Starting Tuesday, the Senate will be in session, and the House begins legislative business on Wednesday.
Congress continues to debate President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, and a scant eight legislative days remain before Congress needs to agree on funding legislation to keep the government from shutting down on October 1. Controversy involving Planned Parenthood funding continues to delay budget talks and compromise, and neither the House nor the Senate are slated to consider funding legislation this week. That leaves Congress just three working days in the last week of September to reach a funding agreement. A short-term continuing resolution seems likely, but the obstacles to such an agreement are still high. September 30 will also see the expiration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
On the Floor:
The Senate will continue consideration of the President’s Iran agreement.
Starting Wednesday, the House will consider three bills: Rep. Black’s (R-TN) H.R. 3134 to prohibit Planned Parenthood from receiving federal funds for a year; Rep. Smith (R-TX)’s H.R. 758 to provide more oversight over attorneys; and Rep. Franks’ bill regarding abortion laws.
The letter urges Congress to continue to allow the fund—which is supported by off-shore gas royalties, not taxpayer dollars—to provide quality places for Americans to hunt and fish, thereby helping to grow an outdoor recreation economy that currently provides millions of jobs and drives $646 billion into local communities each year.
“It is up to those of us who care deeply about these resources, and depend on them for our businesses, to demand that Congress reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” says John LeCoq, founder and CEO of fishing brands Fishpond and Lilypond in Colorado. “The diverse landscape of America personifies our nation, and we have a responsibility to protect and enhance the natural resources from which we draw so much inspiration. Both sides of the aisle should be able to see that the LWCF is a tool that makes economic sense and that fish, wildlife, and future generations will continue to benefit from it.”
Since its inception in 1964, the LWCF has been used to invest over $16 billion in conservation and outdoor recreation, including the establishment of new public fishing areas, new access into landlocked and checkerboarded parcels of public lands, and the acquisition of new public lands for the benefit of fish, wildlife, and the sporting public.
“The success of our company depends on the ability of everyday American sportsmen to be able to find quality places to hunt,” says Ryan Callaghan, marketing manager with First Lite, a hunting clothing manufacturer based out of Ketchum, Idaho. “The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a success story in funding conservation and access and in providing quality opportunities for sportsmen to hunt on public lands. If you hunt, hike, fish, or birdwatch, you want the LWCF reauthorized as soon as possible.”
“Where conservation so often loses out in the federal budget, it wins big in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, without being a burden on taxpayers,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the group responsible for spearheading the business letter. “Congress has enough to debate before the end of the fiscal year. Reauthorization of this successful program should be a no-brainer.”
A New Incentive to Keep Hooves on the Ground and Grassland Habitat Intact
Grassland bird populations in America—including northern bobwhite quail, ring-necked pheasants, lesser prairie chickens, upland nesting waterfowl, wild turkeys, and others—are facing a conservation crisis. There simply isn’t enough habitat.
It wasn’t always this way. For much of our history, grassland birds lived in harmony with farmers, ranchers, and foresters, taking advantage of hedgerows and grazing lands. Even before that, birds coexisted with native grazers like bison, which naturally maintained the plains. But over the last several decades, aggressive farm policies, surging land and crop prices, and modern technologies have driven producers to favor planting row crops—or selling their land to developers—rather than leaving their land in grass-based agriculture. As a result, over 70 percent of our nation’s grasslands have been lost. This dramatic shift has raised serious concerns that grassland ecosystems, and the species they support, could be at risk.
That’s why we’re excited to report that the USDA is currently accepting applications for a new, nationwide Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Grasslands initiative, which incorporates elements of the old Grasslands Reserve Program, repealed in 2014. The agency is looking for farmers and ranchers who wish to conserve working grasslands, rangelands, and pasturelands, while maintaining the areas as livestock grazing lands. The CRP-Grasslands program will provide rental payments and cost-share assistance to producers as incentive to keep native grasslands intact. And unlike other CRP lands, these enrollments do not require a cropping history.
This is especially good news for livestock producers, who are increasingly concerned about the declining availability of grassland. According to the South Dakota Grassland Coalition, their state lost more than 200,000 beef cows in response to the growth of other industries, like corn and soybeans, in the last 12 years. Since each cow requires and provides economic justification for about eight acres of grassland, that means that in just over a decade 1.6 million acres of South Dakota grasslands stopped supporting beef and are now likely planted with row crops.
Considering the importance of South Dakota’s prairie habitat to pheasant and duck populations, that should sound an alarm among sportsmen: No cows = No grass = No birds!
A recent drop in crop prices and high prices for beef cattle have helped to slow the conversion of grassland to cropland, but farmland economics are complex and the situation could reverse at any time. It’s important that cattle ranchers and conservationists take advantage of programs like CRP-Grasslands that will help keep these native landscapes intact.
Although the incentives aren’t huge (and they vary across the country), CRP-Grasslands may help to level the playing field by allowing landowners two chances to earn revenue on each acre: once through CRP, and again when renting their land for grazing or when cattle go to market. For some—whether on an expansive Dakota ranch or on a few Maryland acres supporting bobwhite quail—this could mean the difference between producing cattle or corn.
