Good News for Landowners During That Other Spring Season — Tax Season
Donors of conservation easements can take advantage of this new tax incentive right away
Every spring, men and women across America experience an overwhelming sense of nervous anticipation. It motivates them to throw open drawers, haul boxes down from the attic, and gather all the essentials ahead of the big day. No, we’re not talking about the spring turkey opener or the Mid-Atlantic shad run—we’re talking about tax season.
Ok, sure, filing your taxes isn’t nearly as fun or exciting as springtime in the outdoors, but there’s positive news for landowners, fish, and wildlife this tax season. We’re not tax experts*, but with less than two weeks before April 15, this may be one incentive you need to know about.
In December 2015, Congress made permanent a federal tax incentive for the donation of conservation easements to encourage landowners to conserve important natural resources while retaining ownership of their property. The law now adds the following benefits for donors:
The incentive raises the annual deduction a donor can receive for donating a conservation easement from 30 to 50 percent of his or her income.
Qualifying farmers and ranchers can deduct up to 100 percent of their income each year.
Donors can carry forward the tax deductions for a donated easement for 15 years, up from just five years.
If you donated an easement last year, the incentive is retroactive to January 1, 2015, meaning you can take advantage of this new deduction right away. And if you own property and want to protect your lands and waters, you should consider donating a conservation easement in 2016. Conservation easements can be very flexible; they are tailor-made to the needs of each landowner and each piece of land, allowing you to continue to hunt and fish, farm, ranch, and harvest timber, as long as you preserve the land for natural habitat, open space, historical importance, or outdoor recreation or education.
And the added bonus for hunters and anglers? You can feel good knowing that your children and grandchildren will enjoy this land, and the fish or wildlife it supports, just as you did.
Are the BLM’s Sage Grouse Conservation Plans Really Worse Than an ESA Listing?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) recent decision not to list the range-wide population of greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was perhaps the greatest collaborative conservation effort in the history of contemporary wildlife management—but it didn’t happen overnight or by accident. The years of planning, monitoring, research, and coordination among state and federal agencies, private landowners, and many other stakeholders have also resulted in a new model for conservation.
But rather than celebrate a great achievement, stakeholders at both ends of the special-interest spectrum have proclaimed that listing the bird would have been a better choice. Some in the environmental community have argued that far more should have been done to strengthen protections for the species and believe a listing is still warranted. Meanwhile, some industry proponents and members of Congress have cried out that a listing would have been better than the “draconian” federal overreach they see in the BLM’s amended land-use plans that will impact a majority of the bird’s remaining range.
All of this rhetoric makes for good soundbites and headlines, but would we really be better off? Is it possible that compliance with the proactive conservation measures needed to avoid a listing is actually a harsher reality than a listing itself? Let’s look at the facts about what could have happened under the law.
Under a listing scenario, anyone with plans for federal land designated as sage-grouse habitat would need to comply with all the restrictions and conservations actions under the ESA and consult with the FWS on every future project, extending the timeline. This would apply to businesses, the BLM, the states, and private landowners—even those who have received funding or other resources from a federal agency for a project on their land. Compared to this case-by-case consultation process under a listing, the BLM land-use plans provide a firm set of guidelines to give every industry and community stakeholder the certainty they need to plan for the future.
Buffers and Caps
The BLM plans prescribe buffers and caps for the disturbance to breeding ground areas from human activity and development. One opponent of the plans has promoted the idea that an ESA listing doesn’t come with these buffers and disturbance caps. It’s true that the Act itself doesn’t mandate these restrictions, but immediately following any listing, there would be a designation of critical habitat and development of a recovery plan, which could include even more stringent buffer zones. It’s very doubtful that a post-listing plan would be weaker than the current federal plans.
Obviously, sportsmen would lose the opportunity to hunt sage grouse if they were listed, but the concept of ‘take’ under the ESA also extends to the habitat of the listed species. Under Section 3 of the ESA, ‘take’ means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Aside from hunting them, any activity that would disturb or harass the bird, or alter its habitat in a negative way, would technically be a violation of the ESA and could be subject to penalty under the law. If you don’t believe me, just ask the timber industry what ‘take’ meant to them after the northern spotted owl was listed.
