Steve Kline

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posted in: General

May 26, 2016

Watchdog Report Indicates Checks Were Written But On-Farm Conservation Was Never Verified

USDA’s Inspector General points to botched implementation of compliance checks that ensure real benefits go to fish and wildlife habitat on private lands

After thousands of hours of work, hundreds of meetings with Congressional staff, and three years of shared effort with colleagues that had become like family, I poured a tall Maker’s Mark when the president signed the 2014 Farm Bill at a special ceremony in Michigan. The law included bipartisan language that extended conservation compliance to the federal crop insurance program, the importance of which would be difficult to overstate. Was it the perfect compliance provision? Honestly, no. But politics is still the art of the possible, and I believe it was the strongest provision possible.

After all of that effort from so many folks, it is more frustrating than usual to hear from the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) watchdog agency that the provision the TRCP prioritized over all others has not been implemented with the vigor it requires. This should not only alarm sportsmen-conservationists but also the American taxpayer.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

For the uninitiated, conservation compliance can be explained like this: It’s a way for taxpayers to be sure that, in exchange for farm support payments, farmers are meeting a minimal threshold for avoiding environmental harm. Conservation compliance has applied to almost all USDA support programs since 1985, and the 2014 Farm Bill expanded compliance requirements to the federal crop insurance program, which has grown over the years to be the biggest farm support program. Conservation compliance is not onerous for farmers, most of whom have been subject to the requirements for years.

But a report issued in March by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which serves as the internal watchdog at the USDA, outlined a serious problem with the enforcement of conservation compliance. Many tracts of land that were subject to compliance were not being included in the random checks performed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In fact, in 2015, the first year after the new Farm Bill was passed, ten states—including major agricultural hubs like Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota—had zero tracts subject to random compliance checks. That’s right. Zero. In Iowa!

The report mostly points to a lack of coordination between several USDA agencies, and it cites the need for a “Memorandum of Understanding” between those agencies to ensure a better universe of data and that an actual human being at each agency is held responsible for appropriate implementation. Frankly, these are typical shortcomings of a large bureaucracy that no one would describe as nimble. But what is at stake is critically important: water quality and the health of potentially innumerable wetlands, not to mention the continued defensibility of these financial support programs to the American taxpayer.

But let’s get to the main thrust of the problem: a bureaucratic lack of desire. The USDA is a department that for a hundred years has been in the business of writing checks to producers. Its stock-in-trade is financial incentives that smooth out the inherent risks of agriculture, making life more predictable for American farmers—and that is a laudable thing. This incentive-based business model is why the USDA is still a relatively popular federal entity; as a result, USDA finds it difficult to risk losing the popularity that comes with spreading the wealth. It is nice to be loved.

But the law must be enforced, and the USDA has a responsibility—not just to agricultural producers, but also to the American taxpayers who have invested billions in farmland conservation and expect plentiful clean water in return.

We work hard on Capitol Hill to make sure that the laws passed by Congress aim for the best results possible for fish and wildlife habitat. That can be an all-consuming task. But we cannot forget that the job continues for years after the ink on those laws is dry. For the duration of this five-year Farm Bill, and as we turn our attention to the next one, the TRCP will continue our work; we must close the gaps in compliance enforcement that are unnecessarily costing us our wetlands, water quality, and hard-earned wages.

3 Responses to “Watchdog Report Indicates Checks Were Written But On-Farm Conservation Was Never Verified”

  1. Bob Keener

    I noted that the agency agreed to form an MOU and an interagency working group (IWG), by January and April 2016. It would be great if TRCP could follow up to see if either of these recommendations were achieved on schedule and, if so, get a copy of the language of the MOU and the IWG charter, schedule, etc. It would be optimum to understand how success is defined and what measures there might be to track the performance of the efforts associated with the initiative(s).

    In closing, I would like to highlight that the IG’s recommendations don’t address the need for a defined plan of action, with dates/milestones, etc. It would be relatively easy for the USDA to get a vaguely worded MOU written and agreed to as well as to form an IWG without committing itself to substantively carrying out on the ground enforcement/oversight.

