Proposed Energy Bills Would Limit Sportsmen’s Role on Public Lands
Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development say draft legislation pushes ‘pay to have a say’ approach to permit decisions
A coalition of sportsmen’s groups are questioning draft legislation that would make it more difficult for sportsmen and women to comment on oil and gas lease sales on public land.
Under one of the draft bills discussed at an Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee hearing this week, the Interior Department could impose a “filing fee” for anyone submitting administrative protests of oil and gas lease sales, permit-to-drill applications, and issuance of right-of-way grants.
The “base filing fee” for protests of 10 pages or less would be $150, with “an additional assessment of $5” for each additional page, and “$10 per additional lease parcel,” according to the discussion draft. Lawmakers also considered three other discussion drafts that seek to fast-track permitting and curtail the process used to determine if a project should be “categorically excluded” from further environmental review and public comment.
“It is already difficult for the American public to be thoughtfully involved in the decision-making processes that lead to energy development on public lands, even when these decisions put our best hunting and fishing areas at risk,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Instead of further minimizing the input of hunters and anglers, we ask lawmakers to give sportsmen and women a better seat at the table and for more transparency in public land management decisions.”
“Most sportsmen and women believe we can balance responsible energy development with hunting, fishing and other uses of our public lands, but it takes thoughtful planning and consideration of all the resources,” says Aaron Kindle, senior manager of Western sporting campaigns for the National Wildlife Federation. “When it takes decades or longer for habitats to recover from irresponsible development, it’s more than reasonable to ask for prudent deliberation and appropriate safeguards. These bills are the opposite of that and should be rejected.”
“Sportsmen and women who value their public lands want a voice in the permitting process,” said Corey Fisher, senior policy director for the Sportsmen’s Conservation Project at Trout Unlimited.“Limiting public comment and creating a ‘pay to have a say’ system will affect the very people who know these lands best. We can have both responsible energy development and conservation, but this requires that everyone affected—landowners, state and local governments and public lands users—gets a fair shake and a say in the management of our public lands.”
The TRCP is encouraging sportsmen and women to defend our say in public land management by signing the Sportsmen’s Country petition. It’s not enough to keep public lands public. We must demand that they are thoughtfully managed for all the many ways Americans use these incredible resources.
This State Has One-Third of the Country’s Abandoned Mines (and It’s Bad News for Fish)
Abandoned mines have harmful effects on water quality and fish habitat across the country, but lawmakers can make it easier for volunteers to shoulder some of the cleanup effort without taking on big risks
Coal mining may be a major part of Pennsylvania’s cultural history, but groups like Trout Unlimited are concerned that abandoned mines could threaten the future of some of the state’s most popular trout streams.
Here are the numbers: There are roughly 500,000 abandoned mines across the country—46,000 of these are on public lands—where heavy metals and acidic runoff cause water quality issues on approximately 110,000 stream miles. With 20 percent of these waters serving as habitat for native trout or salmon, this should be of national concern to anglers.
But the backlog of abandoned mines really hits home in the Keystone State, where one-third of all derelict mining operations in the U.S. are located. As of 2006, this left the state with approximately 4,000 miles of streams that were essentially devoid of all aquatic life, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
The good news is that elected officials have an opportunity to let well-intentioned groups and volunteers get in on the daunting task of cleaning up the mess, with legislation that would remove a major hurdle.
A New Endgame
These days, before a coal mine commences operations, a plan is created for its eventual shutdown—even if that may be decades down the road. Mining companies have to figure out how they will dispose of leftover waste and complete a full cleanup, but this wasn’t always the case.
While some states started regulating the coal industry in the 1930s and 1940s, the federal government didn’t begin regulating active coal mining until 1977. At that time, Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to address concerns about the environmental effects of roughly two centuries of mining in the United States.
It used to be that businesses would simply pack up and leave when mines were no longer productive, forcing the surrounding community to deal with the negative repercussions on water resources and the local economy. In many cases, these abandoned mines were “orphaned,” meaning that the government cannot find the original mine owner, which puts taxpayers on the hook for the cleanup. The surface mining legislation of the 70s required that mining companies abide by a set of environmental standards and create plans for the reclamation of land after mining was complete.
The Cost for Fish and Water Quality
People who live near abandoned mine sites can be exposed to serious health hazards from the toxic runoff, so it’s easy to see how bad this can be for fish. Sediment runoff can carry contaminated silt and debris downstream, clogging waterways and altering river flows that keep water at a steady temperature for coldwater fish. Highly acidic waters that come out of abandoned coal mines can decimate fish populations and make some streams completely uninhabitable for any aquatic life, including food sources important to fish we love to catch.
