Retreating From World Climate Accord Does a Disservice to Fish and Wildlife
Sportsmen will follow the science and do what we can to conserve our natural world for those still ‘within the womb of time’
President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement is a step in the wrong direction for our country’s fish, wildlife, and sportsmen, says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
“Hunters and anglers are on the front lines of the changing climate. We witness firsthand the changes that are happening to our fish and wildlife populations and natural systems across the nation: Lengthier fire seasons, delayed duck migrations, shrinking coldwater fisheries, dying coral reefs, tick-ridden moose, intensifying algal blooms, and much more,” says Fosburgh.
“Smart people can disagree about the solutions to climate change, but the science clearly shows that we need to do something. The Paris agreements might not be perfect, but they are voluntary measures embraced by almost all of the nations in the world. As Americans who enjoy so many privileges afforded by the outdoors, we must all help ensure that our natural world is conserved for our children and for, as Theodore Roosevelt stated, those still ‘within the womb of time.’”
With the absence of federal leadership, the TRCP counts itself among the NGOs that will need to join with states, local communities, corporations, and American citizens to follow the science and do what we can to conserve our outdoor heritage.
What Pennsylvania Farmers Have to Do With Chesapeake Bay Rockfish
Solutions for the biggest conservation challenges plaguing the Chesapeake Bay actually start at the farthest reaches of the watershed—on out-of-state farms and in Capitol Hill offices
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is one of the most impressive in the world. It covers 64,000 square miles across six states and the District of Columbia. It is home to about 18 million people and 2,700 species of plants and animals—more than any other watershed in North America. Prized sportfish like striped bass (locals know them as rockfish) swim and spawn here, and waterfowl hunters from all over visit for the annual Canada goose migration.
It is truly one of a kind, and D.C. residents are lucky to have the Bay right here in our backyard.
But this watershed also faces some serious challenges. By the mid-20th century it was clear that a few hundred years of intensive urban, agricultural, and industrial development had left the waters toxic and hypoxic, or lacking oxygen. Fish, wildlife, and anyone living or recreating in the watershed had been affected by the negative impacts of pollution.
To help track and improve the health of the watershed, the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science releases an annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card which scores the Bay on its water quality, fisheries health, and other vital signs. The first report card in 1998 gave the Bay a failing grade of 27 out of 100, but the results just released in May scored it at 54 out of 100—a strong uptick, but also showing there’s still a long way to go.
With clean-up efforts showing steady progress right where D.C. policy makers can see it, the Chesapeake Bay watershed could become a true conservation success story and model for the country. Over the next three weeks, we’ll be highlighting some of the major conservation issues remaining for Bay fisheries, some possible solutions, and what this means to sportsmen and women across the region.
Let’s start with what Pennsylvania farmers have to do with Chesapeake Bay rockfish.
A Committed Coalition
With a watershed extending across so many state borders, and with so many species, businesses, and American pastimes at stake, in 1983 an impressive coalition came together to take action. The governors of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania joined the mayor of D.C., the Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency—operating on behalf of all federal agencies—to sign the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement, an unprecedented commitment to watershed-wide cooperative action to restore the health of the Bay.
But even after three decades, there is much left to be done. So in 2014, the six original partners recommitted to a new Chesapeake Watershed Agreement, and brought the remaining Bay states—New York, West Virginia, and Delaware—into the fold. This new agreement will provide a framework for achieving watershed restoration in the next ten years and beyond.
A Watershed-Wide Responsibility
When thinking about how to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, it’s important to note that the Bay’s waters don’t generally empty out into the Atlantic Ocean. More than 180,000 miles of rivers, streams, and creeks starting as far away as Cooperstown, N.Y. ultimately deposit their waters in the nation’s largest estuary, mingling with tidal waters from the Atlantic. Most of what goes in stays in, so thousands of miles of upstream impacts are concentrated in one downstream basin.
