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October was hardly Washington’s finest month. A government shutdown that served no purpose and cost Americans more than $20 billion. Hunters and anglers denied access to national wildlife refuges and parks. The spectacle of lawmakers who caused the shutdown, once they were certain the cameras were rolling, berating park rangers who were simply doing their jobs.
It’s no wonder Americans hold our elected officials in such low regard.
But today the government is open; Congress has an opportunity to actually legislate. And the stakes for conservation are high.
The next two months will be dominated by two topics that directly impact conservation and hunting and fishing: The Farm Bill and the federal budget.
The Farm Bill: ‘Must-pass’ Legislation
The Farm Bill, which includes the Conservation Reserve Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Open Fields public access program, among others, is the single most important piece of legislation for conservation on private lands. The current version of the bill expired on Sept. 30 after the House of Representatives and the Senate failed to (“never tried to” is more accurate) resolve the differences between their two bills. The main point of disagreement is over funding for the bill’s nutrition title, which includes food stamps and school lunches.
Assuming lawmakers can agree on nutrition funding, which is not a given, the debate over the conservation title of the bill will center on two issues: re-linking conservation compliance with crop insurance and the Sodsaver program. Together these programs help ensure that the federal government is not creating incentives to drain wetlands and convert native prairie and highly erodible lands to row crops.
The Farm Bill and its conservation title have the potential to dramatically impact the fish and wildlife populations and outdoor opportunities relied upon by millions of Americans. The bill is “must-pass” legislation, and all sportsmen should make sure that Congress understands this.
The Federal Budget: The Stakes for Conservation Have Never Been Higher
The budget debate has implications for literally every conservation program in the country, from how our public lands are managed to funding that supports state management of our fish and wildlife and even the grant programs that drive the work of Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and so many other conservation groups.
While entitlements and defense-security spending have steadily increased, conservation funding has plummeted. From about 2.5 percent of the federal budget in the 1970s, conservation funding now represents only about 1 percent of the budget. The House budget would accelerate this trend by zeroing out funding for key conservation programs such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act while further gutting the already underfunded federal lands management agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Under the agreement that reopened the government, Congress has until Jan. 15 to come to a budget agreement, which not only will fund the government through Sept. 2014; it also will become the starting point for fiscal year 2015 budget negotiations.
If the government shutdown has a silver lining, it is that the crucial importance of our nation’s parks and refuges became impossible to ignore. These places are not expendable luxuries; they are a fundamental part of the American economy and the American identity. People care about them – and rely upon them. Theodore Roosevelt understood this more than a century ago. Perhaps today’s politicians now do, as well.
Look to the TRCP to keep you informed and involved as these key initiatives require attention in Congress. Sign up for our weekly emails to stay up to date on the latest news and policy important to sportsmen.
The end of the federal government shutdown was especially good news for guides who fish in Everglades National Park.
For the first time in more than two weeks, they were allowed to legally fish in park waters.
“People don’t realize the effects of the shutdown on guides,” said Capt. Jason Sullivan, who lost several trips because of the park closure.
That anglers were not allowed to fish in the park, even though many of them access the waters in Florida Bay and along the Gulf of Mexico coastline by boat, was bureaucratic pettiness at its worst.
It was one thing not to allow anglers to drive their tow vehicles into the park and launch their boats at Flamingo. But what did it matter if guides drove their boats across park boundaries from the Florida Keys?
That was the same spiteful mentality behind the National Park Service putting up barricades at the open-air World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., although federal bureaucrats said they had no choice but to close the park.
At least Everglades National Park’s rangers didn’t hassle boaters who ended up in park waters, some of whom didn’t realize they were not allowed in the park and some of whom didn’t care. The rangers told boaters and anglers they could not stop in park waters and sent them on their way without issuing any citations.
Capt. Brian Sanders was one of the lucky ones. He fishes out of Chokoloskee Island on the northwest side of the park and typically goes after snook and redfish in park waters along Gulf beaches and islands.
