This is welcome news to farmers, ranchers, landowners, and sportsmen and women, who depend on farm bill programs to restore and improve wildlife habitat, enhance water quality, and make private acres available for hunting and fishing.
“We’re relieved to see a Farm Bill move forward before this Congress concludes, because every day we go without critical programs for habitat and access it creates more uncertainty for rural America,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “With full funding for conservation and increased funding for states to create new walk-in access for hunting and fishing, this bill is a win all around—for sportsmen and women, landowners, wildlife, water quality, and our economy.”
The agreement includes a $10-million increase for the Voluntary Public Access program, which funds walk-in access for hunting and fishing on private land across the country.
“Since the 2014 Farm Bill expired this fall, it has been tough for landowners like me to make definitive decisions about how to put conservation on the ground, despite having the best intentions,” says Zane Zaubi of Horizon Land Development, who hosts youth and first-time hunters on land he has enrolled in VPA. “For farmers, ranchers, and landowners across the country who are willing to do the right thing, it’s a tremendous positive to have a Farm Bill on the horizon, ready to work for our business portfolios, local wildlife, and access to hunting and fishing.”
The conference committee was able to agree on providing increased funding for the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program, which helps landowners protect, restore, and improve wetlands. The legislation also provides a much needed increase in funding and flexibility for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which funds multi-state and watershed-scale projects to enhance soil, water, and wildlife conservation.
Featured Podcast: Will Congress Act in Time to Pass a 2018 Farm Bill?
Tune in to find out how the Farm Bill could enhance habitat and access on private land—if lawmakers can strike a deal in time
The hosts of the Your Mountain Podcast remind us that decisions are being made every day that could affect your land, water, and wildlife. So you should know about them. That couldn’t be more true right now, when we’re anxiously awaiting an agreement on the next Farm Bill. This critical legislation helps landowners implement conservation practices and open hunting and fishing access you wouldn’t otherwise have in rural America.
Here’s what you need to know about the time crunch and how conservation could lose out if lawmakers need to start the process all over again next Congress.
BLM’s Revised Sage Grouse Plans Continue Conservation But Create Uncertainty
The agency’s revised sage grouse conservation plans for 11 Western states will play a major role in determining the future of the sagebrush ecosystem, which supports more than 350 species
Today, the Bureau of Land Management revealed its revised plans to conserve greater sage grouse populations across nearly 70 million acres of public land in 11 Western states. The Trump administration’s approach will replace the original Obama-era plans, which helped to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confidence that the species did not warrant listing as threatened or endangered in 2015.
While the state-specific plans maintain the basic framework of the originals, which were created through years of collaborative effort, the new plans do not provide the same safeguards for certain sagebrush habitats. There is more potential for development and mineral extraction within sage grouse habitat in the new plans. Combined with the Department of Interior’s policy shift on habitat mitigation, this could be cause for concern.
“These new plans are a mixed bag, with some changes addressing legitimate requests from the states to help align with their conservation approaches and other changes stripping back protections for core sage grouse habitat and creating more uncertainty for the West,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
“Unless the impacts of development are properly mitigated to avoid further habitat loss, sage grouse could easily become a candidate for the threatened and endangered species list yet again. Success will ultimately come down to implementing these new plans to the letter, and never wavering from an approach that produces results for sage grouse populations and other species that depend on the sagebrush ecosystem. We will continue working with the BLM, the states, industry, and local partners to ensure that happens,” says Fosburgh.
Changes That Create Uncertainty
The revised plans eliminate focal areas, a subset of about 11 million acres of priority habitat on BLM land that would have been permanently withdrawn from any potential mineral extraction in the 2015 plans. The original no-surface occupancy policy remains—meaning infrastructure for development cannot be built on priority habitat—but the revised plans also give the BLM more flexibility to waive these protections in certain cases.
Mitigation also remains a sticking point, now that the Department of the Interior maintains that it lacks legal authority to require developers to pay for any negative impacts to habitat. (Quick tip: Here’s a metaphor that helps explain mitigation using beer!) This shifts the onus of regulation to the individual states, each of which has different mitigation standards and legal requirements. The states now must ensure their mitigation approaches are not only effective at curbing habitat loss, but also at holding all developers accountable on a level playing field.
“We cannot manage grouse at a level where we are only one major event away from having to list the bird,” says Steve Belinda, executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership. “Habitat, particularly on public lands, must be managed to withstand events we cannot control, like drought, fire, and disease, so conservation can be balanced with energy development, grazing, and other human activities we can control.”
No Time to Waste
The Trump administration first initiated a review of the original conservation plans in 2017. Since that time, secretarial orders and instruction memorandums issued by the DOI set the stage for amending the 2015 plans and changing how habitat is prioritized in relation to eligibility for oil and gas leasing.
