and a full 10 million acres below 2013’s maximum. The USDA has neither taken meaningful action to close the gap, nor finished updating the CRP regulations, despite a solid effort to implement the rest of the Farm Bill’s 450 provisions over the last 15 months.

As we look ahead to the next Farm Bill, this seeming ambivalence at the USDA sets a low precedent for a landmark conservation program. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago we proposed a 45-million-acre cap for CRP—nearly double the current enrollment!

Habitat loss is the biggest threat to wildlife population health. It is fundamentally important to sportsmen, and to the game species we love, that we keep CRP enrollment on target. And it is incumbent upon the USDA to provide farmers and ranchers with a full suite of tools to put conservation on their lands. A dozen U.S. Senators agree: The agency ought to announce a nationwide CRP general signup, which it last did in 2013, and aggressively encourage farmers to enroll in continuous programs like State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement. We all need the USDA to step up.

One Response to “CRP: Beloved by sportsmen. Critical for wildlife. Ignored by USDA?”

  1. DennisF

    It’s easy for sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts to see the benefits of CRP, but for the farmers, it is an economic issue. The CRP rental rates must be more competitive with the high corn and bean prices, since high land rents & costs require them to squeeze every penny out of what they have available. As a former “farm boy” and farm owner, I now only have about a 3 A parcel in CRP, due to the fact it had a farming history within the time period. There are a number of non farmers, with small acreages, who would love to enter the CRP (or a similar?) program, but there acreages do not have a farming history to speak of. Loosening the rules up to include more smaller pieces might help some.

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May 5, 2015

Glassing the Hill: May 4-8

The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress

The Senate is in session from Tuesday through Friday. The House is not in session this week.  

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Temperatures are just starting to heat up in Washington, but the Senate is already looking ahead to the end of summer, when they’ll try to get a bipartisan energy bill on the floor. Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski has asked the committee to file all bills for consideration by the end of this week. With campaign season set to cause distractions in the fall, it’s in the committee’s best interest to see the legislative package reach the floor as quickly as possible. Last week’s two-part hearing to consider efficiency policies and best uses of the U.S. petroleum reserve was a very calm affair, but the division between Democrats and Republicans became readily apparent and will undoubtedly prove difficult for the Senate in the coming weeks. The bills introduced this week will provide a blueprint for what the overall package will look like.

Ashe’s Allowance

This week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe will appear before the Environment and Public Works Committee to discuss his agency’s budget. The service has called for a $135.7-million increase over fiscal year 2015 funding levels, so Ashe will undoubtedly face heavy scrutiny, as this does not adhere to sequestration levels.

It is safe to assume that sage-grouse and increased protections of other species under the Endangered Species Act will be hot topics of discussion. Increased protections for the greater sage-grouse would have landscape-scale ramifications, and Republicans fear that may become a reality after the September 30 deadline for a listing decision.

Wildfires: A New Drill?

A perennial issue for the U.S. Forest Service in recent years has been the increase in frequency and cost of wildfires. With inadequate funding to cover the cost of wildfire suppression, which currently accounts for almost half of the USFS budget, the agency is forced to borrow from non-fire programs, crippling the effectiveness and progress of their other forestry projects nationwide. In a hearing last week, USFS Chief Tom Tidwell expressed his concerns, citing that the estimated suppression costs of the 2015 fire season will exceed $1.12 billion—yet his agency was only appropriated $1.01 billion. It takes more than a bake sale to cover that deficit.

On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will explore ideas for improving federal wildfire management. A critical discussion point will be the introduction of wildfire prevention programs versus increasing resources devoted to suppression. Many believe that a proactive approach to wildfires is the sensible solution to trimming federal spending levels long-term and radically reducing the risk of wildfires.

It seems likely that Democrats will promote the S. 235 “Wildfire Disaster Funding Act” introduced by Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Crapo (R-ID). The legislation calls for changes to the outdated budgetary practices currently in place to fund wildfire suppression. While that proposal boasts strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, and is a priority for the administration, Republican critics claim that the bill fails to adequately address the issue of hazardous fuels.

Highway Bill’s Road Ahead

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the long-term reauthorization of a surface transportation bill, or highway bill. The short-term funding measure currently in place is set to expire on May 31, and lawmakers are scrambling to examine long-term solutions, though it seems far more likely that another extension will be filed to carry short-term measures through December 2015.