With the park shut down, Sanders headed 30-plus miles into the Gulf so his clients could fish for snapper and grouper. Fortunately, he had good weather that allowed him to make the long run in his 24-foot bay boat. Even better, the fish were biting – so good, in fact, that after park waters reopened, he still made the trek into the Gulf.
Sanders said that some guides still fished in the park during the closure because of economic necessity.
“I talked to a few of them,” he said. “They said, ‘The park’s not going to pay my mortgage for me, and the park’s not going to pay my bills for me,’ so they went fishing. This was not a lot of days, it was a few days. Those days they never saw anybody.”
Sullivan said he, too, was fortunate. He said he lost about four trips. He could have lost more, but he was able to talk his clients into fishing at night for tarpon and snook in Biscayne Bay in Miami.
Guides in the Keys either had to cancel trips for snook, redfish and tarpon in the park or, like Sanders, make a long run into the Gulf of Mexico or fish shallow reefs in the Atlantic Ocean for Spanish mackerel, snapper and grouper.
As soon as they were allowed back in the park, guides out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada reported great fishing for snook and tarpon, according to marina owner Richard Stanczyk.
Stanczyk did note that the timing of the shutdown was good because early October is a slow time of year for business.
“Out of our 24 guides, only six were fishing,” said Stanczyk, who added that all of his marina’s guides obeyed the rules and stayed out of the park. “None of them lost any trips, but there were people who didn’t book trips because of the closure.”
Every day, hunters and anglers see wetlands drained and buffer strips bulldozed – and valuable acres once enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program plowed into corn fields. Guides cancel hunts with their clients because there are so few birds – and the habitat needed to support them is quickly disappearing.
Many sportsmen may not realize it, but we are on the cusp of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore protections to our most cherished hunting and fishing areas.
That is because the federal government is taking steps now that will decide which bodies of water will be protected by standards set by the Clean Water Act.
But the waters most important to sportsmen won’t benefit from this effort unless you take action and speak up now.
The Clean Water Act is undoubtedly one of our nation’s most successful and important environmental laws. In the 41 years the modern Clean Water Act has been in existence, it has transformed many of our lakes and rivers from toxic dumping grounds into vibrant fish and wildlife habitat, sources of drinking water and commercial and recreational hotspots.
However, there has long been a debate about which bodies of water Congress intended to cover with the Clean Water Act. Was it everything that is wet in America or only the largest interstate rivers? (Most reasonable people agree it’s somewhere in the middle, but where exactly do you draw the line?) A couple of Supreme Court decisions in the 2000s confused rather than clarified this debate, but the most recent decision pointed to a solution.
In a 2006 Supreme Court decision, Justice Kennedy established the significant nexus test for determining which waters should receive Clean Water Act protections. He said that waters deserve federal protection if they “either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity” of the larger bodies of water that everyone agrees should be covered by the Clean Water Act. To figure out the answer to this test, however, you first have to know how wetlands, headwater streams and other small water bodies are connected chemically, physically and biologically to larger, downstream water bodies.
So the Environmental Protection Agency brought together their best scientists, and they compiled and reviewed more than 1,000 of the best peer-reviewed scientific papers on hydrologic connectivity. The draft report summarizing their results, Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence, will inform future decisions the federal government makes about Clean Water Act jurisdiction. An independent panel of scientists is currently reviewing the draft report, and that’s where you come in.
The EPA is taking comments related to the report from the public now. Comments received by Nov. 6 will be considered by the independent review panel when it meets in December. Once the independent review is complete and public comments are incorporated, the EPA will finalize the report and use it to decide how to apply the Clean Water Act. Those decisions will be open for public input and scrutiny starting in early 2014 and will shape Clean Water Act protections for a long time to come.
It’s critical that sportsmen make their voices heard, because hunters and anglers understand the value of these resources like no one else.
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More