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June 8, 2015

Glassing The Hill: June 8 – 12

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

The Senate and House will be in session from Monday through Friday.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

The forecast calls for 100 degrees in Washington later this week, and things are heating up in Congress, as well. On Wednesday, the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee will mark up their annual spending bill for many of the agencies in charge of natural resources management. In April, the House Appropriations Committee advanced fiscal year 2016 spending legislation that provided only $30.17 billion for the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Forest Service, and the EPA—that’s a $246-million cut from current spending levels. This will undoubtedly have negative impacts over the agencies who have been forced to work with increasingly shrinking budgets.

The Obama administration, who requested a 6-percent increase for EPA and an additional 8 percent for the Department of the Interior, has issued a veto threat on any spending plan that does not provide fair funding levels. This gap could result in another government shutdown in the coming months. Other looming threats: harmful policy riders that would undermine conservation initiatives and target the President’s climate change efforts.

Getting Around to Farm Bill Programs

On Thursday, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry will hold a hearing on Farm Bill implementation. Members and panelists will discuss the implementation of vital programs designed to encourage farmers to employ more conservation-friendly practices in environmentally-sensitive areas. The Department of Agriculture is still taking formal comments under consideration as it releases its rules for the programs.

Among the programs being discussed are the Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and Conservation Reserve Program. Quail Forever’s Director of Field Operations Jim Inglis is expected to testify and discuss the Conservation Reserve Program, Regional Conservation Partnerships, and viable implementation strategies. On May 29, the USDA announced that an additional 800,000 acres would be eligible for enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program and earmarked for lands with duck nesting habitat, wetland restoration initiatives, and state acres for wildlife enhancement (SAFE). However, Farm Bill supporters have been otherwise unimpressed by the roll-out of these critical programs.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

New Wave of Threats

Despite the historic release of the EPA and Army Corps of Engineer’s final rule that would clarify protections outlined in the Clean Water Act and protect over 20 million acres of wetlands, opponents of the “Waters of the U.S.” rule have not given up. This week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will markup Senator John Barrasso’s S.1140 which would force the administration to start over and craft another plan that would achieve the same ends.

The bill has strong support from the agricultural community and private industries that feel the rule is a gross federal overstep. The conservation and environmental communities remain in support of the rule, as do 80 scientists, who recently submitted a letter opposing S.1140. The bill will likely pass through the GOP-led committee, but it may face an uphill battle to acquire the necessary votes.

The legislative text can be found here.

This Week in Full:

Tuesday, June 9

Senate Hearing on energy reform and accountability

Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Wednesday, June 10      

House Hearing on WRRDA implementation, one year into enactment

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee

House Hearing on impact of Executive Order 13658 on public lands outfitters and guides

Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Interior

House Markup of fiscal 2016 Interior-EPA appropriations bill

Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee

Senate Markup of S. 1140, Federal Water Quality Protection Act

Senate Environment and Public Works

Senate Legislative hearing on the National Park System

Energy and Natural Resources

Thursday, June 11

House Hearing on farm bill conservation programs

Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry

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June 1, 2015

Glassing the Hill: June 1-5

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

The Senate will be in session from Monday through Thursday. The House will be in session from Monday through Friday. 

ICYMI, last week, the conservation community celebrated a major win for the protection of wetlands, headwaters, tributaries, prairie potholes, and other water resources. The EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced the passage of a long-awaited rule which clarifies and expands protections for wetlands and waterways under the Clean Water Act. The clean water rule was signed despite heated resistance in both the House and Senate. To learn more about this historic development, click here.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

This week, the Senate committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship will mark up its resolution on elements of the rule, and its effect on business, while a House committee discusses the impact of EPA regulations on businesses. BTW, hunters and anglers have some weight to throw around in the economy vs water protection conversation: The clean water rule will bolster the $646-billion outdoor recreation economy by protecting habitat heavily relied upon by wildlife, outdoor businesses, and local communities.

In other water news, this Tuesday a Senate committee will hear testimony on Western drought conditions and what states are doing to address them. Details can be found here.