Some of the Pennsylvania’s severely impaired streams are dangerously close to highly productive fisheries. For example, the headwaters of Kettle Creek are Class A wild trout waters popular with fly fishermen, but fifteen miles of the main stem were virtually lifeless by the 1950s because of past mining activity.
That’s where Trout Unlimited stepped in to help. They partnered with Kettle Creek Watershed Association in 1998 to install passive treatment systems that help normalize highly acidic water and, utilizing traditional remediation techniques, they’ve been able to clean up almost the entire creek, which has reopened fishing access in places like Twomile Run.
But even well-intentioned groups like TU have to overcome two major hurdles to help with cleanup efforts that are critical to ensuring that the next generation has quality places to hunt and fish.
Here’s the Rub
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act also created a means of paying for the cleanup of abandoned mines by assessing a small fee on every ton of coal produced. Since the creation of this trust fund, more than $5 billion has been distributed to states in the form of grants to help clean up abandoned mining lands.
But funding for this program expires in 2021. It might not seem urgent, but the last reauthorization took nearly a decade, and opponents of the trust fund are already advocating for the immediate end of the program and fees on the production of coal.
Even if we secure this important funding, there’s an urgent need for “Good Samaritan” legislation that will allow non-federal entities, like TU, to help clean up abandoned mine sites.
Under current legislation, if a nonprofit steps in to help clean up an abandoned mine site, they are legally liable for any issues with the site in perpetuity, even if they had no prior connection to the project. This limits the opportunities for volunteer groups or organizations to shoulder some of the burden of cleaning up and helping to restore fish and wildlife habitat for the next generation, because they cannot take on the incredible risks.
Pennsylvania has provided reasonable liability protection for groups that want to help clean up abandoned mines, and many organizations have stepped up. We’re supportive of TU’s efforts to educate sportsmen and women about Good Samaritan legislation and the ongoing risks abandoned mines pose to fish, wildlife, and clean water in Pennsylvania and across the country.
Experts Respond to the Top Seven Gripes We See from Chronic Wasting Disease Skeptics
There is a lot of misinformation out there, so we had three experts clarify exactly what will and won’t help stop the spread of CWD
Since the TRCP first began advocating for real and meaningful steps from national decision makers to control Chronic Wasting Disease, we’ve noticed that this emerging epidemic seems to be the new climate change. While the topic has become unnecessarily politicized in many online forums, some common misconceptions could be keeping many hunters from taking urgent action.
Many of us get reliable information from our friends and social networks about where to go hunting and fishing, what gear to buy, and what techniques to try. But on an issue that is this important to the future of deer hunting in America, we’d rather have hunters hear directly from the experts. So we brought together three of them to tell us honestly if any of these CWD-deniers have a point.
Here’s how they responded—calling on science, field experience, and just good sense—to the most common gripes we see from skeptics.
Gripe #1: “Chronic Wasting Disease has been naturally occurring as long as there have been deer—it is not new and the threat is no more imminent today than it was decades ago.”
RICHARDS: While it is challenging to prove either way, there is little evidence to support the idea that CWD has existed as long as deer have. The CWD distribution pattern observed in several geographic regions suggests disease was introduced in a modern timeframe, became established, and subsequently spread in a radial and progressive fashion. In several areas where the disease has been documented the longest and where prevalence is highest, population impacts have now been documented. If CWD had “been around forever,” it seems likely that these impacts would have been documented in the historical record.
THOMAS: CWD was first identified in the United States in 1967 in Colorado—so, no, it’s not exactly new. But it’s clear that the threat of CWD is growing at a faster rate each year. It has gradually spread around the Western states and into Canada, and in 2002, it was found east of the Mississippi River for the first time in Wisconsin. Mississippi recently became the 25th state to find the disease. Not only is the disease spreading across the United States—through the legal transport of live deer and elk and the natural movements of wild deer—it is also putting down deeper roots in affected areas. In one county in Wisconsin, more than 50 percent of adult bucks tested came up positive for the disease, and that rate has climbed faster each year that testing has been done.
CORNICELLI: It’s also important to note that state wildlife agencies have a moral and legal obligation to manage wildlife populations for the long-term. So, whether or not you believe that this threat is “imminent today”—which I do—it’s my job to focus on the future of these species. This concept is often difficult for hunters and many others to understand, because in today’s society we live so much in the present.
Gripe #2: “I’m not worried about CWD, because the disease has never been found in humans.”
