Chris Macaluso

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April 13, 2016

Official Status of BP Settlement Means Conservation Can Finally Roll On

A few signatures kick off the next phase of oil spill recovery that could revive long-term habitat health in the Gulf

Image courtesy of Louisiana GOHSEP.

BP and a federal judge have finally made it official—the historic settlement between the states, the federal government, and BP has been signed. Now, the Gulf of Mexico’s fish, wildlife, and habitat—not to mention the communities that depend on outdoor recreation dollars—can move forward in the ongoing process of repairing damage caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

The details of the settlement weren’t breaking news by the time U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier made the consent decree official with the stroke of a pen on April 4. In fact, many of the particulars, including the $20.8-billion total penalty, were released to the public after all parties agreed in principle last October.

This doesn’t mean that we’ll be breaking ground on ecosystem-scale restoration projects tomorrow. After all, BP has more than 15 years to pay in full. It does, however, mark another important milestone in a recovery effort large enough in scale that it could repair the damage caused by the spill as well as ongoing habitat losses and water quality impairments that threaten the long-term health of the Gulf.

The agreement also means that the veil can be lifted on the volumes of data collected by state and federal agencies intensively studying the adverse effects of the oil on fish, birds, turtles, marine mammals, and thousands of plants, crustaceans, insects, and other invertebrates that play a crucial role in the intricate Gulf ecosystem. Gag orders during ongoing negotiations prevented the sharing of most of that information with the public, which frustrated journalists, conservationists, sportsmen, and anyone else wondering about the true toll of the nation’s worst environmental disaster. Once that information is made public, we can better engage in and advocate for the projects that best address the damages.

Image courtesy of State of Louisiana.

If you’re interested in the nitty gritty details, BP will pay $5.5 billion in Clean Water Act penalties, 80 percent of which will go to economic and ecosystem restoration projects across the Gulf, thanks to the Restore Act signed into law in 2012. More than $8 billion will be paid in Natural Resource Damage Assessment fines to be used on projects that directly address the damage to creatures, habitats, and the users whose access to the resources was, and in some cases continues to be, disrupted by the spill. And, BP also owes states and local governments nearly $6 billion to make up for lost revenues.

The TRCP and its sportfishing and habitat conservation partners have been working diligently with hunters, anglers, policy-makers, the media, and elected officials across the region for the last five years to help ensure that Gulf fish and fishermen are made a priority throughout the restoration effort. This group has formally recommended projects and initiatives that improve habitat, increase and improve fisheries research and data collection, and improve access for anglers. Many of those recommendations have been incorporated into projects already selected to receive funding.

Image courtesy of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Considering that recreational fishing contributes more than $10 billion annually to the region’s economy and supports nearly 100,000 jobs in Gulf states, investing in projects that improve angling opportunities ensures the viability of coastal communities from Brownsville, Texas, to Key West, Fla. But, the only way those investments are made wisely is if anglers across the Gulf and throughout the nation continue to insist that restoration dollars make it to the habitat and fish. We can’t let this game-changing settlement get eaten up by legislative pet-projects, state budget band-aids, and bureaucratic boondoggles.

Anglers also need to keep a close eye on projects and initiatives that aim to limit or prevent fishing opportunities. The net result of this lengthy restoration and recovery effort should be more quality chances to hunt and fish, not fewer.

As the sixth anniversary of the spill approaches, the settlement’s approval is reason to be thankful that the funds needed to address damages and make the Gulf a better place won’t be tied up in a decade-long legal battle. However, the difficult task of ensuring that penalties have lasting, positive effects on the region’s natural resources and communities is just beginning.

If you want to make sure we continue this important work in the Gulf, consider donating to the TRCP.

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April 11, 2016

Glassing the Hill: April 11 – 15

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

The Senate and House are both in session this week.

Is this regular order or out of order? Even though Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has preached a return to regular order, this week the House Appropriations Committee will continue to mark up individual spending bills, despite having no House budget or 302(b) allocations set. They’re currently using top-line allocations from the 2015 budget agreement to move forward.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Spending bills for Agriculture and Energy and Water Development will be marked up on Wednesday by the relevant Senate and House Appropriation subcommittees. The Agriculture mark-up could possibly target federal crop insurance and conservation programs for cuts, while the House Energy and Water Development bill may include language to block funding for the administration’s Clean Water Rule.