Fisheries Management Act Won’t Be Easy to Land

This week, the House will consider a measure that would make significant changes to fisheries management language in the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), H.R. 1335 would not only end a 10-year limit in place for rebuilding fish stocks, but would alleviate catch requirements that apply to various species. It would also reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act which expired in 2013.

This legislation will not have an easy path forward. With support already divided along party lines, it will face an uphill climb in both the House and Senate. The White House has also issued a veto threat, further clouding its future. The conservation and fisheries community are also divided in their opinions toward the bill. Last week, former heads of the National Marine Fisheries Service wrote a letter to House leadership urging them to resist the measure.

The legislative text can be found here.

Healthier Forests, Less Time in Court

In a hearing to be held on Wednesday, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands will examine a discussion draft that would expedite the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process, which currently calls for thorough assessments of forestry projects to measure for potential harmful natural impacts, but also makes the agency vulnerable to costly, time-consuming lawsuits. The goal of the bill, titled “Returning Resilience to our Overgrown, Fire-prone National Forests Act of 2015,” introduced by Chairman Tom McClintock (R-CA), Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) and Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), is to enable the U.S. Forest Service to complete additional timber projects faster and with less interference due to litigation.

Advocates of this legislation argue that an expedited NEPA review process would not only improve forest health nationwide, but also severely reduce the long-term risk of wildfires and the rising suppression costs that have crippled the Forest Service for the past few years. But many oppose the bill, saying that it could create a snowball effect that would allow for dramatic increases in forestry and timber projects with little concern for environmental impacts.

You can find more information on the hearing here.

This Week in Full:

Monday, June 1

House Meeting to set rules for floor debate on Transportation and Commerce appropriations bills Rules

Tuesday, June 2

House Hearing on the QER and energy bill discussion drafts

Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power

House Hearing on OSMRE’s stream protection rule

Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations

Senate Markup of resolution on the Waters of the U.S. rule

Small Business and Entrepreneurship

Senate Hearing on Western drought

Energy and Natural Resources

Wednesday, June 3           

Senate Hearing on energy bill efficiency and accountability title

House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power

Senate Hearing on draft forestry legislation

Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands

Thursday, June 4

House Hearing on the effects of U.S. EPA regulations on business

House Science, Space, and Technology

Ariel Wiegard

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May 29, 2015

Good Call: New Conservation Reserve Program Acres Will Enhance Duck Habitat in a Big Way

Today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that an additional 800,000 acres will be eligible for enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a Farm Bill initiative that has allowed agriculture producers to voluntarily conserve environmentally sensitive land—including prime wildlife habitat—for 30 years. Vilsack revealed this big boost to CRP, which he called “one of most successful conservation programs in the history of the country,” during his remarks to hunters and conservationists at the Ducks Unlimited National Convention in Milwaukee, Wis.

Image courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The backdrop is fitting, since 300,000 of these additional acres will be devoted to lands with duck nesting habitat, potentially doubling CRP acres that can benefit ducks in the future. The remaining acres will be split: 100,000 to wetland restoration initiatives and 400,000 to state acres for wildlife enhancement (SAFE)—all good news for sportsmen. For its part, Ducks Unlimited was recognized by Vilsack for leading three separate USDA projects resulting in an overall investment of $25.8 million in conservation efforts across the country.

Vilsack also announced that a general sign-up period would begin in December 2015 to get the ball rolling on CRP enrollment, to which supporters of the program are saying, It’s about time. There hasn’t been a general sign-up since 2013, and more than 15 months after passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, regulation of CRP has been lacking. Enrollment was 1.7 million acres below the prescribed enrollment cap as of April 2015, with contracts for an additional 1.9 million acres set to expire on September 30.

The TRCP has been working closely with our partners in the sportsmen’s and wildlife community, USDA, and Congress to advance many aspects of the program that were addressed by Vilsack’s remarks today. Our Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group galvanized the 12 Senators who sent this letter to the Secretary, calling for a general sign-up to support full enrollment of CRP. And we’re very eager to see USDA complete implementation of the program, including the delayed rollout of a new CRP working grasslands enrollment option, which the department has said to expect later this summer.

