Melinda Kassen

June 27, 2018

This Farm Bill Program Builds a Conservation Community Working for Rivers and Fish

There’s tremendous demand for landscape-scale water conservation projects that involve farmers, ranchers, urban communities, and sportsmen—now, the program that makes these projects possible could see a boost in the 2018 Farm Bill

The Senate has passed its version of the next five-year Farm Bill with bipartisan support for conservation programs that boost America’s rural economies. There’s a lot to like in the bill, but for those of us watching drought conditions worsen in the West, one provision stands out.

The Senate Farm Bill would improve and expand the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which encourages farmers, ranchers, sportsmen, and others to work together to improve watersheds on a landscape scale. This program has already been used everywhere from the Chesapeake Bay to the Columbia River to build resiliency in the face of pollution and drought.

The RCPP program has been wildly popular in agricultural communities, but it’s easy to see how sportsmen and women also benefit from these multifaceted projects. Here in Colorado, RCPP funding went toward improving the river in a way that helped to solve a water battle with cities east of the Continental Divide and allow ranchers to draw water into irrigation structures. But, at the same time, the project improved river flows and fish habitat in the Colorado River’s gold-medal trout fishery. Another RCPP project in our state will help ranchers conserve water while improving conditions for trout in the Gunnison River.

Better fishing and bigger outdoor recreation business is easy to describe to lawmakers who have the fate of RCPP in their hands. That’s why the TRCP brought hunters and anglers from Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming up to Capitol Hill this spring to talk to decision makers about the local benefits of landscape-scale conservation through RCPP. Here are the stories they shared.

The Economy-Savvy Rancher

Gib McKay, whose family owns Babbitt Ranch in Arizona, described educating Congressional staff and elected officials as a powerful responsibility. “Our job was to make sure that more than a select few people understand the urgent need for water solutions in the West,” he says. Local outdoor recreation businesses can only thrive if anglers and paddlers having suitable access to healthy waterways, and as a rancher, McKay knows too well just how critical it is to efficiently use surface and groundwater drawn from the river and shared with other Colorado River Basin states, especially in years with low snowpack.

“We work every day to ensure this limited water supply is not finite,” he says. “The Colorado River is our lifeblood and the indispensable resource that allows us to continue our stories. To conserve and care for the river is not just what we should do, it is what we must do.” And RCPP ensures that no one group has to do it alone.

The Trout Specialist

Also in our delegation was Mely Whiting, one of the architects of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Headwaters Project, which used RCPP funds to divert warm, silty water away from the Colorado River’s gold-medal trout stream and into a bypass channel. She explained to lawmakers that this project helped the region’s warring water interests to forge an important partnership, bury the hatchet, and improve fishing unlike any other single effort.

The Cowboy Fishing Guide

Paul Bruchez, a fishing guide and fifth-generation rancher with property that borders the Colorado, spread his message in a cowboy hat and suit. He described how the Colorado Headwaters RCPP project will help his family and their neighbors enhance irrigation practices, while strengthening the river banks and improving river flows—which is also great for his fishing clients.

“The RCPP program has allowed my family and neighboring families to comprehensively and collaboratively address the water resource problems that affect our ranches in the headwaters of the Colorado River,” says Bruchez. “These issues are too big for one ranching family to tackle. In fact, they are too big for any one sector of water users to solve. But combine 11 ranching families with conservation organizations, Front Range water providers, state and local governments, agricultural associations, and others, and we have been capable of results that would have been unheard of just ten years ago.” This is the power of the RCPP program—it creates a framework for collaboration and partnership around shared goals.

The Fly-Inspired Veteran

Finally, decision makers got a dose of inspiration from Jim Kuhns, a disabled veteran who learned to fly fish as part of his rehabilitation and liked fishing so much he started his own organization to give other vets the chance to build rods, tie flies, and experience the zen of casting. For Kuhns, fishing on streams improved by the Colorado Headwaters Project, as well as RCPP-funded projects in his home state of Wyoming, is a privilege. “I thought the D.C. decision makers we visited listened to our stories and let us know they appreciate our work to help veterans and improve the Colorado River.”

Their support for RCPP in the next Farm Bill could help other interested groups improve watersheds across the country.

Farm Bill Next Steps

Though the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill vary greatly, both chambers have shown confidence in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program by enhancing program funding and flexibility, even though the administration has proposed eliminating RCPP in its last two budget proposals.

After the Senate floor vote on the Farm Bill this week, Congress will meet in conference to work out the differences between their two bills. The product, we hope, will contain the very best conservation provisions for water quality and quantity, sportsmen’s access, and habitat improvements on private land before arriving on the president’s desk.

With the current Farm Bill set to expire on September 30, the pressure is on. But this is also an opportunity to make programs like RCPP work even better for sportsmen and women—we can’t afford to miss it.

Click here to learn more about TRCP’s Farm Bill platform and activities.

 

Top, second, and last photo courtesy of Russ Schnitzer, Schnitzerphoto.
Editor’s note: This post was updated after the Senate vote to advance the Farm Bill.

