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There has certainly been some ongoing frustration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the ag community and sportsmen, but “The People’s Department” continues to put out good news for private lands conservation. By investing in partnerships with landowners, producers, ranchers, and foresters, the USDA is directly supporting sportsmen’s access and opportunity. Here’s how:
USDA just enrolled land in La Moure County, North Dakota, in the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement initiative, bringing the nationwide SAFE acreage total across the one-million-acre mark. Val Dolcini, the USDA official who oversees the program, sums it up best: “SAFE began in 2007 as an offshoot [of the Conservation Reserve Program] to focus on establishing key plant species that help not just soil and water, but also are beneficial to selected rural wildlife habitat. And, as it enhances the flora and fauna of the countryside, it can also create recreational opportunities for the sportsman, which is an investment in the rural economy as well.” SAFE is helping private landowners across 36 states and Puerto Rico to provide habitat for the fish and game species we love.
Earlier this year, USDA announced the first round of RCPP awards—we highlighted a few of the projects here and here. Now, the agency is ready to receive the next round of applications, in which private partners will propose to match over $200 million in USDA funds dollar-for-dollar—meaning there will be more than $400 million worth of new projects to improve soil health, water quality, water-use efficiency, and wildlife habitat on private lands. For this round, USDA is specifically targeting projects that respond to the western drought, develop environmental markets (i.e. water trading or wetland mitigation banks), and combat climate change. These types of projects might not seem relevant to sportsmen at first, but when you read reports about the domino effect the drought is having on California’s wildlife, or the shocking rate of habitat loss over the last decade, it becomes more clear that these seemingly unrelated initiatives can have a cascade effect on our sporting heritage.
USDA will invest $10 million this year across 11 states to improve water quality and habitat and restore wetlands that feed into the Mississippi River. Importantly, the resulting projects will enhance productivity for farmers and foresters throughout the watershed, which is absolutely essential if we hope to encourage more landowners and managers to put conservation on their acreage. But sportsmen of all stripes can also cheer the move: The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative will directly safeguard fish habitat in dozens of inland watersheds, conserve waterfowl habitat up and down the Mississippi Flyway, and reduce the amount of farm runoff flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, which is necessary to restore healthy saltwater recreational fisheries.
The USDA is said to be “helping people help the land,” and we can see why. Especially in the eastern U.S., where the majority of wildlife habitat is on private lands, these voluntary public-private partnerships are an essential piece of the puzzle for quality sportsmen’s access.
The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress
The Senate is in session from Monday through Friday. The House is in session from Tuesday through Friday.
After a flurry of proposals were submitted for inclusion in the bipartisan energy bill last week, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee has a busy few days ahead as they hold a hearing to consider 22 pieces of legislation that address issues from solar energy to natural gas pipelines. The Committee is anxious to move the bill this summer, marking the first time federal energy policies have been altered significantly since 2007. The Senate legislative package will focus on smart-grid technology, transmission lines, and gas pipelines. The controversial Keystone XL will most likely be discussed by Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) and other supporters, but will not be included in the bill. Details on the Senate hearing can be found here.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee has also begun drafting its companion bill but, unlike the Senate’s, their package will feature a much more partisan slate of bills that support the GOP agenda. A draft of the House bill can be found here. Information on the hearing can be found here.
On Thursday, a House Natural Resources Panel will address the issue of litigation and its impacts on the federal government’s forestry work, particularly in treating fire-prone areas. With wildfire suppression costs increasing at an average annual rate of 22 percent, the Forest Service no longer has the resources necessary to fund suppression costs and prevention measures. Many key players agree that boosting forest treatment and prevention programs is a necessary step to decreasing the dangers and costs of catastrophic wildfires.
However, for two decades, many organizations have employed lawsuits, often to great effect, as a tactic for blocking logging and forestry treatments throughout national forests. And, though the USFS was once quite adept at winning these lawsuits, the agency has been severely hampered by them in the past ten years. In this hearing, opponents of this tactic will most likely argue that costly litigation is preventing the federal government from employing programs to support forest health and mitigating the long-term risk of wildfires.
After a failed vote in last month’s House Armed Services Committee markup, this week House Democrats plan to file amendments to legislation that would delay an endangered species listing for the greater sage-grouse. Many conservationists feel strongly that a listing decision, which would have wholescale impacts upon energy development in the West and its regional economy, could be avoided if additional state and federal resources were invested in proactive conservation measures promoting sustainable population growth. So far, the immediacy of a September listing deadline has driven unprecedented collaboration to bring these birds back from the brink.
The House Rules Committee will meet this week to decide if the amendment filed by Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass) to block a delay of the decision will be allowed a floor vote.
Sometime this week, members of the House are expected to attack the controversial Waters of the U.S. rule, which would clarify protections for headwaters and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The House spending bill, which was introduced last week and will almost assuredly pass through the chamber, featured a policy rider which would block the clean water rule in fiscal year 2016.
The rule also faces an uphill battle in the Senate where John Barrasso (R-WY) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) have filed legislation to prevent its passage.