The highway bill is a crucial one to the conservation community. Since 1992, the legislation has funded programs vital to the establishment of historic conservation easements, and the program encourages the use of natural habitat and wetland mitigation areas, scenic byways, and recreational trails. As such, it is imperative that a long-term solution be found in the coming years. That said, a short-term funding solution is needed at the very least to ensure vital conservation programs do not run out of funding.

Kristyn Brady

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May 2, 2015

Colorado Sportsmen Ask Lawmakers for Better Water Plan

Colorado sportsmen addressed Governor Hickenlooper and James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, in a letter urging decision-makers to improve the current draft of the Colorado Water Plan in ways that will ensure the state remains a special place to hunt and fish. The letter is signed by five sportsmen’s groups—the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance, Colorado Wildlife Federation, Colorado Trout Unlimited, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers—who are calling for a plan that keeps Colorado’s rivers healthy, increases water conservation measures, ensures efficient agricultural water use, and avoids large new transbasin diversion projects.

“We commend Governor Hickenlooper for initiating a comprehensive planning process that prioritizes healthy rivers and streams,” says Jimmy Hague, Center for Water Resources Director for the TRCP. “There is strong interest in the plan amongst sportsmen, and the draft is a good start, but responding to sportsmen’s concerns will be crucial to improving water resources for fish, wildlife, and recreational access.”

Photo courtesy of Nick Petlock.

The letter states that Colorado’s rivers, streams, and riparian areas are necessary habitat for over 80 percent of Colorado’s wildlife—and 100 percent of its fish. “Maintaining these resources is critical for hunters and anglers, for the state’s economy, and for our quality of life,” it reads. The groups cite a 2014 survey conducted by Southwick Associates for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which found that 2.7 million Colorado residents and nonresident visitors spent $5.1 billion dollars that year to hunt, fish, and view wildlife in the state.

“Colorado sportsmen and women place a high priority on healthy water levels and river flows, and on preserving working landscapes that can sustain both habitat and agricultural production,” says David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited. “This plan needs to provide consistent and significant funding to assess, protect, and restore the health of our rivers and should encourage creative partnerships to benefit flows and farms alike.” The group letter calls for state investment in stream management plans to address river health and the implementation of voluntary, compensated, and flexible water-sharing agreements between agricultural producers and growing communities, while respecting existing water rights.

Some water interests continue to advocate for the plan to include new large-scale trans-mountain diversions to move Colorado River water from the West Slope to the Front Range, which could be devastating to fish and wildlife habitat. “There are 158 named rivers and large tributaries that flow through Colorado and all but two have their headwaters here,” says John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “Headwaters are largely found in Colorado’s wild backcountry, where fish and wildlife populations depend on clean healthy flows that sustain fisheries and nourish riparian areas critical to fish and wildlife. We encourage Gov. Hickenlooper to implement thoughtful measures that avoid devastating diversions, focus on more innovative agricultural practices, and improve urban consumption policies on the Front Range.”

In December 2014, the TRCP hosted a tele-town hall to discuss the Colorado Water Plan, inviting 75,000 sportsmen and women to the table with conservation experts.

Click here to read the sportsmen’s letter.

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April 30, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Congress Wants to Cut Investments in Conservation Like It’s 2006

What would a 16-percent cut in federal funding do to your family’s favorite fishing hole? If Congress has its way, we’re going to find out. A House and Senate Conference Committee just released their budget for fiscal year 2016, in which funding for conservation would be cut back to 2006 levels. Accounting for inflation, this amounts to a funding cut of over 16%. A vote on the resolution could come as early as today in the House.

For hunters and anglers, this would mean 16 percent fewer dollars for public access projects, habitat improvements, road and trail maintenance, invasive species control, and hazardous fuels reduction.

Photo courtesy of National Parks.

Sportsmen have a long history of investing in conservation through our license fees, excise taxes, and sweat equity. Congress, on the other hand, spends just one percent of its budget on conservation. That’s down from two percent in the late 1970s. Clearly, federal spending on conservation didn’t cause our deficit problems, and cutting conservation won’t solve our deficits either. In fact, completely eliminating all federal spending on conservation would reduce the anticipated 2016 deficit by less than 9 percent, but Congress would still be putting about $360 billion on the annual credit card.

Conservation is one of the best investments the federal government can make. Our public lands, clean water, wetlands, and marine fish stocks drive $646 billion in consumer spending on outdoor recreation each year. To put that in perspective, Americans spend only half that amount on pharmaceuticals.

