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Just before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Department of Agriculture quietly announced an additional 86,000 SAFE acres across seven states: Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. These acres are a boon to private landowners and sportsmen. But I’d wager that most hunters and anglers, and probably many farmers and ranchers, don’t know what SAFE is or just how beneficial the program can be.
For the unfamiliar, SAFE— State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement —is part of the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. The general CRP asks landowners to voluntarily conserve large tracts of previously cropped land to achieve a wide range of environmental benefits. As a part of CRP, SAFE is also a voluntary land conservation program, but here USDA works with landowners, state and federal agencies, non-profit organizations and the public to identify strategic projects that conserve land in specific parts of the country. SAFE distinctively focuses on habitat for species that are threatened or endangered, have suffered significant population declines or are considered to be socially or economically valuable.
That last phrase, “socially or economically valuable,” is key for sportsmen. SAFE authorizes your local decision makers to identify which acres will best target the needs of “high-value” wildlife, and that includes for hunting and fishing. SAFE projects have provided habitat for the plains sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse, American woodcock, northern bobwhite quail, ring-necked pheasant, a wide variety of waterfowl, cottontail rabbits, black bears, mule deer, elk, salmon, steelhead trout and many other species, across 36 states and in Puerto Rico. That’s nothing to shake a tail at.
Landowners can benefit from SAFE too especially at a time when crop prices are low and land prices are high. USDA offers a signing incentive of $100 per acre to landowners who convert idle cropland into SAFE; pays landowners up to 90 percent of the cost of planting trees, forbs and grasses that benefit wildlife; and provides guaranteed rental payments on that land for the length of a contract, usually for 10 to 15 years. SAFE can improve farm income while incentivizing on-the-ground practices that benefit our favorite critters on an ecosystem-wide scale.
Although the extra 86,000 acres comprise only a fraction of the 24 million acres enrolled in CRP, at the TRCP we were thrilled by USDA’s announcement. Since SAFE’s introduction in 2007, many states have maxed out their allotted acres and maintain waiting lists for landowners hoping to enroll stream buffers, restored wetlands, newly seeded grasslands and longleaf pine stands in the program. The TRCP welcomes any additional chances to provide habitat for fish and wildlife and access for sportsmen.
Landowners can enroll qualified acres in a designated wildlife project in their state at any time. We especially encourage those in the seven states listed above to take advantage of this new opportunity. For more information, visit www.fsa.usda.gov/conservation or visit a local USDA office.
Last night, congressional appropriators filed a $1 trillion fiscal year 2015 spending bill that would fund most government agencies through the fiscal year.
Despite a few funding shortfalls and policy riders, in total the TRCP considers the so-called “CRomnibus” a sound compromise for conservation funding. Given the overall need to address ongoing federal deficits, level funding for some of our priority programs represents a short-term win.
The bill will be considered by the House Rules Committee this afternoon and face a House vote Thursday; the Senate anticipates taking votes on the spending bill over the weekend. In order to prevent a government shutdown, Congress must pass the CRomnibus by Thursday or, more likely, enact a one- to two-day continuing resolution to buy themselves more time. In order to garner bipartisan support, the bill avoids new limits on significant EPA rules relating to climate change and water regulation and is largely free of controversial riders.
Several key conservation programs would receive level, if not increased, funding for FY2015. The North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program and Land and Water Conservation Fund would maintain current funding levels. The Forest Legacy Program would see a $2 million increase from FY14 enacted levels. The bill also prevents any regulation on the lead content of ammunition or fishing tackle covered under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
To the dismay of conservationists and sportsmen, the bill prohibits the Interior Department from writing or issuing a rule under the Endangered Species Act for the listings of any/all four subspecies of sage grouse in the coming year, although the full implications of this funding moratorium are still in the process of being interpreted at Interior. Sportsmen also are disappointed that the spending package would preclude a revision of federal wildfire funding, as the current funding mechanism has hamstrung the capacity and budget of the U.S. Forest Service in recent years.
Here are the funding levels for priority conservation programs:
National Wildlife Refuge System
Department of the Interior and Related Agencies
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Like many Americans, when my wife and I sit down over Thanksgiving dinner and reflect on what we are most grateful for, family and good health are always at the top of the list. Nothing makes this point more clearly than spending time with folks who don’t have those luxuries.
Over the recent Thanksgiving weekend, my wife Catherine and I were privileged to participate in a hunt for javelina and Coues deer in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona. We were volunteering as spotters and guides with Outdoor Experience for All, or OE4A, an organization that offers outdoor experiences to young people diagnosed with life threatening illnesses, children of fallen heroes, and children with disabilities. While the youths in the program are the hunters, their entire families are encouraged to attend and participate in the hunts.
According to Catherine, “This weekend was one of the highlights of our hunting careers. It didn’t seem to matter that although many deer were seen, few were taken, as a great time was had by all.”
We can’t speak highly enough of OE4A’s founder, Eddy Corona. He is a true humanitarian who selflessly provides these great experiences to some very deserving people. We commend him and all of the dedicated OE4A volunteers for their efforts.
OE4A’s mission is “to change lives one adventure at a time.” They believe that everyone who participates in an OE4A adventure, including volunteers, sponsors, parents and siblings, leaves camp with a new outlook on life. We echo that sentiment – and will definitely be volunteering for future OE4A hunts, as I’m pretty sure we gained as much from this experience as the participating families.