This means that the state of the Bay really depends on what happens in and near the tributaries leading to it. For instance, nutrient pollution from urban development and agricultural lands upstream have negative impacts on rockfish in the estuary, which are sensitive to low oxygen conditions created by toxic algal blooms. (You can read more about what nutrient pollution means for sportsmen right here.)
Farmers are the Keystone of the Bay’s Restoration Efforts
This is why the 2014 Chesapeake Watershed Agreement focuses on reducing the excess amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment loads in the Bay, mostly by helping farmers upstream to keep nutrients on their fields and out of our public waterways.
There is no place more important to this effort than Pennsylvania.
For instance, the total goal is to reduce nitrogen pollution in the Bay by 40.7 million pounds per year. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), stakeholders have so far only been able to achieve 18.7 million pounds of reductions per year, watershed-wide. But if Pennsylvania were to achieve 100 percent of its state goals, most of which could be addressed through better farming practices, the state could knock out another 19 million of the remaining 21.3 million pounds per year, or 86 percent of the overall Bay’s nutrient reduction shortfall.
To dial it in even further, most of that shortfall could be addressed by tackling farm runoff in just five counties in south-central Pennsylvania.
Enter the Farm Bill
Chesapeake Bay stakeholders have a plan. If Pennsylvania can help its farmers to fully implement a handful of farmland conservation practices, the state could achieve most of the nutrient reduction goals for the entire Bay system. Farmers would get assistance in restoring forested areas alongside streams, strategically converting cropland to grasslands and wetlands, storing manure more safely, and building fencing to keep livestock out of streams.
The problem, as usual, is a lack of local funding to make it happen. Fortunately, the federal Farm Bill is intended to support exactly these types of initiatives.
These critical programs are set to be reauthorized by Congress in 2018. They’re not perfect, and they don’t work everywhere, but we’ll be fighting to renew and improve them for places like the Chesapeake region. Because without $5 billion in annual Farm Bill conservation funding, we have little hope of solving the Pennsylvania problem, and there are similar situations all around the country.
You can help TRCP fight for Bay restoration funding. Tell Congress that you support Farm Bill programs that reduce nutrient pollution, benefit farmers, provide habitat for fish and wildlife, and help to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish by signing the petition at CRPworks.org.
And of course stay tuned for the rest of our series on efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and rebuild its fisheries, from the bottom of the food chain on up.
Public Land Transfer is Dying in the West, But Evolving in D.C.
Sportsmen have largely stamped out the public land transfer movement in the West, but it’s not enough to simply keep it public now that a new kind of threat is emerging in the nation’s capital
It was just two years ago when our hunting and fishing opportunities on public lands fell under siege across the West. In 2015, a total of 37 individual bills were proposed in 11 Western states, all aimed at taking away our public lands and handing them over to the states to be industrialized or sold off.
At first, sportsmen and women may have been blindsided by the intensity and breadth of this onslaught, but our community quickly reacted by organizing rallies, testifying at committee hearings, and writing elected officials about the value of public lands. These methods were effective, but in some cases, too little too late. When the dust settled on the 2015 state legislative sessions, six bills had passed in four states.
Luckily, only the federal government has the authority to sell or give away our national public lands, but this was six bills too many. Sportsmen were even more informed and vocal the following year, isolating land transfer legislation to the state of Utah in 2016. In 2017, all of these state bills have died, an indication that state legislators understand land transfer is a toxic idea, having been bombarded by the sporting community and other constituents.
Though talk of transferring public lands continues, we’ll go ahead and say it: We’ve won in the West
It’s Not Over Yet
Sportsmen and women deserve to crack open a beer in celebration of recent victories, but we should do so with eyes wide open about the next threats to our public lands: The special interests and lobbyists have brought this fight to Washington, D.C., where they are working to take over our public lands in many carefully constructed, covert ways.
The people who want to take our 640 million acres of public lands ultimately just want control of how these lands are managed, so they can open them up to unfettered development. Management—not ownership—was always the ultimate goal, and there are three primary ways to gain it:
The wholesale transfer or sale of national public lands to the states, what we’ve been fighting since 2015, was just the first attempt and some are still pushing it.
