Kristyn Brady

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posted in: General

December 16, 2015

Congress Boosts Conservation Funding, Commits to Habitat and Access Programs in End-of-Year Spending Bill

Funding for Environment and Interior is up, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is in, but a much-needed fix for fire borrowing is out

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Overnight, Congressional leadership unveiled a bipartisan omnibus appropriations bill that includes some important investments in habitat and sportsmen’s access. The must-pass legislation, which is necessary to avoid a government shutdown, will move forward quickly after weeks of intense negotiating.

Image courtesy of Craig Pennington/Flickr.

Sportsmen and women should be pleased to see:

  • $32.158 billion allocated for Interior and Environment—a 6-percent increase over FY2015, which includes boosts for the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management.
  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund reauthorized through 2018, with $450 million appropriated for FY2016, an increase of more than $100 million over the FY2015 level.
  • $5.77 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), or $324.6 million more than FY2015, with increases for coastal science and assessment.
  • No rider to undermine protections for headwater streams and wetlands.
  • No rider to delay or defund conservation plans meant to keep the greater sage grouse off the endangered species list.
  • No rider to block the Clean Power Plan, an effort to reduce carbon emissions from current and future power generation.
  • Permanent authorization for an incentive to create conservation easements on private lands.

But, not this major blow to conservation:

  • No fix for fire borrowing, which continues to strain Forest Service budgets and prevent routine maintenance of national public lands.

The most important function of an omnibus appropriations bill is to set funding levels for priority programs. The package currently before Congress allows a recommitment to key conservation initiatives that matter to sportsmen, including many programs that represent a great dollar-for-dollar investment.

“Our community has pressed for a comprehensive budget deal like this one since July 2015, and we are pleased to see that this bill makes key investments in conservation,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Overall, this reflects a commitment to natural resources conservation and sportsmen’s access as essential elements of a strong outdoor recreation economy.”

Although negotiations were extended, lawmakers failed to achieve a policy fix for fire borrowing, the financially destructive way we fund wildfire suppression, which hunters and anglers have been demanding for years. “This is a tremendous missed opportunity, which perpetuates a legacy of fiscal mismanagement with profound national costs,” says Fosburgh.

Congress has included a three-year reauthorization of the expired Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which has been one of the country’s most important tools for conserving fish and wildlife habitat for the past 50 years. “While this isn’t the permanent reauthorization that sportsmen and women have been advocating for, we can all support the fact that this action puts LWCF back on solid footing in the near-term—especially with $450 million allocated,” adds Fosburgh. “Rest assured that the TRCP will continue to work with champions on the Hill to get LWCF back on the books permanently.”

Sportsmen have every right to be pleased that language that would weaken sage grouse conservation plans and the Clean Water Act were left out of this bill. “Sportsmen made their case clear on policy riders aimed at undoing so much good groundwork for sagebrush country, headwater streams, and wetlands: These would be poison pills for the sporting community—simply untenable,” says Steve Kline, TRCP Director of Government Relations. “Those voices were heard on Capitol Hill, and as such, this omnibus is free from the most-damaging of riders.”

The bill also makes permanent an incentive for farmers and ranchers to donate conservation easements. This provision will greatly expand private lands conservation across the country.

The TRCP and its partners have been calling for appropriators to support investments in conservation since July 2015, and this group applauds Congressional leaders—House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid—for their work on this package over the past several weeks. Hunters and anglers look forward to seeing it passed by Congress and signed by the president.

Follow the TRCP for the latest news on how Congress plans to pay for conservation in 2016.

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Kristyn Brady

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posted in: General

December 15, 2015

DOI is Looking for Better Ways to Pay for Epic Conservation Efforts

Establishment of the Natural Resource Investment Center will make federal dollars go further for fish and wildlife

This morning, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that her department will establish a Natural Resource Investment Center, an initiative meant to spur public-private partnerships that will help increase investments in water conservation, habitat improvements, and critical water infrastructure. One of the Center’s primary objectives will be to facilitate water exchange in the Western U.S. in partnership with local, state, and tribal governments—an idea championed by sportsmen and women in recommendations to federal agencies following the White House Drought Symposium in July.