    I would ask that the TRCP work to follow up with the USDA to see if anything of substance has been put in place.

  2. Greg Munther

    Are there quantifiable standards or metrics associated with compliance? Without measureable standards the good old boy ag network closest to the ground will continue.

  3. Birdie moose

    I live in Nevada were no royalty is charged on extraction of gold due to the General mining act of 1872, no fee is charged for the mass amounts of water taken and only five to ten dollars an acre is charge for mining leases. Three of the largest mining corporations in the U.S. are Canadian that receive the largest ranch subsides in the country. I believe the Natures Conservancy to be a shadow/shell organization for environmentally destructive corporate agendas. All you have to do is look at their major donors, follow the money honey!

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posted in: General

May 25, 2016

Despite a Policy Victory, Another Year Without Clean Water

Why aren’t we celebrating the one-year anniversary of better protections for headwater streams and wetlands?

Today marks one year since the EPA and Army Corps finalized and signed the Clean Water Rule, which clarifies, after nearly 15 years of confusion, exactly what waters are—and are not—protected by the Clean Water Act. The rule has huge importance for cold-water fisheries and the majority of waterfowl habitat in the country, yet we’re still not able to move forward with implementing it.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

Sadly, almost before the ink was even dry on the final rule last May, the courts upended the decision and blocked the agencies from rolling out protections for these waters and wetlands. We have been forced to wait for a court decision while fish and wildlife habitat remains at risk of pollution and destruction.

Meanwhile, headwater streams, which make up 60 percent of stream miles in America and support our trout fisheries and salmon spawning grounds, are in limbo. These waters feed into warm-water fisheries and drinking water sources downstream.

While this widely-celebrated rule remains blocked, wetlands that provide high quality waterfowl habitat go without clear protections. And the rate of wetlands loss in the United States increased by 140 percent between 2004 and 2009, the years immediately following the Supreme Court rulings the created Clean Water Act confusion.

Today, nearly half of the nation’s river and stream miles are in poor biological condition while one-third of U.S. wetlands are in poor condition. We will need a clear and effective Clean Water Act to realize sportsmen’s desire for clean cold streams, healthy wetlands, and the ability to share these resources with our kids. Of course, court-issued roadblocks to implementing the Clean Water Rule are mostly out of our hands. But it’s important for sportsmen to note that many in Congress seem intent on preventing the EPA and Army Corps from ever fixing the confusion in the Clean Water Act.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

Don’t allow Congress to dictate your sporting heritage. Sportsmen must speak up for strong, science-based protections for the waters and wetlands we care about.

On May 27, 2016—the one-year anniversary of the signing of the Clean Water Rule—contact your lawmakers to say that you want clean water for fish and wildlife. Tell them you support the Clean Water Rule and urge them to oppose any legislation that would stand in the way of this victory for sportsmen. Let’s flood their offices with support for healthy headwaters and wetlands.

>>TAKE ACTION FOR CLEAN WATER<<

Jonathan Stumpf

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posted in: General

Glassing The Hill: May 23 – 27

The Senate and House are both in session this week. Next week, the chambers will be in recess.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

The odds seem stacked against an energy reform package with sportsmen’s priorities. On Friday, the House dropped a revised energy bill that they are seeking to conference with Senate-passed energy legislation. However, with the clock ticking and the window of opportunity most definitely getting smaller, the House has added several provisions that seem to complicate the way forward for the energy package, including a controversial drought bill, a critical minerals package, and “The Resilient Federal Forests Act.” The House has also added their version of the sportsmen’s package, “The SHARE Act,” which will need to be conferenced with the key sportsmen’s act provisions in the Senate energy package. The House must still pass its amended legislation, but House-side conferees are expected to be named this week. There will be a House Rules Committee hearing on merging the House and Senate bills, as well.

The Senate has not yet named conferees, but would-be conference leader Chairwoman Murkowski has expressed interest in coming together quickly on next steps. Still, with so much discord between the two chambers, it could be a tall order for any conference committee to reconcile on a package that will pass.

