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.
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