Image courtesy of Joel Webster.

“I commend Sec. Jewell for creating the Natural Resource Investment Center to bring about more collaboration and identify new, non-federal funding sources that make existing investments in conservation go even further,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, one of the organizations responsible for this summer’s White House Drought Symposium and a set of drought recommendations endorsed by hunting and angling groups. “Clearly, the administration is taking the concerns of hunters and anglers seriously and responding to the increasing threat of drought in the United States. I’d urge decision-makers to continue working with sportsmen and women, the original conservationists, on the drought solutions we’ve proposed, which are aimed at providing water to cities and farms without sacrificing the needs of fish and wildlife.”

Scott Yates, director of Trout Unlimited’s Western Water and Habitat program, issued the following statement in response to Jewell’s announcement: “We are pleased that the administration is giving water stakeholders in the West more tools for creatively responding to the challenges of drought and a changing climate. These challenges present tremendous opportunities to modernize our infrastructure and manage demand in ways that add flexibility to our water systems while promoting healthy river flows and fish habitat.”

In a press release, the Department of the Interior listed one example of the type of creative partnerships the Center hopes to identify: An investment in enhancing greater sage grouse habitat in Nevada, made possible by DOI, Barrick Gold of North America, and The Nature Conservancy. “Though the greater sage grouse was not listed for Endangered Species Act protection this fall, full implementation of federal, state, and voluntary conservation plans is absolutely critical and cannot be compromised,” says Fosburgh. “So, we’re grateful that the Center will focus on these types of creative solutions to effect landscape-level conservation for this bird and other species.”

The Center is part of President Obama’s Build America Investment Initiative, which “calls on federal agencies to find new ways to increase investment in ports, roads, water and sewer systems, bridges, broadband networks, and other 21st-century infrastructure projects.” To learn more about the Natural Resource Investment Center, visit doi.gov.

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posted in: General

December 14, 2015

Glassing the Hill: December 14 – 18

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

The Senate and House will be in session until lawmakers can send an omnibus funding and tax extenders package to the president’s desk. If all goes well, the House will return on Tuesday, January 5, and the Senate will reconvene on Monday, January 11.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

It’s all about the omnibus, baby. Congressional leaders were unable to negotiate a spending bill before their December 11 deadline last week, so another short-term continuing resolution (CR) was passed to avoid a government shutdown. Their new omnibus deadline is Wednesday, December 16.

Appropriators and leaders continue to hash out possible policy riders that will be included in this end-of-the year budget deal. Sportsmen remain strongly opposed to defunding implementation for the Clean Water Rule or sage-grouse conservation plans, but support provisions to end fire borrowing, achieve modest forest reform, and reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The omnibus spending bill language should be available to the public early this week, perhaps even today. Without action on a yearlong deal, Congress will face the prospect of another short-term extension—and an even shorter holiday break.

Walk Softly. Tweet Loudly.

You can still make an impact on the omnibus negotiations, by tweeting your lawmakers about one of the most vulnerable would-be victims of a bad policy rider—the greater sage grouse. Check out our new Twitter Action Tool, which puts you in touch with Congress at the click of a button.

Steve Kline

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posted in: General

December 10, 2015

Wheeling and Dealing: What You Need to Know About Spending Bill Negotiations

In my college days, when the world seemed to revolve around duck hunting and beer, my academic motto might have been: There is no minute like the last minute. In what I suspect was not a unique situation, I would regularly wait until just hours before a major assignment to get down to business. Having spent the last decade on Capitol Hill, I can confidently say that Congress is motivated in the same kind of way.