There’s also a third potential source of income associated with the new program, and this is where things get exciting for hunters of grassland-based wildlife: Landowners with grassland habitat can often open their properties for recreation, bringing economic benefits to their local communities in the process. Sportsmen, private landowners, and rural economies all win when habitat is improved and sustainable.
This year, CRP is turning 30. It has been one of the most successful soil, water, and wildlife conservation programs in the history of the country, and one of the largest available to private landowners. But CRP is shrinking—currently 24 million acres are enrolled, down from a high of 37 million just a few years ago. CRP works for sportsmen, but it also has to work for farmers and ranchers in order to remain viable. We hope that the CRP-Grasslands initiative will help balance the needs of the farm and rural communities with the needs of fish and wildlife, and provide better opportunities for sportsmen to access private lands in the process.
In an increasingly crowded and pay-to-play world, America’s 640 million acres of public lands – including our national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands–have become the nation’s mightiest hunting and fishing strongholds. This is especially true in the West, where according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 72 percent of sportsmen depend on access to public lands for hunting. Without these vast expanses of prairie and sagebrush, foothills and towering peaks, the traditions of hunting and fishing as we have known them for the past century would be lost. Gone also would be a very basic American value: the unique and abundant freedom we’ve known for all of us, rich and poor and in-between, to experience our undeveloped and wild spaces, natural wonders, wildlife and waters, and the assets that have made life and citizenship in our country the envy of the world.
In Part Seven of our series, we head west to Central Oregon.
For early conservation pioneers like President Theodore Roosevelt, strenuous lives spent in the outdoors, with room to hunt and fish, were key elements of the American experience and essential to a strong and engaged citizenry. Nowhere in America is a strenuous outdoor life more accessible than in the heart of Oregon, in Deschutes River country. This major tributary of the Columbia River on the east side of the Cascade Range wanders north through basalt cliff canyons and offers world-class fishing and hunting to anyone willing to access the river canyon through public lands.
Prime mule deer hunting and upland bird hunting for chukar partridge make the BLM lands here a year-round destination for outdoorsmen and women. Anglers come from all over the world to fish for the “redsides,” a variety of powerful redband trout. Steelheaders, oblivious to cold water and rain, or the thousands of casts it takes to hook into these powerful fish, flock here from near and far. Steelheading doesn’t get much better than on the Deschutes.
This kind of habitat health and access wouldn’t have been possible without the establishment of public lands early on. The Deschutes River is born in Little Lava Lake, which is found in the 1.8-million-acre Deschutes National Forest, protected since 1908. Access is a given here, with much of the lower Deschutes managed by the BLM as a designated Wild and Scenic River, with multiple campgrounds for fishermen, whitewater rafters, and anyone else who wants to follow some very simple rules in order to experience the river.
Oregonians seem to appreciate and celebrate the tradition of public lands, but the takeover fever that has gripped some Western politicians (even if it has not gripped Westerners themselves) is here, too. In 2014, the Klamath County Board of County Commissioners announced that they would be “the tip of the spear” in supporting the Transfer of Public Lands Act, state legislation that originated in Utah and demands that federal public lands be transferred to individual states. Then, four different bills that were designed to seize or undermine America’s public lands legacy were introduced during the Oregon 2015 legislative season.
Knowing that the state has already sold all but 776,000 acres of the 3.4 million acres it was granted upon attaining statehood, hunters and anglers stepped up to put a stop to these harmful bills. Oregon’s ranching interests weren’t friendly to these efforts, either—the current grazing fee on Oregon state lands is seven times more than the federal charge.
Rivers like the Deschutes, with its headwaters in Oregon’s high elk country, do not exist anywhere else on earth. If these public resources were sold off, they would bring a premium price. The loss would be felt by all Americans who once had unfettered access to some of the world’s finest hunting and fishing and the lifestyle that went with it. That’s why sportsmen will continue to send a message to decision makers that we won’t stand for proposals aimed at limiting our outdoor opportunities.
Stay tuned. In the rest of this 10-part series, we’ll continue to cover some of America’s finest hunting and fishing destinations that could be permanently seized from the public if politicians have their way.
The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress
Both the House and Senate return from the Labor Day holiday and a month-long stay in members’ home states.
After spending the month of August in their districts, members of Congress return to what will likely be a flurry of deadline-driven activity through the end of the year. Discussion of President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran will take up much of the floor time for the first half of September.
Meanwhile, only 12 legislative days remain for Congress to reach a funding agreement and keep the government from shutting down when this Fiscal Year ends on September 30. It seems likely that a short-term continuing resolution (CR) will be passed to fund the government, although politics around the Planned Parenthood scandal could complicate that path forward. Passage of a CR would likely set up an end-of-year debate on a longer-term omnibus appropriations agreement—a bill to combine many small appropriations bills, requiring just one vote in each chamber.
Other things facing a September 30, or end-of-fiscal-year, deadline: Reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and a court-mandated decision on whether to list the greater sage grouse for Endangered Species Act protection. Tick tock.
The Week in Full
Wednesday, September 9 Animas River Spill – House Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing on “Holding EPA accountable for polluting Western waters”
Friday, September 11 Federal Facility Cleanup – House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy hearing on the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
Energy Reform – House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on the Environment hearing on EPA Clean Power Plan
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.