One Response to “This Farm Bill Program Builds a Conservation Community Working for Rivers and Fish”

  1. A great story about maximizing the long term value from a natural resource. Landscape scale conservation projects never easy, but can have a huge positive impact on all stakeholders. I really appreciate the differing perspectives of those that took the time to help our elected officials understand what the RCPP can lead to.

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Kristyn Brady

June 21, 2018

House Passes Farm Bill with Some Positives for Habitat and Access, Troubling Outlook for Conservation Funding

Big wins for the hunting and fishing community are undercut by unacceptable provisions that sap long-term conservation funding and threaten headwaters, forests, and wetlands

Today the House of Representatives passed its 2018 Farm Bill, “The Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018,” with a 213-211 vote. While there are some positive provisions for conservation and sportsmen’s access in the bill—the single largest source of federal conservation funding—it also includes a number of provisions that would undercut long-term conservation benefits to headwaters, forests, and wetlands.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is especially pleased to see a 25-percent increase for the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. As the only federal program aimed at opening private land to public access, VPA-HIP is a valuable tool for increasing hunting and fishing access to sportsmen and women across the country. The funding increase provided by the House bill is a much needed step towards meeting the $150 million required to meet landowner demand for the program. To date, this successful program has opened more than 950,000 acres of private land to the public for hunting and fishing across 30 states.

But this boost for hunting and fishing access is somewhat overshadowed by the long-term cuts to conservation funding in the bill. Unmet demand for Farm Bill conservation programs is at an all-time high, and sportsmen and women believe Congress should provide increased conservation funding to meet farmer and rancher demand. Also of concern is the inclusion of an amendment which seeks to repeal the Clean Water Rule, which protects our nation’s most vulnerable waterways.

“The proposed $795 million cuts to conservation would constitute a major disservice to all taxpayers—not just hunters and anglers—whose support for agriculture should not come at the cost of clean water and healthy soil,” says Whit Fosburgh, TRCP’s president and CEO. “The Farm Bill ensures that fish and wildlife continue to thrive in and around private lands while boosting hunting and fishing opportunities and the economic health of rural America. Especially since the House bill includes many of our community’s recommendations, we would have liked to see it move forward without short-sighted funding provisions or the handful of unacceptable amendments—like a repeal of the rule that clarifies Clean Water Act protections for headwater streams and wetlands and forestry provisions that would weaken the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.”

Other positive provisions overshadowed by cuts to conservation include:

  • $250 million in additional funding for the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program, which incentivizes landowners to conserve agricultural land and wetlands.
  • An additional $3 billion per year for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which helps landowners plan, install, or maintain practices that enhance water quality and wildlife habitat or reduce soil erosion and sedimentation.
  • Increased flexibility and $250 million per year for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which supports partnerships between conservation groups and agricultural producers to enhance soil, water, and wildlife conservation in multi-state or watershed-scale projects.
  • Maintains conservation compliance—the compact between America’s taxpayers and landowners that ensures support for crop production does not come at the cost of clean water and wildlife habitat.
  • An amendment from Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Penn.) that would prioritize USDA research on controlling the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease in deer.

Should the Senate follow suit and successfully pass their bill in the coming weeks, the TRCP and its Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group will work to ensure the best provisions of each chamber’s proposal are included in the final legislation.

 

Photo courtesy of Northwoods Collective. 

Kristyn Brady

June 13, 2018

Senate Committee Advances Farm Bill with Benefits for Habitat and Access

Bipartisan Senate Farm Bill includes major victories for sportsmen, wildlife, and water quality

Today the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee passed its 2018 Farm Bill, “The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018,” with a 20-1 vote. The Senate version of the bill shows bipartisan support for maintaining overall conservation funding on private lands, strengthening conservation compliance, and fully funding the Voluntary Public Access program that helps to enhance hunting and fishing opportunities on private land.

“This bipartisan Farm Bill sets the high-water mark for conservation on private lands that make up more than 70 percent of the country,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We applaud Chairman Roberts and Ranking Member Stabenow for producing a bill that meets some of the most pressing needs around habitat conservation and sportsmen’s access.”

Over the past two years, the TRCP and its 25-member Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group have developed and lobbied for key sportsmen’s priorities in this Farm Bill, and many have been included in the Senate committee’s draft—particularly full funding for conservation. In light of the proposal to cut conservation spending by nearly a billion dollars in the House version of the bill, the TRCP and more than 100 other hunting, fishing, conservation, food and farm organizations and businesses sent a letter to the Senate Agriculture Committee in May requesting full funding for conservation.

The TRCP is particularly grateful to see a renewed commitment to enhancing hunting and fishing access by maintaining level funding for the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program—the only federal program helping to expand hunting and fishing opportunities through partnerships with landowners. “We recognize it was a hard-fought bipartisan negotiation just to maintain VPA-HIP funding, and we look forward to working toward funding levels that better meet landowner demand,” says Fosburgh.

Sportsmen should also be pleased to see positive improvements for these three key conservation programs:

  • The percentage of Environmental Quality Incentive Program funds that must be used on farming practices that benefit wildlife increased from 5 percent to 10 percent.
  • Additional funding and flexibility was proposed for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which funds projects to improve wildlife habitat and water quality on a watershed scale.
  • Funding for the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program got a boost—the high demand for ACEP dollars to create wetland and agricultural easements far outstrips current budgets.

