Marnee Banks

April 8, 2019

Highway Bill Presents Golden Opportunity to Support Conservation and Outdoor Recreation

44 groups offer input as lawmakers craft infrastructure legislation

“A paradigm shift.” That’s what 44 hunting, fishing, and conservation groups are calling for as lawmakers begin drafting infrastructure legislation.

With the current Highway Bill expiring in 2020, these organizations are asking Congress to invest in natural infrastructure, recreational access, improved permitting, and fish and wildlife habitat connectivity as lawmakers address resilient highway systems and federal roads.

“Improvements to our road systems can benefit wildlife habitat and hunting and fishing access, rather than detract from them,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “And now is the perfect time for Congress to invest in lasting solutions for our fish, wildlife, and outdoor way of life. Hunters and anglers are ready to roll up our sleeves and work with lawmakers to draft legislation that takes a holistic approach to infrastructure.”

“The Association is supportive of this legislation that is offering states the opportunity to increase their conservation efforts of fish and wildlife,” said Ron Regan, executive director for the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies. “The next Highway Bill will reauthorize funds that are the backbone of great fisheries management and conservation work, as well as access for boating and fishing that is provided by state fish and wildlife agencies across the country.”

“Collisions with vehicles and severed migratory movements are two key issues impacting mule deer and other big game species that need to be addressed in the next transportation bill,” said Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “The states need dedicated funding to ensure wildlife crossings are a priority in the future and not simply a ‘nice to have’ project if extra funds are available.”

“Conservation of our lands, waters, and wildlife is essential to our economy and well-being, so decisions about how to answer challenges like our highway infrastructure should include nature-based solutions,” said Kameran Onley, director of U.S. government relations at The Nature Conservancy. “For example, enlarging culverts to allow for increased flow of water during extreme rain events not only saves money by preventing future road and bridge damage, but also enhances wildlife and fish habitat. Solutions like these are cost-effective investments that generate impressive returns for all Americans, and we urge Congress to make those investments in the upcoming highway bill.”

“Forest roads are essential to get us to the places we like to fish, but if they’re not properly designed and maintained, they can harm fisheries by causing sedimentation and habitat fragmentation,” said Steve Moyer, vice president for government affairs at Trout Unlimited. “That’s why the transportation bill and programs like Legacy Roads and Trails are so important to anglers. National forests provide some of our best trout habitat, and Legacy Roads and Trails has provided funds that can be leveraged with other sources to right-size our road system and reconnect hundreds of miles of trout streams.”

“Transportation infrastructure on the National Wildlife Refuge System, including roads, trails, and bridges, is critical to providing the American people with safe access to their public lands and waters,” said Geoffrey Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “The 2020 Transportation Bill’s inclusion of funding for the Refuge System to maintain and improve transportation infrastructure is critical to the 53 million annual refuge visitors and their recreational needs. Creating proper wildlife crossings and signage will also protect people and wildlife from vehicular collisions.”

“We welcome Congress’s steadfast commitment to passing a robust highway reauthorization bill in 2020 and encourage them to seize the opportunity by including a ‘Recreation Title’ in a comprehensive infrastructure package this year,” said Nicole Vasilaros, senior vice president of government and legal affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “Outdoor recreation is a significant part of the U.S. economy—contributing 2.2 percent of the U.S. GDP and supporting 4.5 million American jobs—and it behooves lawmakers to put our industry front and center in any infrastructure-related debate.”

“Conservation lands—and the stewards of those lands—are impacted by transportation and public works projects in profound and often overlooked ways,” said Ben Jones, president and CEO of the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society. “We appreciate the attention of our conservation partners and leaders in Congress to address such issues as promoting nature-based, resilient transportation systems and taking a needs-based assessment to funding road maintenance for our national forests and other lands.”

“As we continue to learn more about big game migration corridors and related barriers, it is imperative that we better integrate infrastructure planning with our wildlife connectivity needs,” said Dan Forster, vice president and chief conservation officer of the Archery Trade Association. “We are very excited to see improved integration efforts manifest themselves through these ongoing efforts.”

“Transportation systems are important in many ways to our human qualities of life, as are the natural landscapes through which these corridors occur,” said Tom Logan, chairman of the Board for Fly Fishers International. “Both values can only be assured, though, if future transportation planning considers the biological function and value of the nation’s land, water, fish, and wildlife. The 2020 transportation bill provides an excellent opportunity to establish smart environmental planning as the standard for protecting our public lands and waters, while maintaining our nation’s transportation systems.”

“Lack of habitat connectivity and water quality are two of the largest problems impacting fish species right now, and this includes popular recreational species and imperiled species alike,” said Doug Austen, executive director of the American Fisheries Society. “However, small investments in better road design can pay big dividends for both fish and people by providing better flood prevention, reconnected stream habitats, and improved durability for extreme weather events, especially for road-stream crossings.”

The groups’ letter to Senate lawmakers can be found HERE.