A year ago, 105 wildlife and habitat experts urged the BLM and Secretary Zinke not to deviate from what the best science indicates is necessary in sagebrush country. They warned that major amendments to the 2015 plans and a lengthy delay in implementing conservation work could drastically alter the course for habitat conservation and undo years of hard work.
This is time that sage grouse don’t have to waste.
It will be important to move forward swiftly with implementation of any plan to conserve sagebrush habitat and begin tracking the effectiveness of conservation measures. “Whatever approach we take, the outcome for sage grouse and sagebrush habitat will need to be legally defensible,” says Dr. Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If there is not enough regulatory certainty, if there is too much flexibility leading to negative impacts on habitat, and it is determined that our actions were not effective, we may end up facing a legal challenge deeper than the one we started from years ago. At that point, it’s difficult to see a future where sage grouse aren’t reconsidered for listing.”
“The scale and magnitude of sage grouse conservation planning, while extraordinary, has always been an enormous experiment, and management actions largely remain untested,” says Dr. Ed Arnett, chief scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We need solid research and monitoring to demonstrate that management efforts implemented in these plans are, in fact, good for grouse. Until we see conservation manifested on the ground, we still just have good intentions for habitat and birds on paper in planning documents.”
The U.S. Forest Service is finalizing its own amendments to eight forest plans dealing with sage grouse conservation in the West. The public comment period for those proposed amendments closes on January 3, 2019.
We Make Time for the Outdoors, So Why Not for Conservation?
The TRCP is joining forces with REI to urge you to #OptOutside on Black Friday—and get more involved every day in the conservation issues that matter
As we prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, we’re proud to link arms once again with our friends at REI—and hundreds of global brands—to urge hunters and anglers to #OptOutside.
This year’s theme is about breaking our routines and finding time to spend in the outdoors. And this resonates with many of us, even if, as hunters and anglers, we probably go outside more than the average American. No matter how many days you log in the woods or on the water, don’t you feel the tug of your smartphone screen or the ping of a busy schedule?
It never hurts to slow down, shut our devices off, and head down the trail to where true adventure is within our reach—even if we may be unreachable for a few hours. But making time to enjoy the outdoors (and derive the cortisol-lowering benefits of testing ourselves in the pursuit of game and fish) is only meeting half the need.
It’s also critical that we prioritize taking action to safeguard our outdoor recreation opportunities for the next generation.
Engaging in the fight for well-managed public lands, cleaner water, better habitat, more funding for conservation, and stronger outdoor recreation businesses looks different for everyone. You might donate to an organization you trust. (After all, Giving Tuesday is coming up—hint hint.) You might sign a petition, attend a workday, or share an article on social media that taught you something about conservation, hoping others will learn from it, too.
But how many times has something like this happened: You get an email about an upcoming meeting hosted by your local BLM field office to collect public comments on a proposed plan for managing public lands in your area. As someone who cares about the fish and wildlife resources and hunting and fishing opportunities on these lands, the stakes are pretty high for you, and your opinion carries a lot of weight in this public process. But the meeting is on a weekday night and you’re not sure you understand all the issues. You delete the email.
Or this: You’re scrolling through your Instagram feed and see a call to action about the lapsed Farm Bill. A conservation organization you trust says that we lose out every day we go without the programs that help farmers improve habitat and walk-in access for hunting and fishing, and it’s imperative that we pressure Congress to take urgent action. You click the link in their bio, but then a stream of text messages come in that you need to respond to, and before you know it, you’re late to drop the kids off somewhere.
Getting more involved in conservation isn’t always convenient, especially when it’s all we can do to carve out time to actually use our hunting and fishing licenses or the access we worked hard to secure with a landowner’s permission. Still, the routine we may need to break is the one where we tell ourselves, “I’ll do it later,” “This is not my fight,” or worse, “Someone else will do it.”
It’s up to all of us to find the time and energy to dedicate ourselves to the conservation issues that will determine whether or not our children and grandchildren have quality places to hunt and fish. We must sign up, step up, and speak out for more responsible management of public lands, stronger habitat and access incentives for private landowners, and the best possible clean water standards and conservation funding levels.
As REI reminds us, #OptOutside is about more than a company making a bold move on Black Friday. It’s about inspiring a movement.
So find the time. Stretch your legs and your mind. Replenish your soul in the outdoors. Then, when you finally head back to your screens and social networks, do whatever you can, whenever you can, to support conservation.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership was created to bring together nonprofit partners, individual hunters and anglers, and outdoor recreation businesses to rally behind common conservation policy goals. Here’s why we do what we do—and how you can help.
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.