Giving local or state agencies the authority to manage America’s public lands while they remain in federal ownership may sound better, but it will have essentially the same outcome as giving away our lands. By handing states management authority, national public lands would be managed like school trust lands, where profit is king and outdoor recreation, like hunting and fishing, is an afterthought.
Negating the multiple-use mandate on federal lands would mean losing the carefully crafted balance between hunting, fishing, timber, grazing, and energy extraction. We’ve recently seen versions of this model proposed through the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, which would enable states to take over the management of national public lands for industrial forest production, and a proposal from Congressman Rob Bishop that would give states veto authority over the management of sage-grouse habitat.
This method is basically land transfer disguised in more subtle packaging, and lawmakers are counting on the fact that you won’t understand their true intentions. But we see right through it.
Rewrite the Rules
If special interest groups don’t like the rules for balancing the many uses of public lands or taking local input into account on land management decisions, well then why not just change them? That’s essentially what they’re trying to do right now. Each week, it seems that the Trump administration is rolling out a new executive order to review or revise the rules guiding the management of our public lands. This includes an Executive Order that focuses on eliminating ‘burdens’ to energy production and an Executive Order that calls for evaluating 11.3 million acres of existing national monuments, possibly to proceed with rescinding or reducing their size.
These processes may create opportunities for special interests to rewrite the rules of public-lands management, removing conservation standards for fish and wildlife, while smoothing the way for industrial development. It’s imperative that sportsmen remain closely involved when the rules are being evaluated or rewritten to ensure that our interests and the needs of fish and wildlife get a fair shake in the process.
How Sportsmen Can Win
Land transfer is bad news on its face—it’s always been easy for sportsmen to recognize that and say ‘no way.’ Attacks on how our public lands are managed are sneaky and lower profile, cloaked in confusing policy, yet every bit as dangerous.
The good news is that America’s public lands are still ours—they are a part of what makes our country unique and we still have a say. For one thing, you can submit comments of support for our national monuments, many of which were created to safeguard fish, wildlife, and outdoor recreation opportunities, right here. We can remain as fired up as we have been about keeping public lands public and use that energy to hold lawmakers accountable for subtle attacks on public land management.
These threats aren’t always easy to explain and don’t fit nicely on a bumper sticker, but that’s why we’re so committed to keeping you informed. You’re going to hear a lot more from the TRCP about the not-so-obvious challenges we face on our public lands. Expect to hear us say, too, that it’s not enough to simply keep public lands public. Access means nothing without opportunity. Ownership of public lands is meaningless without quality habitat and abundant wildlife to pursue when we’re out there.
Groups Created to Provide Local Input on Public Land Management Are Told to Stay Home
The suspension of the BLM’s local advisory committees threatens transparent and collaborative management of America’s public lands
In a world that seemingly becomes more polarized and political by the day, public-land resource advisory councils—commonly known as RACs—have represented a last bastion of cooperation in public land management. These collaborative committees are made up of individuals from diverse interest groups, including ranchers, local agency representatives, environmentalists, commercial interests, and sportsmen-conservationists. RACs serve the important purpose of bringing diverse local perspectives to the table to find agreement over competing demands on our public lands, like grazing, development, recreation, and conservation. They have been very successful in shaping positive public-land management outcomes.
The Department of the Interior oversees more than 200 individual advisory committees, including 38 RACs that meet with the Bureau of Land Management—the largest public-land management agency in the country, responsible for 245 million acres of our public lands. In fact, three TRCP field staffers serve on full RACs in Idaho, New Mexico, and Oregon, and weigh in on issues affecting BLM lands.
That is, until their meetings were indefinitely suspended.
Per instruction from the Department of the Interior, the BLM recently notified all RAC members that future meetings will be postponed until at least September in order for the agency to review the “charter and charge of each Board/Advisory Committee.” In the meantime, local decisions about the management of our public lands will continue to be made, but without input from local stakeholders who are trying to find common ground and who are actually out there using the lands.