THOMAS: It’s true that a link between CWD in deer and illness in humans who consume deer has not been proven. However, because similar diseases, such as mad cow disease, have made the jump from cattle to humans, both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control urge caution. A recent review of 23 different studies of CWD potential in humans concluded that “future discovery of CWD transmission to humans cannot be entirely ruled out on the basis of current studies, particularly in light of possible decades-long incubation periods for CWD prions in humans.” That’s why the QDMA urges hunters who kill deer in CWD zones to have each deer tested for the disease and wait for test results before consuming the venison.
CORNICELLI: Why take the risk? I am astonished at the low number of deer tested in Wisconsin counties with the highest concentration of CWD. It indicates that hunters are perfectly comfortable feeding infected venison to their families. Perhaps because at this point in time we aren’t seeing human disease, people don’t think it will ever be an issue. However, I follow the CDC guidelines, and so do most of the people I associate with.
Gripe #3: “I’m not worried about possibly consuming venison from a CWD-positive deer, because I don’t eat my meat rare.”
RICHARDS: Disease-associated prion proteins are very resistant to breakdown by heat. As such, cooking venison from a CWD-positive deer, regardless of how “well done” it is, will not appreciably deactivate prions.
THOMAS: One study found that prions are still viable after being incinerated at 1,562 degrees Fahrenheit. “Well done” won’t even scare ‘em.
CORNICELLI: Perhaps Hank Shaw can write a book on CWD-venison recipes? “Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion: The complete guide to cooking venison ash.”
Gripe #4: “We should just allow the natural predators of deer and elk to take care of the CWD problem.”
THOMAS: CWD incubates in whitetails for an estimated minimum of 16 months and an average of two years before the deer become “clinical.” This is when they begin to show symptoms and would be more susceptible to predators in their weakened state. Higher predator numbers would not control CWD, because adult deer are infectious to other deer throughout the entire incubation period.
Gripe #5: “Can’t we just shut down all the deer farms? Problem solved.”
RICHARDS: Even without the captive cervid industry, CWD will likely continue to grow and spread—it is now well-established among some wild cervid populations. Reducing or eliminating human-assisted movement of CWD, on the other hand, has been identified as a key preventative measure.
CORNICELLI: Even if we agreed it was the right decision, it would be difficult. The captive cervid industry is well-connected politically and has been very effective at promoting their importance to the world economy. Conversely, hunters do a poor job organizing and can sometimes seem more interested in their short-term benefits—antler point restrictions, season timing, and bag limits—rather than the long-term viability of deer populations. This is how deer farming, a small industry at $17 million a year in Minnesota, can overwhelm something as economically important as statewide deer hunting, worth $500 million a year in Minnesota.
Then there are hunters who buy into the captive cervid industry propaganda, saying, “This is not a big deal, we can use genetic manipulation to solve this problem, and captive cervid testing is 100 percent accurate.” None of this is remotely true.
Gripe #6: “You are exaggerating the scope of the CWD problem and fearmongering to raise money.”
THOMAS: Perhaps the most dangerous thing about CWD is how slowly it eats its way through a deer population. It does not create stacks of dead deer that are visible to hunters. In fact, many hunters in CWD zones never see sick deer. While CWD is always fatal to any deer that gets it, they may not show symptoms or appear sick for up to two years. Meanwhile, they are spreading it to other deer and depositing prions in the environment through their saliva, feces, and urine. So the situation may not appear alarming, even inside CWD zones.
The alarming part is what will happen to these deer populations over the next 10 years, 20 years, and beyond. There is no vaccine or cure for CWD, it is 100 percent fatal, and we still don’t know how to eradicate it from areas where it has been established. These are the facts—not exaggeration—and this is a recipe for a slow-moving disaster. Action must be taken now to prevent the further spread of CWD and to focus research on finding solutions.
Gripe #7: “CWD is such a huge problem, there’s nothing that any of us can do at this point.”
CORNICELLI: I don’t share that fatalistic view, and I think there’s still a lot we can do—although I admit that in several places (parts of Wisconsin), the horse has not only left the barn, it died some time ago. As an agency manager for more than 25 years, I would be negligent in my responsibilities, as would my colleagues, if we threw up our hands and gave up. But wildlife management authority is not created equal in every state. Some states have the regulatory authority they need to find solutions, but often state legislatures are unwilling to take the necessary steps to do what the state wildlife agency believes to be right.
THOMAS: Yes, there is, and hunters can contribute. When you travel out of state to hunt, find out if you’ll be hunting in a CWD zone, learn the local regulations about transporting parts of your deer carcass. If you learn of someone planning to illegally transport live deer, report them to law enforcement.