Congress is also chipping away at appropriations bills. Last week, the Senate combined “The Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” and “The Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” into H.R. 2577, which passed with a 89-8 vote. The House passed their version of the military construction spending bill, too, with a 295-129 vote.

This week, the House will move to “The Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act,” which would provide adequate funding—a marginal increase from the President’s budget request—for the WaterSMART program to help keep water in our rivers for fish and wildlife. The increase goes to grants, a water recycling and reuse program, and the Cooperative Watershed Management Program, which would provide financial assistance for promotion of local water management solutions. However, the House bill includes language that would block the administration’s Clean Water Rule and does nothing to address Western drought. The Senate energy and water spending bill includes $100 million earmarked for a response to the lack of water in the West.

Then, on Wednesday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies will mark up appropriations bills for the U.S. Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Forest Service. Language has not yet been released, but the bill will likely address the costs of fire suppression, endangered species listings, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

A wary eye goes to the Senate NDAA. Last Wednesday night, the House passed its version of “The National Defense Authorization Act” (NDAA), including provisions that would effectively halt federal conservation plans to restore and protect greater sage-grouse habitat, with a 277-147 vote. This week, the Senate will consider its version of the NDAA, which does not currently include any controversial language about the imperiled grouse. We could still see a similarly worded amendment offered before the Senate votes and leaves for the Memorial Day recess.

We’re also pulling for naturally-occurring water infrastructure to be emphasized in important water legislation. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee released its version of the “Water Resource Development Act,” (WRDA), which would address national water resource projects managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. During the committee mark-up, Congressman Sanford (R-S.C.) is expected to champion language that would promote naturally-occurring infrastructure to enhance fish and wildlife habitat over traditional metal structures.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee already passed its version of WRDA, providing $9 billion in funds for water resource projects. The same appeal for natural infrastructure over new construction is expected when WRDA reaches the Senate floor sometime this summer.

What Else We’re Tracking

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Research, monuments, and facilities on public lands, to be discussed in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing

Water rights and agreements up for authorization in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans hearing

Appropriations impacting federal fisheries, headed for a House Appropriations Committee mark-up on the commerce, science, and transportation spending bill

An inquiry into DOI ethics, to be explored the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in a hearing

Implementation of the Clean Water Rule, to be discussed in a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife hearing

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Mining safety and technological innovation will be explored in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing

Kristyn Brady

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posted in: General

May 24, 2016

Idaho County Opposes Transfer of America’s Public Lands to the States

Board of Commissioners supports sportsmen’s access and outdoor recreation spending over short-term economic gain

In a meeting yesterday, the Blaine County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution to formally oppose efforts to transfer or sell America’s public lands to the state of Idaho or local governments.

Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen explains that the resolution highlights the value of public lands to county residents. It also supports every American’s ability to hunt, fish, and benefit from a public lands system that is the envy of the world.

Image courtesy of Coby Tigert.

“We want that message to be crystal clear,” says Schoen. “Stakeholder groups in Blaine County have worked collaboratively, openly, and productively with the federal agencies for years on a range of issues to protect these resources and improve public access, management, and outcomes.”

The county’s resolution recognizes the importance of public lands for:

  • Providing fish and wildlife with habitat, while offering opportunities for outdoor recreation—including hunting, fishing, hiking, wildlife-watching, horseback riding, and bicycling—that is essential to residents’ quality of life.
  • Attracting outdoor recreation tourism that drives local spending and employs hundreds of county residents.
  • Preserving historically significant and irreplaceable cultural sites and landscapes.

Public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service comprise 62 percent of Idaho and 78 percent of Blaine County. These areas are cherished for their top-notch fisheries, beautiful open landscapes, and exceptional wildlife habitat, says Joel Webster, Western lands director at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “There’s no doubt that the county is doing the right thing for its residents, and all Americans, by supporting one of our nation’s greatest treasures—our public lands.”

First Lite is a growing leader in the hunting world, and a growing outdoor business in the Wood River Valley,” says Ryan Callaghan, the hunting apparel manufacturer’s director of conservation public relations. “We have grown from an office of two to 14 employees since 2012, and I think we owe a great deal of our business to the simple fact that American outdoorsmen have so much access to public lands. We are certainly grateful that the commissioners are willing to formally oppose efforts that would take away that privilege here in Idaho.”