The Senate bill also maintains conservation compliance—the compact between America’s taxpayers and landowners that ensures incentive funding is being put into conservation on the ground—and closing the “perennial crop loophole,” which allows producers to sidestep conservation compliance by converting native sod to crops like alfalfa that have minimal wildlife benefits.

Hunting and fishing in America accounts for $63 billion in direct consumer spending and supports 483,000 jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. The future success of this vibrant economic sector is dependent upon clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, and adequate public access to outdoor recreation. The tools provided by the Farm Bill can play a significant role in boosting all three.

Provisions in the House Farm Bill do not currently match this Senate version, although there is much to celebrate in both. Sportsmen’s groups look forward to working with Congress to build a bipartisan conservation title that pulls the best features of each proposal into a Farm Bill that can be signed into law on time.

While this debate continues, brush up on your Farm Bill basics here.

 

Top photo by Chesapeake Bay Program via flickr

Steve Kline

June 6, 2018

Fishing Habitat Forecast: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and a Chance of Erosion

Flash flooding is the ugly face of stormwater that we see on the nightly news, but there are risks to clean water and fish when rain carries pollutants and plastics off sidewalks, parking lots, and rooftops

On Sunday evening, as a thunderstorm raged here in Maryland, my social media feed lit up with live videos and photos of massive flooding just 40 or so miles west of my home. Mere minutes from where I went to high school, the town’s historic Main Street became, for the second time in as many years, a furious torrent of water—bursting through shops and restaurants, carrying cars, and taking one man’s life. An Air Force veteran died helping to rescue people trapped in the flood.

This is the ugly face of stormwater. But it’s not just a safety concern for our communities as severe storms become the new normal—the deluge carries many dangerous pollutants into our fish and wildlife habitat, washing out our hunting and fishing opportunities.

So few conservation issues can be made as tangible as the raw power of this rainwater, unhinged and with the ability to upend lives. But you rarely see the images of destruction from storms connected with the consequence for sportsmen and women on the nightly news. Here’s why stormwater management should matter to anyone who depends on clean water for our best days afield.

A Conveyer Belt for Pollutants

Consider that water is often polluted by three main sources: The first, agricultural runoff, is exactly what it sounds like, and we’ve been over the consequences for fish and wildlife many times before. The second is wastewater, which leaves our sinks, toilets, bathtubs, and washing machines and is generally treated before reentering a watershed.

Stormwater is the third major source of pollution affecting fish and wildlife habitat—rain (or snow) runs down the street and off our sidewalks, driveways, parking lots, and roofs, all “impervious surfaces” that do not permit the absorption of water. This runoff is usually hot, fast, and dirty, and that’s a trifecta of bad news for waters and wetlands downstream.

Stormwater serves as a conveyor belt delivering the detritus of our daily lives to streams, rivers, and bays. The collection of stuff it carries varies wildly, but includes lawn fertilizers, motor oil, topsoil, and plastics of all kinds. And right now stormwater is contributing to problems with water quality and fish habitat in practically every watershed in the nation.

The pollution load increases as we develop more land and more impervious surfaces are built, and this is why stormwater runoff is the fastest-growing source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Stormwater carries nitrogen that feeds fish-killing algal blooms, which can also close our beaches. Stormwater runoff also fuels erosion that dumps sediment into our rivers, raising water temperatures and silting over the gravel beds that are critical fish spawning areas.

Prevention and Regulation

As sportsmen and other citizens continue to insist that our government—at all levels—takes clean water more seriously, stormwater regulation has become more and more common. Prevention involves building new roads or housing developments in ways that slow down, cool off, or block stormwater flows.

This can be done in several ways. Major highway and building projects often require expansive stormwater retention ponds that eventually come to serve as permanent functional wetlands that provide wildlife habitat while allowing sediment and nutrient pollution to filter out of the water before it goes downstream. Some public buildings around the Chesapeake Bay also boast porous paver parking lots that permit water to soak through instead of rushing off the dirty surface. And increasingly, we see the adoption of stormwater management around homes, with the installation of rain barrels and rain gardens.

Photo credit: Alisha Goldstein, EPA

These are largescale solutions requiring bulldozers and engineers and small projects that can be done on a DIY budget. But, either way, stormwater management has major benefits for fish and wildlife populations that may be far downstream of neighborhoods and roadways. Let’s not allow them to be out of sight and out of mind as we advocate for clean water solutions.

The Doppler radar will surely light up with severe storms again and again—we can’t afford to wait until a flash flood hits to recognize how much is at stake.

 

Top photo courtesy of Jan-Willem Reusink

Kim Jensen

May 31, 2018

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.

Shamokin Creek looking upstream in Shamokin, Pennsylvania
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.

Photo by Steve Droter/Chesapeake Bay Program via flickr
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.

Sulfur in the ground.
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.

Watch their video to learn more.

 

First and last photo by Peter and Laila via flickr

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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