Prevention is the only effective method for dealing with CWD, and hunters in unaffected areas must become engaged in the prevention effort. If you don’t have CWD in your woods, you don’t want it.
Revamping a Key Conservation Funding Program So There Are More Hunters to Pay In
With participation in hunting declining, an important source of conservation funding is also at risk—unless we can invest more in recruiting the next generation of sportsmen and women
Did you know that every year, hunters contribute more than $700 million to state wildlife conservation efforts? That’s right—for more than 80 years, sportsmen and women have been overwhelmingly responsible for the health of fish and wildlife populations in America.
At the start of the 20th century, several wildlife species were imperiled, with few safeguards in place for dwindling populations. Recognizing that inaction may result in not only the mass extinction of America’s wildlife but also our pursuit of wildlife, hunters decided to take matters into our own hands.
In 1937, with support from the nation’s earliest sportsmen’s organizations, Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Act, which created the Wildlife Restoration program. Since then, more than $10 billion in excise taxes on shooting and archery equipment have been distributed to state wildlife agencies for wildlife conservation projects, hunter education courses, and public access improvements. In most states, Pittman-Robertson is the only source of funding for fish and game agencies.
But recent data paints a grim picture for the future of hunting and wildlife conservation.
Between 2011 and 2016, the number of hunters declined by 16 percent—from 13.7 million to 11.5 million people. Additionally, the hunting population aged slightly, while the average number of days hunters spent afield decreased from 21 to 16. And, perhaps most distressing for hunters relying on healthy wildlife populations, spending on hunting equipment dropped 8.6 percent, from $14 billion to $12.8 billion.
Clearly, maintenance of the status quo should be off the table.
Taking Aim at the Issue
Fortunately, our elected officials are making efforts to remedy this situation. On May 8, the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved a bill introduced by Rep. Austin Scott to modernize the Pittman-Robertson Act by allowing states to spend some of these funds on direct efforts to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters. A companion bill from Sen. Jim Risch has strong bipartisan support and co-sponsorship.
If passed into law, this could boost R3 efforts through mentoring and outreach via television or even social media—you know, where the younger generations spend their time.
“With this legislation, the current generation of sportsmen and women has a chance to leave a lasting legacy on the footprint of conservation—much like hunters did in 1937, when Pittman-Robertson was passed,” says Cyrus Baird, programs director for the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports. “By allowing state fish and wildlife agencies more flexibility to use P-R funds to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters, we are ensuring the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation will remain effective for generations to come.”
A Tackle Box for Information
Champions of the “P-R Mod” effort are fairly sure that legislative changes will be worth it, because the model has already been successful on the fishing side. The Dingell-Johnson Act created the program that distributes excise taxes on boating and fishing equipment to the states for fish and habitat conservation, but with one key difference: Every year, about $12 million in Sport Fish Restoration funds go towards national angler R3 efforts.
This has led to programs like Take Me Fishing, the incredibly helpful initiative that provides resources for beginning anglers looking to purchase a license, tie a lure, identify a walleye, or read up on their state boating laws. Take Me Fishing has also partnered with state fish and wildlife agencies to reach out to Americans who are underserved and underrepresented in the fishing industry.
This is all made possible by Sport Fish Restoration funds and has been critical in growing fishing participation numbers and the economic impact of anglers across the country. Between 2011 and 2016, the angling population grew by 2.7 million people, while spending on fishing equipment increased by more than 36 percent.
Given the foundational role hunters play in wildlife conservation, we should be bold in our pursuit of efforts to recruit, retain, and reengage America’s hunters for the next generation. Bringing Pittman-Robertson up to date is one pragmatic way to do that.
Top photo courtesy of Tim Donovan.
Second and third photos courtesy of Northwoods Collective.
But we’re still looking to Congress and the Department of the Interior to work through some serious conservation goals we’ve been eyeing since January. Here are the six New Year’s resolutions we hoped to see them make to improve hunting, fishing, and habitat, and updates on where these issues stand today.
Fix Our Forests
A looming budget deadline offered a great opportunity to finally fix the way we pay for catastrophic wildfires—and reform forest management to help prevent fires in the first place. We thought lawmakers should pass a comprehensive fire funding fix in the budget deal to stop taking funds from forest restoration programs like prescribed burning and removal of invasive species and diseased trees.
Status: Done! Congress came through for sportsmen and all who rely on access to Forest Service lands in passing a comprehensive fix for fire borrowing in the fiscal year 2018 spending bill in March. We were thrilled and relieved to see bipartisan support for many other provisions that will benefit fish and wildlife habitat, clean water, sportsmen’s access, and the outdoor recreation economy, but the fire funding fix is a truly defining achievement, which will ensure that the Forest Service can get back to the business of maintaining healthy habitat and excellent facilities.