The Senate doesn’t have its budget together either, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his goal to tackle spending bills beginning in mid-May using top-line allocations from the 2015 budget agreement. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development will hold a mark-up on Wednesday and a full committee mark-up on Thursday. This subcommittee faces similar issues with riders to block Obama administration policies, including the Clean Water Rule.

This Puerto Rican wildlife refuge could get voted off the island.The House Natural Resources Committee drafted a bill that would address Puerto Rico’s financial instability partly by selling off public land. Section 411 of “The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act” would transfer thousands of acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, clearing the way for these public lands to be sold off to private interests. The committee will hold a hearing on the legislation on Tuesday and mark it up on Wednesday and Thursday.

Defense for sage grouse (again). Congressman Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and a member of the Armed Services Committee, has been persistent in requesting that his legislation, “The Greater Sage Grouse Protection and Recovery Act” (H.R. 4739), or a similar provision, be attached to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  The House version of the NDAA will be marked up in the Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, April 27, and is scheduled to be considered on the House floor the week of May 16.

And both parties are actually on board with this water legislation. The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which provides funds for Army Corps of Engineers’ projects, may become the vehicle for Senator Cardin (D-Md.) to promote his legislation that would more than triple funds for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. “The Firm, Unwavering National Dedication to Water Act” (S. 2583), is a positive piece of legislation that would provide consistent funding for the enhancement of water quality essential to hunters and anglers. Talks continue this week, but the earliest chance for a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee mark-up would be in May.

Here’s what else we’re tracking:

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Small businesses and EPA regulations will be examined in a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Waste, Superfund and Oversight Management hearing

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The President’s climate policies, to be discussed by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

Impacts of oil and gas production on rural economies will be discussed in a House Agriculture Committee hearing

Water in the West, in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans hearing

Appropriations bills for energy and water development in the House and Senate and U.S. Department of Agriculture spending

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Waste prevention, production royalties, and resource conservation, to be discussed in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining hearing regarding the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed rule

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April 6, 2016

A Special Place, its Champions, and a Long Goodbye

After years of gathering critical habitat data and opening minds to the conservation possibilities in the Missouri Breaks, our longtime friend and colleague passes the torch 

If you drive east out of Lewistown, Montana, for fifty miles or so—over the southern flanks of the Judith Range and along the course of McDonald Creek, through Grass Range and Teigen, a community that once anchored a ranch so big that it still has its own zip code—you’ll reach the little town of Winnett. With the vast sagebrush steppe unfolding in front of you and wind-scoured cliffs and coulees full of green grass on either side of the gravel road, it’s not uncommon to witness small flocks of sage hens flushing and rocketing away towards pronghorns lit pale-orange and white against a gray backdrop.

Image courtesy of Bob Wick/BLM.

For the past two years that I’ve worked for the TRCP, I’ve been lost, both literally and metaphorically, in this landscape.

In the distance, the Missouri Breaks begin to appear, with dark lines of timber on the ridgeline. There’s little to suggest that you are on the brink of another world, yet you’re poised at the edge of what may be the best public-lands trophy elk hunting on the planet. Off to the east, you see the deeply incised and snaking lines of Blood Creek, Dry Blood Creek, Drag Creek, or the mother of them all, Crooked Creek, where big yellow-barked Ponderosa pines and rich grass replace the sagebrush. The creeks all cut steeply away towards the Musselshell River, which eventually joins the mighty Missouri.

The road takes you into what must be one of the most complicated systems of coulees in the world, a vast public lands puzzle of hidden sandstone cliffs, hogback ridges of soft white clay, and lost cul-de-sacs, where Old West outlaws held out well into the 20th century and where the traces of warring and hunting Native American tribes can still be found. Today it is home to the second-largest elk herd in the state of Montana, to mossbacked old mule deer bucks, mountain lions, sharp-tailed grouse, and a growing population of Merriam’s turkeys.