At Home and Afield
With a listing, mandatory enforcement of ESA restrictions extends to all critical habitat, which would include, at the least, everything currently considered priority habitat areas on public land, plus at-risk habitat on private lands. Regardless of ownership, any take of sage grouse or habitat on these lands could be subject to prosecution under the law, with the exception of those already enrolled in conservation agreements with the FWS. This includes applicable programs under the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative or Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs), of which there are several million acres already enrolled.
The Best Path Forward
So, does a listing of the greater sage grouse really sound better than implementing the current federal and state plans? I’d say that this rhetoric is really just a last-ditch effort to thwart change and maintain business as usual. Perhaps some of the largest companies and landowners in the region could afford to comply with the ESA, but would this have been the best path forward for the West as a whole? Of course not.
Clearly, and without question, a listing scenario would be far more time-consuming, expensive, and disastrous for the Western economy than implementing the proactive conservation plans that have already been finalized. And that’s not to say that we’re settling for the devil we know. The decision not to list sage grouse required that strong federal plans, complemented by solid state plans and extraordinary voluntary efforts exhibited by private landowners, be developed with assurances that they’d be implemented. And all of this needs to stand up in court.
The next step should be to make sure everyone does what they said they would do to implement their plans. And Congress needs to ensure full funding for implementation of conservation measures in the federal plans and continue supporting the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative to benefit these birds. Let’s not get distracted by attempts to dismantle the collaborative efforts that got us where we are today.
Endangered Species Act Protection is Not Warranted for Sage Grouse
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced today that the range-wide population of greater sage grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. This decision comes after years of coordination and planning among federal, state, and local stakeholders to better protect sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species, while allowing for energy development, livestock grazing, and recreation to continue.
The BLM finalized a critical step toward achieving the not-warranted finding by signing two Records of Decision that will amend nearly 100 resource management plans (RMPs) across the West to benefit the bird.
Sportsmen’s groups are encouraged by the decision and appreciative of the 11 states, federal agencies, private landowners, and other vested stakeholders that have come together in a daunting, often controversial effort. “The work to benefit sage grouse over the last five years has been the greatest landscape-scale conservation effort undertaken in modern times,” says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The collaboration we’ve seen is unprecedented and extraordinary. It sets forth a model for what I believe to be the future of conservation in America.”
For many of the groups involved in this effort, today’s announcement comes with a cautious sense of relief. “For years, sportsmen, ranchers, developers, and biologists have anxiously awaited the day when the sage grouse listing decision would be made,” says Steve Riley, president and CEO of the North American Grouse Partnership. “Now, it is imperative that these collective conservation efforts are implemented and monitored for effectiveness in the long-term if we are to avoid winding up with sage grouse again at risk further down the road.”
Sportsmen have argued that an “all-of-the-above approach”—with distinct plans developed and implemented by the federal, state, and private sectors—was the only way to get to a not-warranted decision and sustain conservation into the future. Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever notes that private landowner efforts, led in part by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, were a critical piece of the success leading to today’s decision. “Partnership-driven, voluntary conservation efforts have contributed to a positive decision for greater sage grouse and ranching communities in Western states, but our work has only just begun,” says Vincent. “We must continue to build upon this unprecedented level of management for sage grouse populations from federal and state agencies and the ranchers who are implementing landscape-level habitat improvements on private lands.”
The benefits of today’s decision, and the implementation of robust conservation plans already in progress, will extend to more than just sage grouse. “Thriving sage grouse populations are an indicator that sagebrush ecosystems are healthy, and this is important for more than 350 species of plants and animals, including many that are popular with sportsmen,” says Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “Now, we must remain invested in sustaining the health of this bird—and the landscapes that support it.” Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, notes that sportsmen and women will benefit as well. “What is good for the grouse is good for the grandeur—the large landscapes being conserved will help sustain backcountry hunting opportunities and big game populations,” he says. “That’s positive for sportsmen and the local communities that depend on proceeds from outdoor recreation-based businesses.”
The work of implementing conservation on the ground is just beginning, and threats still remain. “We’re happy with today’s decision, which proves that collaborative conservation can work,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But it is critical that state and federal agencies enforce the full implementation of their plans and that we continue to oppose Congressional attempts to weaken them.”
Management of sagebrush habitat is a long-term endeavor that costs money and resources, and no one understands that better than a former director of the agency responsible for today’s announcement. “Investment in sagebrush management that balances many uses of the land, including responsible energy development and sustainable ranching, with conservation is essential for our nation’s economy and the Western way of life,” says Williams. “We have the blueprint in place, and now it’s time to build our future. Congressional support and funding can help get us there.”