To find out more about OE4A go to www.outdoorexperienceforall.org
Here’s just the thing to cure your case of the holiday blues: a cold, hard analysis of budget numbers for federal water conservation programs. But don’t click away just yet! This may be one of the most consequential things happening in Washington, D.C., in December before the 113th Congress adjourns.
To bring you up to speed, Congress, as it has done so often in recent years, failed to finalize spending decisions by the beginning of the new fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2014). Since then the federal government has operated on a continuing resolution, or CR, a stop-gap measure that maintains the prior year’s funding levels. The current CR expires on Dec. 11, 2014. Congress must pass a spending bill by then or risk shutting down the federal government. The incoming Republican majority has a strong desire to get spending decisions off the table now so they can focus on higher priority issues starting in January, but major disagreements still exist – both between the two parties and the House and Senate – so another CR may be necessary.
Assuming that Congress can reach an agreement on a spending bill for the rest of fiscal year 2015, it will be based upon the respective House and Senate proposals summarized below. Therefore, if you want to know about the future of water conservation funding in 2015, keep reading.
Bureau of Reclamation: First-time chairman of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Mike Simpson deserves credit for producing a bill that is more favorable towards water conservation than previous House bills. His bill largely matches what the administration requested, which is about a 5 percent increase over current levels. Where Rep. Simpson disagrees with the administration, it is with a modest 2 percent decrease compared to the request. The one exception is the San Joaquin River Restoration Fund, which the House, as it has done in the past, refuses to fund.
On the Senate side, Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein continues her pattern of strong water conservation funding. Her bill matches the administration’s request except where she significantly exceeds it and includes a heavy investment in drought response: Overall WaterSMART funding is up 120 percent, funding for WaterSMART Grants is more than tripled and the Drought Response and Comprehensive Drought Plans program is increased by an order of magnitude. The bill also includes an extra $67 million not reflected in the chart above: $12 million for Fish Passage and Fish Screens, $35 million for Water Conservation and Delivery and $20 million for Environmental Restoration and Compliance.
The TRCP recently wrote to Congress with some sportsmen-conservation partners to commend both the House and Senate for their proposals and to ask that final spending decisions look more like the more sportsmen friendly Senate proposal.
Prediction: Sen. Feinstein has gotten her way in the past. Count on her to get it again, especially since California’s historic drought has been front page news since summer and she’s about to hand off the chairwoman’s gavel to her Republican counterpart.
Fish and Wildlife Service: Within the Fish and Wildlife Service, the House and Senate are largely of one mind on funding. Each FWS program in the Sportsmen’s Water Budget is flat-funded or receives a small increase over current funding levels. The one exception is the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, which both houses cut. The cuts come mostly from the part of CESCF used for land acquisitions, with the Senate taking a particularly dim view towards land acquisition grants to states.
In addition, though both houses fund the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program at the same amount (and increase it over the requested level), the House places a stronger emphasis within that amount on competitive grants over formula grants to states. The House believes this will encourage multiple states to work together and with the FWS to conserve species named in settlement agreements so that an Endangered Species Act listing becomes unnecessary.
Prediction: This looks like a likely candidate for splitting the difference.
Environmental Protection Agency: The big ticket item at EPA is the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (not shown in the chart above due to scale). The House matches the requested level while the Senate adds an additional 42 percent to stay even with current funding levels (about $1.5 billion).
When it comes to geographic programs at the EPA, both houses fund them above the requested level, but only the Senate includes more funding than they currently receive. Specifically, both houses want to see an increase over the requested amount for the Great Lakes, while the Senate is friendlier to programs for the Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound and Lake Champlain, and the new program for Southern New England Estuaries (represented as “Other” in the chart above).
Both houses reject the requested increase in the Nonpoint Source (Sec. 319) Grants but stay even with current funding levels. Also, both houses reject the requested increase in the Wetlands Program: the Senate stays even with current funding but the House cuts it even further. The Wetlands Program includes the Clean Water Act Section 404 regulatory program, which is particularly controversial in Congress right now due to the ongoing rulemaking effort to clarify Clean Water Act jurisdiction.
Prediction: The administration consistently submits a low request for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund knowing Congress will restore its funding; this year shouldn’t be any different. Also, outgoing chair of the full appropriations committee Sen. Mikulski of Maryland will get her funding for the Chesapeake Bay. The real fight at EPA will be over policy riders, of which the House will ask for many.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: There aren’t any obvious trends in the competing proposals for water conservation at NOAA. Both the House and Senate come in under the administration’s request for Protected Species Research and Management, but they are also both above the current funding level. While the House severely cuts spending for Habitat Conservation and Restoration, the Senate boosts it past current funding levels and the administration’s request. Both houses exceed the administration’s request for Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund to keep it even with current spending.
Prediction: Another candidate for splitting the difference.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: In the post-earmark era where Congress has less ability to affect spending on any specific Corps project, both the House and Senate proposals match the administration’s request for projects included in the Sportsmen’s Water Budget. As a result, those line items are excluded from the chart above.
As for the rest of the Corps, both houses put considerably more money into so-called Continuing Authority Programs than requested because, according to the House, a CAP “provides a useful tool for the Corps to undertake small localized projects without the lengthy study and authorization process typical of most larger Corps projects.” (The Senate feels the same.) Both houses more than triple the requested amount for Project Modifications for Improvement of the Environment (Section 1135) and more than double the amount requested for Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration (Section 206).
Prediction: It’s good to be a CAP.
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