A growing number of Western counties in Colorado, Wyoming, and Arizona have recently taken formal positions to oppose the sale or seizure of America’s public lands. To learn more or take action, visit sportsmensaccess.org.

Joel Webster

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posted in: General

May 18, 2016

Sportsmen, Here’s Your Chance to Help Shape Future Use of BLM Lands

From river breaks to high mesas, and from sage coulees to semi-arid mountain ranges, America’s 245 million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands are some of the best places to hunt and fish left on the planet. These lands are “Sportsmen’s Country” and their future management is currently being reevaluated by public land managers.

Image courtesy of Eric Petlock.

If you depend on these BLM public lands for access to hunting and fishing, now is your chance to shape how these lands are managed for the next 20+ years. With many sportsmen in the West dependent on publicly-accessible, highly-functioning BLM public lands—the ones essential for producing quality big game, robust fisheries, and sustainable hunting and fishing opportunities—it’s critical we speak up to ensure our sporting heritage.

The BLM is currently requesting public input on their proposed rules to revise the agency’s national land use planning strategy for these public lands located primarily in the West. Dubbed “Planning 2.0,” the process represents the first substantial revision to the BLM’s land use planning process since 1983. This action will address the land use planning process that shapes landscape-level management through the creation of Resource Management Plans (RMPs). All local areas of BLM land are managed through RMPs, and these plans are the basis for every action and approved use on BLM managed lands. RMPs help to determine how and if fish and wildlife habitat conservation and management will be carried out, and they direct the agency to manage for outdoor recreation.

So how will this benefit sportsmen?

More (and hopefully better) public involvement: Successful land use planning includes early and frequent communication with the public, including sportsmen and women. Under the current BLM planning process, the public submits comments at the scoping period, those comments seem to disappear into the hands of the agency, and years later the BLM comes back with a proposed draft land use plan. The public then submits comments on the draft land use plan and the BLM disappears for another year or more before issuing a proposed final plan. This long timeline with little communication from the agency makes it difficult for the public to remain interested in the process, and the lack of transparency makes people question how and if their comments are being used.

Planning 2.0 is focused on fixing these problems by increasing the transparency of the land use planning process by creating a “plan assessment” process and “preliminary alternatives.” The plan assessment stage would enable the public (as well as agencies and elected officials) to provide information about the planning area before the agency begins considering how the lands should be managed. The preliminary alternative stage would offer draft management alternatives to the public for feedback before the draft land use plan is formally proposed. These additional steps would help to maintain increased public interest in the planning process and help to ensure that the draft RMP more closely meets the expectations of stakeholders.

Image courtesy of Coby Tigert.

Landscape level planning: As hunters and anglers, we know that mule deer and steelhead don’t stop and turnaround at the county line. Neither should land use plans. The BLM planning rules are also proposing to revise RMPs at the landscape level, such as across multiple BLM Field Offices at one time. Right now, land use plans are created along artificial jurisdictional boundaries, often at the Field Office level of the BLM within a particular state. This current system doesn’t account for resources that move beyond the lines on a map. By integrating landscape level planning into BLM management, the agency should be able to better care for fish and wildlife species that migrate and depend on different habitats throughout the year. Numerous fish and wildlife species should benefit from this change.

Managing for modern resource needs: Times have changed since the last time the BLM made significant revisions to its planning regulations. Over the past 33 years, the US population has increased by 85 million people, driving with it an increased thirst for natural resources and an increasing demand for outdoor recreation. Advancements in science and technology have given land managers an improved understanding of how fish and wildlife species use the landscape. As proposed, Planning 2.0 would better enable the BLM to manage for modern challenges and opportunities, by balancing resource development with habitat and recreation, allowing for the conservation of intact habitats and migration corridors, and providing for high-quality dispersed recreation, like hunting and fishing.

Now is your chance to help see these important changes integrated into BLM lands use planning. Take action today to ensure a positive future for fish and wildlife and your sporting heritage on America’s public lands.

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