To see what our other partners are saying about today’s announcement, click here and here.
You may know the tale of Theodore Roosevelt’s Mississippi black bear hunt in the fall of 1902, his second year in office. After all, it’s one of the most famous hunts to have taken place on American soil, and it inspired the most famous toy in the world—the Teddy Bear.
But shortly after Roosevelt came to Mississippi in the early 1900s, over-hunting and agricultural development in the Delta’s swamps practically eliminated the Louisiana black bear from its native range in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. It was eventually listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a threatened species by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1992, bringing about much concern from landowners, the timber industry, and wildlife professionals. This forward-thinking group hoped that the downward trend could be reversed and suitable black bear habitat within the region could be restored.
That same year, the Wetlands Reserve Program was instituted, building upon the successes of the Conservation Reserve Program, launched in 1985. Together, these programs resulted in the restoration of more than one million acres of black bear habitat, and black bear populations slowly began to rise across the bear’s historic range.
We think Roosevelt would be proud to see the population’s rebound and to know that the next generation of outdoorsmen will share the woods with the bear that “bears” his nickname. To celebrate, let’s hear the story of this famous hunt.
A Famous Hunt and Hunter
Almost every aspect of Roosevelt’s 1902 hunt at Smede’s farm was the responsibility of the uneducated, but extremely intelligent, 56-year-old Holt Collier, who was born into slavery and served as a Confederate scout before becoming a legend for his hunting skills. Roosevelt (who announced that he was to be addressed only as “Colonel” throughout the hunt) expressed his desire to participate in the chase. However his demands for a shot on the very first day, and the timidity of his hosts, condemned him to a stationary blind. He was placed to have a clear shot when the bear, driven by Collier’s pack of nearly 40 dogs, would emerge from one of the dense cane thickets on the farm.
Roosevelt and his hunting partner, Huger Foote, waited on the stand all morning. Around mid-afternoon they broke for lunch, annoying Collier, who’d worked extremely hard to bring a bear to that exact spot only to find the stand abandoned. As Collier recalled,
“That was eight o’clock in the mornin’ when I hit the woods an’ roused my bear where I knowed I’d fin him. Den me an’ dat bear had a time, fightin’ an’ chargin’ an’ tryin’ to make him take a tree. Big ole bear but he wouldn’t climb nary tree. I could have killed him a thousand times… I sweated myself to death in that canebrake. So did the bear. By keeping between the bear and the river, I knew he’d sholy make for the water hole where I left the Cunnel [sic]. After a while the bear started that way and popped out of the gap where I said he’d go. But I didn’t hear a shot, and that pestered me… It sholy pervoked me because I’d promised the President to bring him a bear to that log, and there he was.”
–Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt Hunts, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear by Minor Ferris Buchanan
It was at this time that the bear turned on the dogs. This put Collier in quite the quandary. He had been given specific orders to save the bear for Roosevelt, who was not to be found, and yet he had to protect the dogs from the deadly bear.
Collier dismounted, shouting at the bear. He approached the bear and tried to distract it as someone rode to camp to get the President. In the meantime, the bear and the dogs fought viciously, and at one point his prize dog was caught in the bear’s grip. Collier swung the stock of his gun and landed a blow to the base of the bear’s skull. Stunned, the bear dropped the dog and Collier seized the opportunity to place a lariat around the bear’s neck so that, when Roosevelt and Foote arrived several minutes later, the animal was tied to a tree.
President Roosevelt refused to claim the bear, citing a “true sportsmen’s code” which holds that the taking of any animal that does not have a sporting chance is forbidden. This famous hunting event inspired the first widespread discussion of the modern code of “fair chase,” a tenet of the Boone and Crockett Club which Roosevelt founded. It is the oldest conservation organization in North America and the second oldest in the world.
Although Roosevelt did not count the hunt as “successful,” the press thought it a most delightful story and spread word of it across the country. Roosevelt’s refusal to kill a defenseless animal was far more newsworthy than the taking of a trophy bear, and as the news spread, Brooklyn toy store owners Rose and Morris Michtom wrote to ask his permission to name their stuffed toy bears after him. The President approved, and “Teddy’s Bears” were born.
James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a Regular Member of the Boone and Crockett Club, and a member of the TRCP Policy Council.
