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May 11, 2015

Glassing the Hill: May 11 – 15

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

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

The Senate is in session from Monday through Friday. The House is in session from Tuesday through Friday.

These Senators are all charged up.

 After a flurry of proposals were submitted for inclusion in the bipartisan energy bill last week, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee has a busy few days ahead as they hold a hearing to consider 22 pieces of legislation that address issues from solar energy to natural gas pipelines. The Committee is anxious to move the bill this summer, marking the first time federal energy policies have been altered significantly since 2007. The Senate legislative package will focus on smart-grid technology, transmission lines, and gas pipelines. The controversial Keystone XL will most likely be discussed by Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) and other supporters, but will not be included in the bill. Details on the Senate hearing can be found here.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has also begun drafting its companion bill but, unlike the Senate’s, their package will feature a much more partisan slate of bills that support the GOP agenda. A draft of the House bill can be found here. Information on the hearing can be found here.

The Case of Lawsuits vs Wildfire Relief

On Thursday, a House Natural Resources Panel will address the issue of litigation and its impacts on the federal government’s forestry work, particularly in treating fire-prone areas. With wildfire suppression costs increasing at an average annual rate of 22 percent, the Forest Service no longer has the resources necessary to fund suppression costs and prevention measures. Many key players agree that boosting forest treatment and prevention programs is a necessary step to decreasing the dangers and costs of catastrophic wildfires.

However, for two decades, many organizations have employed lawsuits, often to great effect, as a tactic for blocking logging and forestry treatments throughout national forests. And, though the USFS was once quite adept at winning these lawsuits, the agency has been severely hampered by them in the past ten years. In this hearing, opponents of this tactic will most likely argue that costly litigation is preventing the federal government from employing programs to support forest health and mitigating the long-term risk of wildfires.

Dems on Sage-Grouse Delays

After a failed vote in last month’s House Armed Services Committee markup, this week House Democrats plan to file amendments to legislation that would delay an endangered species listing for the greater sage-grouse. Many conservationists feel strongly that a listing decision, which would have wholescale impacts upon energy development in the West and its regional economy, could be avoided if additional state and federal resources were invested in proactive conservation measures promoting sustainable population growth. So far, the immediacy of a September listing deadline has driven unprecedented collaboration to bring these birds back from the brink.

The House Rules Committee will meet this week to decide if the amendment filed by Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass) to block a delay of the decision will be allowed a floor vote.

Clean Water Rule Could Be Dammed

Sometime this week, members of the House are expected to attack the controversial Waters of the U.S. rule, which would clarify protections for headwaters and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The House spending bill, which was introduced last week and will almost assuredly pass through the chamber, featured a policy rider which would block the clean water rule in fiscal year 2016.

The rule also faces an uphill battle in the Senate where John Barrasso (R-WY) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) have filed legislation to prevent its passage.

Also This Week:

Wednesday, May 12

House mark-up of fiscal 2016 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies appropriations bill

Appropriations Committee

 

Senate Hearing on BLM fiscal 2016 budget

Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies

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Kristyn Brady

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May 8, 2015

Grand Junction BLM Plan Creates New Backcountry Zone, Falls Short in Other Ways

The Bureau of Land Management’s Grand Junction Field Office recently issued its final Resource Management Plan (RMP) that will direct management activities on 1.2 million acres of public lands in northwest Colorado over the next 20 years. The resource area provides for a wide range of recreational use, including a wealth of hunting and angling opportunities. Sportsmen in the Grand Valley and throughout the state were involved in commenting on the draft plan and, while they’ll find some improvement in the final RMP, there was hope for stronger conservation measures for wildlife and sportsmen’s access.

One of the improvements to the Grand Junction plan is the creation of the Bangs Primitive Backcountry Zone, which will maintain opportunities and access for big-game hunters. The area contains critical habitat for desert bighorn sheep, including lamb-rearing areas and winter range. “It’s great to see safeguards in place that give this herd the space they need to raise young and wait out the winter in lower elevation areas,” says Terry Meyers, president of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society. “Four lucky hunters will draw a ram tag this year and have the opportunity to take a desert bighorn in this beautiful landscape. The Bangs Backcountry Zone will help keep this opportunity open to the next generation of sportsmen.”

Image courtesy of Nick Payne.

A coalition of more than 300 sportsmen’s groups and businesses is working to conserve key intact and undeveloped backcountry BLM lands across the West through individual land-use plans that benefit habitat, sportsmen, and local communities. “Hunters and anglers are seeing some positive results for managing backcountry areas through local BLM land-use plans, and the Bangs Canyon area in Grand Junction is a good example,” says Montrose resident Doug Clowers, a member of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “These achievements are positive and a good, but a small step toward a more consistent approach from the BLM on how backcountry lands are managed from one plan to the next.”

The Grand Junction office will also manage 10 areas specifically for wildlife habitat through the use of Wildlife Emphasis Areas (WEA), but reactions from sportsmen have been mixed on this provision of the final plan. “The WEA concept is a great attempt to conserve important habitat for wildlife species, like mule deer and elk, but some areas lack adequate safeguards,” says Nick Payne, Colorado field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Without strong conservation measures for all of these areas, there is a risk that some WEAs could be fragmented by development, diminishing their value for wildlife.”

The BLM will be instituting a landscape-level master leasing plan for over 700,000 acres that will be managed for oil and gas development. Part of this master leasing plan encompasses the High Lonesome Ranch, where sportsmen are working on a project to demonstrate how oil and gas can be responsibly developed with the conservation of important fish and wildlife habitat in mind. “The Grand Junction field office made a positive step forward by including the master leasing plan in the proposed RMP,” says Ed Arnett, the TRCP’s senior scientist. “The success of the master leasing plan ultimately lies in its implementation, and we look forward to working with the BLM to ensure that energy development is balanced with the needs of fish and wildlife habitat as the planning process moves closer to the actual disturbance on the ground.”

Read the final EIS here.
Protests may be filed through May 11, 2015.

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.

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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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