 

Top photo by USFWS Midwest Region

6 Responses to “Highway Bill Presents Golden Opportunity to Support Conservation and Outdoor Recreation”

  1. Mike Nigl

    A very interesting viewpoint about a subject I never really gave much thought about. Another reason that belonging to and supporting the TRCP is very important. THANKS for this information.

  2. Hugh Carola

    I agree. This needs to be done – and quickly. Sadly howver, Ducks Unlimited is once again MIA as regards the signing of the letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member. What is with that organization nowadys?

  3. How exactly will this bill help wildlife migration “conectivity”and waterways etc.?
    Without specific language relative to these topics it will likely be just another road bill by the time its done.

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Kristyn Brady

April 3, 2019

EPA’s Clean Water Rollback Will Double Down on Water Quality Challenges in the Everglades

Just as federal investments in largescale restoration efforts are being made, the EPA’s proposal would undermine water quality in one of America’s top fishing destinations

It’s bad enough that the EPA has proposed a rule that will leave more than 50 percent of wetlands and 18 percent of stream miles nationwide without Clean Water Act protection, making fish and wildlife habitat more vulnerable. But the rule could also worsen existing conservation crises in places like the Everglades.

In fact, the EPA’s proposed rule could leave at least 4 million acres of wetlands throughout the Everglades without clean water protections. And in Florida’s Panhandle region, an additional 800,000 acres of wetlands lack direct surface connection to other waters and would therefore lose out.

Florida has already lost more wetland acreage than any other state in the lower 48—nearly half of what it had historically. Now, this rule would make it easier to drain, develop, or pollute wetlands

These wetlands not only provide critical waterfowl habitat and flood protection, but they also filter out harmful pollutants. Phosphorus levels in Lake Okeechobee are already more than three times the recommended limit, and if wetlands aren’t filtering the flow of harmful nutrients into the Everglades and surrounding waters, this could mean more toxic algal blooms, red tide, fishkills, and beach closures that negatively affect recreational fishing opportunities.

Further, if landowners are no longer required to protect wetlands on private lands, then they won’t apply for Farm Bill or Fish and Wildlife Service programs that help preserve wetlands at the top of the Everglades watershed. This important marshy area north of Lake Okeechobee acts as a sponge and slowly releases water into the lake, through the Everglades, and eventually out into Florida Bay. Eroding protection for these wetlands could exacerbate existing problems with increased salinity levels and seagrass die-offs.

It’s no time to weaken clean water standards in Florida—the Department of Environmental Protection reports poor water quality for 28 percent of the state’s river and stream miles and 25 percent of total lake acreage.

Decision-makers are finally following through on years of promises and funding restoration work in America’s Everglades. Why would we roll back clean water protections just as this work to improve water quality gets underway?

Take action before April 15 to stand up for clean water and healthy habitat in one of the country’s most beloved fishing destinations.

 

Photo by Vincent Lammin via flickr.

Melinda Kassen

March 27, 2019

In Planning for Future Droughts, There’s Compromise in the Water

Western states take another important step toward stabilizing the Colorado River

The snow is deep this year along the Rocky Mountains, the spine of the American West. Today’s fresh powder will melt in the spring, feeding the headwaters and large desert rivers of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California—the states that comprise the Colorado River Basin.

This region produces most of the nation’s winter vegetables, is home to ten national parks, and boasts millions of acres of wildlife habitat, where deer and antelope play, ducks fly, and fish rise. Healthy snowpack brings relief to the region after 19 years of drought, which drained Lakes Mead and Powell—the big reservoirs in the basin—to less than half full.

So, this wet year is welcome. But it’s not a long-term solution for a river system that is already way over-subscribed. Scientists predict the basin’s future will likely be hotter and, therefore, drier than its past.

The states just signed a drought contingency plan for the next seven years that will almost certainly require real reductions in water use, and this could be painful for those who will have to turn off their spigots.

But, first, here’s how we got to this momentous deal.

Water Wars

Exactly how to share limited water resources in the Colorado River Basin has been a debate for decades, almost since the states signed their original compact in 1922. (Many court cases followed.) In the 1930s, Arizona actually formed its own navy to defend its share of the river from California. In the ‘60s, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in. Meanwhile, as cities and farms in the basin grew and prospered, parts of the natural landscape suffered. By the 1990s the Colorado had stopped flowing all the way to the sea most years.

That same decade, most parties laid down their arms (and their lawyers) and decided to try working together. They extended the table to make room for outdoor recreationists and others, from high country skiers and Grand Canyon rafters to hunters and anglers. This group of diverse stakeholders started to negotiate agreements on how the Colorado’s waters would be used.

Three years in the making, the drought contingency plan signed last week is the most recent of these agreements. Now, Congress will have to pass legislation to implement it.

There’s More Conservation to Come

As big a deal as the plan is, it is not without controversy, and it is not the final chapter. It does not solve all the river’s problems, but it is a bridge to get all parties safely to the year 2026, by which point the basin states must negotiate another round of water-use reductions. The good news is that almost everyone is still sitting at the table, proving wrong (for now) Mark Twain’s old adage that whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting.

As just one small party in these negotiations, the TRCP is working hard to ensure that one of the benefits is better fishing opportunities.