Breaking News: Final Clean Water Rule Reveal is a Victory for Fish, Waterfowl, and Sportsmen
The EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today announced a long-awaited rule which will restore critical protections for wetlands and headwater streams that provide habitat for fish and wildlife and supply clean drinking water to one in three Americans. The announcement of the final clean water rule, which comes after more than a year of consultation with stakeholders, who generated more than one million comments, will give clarity to regulators as well as hunters and anglers, who have been unsure of the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction following two Supreme Court decisions and administrative actions.
“This is a historic day that all sportsmen should welcome,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Nearly 15 years after legal confusion contributed to the first accelerated loss of waterfowl habitat in decades, we finally have a rule in place that will help stem the tide of wetlands loss and definitively restore water quality protections to trout habitat and salmon spawning waters. We want to commend the administration for making this long-anticipated day a reality.”
The clean water rule will restore protections to 60 percent of America’s stream miles and 20 million acres of wetlands currently at greater risk of being polluted or destroyed because of Clean Water Act confusion. Protecting the health of these waters not only preserves coldwater fisheries and waterfowl habitat, but strengthens the local economies that rely on the 6 million jobs created by our country’s $200-billion outdoor recreation industry annually.
“This rule was crafted through a very thorough process, one in which hundreds of thousands of Americans participated,” says Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “A vast majority of Americans support the rule and the protection of our country’s headwater streams, because they understand the need to protect our priceless water resources. And in a time of drought and changing climate, these resources are even more precious.”
Today’s announcement does not expand the Clean Water Act, but rather restores—and in some cases, enhances—critical protections to two major categories of waters: tributaries to waters already covered by the Clean Water Act, and the wetlands, lakes, and other waters located adjacent to, or within the floodplain of, these tributaries. In an important win for wildlife, the final rule also restores protection to some non-adjacent wetlands, which provide breeding grounds for as much as seventy percent of the nation’s duck population.
“By restoring Clean Water Act protections for streams and wetlands, the Army Corps and EPA are taking decisive action that benefits outdoor recreation, public health, and our economy,” says Scott Kovarovics, executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America. “This action is grounded in science and common sense, and it gives a tremendous boost to efforts nationwide to conserve essential water resources and sustain our outdoor heritage.”
“This important final rule provides clarity on protections for the lifeblood of many of our country’s prized fisheries,” says Benjamin Bulis, president of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association. “The health of these headwaters sets the tone for all waters downstream and creates the backbone of our nation’s water resources. If we as a nation fail to protect our headwater streams and wetlands, we could jeopardize the economy of the hunting and fishing industry and put millions of people out of work.”
Over 40 million Americans rely on clean water for hunting and angling. Sportsmen were among the leading advocates for passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and that support held throughout the campaign for this much needed rule clarification. In fact, more than 200 sportsmen and conservation groups signed a letter calling for action to restore protections for wetlands and headwater streams.
“The clean water rule is good for our business, which depends on clean, fishable water,” says Dave Perkins, executive vice chairman of the Orvis Company. “Improving the quality of fishing in America translates directly to our bottom line, to the numbers of employees we hire right here in America, and to the health of our brick-and-mortar stores all over the country.”
John Doerr, CEO of Pure Fishing, the world’s largest fishing tackle manufacturer, says, “Our outdoor recreation economy is totally dependent on healthy watersheds for our fishable waters, and the Clean Water Act is the number one protection we have to ensure the future of our industry.”
“My company depends on people enjoying their time recreating outside, especially in or near watersheds,” says Travis Campbell, president and CEO of Far Bank Enterprises and a board member for the Outdoor Industry Association—the group that produced this report on the outdoor recreation economy. “Clarifying which waterways are protected under the Clean Water Act isn’t a nice-to-have, it is a business imperative, with outdoor recreation contributing $80 billion in local, state, and federal taxes. In order to sustain the growth and success of the industry, not to mention the enjoyment of these opportunities for further generations, we need to ensure we are caring for the infrastructure that supports American experiences like fishing, kayaking, and canoeing.”
Despite the release of the final rule today, the protection of America’s waters remains at risk as Congress considers legislation to undermine the rule even after it’s finalized.
“The process worked as it should, with the Army Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency making numerous improvements and clarifications to the rule based on the public comments,” says Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “The final rule balances the urgent need to protect our nation’s essential water resources with landowners’ desire for clarity.”
Header image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.
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