Bulk Up Water Quality Efforts in the Farm Bill
Looking ahead to the new Farm Bill, we hoped it would be one that would strengthen and maintain funding for USDA conservation programs. The work done with these funds keeps tons of pollutants out of rivers and expands water conservation on farms, which improves river flows to support healthy fisheries, strong outdoor recreation businesses, and flourishing rural communities.
Status: Possible. In the coming weeks, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018—otherwise known as the Farm Bill. This particular version of the bill is pretty contentious and not likely to be signed into law, but it proposes doubling the scope of the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to $3 billion. Of the many features of EQIP, one of the most popular is the incentive for landowners and farmers to incorporate cover crops into their planting rotation, and this practice has some benefit for improving soil health and slowing the progress of polluted farm runoff.
Invest in Access on Private Land
With legislation as massive and far-reaching as the Farm Bill, we knew there would also be a unique opportunity to boost hunting and fishing access in areas where there are few, if any, public lands. If Congress could reauthorize and expand the popular Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program—the U.S. Department of Agriculture program that incentivizes landowners to open their property for public hunting and fishing access—the improved opportunities for hunters and anglers would create a draw in some rural communities that desperately need an economic boost.
Status: Signs look pretty good. There was bipartisan support for a standalone bill introduced in the House in February to reauthorize and enhance VPA-HIP. And though the House version of the Farm Bill did not include quite as much new funding for the program as we wanted, lawmakers have proposed a decent bump.
Defend the Clean Water Act
We were insistent that Congress should not make it easier for the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers eliminate a rule that more clearly defined the protections of the Clean Water Act. Americans overwhelmingly support protecting headwater streams and wetlands, which are critical to fish and waterfowl populations. Trimming down on regulation doesn’t have to mean leaving these foundational waters and rapidly disappearing wetlands vulnerable to pollution or destruction.
Status: Still trending in the wrong direction. The two-step repeal process has been ongoing since last year, despite broad public support for the 2015 Clean Water Rule’s benefits to fish and wildlife habitat. But Congress did not use legislative riders to waive any procedures or give the greenlight to move forward more quickly, which is a quiet win.
Image courtesy of Amanda Nalley/Florida Fish and Wildlife.
Modernize Marine Fisheries Management
For five years, the leading advocates of recreational fishing and conservation worked with policy makers to improve federal recreational fishing management by modernizing data collection and allowing more involvement from state agencies and anglers. These essential changes were included in legislation that passed the House Natural Resources Committee in December 2017 and headed to the House floor. As of the first of the year, the Senate had an opportunity to improve upon this legislation and ensure that the vital contributions—cultural, economic, and conservation efforts—of the recreational saltwater fishing industry are finally recognized in federal law and policy.
Status: Closer than ever before. At the end of February, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation overwhelmingly approved the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, otherwise known as the Modern Fish Act. This legislation calls for critically important updates to the oversight of federal fisheries, by adding more tools to the management toolbox, improving data collection techniques, and examining some fishery allocations that are based on decades-old decisions. If passed into law, the Modern Fish Act would bring to fruition five years’ worth of input from the recreational fishing community and increase the level of trust between America’s 11 million saltwater anglers and federal fisheries managers.
Champion Conservation and Access Equally
Some of the best news of 2017 came out of the Department of the Interior, when Secretary Zinke asked agency leaders to identify and prioritize opening new hunting and fishing access to previously landlocked public lands and national wildlife refuges. While this is to be celebrated, we were anxious to see the DOI define a “conservation vision” for valuable habitats and hunting and fishing areas in 2018, to work in tandem with the vision that they have already established for expanding sportsmen’s access. This would include clear measures to recognize and conserve wildlife migration corridors, avoid or minimize impacts to habitat from development, plan locally to safeguard our best hunting and fishing areas, and allow conservation plans for greater sage grouse work as intended.
Status: TBD. In February, Zinke issued a Secretarial Order directing agencies to work toward better conservation of critical big game habitat, including migration corridors, stopover habitat, and seasonal ranges. And we’re hearing every assurance that the DOI will begin to make a broader pivot toward conservation now that they are satisfied with the direction we’re going on energy development. But the BLM is launching an amendment process for greater sage-grouse conservation plans that were settled in 2015—changes could affect 98 land-use plans for about 67 million acres across the West.
We originally posted “Six New Year’s Resolutions We Wish Congress and DOI Would Make” on January 5, 2018.
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.