The Local Success of RACs
As a part of these committees, sportsmen and women have helped to shape the future management of world-class fish and wildlife habitat in places like the High-Divide of east-central Idaho and the Owyhees of southeast Oregon. These are places that we depend on for our hunting and fishing opportunities, and when ranchers, business owners, environmentalists, and sportsmen are all on the same page about how these lands should be managed, we all win.
Our Oregon field rep, Mia Sheppard, serves on the Southeast Oregon RAC, where recently they’ve made collaborative recommendations to state and BLM-district managers about everything from fire management to handling wild horse and burro populations. Mia has witnessed their recommendations having a real impact on the ground and sees her RAC’s involvement as critical to finding balanced solutions on Oregon’s public lands. To remove RAC members from the process would further disconnect and delay resource policy and planning.
Down south, our New Mexico field rep, John Cornell, serves on the Las Cruces District Southwest New Mexico RAC. Currently, they are helping to shape a plan for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, focusing on improving access and maintaining sensible restrictions around historical sites—part of the reason this monument was designated. Stakeholder representation and input from hunters and anglers, specifically, is crucial and could be cut out entirely if these meetings are postponed until at least September.
In Idaho, Coby Tigert, deputy director of our Center for Western Lands, serves on the Idaho Falls District RAC, where they’ve been actively involved in management decisions that will affect more than four million acres of BLM lands. “In addition to upcoming land-use plans,” says Tigert, “the Idaho Falls District manages grazing, sage grouse habitat, and extensive phosphate mining leases on public lands. The diverse membership of our RAC helps balance the interests of the public with the BLM’s multiple-use mandate.” The postponement of RAC meetings could put all of this into question.
Keep It Collaborative
These are just a few examples of the collaboration and public input that would be lost if RACs were disbanded across the West. Moreover, the suspension not only threatens the responsible management of our public lands—it could further build disdain for the federal government.
RAC members have committed their precious time to do what’s best for our public lands, and now the agency risks sending the signal that it may not value their opinions or, in some cases, their years of hard work. This is the kind of action that encourages discontent and adds to the misguided sentiment that transferring public lands to the states may be a better alternative.
At a time when the public’s trust in the federal government is at an all-time low, the Dept. of the Interior and administration should be holding up RACs as the standard for how we should be working together to best utilize our natural resources in a way that benefits the most amount of people. We encourage the agency to restart the RAC meeting process as soon as possible.
In the meantime, watch for more from the TRCP on how the threats to public land management are just as real as the movement to transfer or sell off your public lands access—enthusiasm for public lands is at an all-time high, but it’s not enough to simply keep it public.
Sportsmen Concerned for Wildlife Conservation in USDA Department Shuffle
Department changes could shift the focus of the Natural Resources Conservation Service away from habitat programs to farm services
At a press event today, Secretary Perdue announced restructuring at the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would move the Natural Resources Conservation Service to a newly-created Farm Production and Conservation mission area to also house the Farm Service Agency and Risk Management Agency. A new undersecretary position has been created to oversee all the on-the-ground needs of America’s farmers, ranchers, and private foresters.
The move could provide opportunities to better align farm programs and improve conservation delivery. However, the concern from the sportsmen’s community is that this could shift the priorities at NRCS—the agency responsible for hugely successful programs benefiting water quality and game species like sage grouse—to focus more on farm productivity and perhaps give short shrift to fish and wildlife conservation on private lands.
NRCS is one of the most important federal agencies for conservation in America, wielding approximately $4 billion annually in conservation funding and boasting great success working with farmers and ranchers to improve soil health, water quality, and fish and wildlife habitat. The stewardship of private landscapes through voluntary actions by agricultural producers has helped create rural American sporting destinations that support jobs and healthy communities.
With so many benefits to landowners, hunters, anglers, and businesses on the line, sportsmen’s groups hope that USDA moves forward with this reorganization plan in a way that maintains the department’s integrity and focus on soil, water, and wildlife program goals.