For a program that, in just three decades, has grown to 32 times its original acreage and continues to facilitate on-the-ground conservation that strengthens rural economies, we’re expecting great things from CRP. With proper support, this important program can flourish like the wildlife and habitat it benefits.

Kristyn Brady

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May 28, 2015

BLM looks to new landscape plans to enhance sage grouse conservation efforts

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took a critical step forward in ensuring the future of the greater sage grouse today, when the agency released plans to amend nearly 100 resource management plans (RMPs) across the West to benefit the bird. The reveal of 14 environmental impact statements comes after years of federal, state, and local stakeholders working to better protect sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species while allowing for energy development, livestock grazing, and recreation.

Image courtesy of Department of Interior.

The plans announced today take a landscape-scale approach that builds off initiatives like Wyoming’s core area strategy. Improvements include measures to minimize new and additional surface disturbance, enhance habitat, and reduce threats from rangeland fires. In the very best remaining sage-grouse habitat, mining activities will be prohibited. No surface disturbance will be permitted in most priority habitat and landscape surface disturbance caps will go into effect in other areas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to decide whether to list the range-wide population of greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by September 30. The looming deadline has inspired unprecedented coordination among federal agencies, states, private landowners, and numerous other stakeholders. The BLM and the U.S. Forest Service manage nearly two-thirds of remaining sage-grouse habitat. Sportsmen’s groups are applauding the BLM’s new approach and support federal efforts on public lands as a vital foundation for the range-wide conservation of the species.

“The BLM should be commended for their work on these plans and today’s release is yet another step  in the right direction for sage grouse, sagebrush ecosystems, and the stakeholders committed to balancing conservation with other uses of the land to achieve a positive outcome,” says Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “These federal plans, combined with strong state plans and contributions from private landowners through the Sage Grouse Initiative, and other efforts, will hopefully set us up for success in the form of a ‘not warranted’ decision on the listing in September.”

In order to reach this decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires regulatory assurances and conservation measures grounded in the best available science that the agency can ultimately defend in court. “While we still need to review the details, the revised plans appear to have improved the conservation measures and assurances needed to prevent the listing,” says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Ultimately, the decision to list the range-wide population will end up in a federal court, and the BLM has taken a positive step forward by producing plans that hopefully can be defensible to a judge.”

As the BLM finalizes their efforts on federal lands, Western states continue working on their own efforts for state and private lands. Some, like Wyoming, have had a strategy in place for years and have already begun implementing conservation measures. Other states have yet to finalize their approach to sage-grouse conservation. “We need the states to finalize their own plans to complement strong federal efforts and keep the momentum and collaboration going,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We also need Congress to step up to the plate by funding the federal agencies for long-term implementation and success rather than promoting delays to the process.”

Whether these RMP revisions will be enough to reverse declining sage-grouse habitat and population trends remains to be seen. “The bottom line comes down to implementation of the BLM plans and commitments to sagebrush ecosystem conservation that will actually improve sage-grouse populations,” says Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “We not only need strong conservation plans but also strong commitments and funding to ensure the plans manifest into real conservation actions and long-term improvements on the ground.”

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May 20, 2015

It’s a lot more than “The Big Empty”

The sagebrush steppe of the western U.S. stretches for hundreds of thousands of miles across 11 states. This massive ecosystem often goes overlooked and is frequently dismissed as “The Big Empty.”

But there’s more going on in this vast landscape than meets the eye. More than 350 plants and animals, including huge herds of pronghorn and mule deer, call the sagebrush home. The highlight of this menagerie is one iconic and somewhat peculiar bird: the greater sage-grouse.

Image courtesy of USFWS Mountain-Prairie.

The folks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and PBS have teamed up to produce “The Sagebrush Sea,” a documentary that profiles the greater sage-grouse and the other species that call the sagebrush home.

PBS Nature has posted this full-length documentary online. Check out all 53 minutes of “The Sagebrush Sea” and learn more about one of the greatest conservation challenges of this era.

Watch the full-length episode right here.

Or check out this full length trailer from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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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