Deadlines have become the sine qua non of 21st century Washington. Without them, Congress can be counted on to achieve very little of real substance, but with a deadline bearing down on them, Congress can often be counted on to engage in a flurry of productivity. But, unlike most procrastinating college students, Congress can—and does—extend their deadlines.

Image courtesy of Craig Pennington/Flickr.

The latest batch of Congressional negotiations are going on right now over an omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2016, otherwise known as the legislation that will keep the government funded and functioning through October 2016. Like so much that moves through the federal legislature, there’s an opportunity for some very good things to happen, as well as some very bad things, and the TRCP is on the front lines making sure sportsmen’s conservation priorities are well heard. Here’s what we’re parrying for and against:

No-Brainer: Conservation Funding

Any appropriations bill needs to properly fund the conservation programs that sportsmen care about most, like the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the State Wildlife Grants Program, and healthy land-management budgets at the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Forest Service. Funding is the whole purpose of an omnibus appropriations bill, so Congress has to get those right for sportsmen.

Keep These Riders Off the ‘Bus

Because Congress only has so many must-pass legislative vehicles—see what we did there?—like this one, it seems that everyone in Washington is trying to get some policy priority tacked on to catch a ride to the president’s desk. TRCP thinks that some of these potential additions, including a long-awaited fix for the financially-backwards practice of fire borrowing and a potential reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, are good things that we’d support. But adding language to delay sagebrush conservation on national public lands or to undo the Clean Water Act rulemaking that protects headwater streams and wetlands would be a non-starter, and as such, we’ve strongly opposed their inclusion. We won’t support any deal that sells out years’ worth of sportsmen’s efforts to achieve good conservation outcomes.

Pull Up a Chair

One of my favorite quotes, “If you aren’t at the table, you are on the menu,” is particularly apt as this budget negotiation plods towards what we hope is a positive conclusion. TRCP and many of our partners are at the negotiating table around the clock at this time of year, advocating for what works for America’s hunters and anglers, and opposing what doesn’t. Rest assured you’ll hear more from us in the days ahead.

Ariel Wiegard

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posted in: General

December 9, 2015

The Undeniable Upland Benefits of Habitat Conservation on Farms and Ranches

Why CRP works for pheasants and quail

The national Conservation Reserve Program is 30! The CRP was signed into law by President Reagan as part of the Farm Bill on December 23, 1985, to help agricultural producers to voluntarily conserve soil, water, and wildlife. The TRCP and our partners will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of CRP throughout the month of December and into 2016, by highlighting the successes of this popular bipartisan program—regarded by many as the greatest private lands conservation initiative in U.S. history. Here on our blog, we’ll devote a series of posts to the critters that have seen tremendous habitat benefits: upland birds, waterfowl, forest dwellers, and freshwater fish. CRP works for wildlife, and it works for sportsmen.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to sportsmen in this country. This is especially true in the midwestern, eastern, and southern states, where vast amounts of public lands aren’t available to provide habitat for game species. Many hunters and anglers rely on the generosity of private landowners who allow outdoor recreation on their property. Even if you have all the access you need, a landowner’s decision to either maintain habitat or convert land for crops dramatically affects wildlife and your experiences afield.

According to one report, 11 out of 19 non-migratory game birds in the U.S. depend on private lands for more than 50 percent of their habitat. For seven of these species, 80 percent of the population resides on private lands—the Northern bobwhite quail is a perfect example, with 97 percent located on private lands.

So how can we maintain sustainable populations, for the sake of the birds and our sports? Enter the Conservation Reserve Program.

CRP Equals Habitat

America’s rural landscape changed dramatically in the latter half of the 20th century, as urban areas sprawled and farm technology became more sophisticated. In the Prairie Pothole Region, for instance, 60 to 90 percent of original native grasslands have been lost to agriculture and other development. As a result, we’ve seen equally dramatic declines in upland bird populations. Some estimates show a 15-percent annual decline in upland bird numbers until 1986, the first year that farmers and ranchers were eligible to enroll lands in the CRP.

Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

Since that time, upland bird population declines have thankfully slowed or even reversed, due to the reestablishment of habitat on private lands. In pheasant country, Nebraska only showed a 5-percent annual population decline following the introduction of CRP, and in Iowa, pheasant numbers increased 30 percent in the first five years of the program. Through 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture associated a 4-percent annual increase in CRP acreage with a 22-percent increase in pheasant counts. And at the height of CRP’s enrollment in 2006 to 2008, 32 million acres nationwide were credited with producing pheasant numbers unmatched since the 1960s.

Around the same time that CRP peaked, in 2004 the USDA made a new category of lands eligible for the program: habitat buffers for upland birds. Where pheasants benefit from a wide range of conservation practices, including whole-field CRP enrollments and planted food plots, bobwhite quail can do very well in small, 30- to 120-foot-wide strips of buffer habitat, generally placed on marginal or less productive farmland. These buffers often represent an insignificant change for landowners (as little as 5 percent of a farm operation), but they can also provide important nesting, brood rearing, and escape cover for upland species, and serve as travel corridors between fragmented habitat areas. A National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative study estimates that this new CRP initiative added 30,000 coveys to the landscape each year from 2006 to 2011, or approximately 1.5 bobwhites per acre of native grassland enrolled in the program. Compared to their small average enrollment size, these buffers can have an exponentially positive impact on wildlife.

Conservation is Part of a Business Plan

It’s clear that when farmers and landowners enroll in the program, CRP works for upland birds. But as recent history shows, the future viability of pheasants, quail, and other upland species is also closely tied to the economic viability of the program as agricultural markets fluctuate.

Almost immediately after CRP hit a 36.8-million-acre peak in 2007, prices for commodities like corn and soybeans skyrocketed, and so did land values. Landowners exited the CRP in droves to take advantage of the strong agricultural market, and upland bird populations once again began to fall. In the heart of pheasant country, CRP declined by 5.5 million acres between 2006 and 2012; pheasant populations simultaneously dropped by almost half, from 5.7 million birds to just 2.9 million.

To be fair, other upland species didn’t take the same hit—bobwhite quail populations have continued to improve in some areas since the creation of the buffer habitat program a decade ago. Some of the decline in pheasants can also be attributed to periods of harsh weather, but these are hearty birds that have proven they can withstand a Dakota winter—if habitat is available.

Whether USDA will have acres available to turn into habitat, however, is an ongoing concern for wildlife advocates and sportsmen. The CRP was cut in the last Farm Bill from 32 million acres to 24 million acres per year in response to high crop prices and a tight federal budget. But lawmakers—including Senator Pat Roberts, the current chairman of the Senate Agriculture committee, and Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee during the last Farm Bill debate—have expressed concern that the budget alone had a greater impact on the program than it should have. Commodity prices are now leveling off and conservation programs are once again becoming an economically-competitive alternative to cropping, but the shrinking program is limiting land-use choices for farmers.

Is It Enough?

Because of these economic changes, landowners today are weighing a much different decision on land use than they did in the early days of CRP. The program was created 30 years ago primarily to reduce soil erosion and boost commodity prices, and landowners often signed USDA contracts to enroll entire fields in the program. Now, many farmers are seeking a more diversified business model that includes conservation as part of their financial success—they are working under a new mantra: “Farm the best, conserve the rest.” Enrolling land in habitat buffers and State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement can keep working lands working for farmers and for wildlife—but only if the overall amount of habitat can sustain populations. It is yet to be seen whether this Farm Bill’s 24-million-acre cap can make that possible.

Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

We hope it will, but we’ll continue to advocate for an increase to the program in the next Farm Bill. In the meantime, the TRCP is collaborating with the USDA to make sure each and every acre of CRP works better for wildlife—and for sportsmen seeking the thrill of a flush.

This year, CRP is 30, and we can be thankful that CRP works, plain and simple.

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