Wednesday, May 12
Senate Hearing on BLM fiscal 2016 budget
Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies
The Bureau of Land Management’s Grand Junction Field Office recently issued its final Resource Management Plan (RMP) that will direct management activities on 1.2 million acres of public lands in northwest Colorado over the next 20 years. The resource area provides for a wide range of recreational use, including a wealth of hunting and angling opportunities. Sportsmen in the Grand Valley and throughout the state were involved in commenting on the draft plan and, while they’ll find some improvement in the final RMP, there was hope for stronger conservation measures for wildlife and sportsmen’s access.
One of the improvements to the Grand Junction plan is the creation of the Bangs Primitive Backcountry Zone, which will maintain opportunities and access for big-game hunters. The area contains critical habitat for desert bighorn sheep, including lamb-rearing areas and winter range. “It’s great to see safeguards in place that give this herd the space they need to raise young and wait out the winter in lower elevation areas,” says Terry Meyers, president of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society. “Four lucky hunters will draw a ram tag this year and have the opportunity to take a desert bighorn in this beautiful landscape. The Bangs Backcountry Zone will help keep this opportunity open to the next generation of sportsmen.”
A coalition of more than 300 sportsmen’s groups and businesses is working to conserve key intact and undeveloped backcountry BLM lands across the West through individual land-use plans that benefit habitat, sportsmen, and local communities. “Hunters and anglers are seeing some positive results for managing backcountry areas through local BLM land-use plans, and the Bangs Canyon area in Grand Junction is a good example,” says Montrose resident Doug Clowers, a member of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “These achievements are positive and a good, but a small step toward a more consistent approach from the BLM on how backcountry lands are managed from one plan to the next.”
The Grand Junction office will also manage 10 areas specifically for wildlife habitat through the use of Wildlife Emphasis Areas (WEA), but reactions from sportsmen have been mixed on this provision of the final plan. “The WEA concept is a great attempt to conserve important habitat for wildlife species, like mule deer and elk, but some areas lack adequate safeguards,” says Nick Payne, Colorado field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Without strong conservation measures for all of these areas, there is a risk that some WEAs could be fragmented by development, diminishing their value for wildlife.”
The BLM will be instituting a landscape-level master leasing plan for over 700,000 acres that will be managed for oil and gas development. Part of this master leasing plan encompasses the High Lonesome Ranch, where sportsmen are working on a project to demonstrate how oil and gas can be responsibly developed with the conservation of important fish and wildlife habitat in mind. “The Grand Junction field office made a positive step forward by including the master leasing plan in the proposed RMP,” says Ed Arnett, the TRCP’s senior scientist. “The success of the master leasing plan ultimately lies in its implementation, and we look forward to working with the BLM to ensure that energy development is balanced with the needs of fish and wildlife habitat as the planning process moves closer to the actual disturbance on the ground.”
You probably know about the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, because you’ve hunted on CRP lands. And if you live anywhere near farm country, it’s no wonder—CRP essentially incentivizes farmers to cultivate wildlife on lands that would be less productive for crops. Ducks, deer, pheasants, sage grouse, and many other game species have found habitat and forage in farm country thanks to CRP. Since its creation 30 years ago, CRP has been one of the nation’s most important programs for hunters and wildlife—and for farmers.
CRP lands can have many other benefits, too. If you follow the news, you’ll recognize that there’s a need to protect water quality from agricultural runoff; provide habitat for pollinators like bees and butterflies; prevent soil erosion and enhance soil health; mitigate the impact of floods and drought; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. CRP lands do all of that and more. For the breadth and depth of its achievements, CRP is highly cost-effective, making up just a fraction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget.
And yet, 15 months after passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, the USDA has not taken the steps needed to maximize this critical and versatile program.
Some background: About once every five years, through the Farm Bill, Congress can adjust the number of acres that America’s farmers may enroll in CRP. In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress established acreage caps that are progressively lower each year through 2018, scaling way down from 32 million to 24 million acres. This was in reaction to an ever-tighter federal budget (the USDA had less financial support available for farmers) and record-high prices for commodity crops like corn and soybeans (farmers were eager to plant more to earn more, rather than leave land unplanted for conservation purposes).
The 2014 Farm Bill makes it possible for farmers to enroll up to 26 million acres in CRP this year, but there are only 24 million acres currently enrolled, and enrollment could sink as low as 22 million acres by September—far below the allowed cap, and a full 10 million acres below 2013’s maximum. The USDA has neither taken meaningful action to close the gap, nor finished updating the CRP regulations, despite a solid effort to implement the rest of the Farm Bill’s 450 provisions over the last 15 months.
As we look ahead to the next Farm Bill, this seeming ambivalence at the USDA sets a low precedent for a landmark conservation program. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago we proposed a 45-million-acre cap for CRP—nearly double the current enrollment!
Habitat loss is the biggest threat to wildlife population health. It is fundamentally important to sportsmen, and to the game species we love, that we keep CRP enrollment on target. And it is incumbent upon the USDA to provide farmers and ranchers with a full suite of tools to put conservation on their lands. A dozen U.S. Senators agree: The agency ought to announce a nationwide CRP general signup, which it last did in 2013, and aggressively encourage farmers to enroll in continuous programs like State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement. We all need the USDA to step up.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More