For so many Montana hunters, especially archery hunters, this is the heart of the state, and the heart of hunting itself—an experience and adventure like no other. Unlike our traditional Rocky Mountain elk country of aspens, high country meadows, and jagged peaks, in this strange place an elk hunter goes down into the earth. He leaves the prairies for the coulees, most of them branching off wildly, like nerves or arteries that are miles upon miles long and some of them hundreds of feet deep.

In early 2014, when the Lewistown field office of the Bureau of Land Management began working on a new Resource Management Plan for this area, I went to work for the TRCP to identify the local public lands that hunters most depend on, and the lands that have the best wildlife habitat, access, and opportunities for real backcountry recreation and experiences.

I talked with biologists and land managers from the state and BLM and with landowners, old time Montana conservation leaders, and, most of all, elk and mule deer hunters. I drove a couple of thousand miles of road, hiked over forty miles of ridge and coulee, followed elk, looked for horns in May, and shot sharptails in September. I was lost and desperately thirsty at least twice, and I whiteknuckled the incredible Dunn’s Ridge Road (Dunn’s is more like a one-lane path inscribed into the top of a narrow gumbo ridgeline, with cold-sweat-inducing drops on both sides) all the way down to the Musselshell bottoms. Rancher and conservationist Hugo Turek of Coffee Creek, Montana—a great supporter of our work—graciously let me hike across his fields and into the magnificent public lands of the Arrow Creek Breaks, a band of critical habitat for mule deer and sharptails, where Hugo has sustainably grazed his cattle herds for the past two decades, while maintaining access for hunters in the fall.

Image courtesy of Bob Wick/BLM.

I took my then-eleven-year-old daughter on a hike through the Judith Mountains—named by William Clark in 1805, after his cousin and sweetheart, Judith Hancock—where we glassed the big-game winter ranges, trying to find a way into the deep canyons. This is where we found Collar Gulch Creek, where there is a population of native Westslope cutthroat trout—the easternmost population known to be remaining on earth—despite the “devil take the hindmost” history of gold mining booms of the 19th and early 20th centuries in the Judiths. Imagine that.

Drawing from dozens of interviews with local hunters and others who know the Breaks better than I ever will, the TRCP worked with some key sportsmen leaders and five other sportsmen’s groups to draw up a formal comment to the Lewistown BLM Field Office to explain that these valuable lands should be managed to conserve their intact character, maintain important public access, and support traditional uses through a moderate new conservation tool called Backcountry Conservation Areas (BCA). We included maps, descriptions of the hunting country and uses by sportsmen, and definitions of the BCA concept that, in its keep-it-like-it-is management strategy, fits so much of this public land like a leather workglove.

Hal Herring afield with his son and dog. (Image courtesy of Hal Herring)

In the end, sportsmen nominated four individual tracts of BLM lands for BCA management. We included the Crooked Creek country, the Arrow Creek Breaks and the best of the Judiths, including Collar Gulch, and the intact expanses of big-game winter range that are so unique to this sky-island on the plains. Sportsmen and women are now hopeful that the BLM will consider managing these areas with the common sense BCA approach through the upcoming Lewistown draft Resource Management Plan.

It’s an even bigger opportunity for the TRCP to join with hunters across Montana and the U.S. to make sure the best of these lands are conserved with the existing access to them maintained. Where necessary and possible, it’s an opportunity to see that wildlife habitat and rangelands are restored and made more productive. The possibilities are almost endless: In my final discussions with some local community leaders, we discussed the need for a partnership between conservationists and grazers to control weeds and improve wildlife range, and how BCAs can be used as a way to focus our energy on conserving and restoring the best of the best lands for hunting, grazing, and recreation.

Now, I’m passing my work on to Scott Laird, whom I’ve known and respected for more than a decade and who will be able to take on this effort full-time, full-bore, and full-speed in a way I cannot. I’ve introduced him to some of the friends I’ve made in Lewistown and have no doubt that, with their support, and the support of a few hundred more like them, hunter-conservationists can make a permanent contribution to the future of the Missouri Breaks and the whole of Montana.

I’m leaving the TRCP as the same true believer that I was when I started. I’ll help in any way I can.