In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt said, “We are prone to speak of the resources of this country as inexhaustible; this is not so.” Congress’s budget may take us back to 2006 in terms of funding for conservation, but in terms of mindset it takes our country much further back, to the pillaging of our natural resources that Theodore Roosevelt railed against. The 20th century was unique in human history, because it saw a society flourish both economically and ecologically. Wild turkeys, bald eagles, and elk all bounced back from dwindling numbers at the beginning of the 1900s. And, to paraphrase Bill Ruckleshaus, all our rivers may not be fishable and swimmable, but at least they are no longer flammable. This double-bottom-line growth was achieved on the backs of wise policies put in place by Theodore Roosevelt and successive leaders, who knew that sustained economic growth required sustained investments in the natural resources of our country.

There are wise leaders in Congress today who care about conservation. Just two weeks ago, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership honored two of them—Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Senator Patty Murray of Washington—for their years of bipartisan work to steward the resources of our country, at our annual Capital Conservation Awards Dinner. We need them and other lawmakers of their caliber more than ever.

Congress’s budget isn’t the final word on conservation funding—legislators must still pass annual appropriations bills, which write the checks for various programs and agencies. Our leaders need to come together on a fiscal deal that avoids sequestration, invests in programs that have proven bang-for-their-buck, and gives certainty to the American economy—that includes ensuring that the great American outdoors remains a viable infrastructure for our hunting and fishing traditions, which have been proven to drive the economy.

Who will lead? Who will pick up the big stick for conservation?

Kristyn Brady

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Up for Vote: Two House Bills Ignore the Wishes of Sportsmen Who Value Healthy Headwaters and Wetlands

This week, the House of Representatives will vote on two pieces of legislation that could hinder the ability to protect coldwater fisheries, indispensable waterfowl habitat, and drinking water for one in three Americans. A bill introduced by Pennsylvania Representative Bill Shuster (H.R.1732) and a harmful policy rider in the “Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” (H.R.2028) would derail a deliberative rulemaking effort, which hunters and anglers everywhere are counting on to clarify Clean Water Act protections for wetlands and headwater streams.

Photo courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

“These two bills represent an attempt to ignore the wishes of sportsmen and snatch this opportunity from us at the eleventh hour—just weeks away from a final rule,” says Jimmy Hague, director of the Center for Water Resources at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, one of the more than 200 hunting, fishing, and sporting groups from across the country that have asked the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take more action to protect wetlands and headwater streams. “Kicking the can down the road, without even seeing the final rule, would do a complete disservice to the hunters, anglers, farmers, and other stakeholders who submitted more than one million comments to improve the proposed rule—comments which have made an impact. Congress should reserve judgment until we can evaluate that impact.”

Trout Unlimited strongly supports the Clean Water Act rule because it will ensure protection of millions of miles of headwaters streams and wetlands, which are critically important to the health of downstream waters and fish and wildlife habitat,” says Steve Moyer, Trout Unlimited’s vice president of government affairs. “Anglers know that better habitat means better fishing, and better fishing helps local economies across the nation that depend on recreation dollars. Congress needs to honor the public comments of hundreds of thousands of sportsmen and other Americans who have participated in the rulemaking process.”

The current confusion over the Clean Water Act began in 2001—nearly 15 years ago. Since then, the legal issues have been hashed out; the science has been analyzed, peer-reviewed, and compiled; and the public and key stakeholders have weighed in. Simply put, the agencies have all the information they need to make an informed decision, and delays are unnecessary. “We hear a lot of talk in Washington about doing the people’s business and cutting red tape. Yet, with misplaced water bills scheduled for consideration this week, the House is doing just the opposite,” says Scott Kovarovics, executive director of the Izaak Walton League. “Although Americans have spoken loudly and clearly in favor of protecting clean water and healthy habitat, the House would block progress and drown EPA and the Army Corps in a sea of wasteful red tape. The constructive course is to vote these bills down and act now to restore badly needed protections for streams, wetlands, and other waters nationwide.”

“A vote to block the Clean Water Rule is a vote against restoring protections to nearly two-thirds of America’s streams and 20 million acres of wetlands left vulnerable by ambiguous court decisions,” says Jan Goldman-Carter, senior manager of wetlands and water resources for the National Wildlife Federation. “There’s nothing ambiguous, however, about the support of hunters, anglers, and people across the country for clean, safe water for their communities, farms, fish, and wildlife. A vote to derail the process already under way is a vote against all of us.”

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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