To get weekly updates about conservation issues like this, sign up for our newsletter.

Kristyn Brady

March 22, 2019

Time is Running Out to Stand Up for Headwaters and Wetlands

Given the gravity of the EPA’s proposal on clean water protections, sportsmen and women need to speak up now

Often, we get to celebrate and take full advantage of the public’s significant role in shaping conservation policy. It’s something that makes our country, its one-of-a-kind natural resources, and the American system of public lands and waters very special.

When we ask you to take action for public lands, better water quality, or more investments in fish and wildlife habitat, it’s rare that we believe the odds are already stacked against conservation. Because when sportsmen and women unite, we tend to win.

But the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers are not doing hunters and anglers any favors in the public process of vetting their new rule for what waters deserve Clean Water Act protections. In just the latest chapter of the debate over what constitutes “Waters of the U.S.,” the agencies have given the public just 60 days to comment on a proposal that would eliminate protections for 50 percent of wetlands and 18 percent of stream miles across the country.

Before finalizing the 2015 version of the rule, the EPA held a 120-day comment period and ultimately allowed the public a total of 207 days to respond to the proposal. That was for a rule that made it clear that the Clean Water Act should apply to headwater streams and wetlands, because what happens upstream affects habitat downstream.

Additionally, the last administration held multiple listening sessions across the U.S. for the public to learn more about the 2015 rule. By contrast, only two in-person listening sessions were held on this new proposal—both in Kansas City. Elsewhere, sportsmen and women were not given this opportunity to hear from EPA staff or speak out in person about their concerns.

We think it should take more than two months of passively collecting comments to reverse course on decades of efforts to make America’s rivers, lakes, and streams fishable and swimmable. We think the EPA and Army Corps should have to face American sportsmen and women before stripping fish and wildlife habitat of Clean Water Act protection.

Sportsmen’s groups—along with elected officials, state agencies, and other organizations—requested an extension to the current comment period, but it was denied this week.

Since the EPA and Army Corps don’t want to give us more time, we need you to take action now. Our simple tool makes it easy to send a message to the EPA and your elected officials that hunters and anglers oppose this huge step backward for our wetlands and streams.

Top photo by USFWS/Katrina Mueller

Randall Williams

March 15, 2019

Sportsmen and District Court Judge Challenge Final Sage Grouse Conservation Plans

The BLM’s final revised sage grouse conservation plans will play a major role in determining the future of the sagebrush ecosystem, which supports more than 350 species

UPDATE: On October 16, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that the Bureau of Land Management failed to fully analyze how sage grouse would be affected by changes in the land-use plan amendments finalized in March 2019. The TRCP and several partner organizations supported some targeted changes when the administration announced re-opening the plans, but cautioned against a major overhaul.

The preliminary injunction blocks the BLM from implementing the 2019 amended plans and reverts management actions back to the 2015 conservation plans that convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird for Endangered Species Act protections. Activities like oil and gas development can proceed while this injunction is in place, but projects must comply with all directives of the 2015 BLM plans, including prioritizing areas outside sage-grouse habitat for development.

Since the Trump Administration decided to revamp conservation plans in 2016, leasing in sage grouse priority habitat has increased tenfold. Although the injunction does not invalidate lease sales made during this period, it certainly opens them to legal challenges.

Read on for the original post on the revised BLM plans.

Sage grouse in the company of other sagebrush species.

The Bureau of Land Management has finalized its revised plans to conserve greater sage grouse populations across millions of acres of public land in several Western states. The administration’s approach replaces previous BLM 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 mitigation, this could be cause for concern.

“The finalized 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. “Success will ultimately come down to implementing these new plans and never wavering from an approach that produces positive results for sage grouse habitat and populations. We will continue working with the BLM, Western states, industry, and local partners to ensure that happens.”

The final 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.

The previous plans also more clearly steered oil and gas leasing away from the best sage grouse habitat, but now the BLM is offering extensive tracts of priority habitat to willing buyers at a rapid pace rather than favoring non-habitat areas.

“We’ve seen a dramatic shift away from prioritizing energy leasing away from the best habitat and are now witnessing leasing of some of the very best remaining tracks of unfragmented land,” says Dr. Ed Arnett, chief scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We realize that leasing does not equate to development, and operators still must abide by stipulations for priority habitat, but it just makes good sense to steer disturbance toward non-habitat or stagger the timing of development in and around grouse habitat.”

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.

“Mitigation was a fundamental component of the 2015 plans that helped reach the not warranted decision,” says Steve Belinda, executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership. “Without offsetting unforeseen or unavoidable impacts – it’s loss of habitat over time, plain and simple.”

It will be important to move forward swiftly with implementation of these new plans 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 U.S. Forest Service continues to finalize its own amendments to eight forest plans dealing with sage grouse conservation in the West. The public comment period for proposed amendments closed on January 3, 2019, and the final revisions will be out in the coming months.

 

Photo by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS
This blog was originally posted on March 15, 2019, and was updated on October 23, 2019.

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