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Critter Madness: A Repeat Champion

Critter Madness 2016 has come to a close and the elk are your repeat champions! The tournament started with a field of 16 from all over the country representing the best of the best in game species.

Right out of the gate in round one there were heated battles and huge upsets. The Largemouth Bass splashed out of nowhere to stun the number one seeded Brook Trout, last year’s Cinderella story. The elk barreled through the big horn sheep to set up an interesting “west vs. east” matchup in the next round.

The second round, though a bit calmer than the first, was still met with great matchups. The turkeys strutted past their arch upland foes in the pheasants. The Chinook swam past the blue marlin while the Rainbows edged out the largemouth bass by one vote .

The semi-finals showed just how dominant the elk were, breezing past the turkeys and besting all of their opponents by over 543 votes! The rainbows took down the mighty Chinook to become the only non-one seed to make it to the semi-finals or finals.

The final matchup pitted last year’s victor, the mighty elk against the underdog in the rainbow trout. When it came down to it, the trout never had a chance. A valiant effort on the part of anglers everywhere voting for their favorite fish to claim the crown, but they just weren’t strong enough to beat the king of the West!

Thank you to everyone who voted this year and helped us crown the 2016 champion critter!

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April 5, 2016

Glassing The Hill: April 4 – 8

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

The Senate will be in session this week, while House members continue to work in their districts until April 12.

Road blocks continue for the bipartisan energy bill. Consideration of the Energy Policy Modernization Act on the Senate floor has once again been pushed to a later date. As you may remember, the bipartisan energy bill was a potential vehicle for a portion of the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act. Senator Murkowski (R-AK) and leadership have been trying to resolve issues stemming from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and a legislative hold on the bill from Senator Lee (R-UT) since February. The bill has to come to the Senate floor before May, when the Senate will likely turn its attention to appropriations.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

In the meantime, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided to move forward with “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2016” (S. 2658). The FAA bill is certainly not a small issue, since it funds air traffic control and other aviation advancements, so it could potentially occupy the Senate floor for weeks, thereby complicating the path forward for the energy bill.

And, speaking of appropriations… Because of the Republican and Democratic conventions at the end of July and the presidential elections in November, Congress has a narrow window to focus on appropriations. This week, various Senate appropriations subcommittees will continue to examine agency budgets, with an eye towards having individual appropriations bills on the Senate floor in May. Reminder: The goal is to pass the 12 individual appropriations bills needed to fund the government, rather than a sweeping omnibus funding package, by September 30 for the first time in—well, a long, long time.

The House is slightly further along than the Senate when it comes to appropriations, and several subcommittees plan to begin marking up their spending bills as early as next week. The Energy and Water appropriations bill is one of the first, and it’s one to watch because 120 House Republicans are requesting that appropriators add a rider to block funding for the Clean Water Rule that sportsmen celebrated last year.

We’ll be scanning for other riders that are bad for fish and wildlife habitat, access, or conservation funding throughout the appropriations process.

It’s ba-ack: An old threat re-emerges to undo sage-grouse conservation. Last year, Congressman Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, added a greater sage-grouse provision to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in order to give governors veto authority over federal conservation plans aimed at boosting critical greater sage-grouse habitat. Because of good work by lawmakers and sportsmen, the Bishop provision was not included in the NDAA that was eventually signed by the President.

Now, Congressman Bishop has introduced a standalone bill that, while not as sweeping as last year’s efforts, would still potentially jeopardize the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the sage grouse for Endangered Species Act protection. A mark-up of the bill has yet to be scheduled in the House Natural Resources Committee, but expect a hearing on this issue in the near future. We also anticipate that this provision will be included in the House version of the NDAA, scheduled to be marked up by the Armed Services Committee on April 27.

What We’re Tracking

Budget requests for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and U.S. Forest Service

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Rural development programs and their economic impacts, to be discussed by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy in a hearing about the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiatives

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Habitat science and research will be on the table in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on conducting oversight for the U.S. Geological Survey, the agency that collects, monitors, analyzes, and provides scientific understanding about natural resource conditions, issues, and problems.

Water infrastructure and costs, up for debate in a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing

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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