Without Congressional Compromise, Conservation Will Come to a Halt
What 34 sportsmen’s groups have joined forces to ask of our nation’s lawmakers as they craft next year’s budget
Agreement in the year 2015 seems to be a rare thing—whether it’s among Republicans and Democrats or about Coke or Pepsi. Even hunters and anglers have loyalties that can lead to fireside arguments about smallmouth or cutthroat, ducks or deer. With so many options, disagreement just seems to be the natural status quo.
Many of the issues that we work on at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership are regional by nature of being specific to certain terrain or species, like sage grouse, red snapper, or Prairie Potholes. It can sometimes be difficult, and understandably so, to get fishing groups interested in upland issues or to ask waterfowl groups to advocate for the sagebrush steppe. It’s not that these groups don’t care, it’s just that, with limited bandwidth and capacity, their focus on one core mission is essential. And so TRCP has made it our core mission to bring the widest swath of the sporting community to bear on the issues that truly impact the full spectrum of America’s hunters and anglers.
Few issues are more important to fish and wildlife habitat and the future of quality experiences afield than conservation funding.
The end of September marks the end of the federal fiscal year 2015, and as the fiscal year ends, so does the Murray-Ryan budget deal (formally known as the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015). It was negotiated in good faith by then-chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees, Paul Ryan and Patty Murray, respectively. Its provisions allowed for a temporary lift from the onerous, sweeping, and automatic cuts referred to as “sequestration,” which would have fundamentally altered the landscape of fish and wildlife habitat conservation in the United States. However, the expiration of the deal means the return of sequestration and, in such a scenario, habitat projects often wind up on the cutting room floor. Access enhancement stops in its tracks. Conservation priorities wither on the vine.
That is, unless Congressional leaders can come together on a successor agreement to Murray-Ryan. Dozens of sporting-conservation groups have gone on the record in support of Congressional negotiations that result in a bipartisan budget agreement to provide for a meaningful reinvestment in conservation funding. Private lands, public lands, marine fisheries, water, and literally everything else in the universe of issues that sportsmen care about most would be dramatically impacted by the return of sequestration.
It is time for Congressional leaders to come together for this greatly needed compromise—we can all agree on that.
The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress
The Senate will be in session this week. The House has adjourned for the August recess.
Two for the Road
Last week, the Senate passed both a six-year highway bill reauthorization and a three-month extension of the Highway Trust Fund. The three-month extension was also passed by the House and signed by the President, effectively avoiding an expiration of the Highway Trust Fund on July 31 and giving the House time to craft its own version of a long-term highway bill in September and October.
Also last week, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed their comprehensive bipartisan energy bill, which includes a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. (You can see the legislation and amendments here.) The committee also passed legislation lifting the ban on crude oil export.
This week on the floor, the Senate will discuss cyber-security measures and consider bills to de-fund Planned Parenthood.
Trout on the Fly, Newsrooms Under Pressure, and Wildlife as Inspiration
Day Three of our Western Media Summit
Just as the sun was rising over the Gallatin Range, more than four dozen guests at TRCP’s Western Media Summit left Bozeman and drove southeast to the Yellowstone River for a morning of flyfishing on the final day of the conference. Eighteen guides piloted boats down the river, as anglers caught (and released) rainbows, browns, cutthroats, and whitefish, and the temperature climbed from the 50s into the 70s. As guests got to know their guides, and each other, the experience helped to put a personal face on the connection between access to these iconic public lands and waters and the businesses that rely on them: the sandwich shop where the guides bought guest lunches, the gas station where they fill up their trucks, the outfitter that books their services, the fly shop where they get their gear, and even the guy who shuttles their trucks and trailers the seven miles from the put-in to where they take their boats off the river.
After four hours of fishing, and with a few new tan lines, the group then gathered at the Bozeman offices of SITKA Gear for an afternoon of discussion. Led by a panel of four media professionals, and moderated by Outdoor Life Editor-in-Chief Andrew McKean, a conversation about reassessing the role of the conservation reporter got everyone in the room involved. Panelists examined how outdoor writing and conservation coverage is faring with shrinking newsrooms, thinning publications, and, perhaps, an increasingly selective pool of readers who have the content they want at their fingertips, whenever and wherever they want it. McKean asked the room if the outdoor media is partly responsible for creating a divide between “environmentalists” and “conservationists.” Gray Thornton of the Wild Sheep Foundation questioned whether sportsmen can reclaim the latter title, which many felt we have lost. Brett French, outdoor editor for the Billings Gazette, confessed that he felt like an endangered species—his role has become quite rare for the average daily newspaper. There was also some discussion of the partisan politics of conservation stories, and whether the potential for dissention among readers, publishers, or lawmakers makes telling these stories a risky proposition. Overall, journalists seemed to agree that immersive experiences, like the media summit, re-energize them to cover conservation—politics and all.
The second panel discussion focused on the potential endangered species listing and controversial restoration strategies currently under review for the greater sage-grouse. Jim Lyons, the deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Tim Baker from the Montana Governor’s Office, and Rolling Stone Ranch Owner Jim Stone addressed the group with a timely update on the flurry of activity around the iconic game species. There are just 63 days until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s court-ordered deadline for determining whether or not the bird requires protection under the Endangered Species Act, and the panel was held on the same day as the deadline for state Governors to file their protests against BLM land management plans to benefit the birds in 10 Western states. TRCP’s senior scientist Dr. Ed Arnett led the discussion, pointing out that sage grouse conservation and the public lands transfer movement share a common thread: Critics are capitalizing on the discontent of sportsmen with the way federal land management is being done, but it’s not as simple as having state’s take over management. It will be necessary to have federal, state, and volunteer conservation efforts working in concert to avoid a listing, and it will be necessary for sportsmen to engage in a conversation around solutions to federal land management issues so we don’t lose those lands forever.
Following the sage-grouse panel, David Brinker, marketing director for SITKA Gear, welcomed the journalists to his company’s headquarters and explained how SITKA’s passion for conservation led them become a founding member of the nonprofit One Percent for Conservation. The initiative was created by SITKA staffer Jeff Sposito to enlist retailers and small businesses in the sporting community that are not required to contribute Pittman-Robertson excise taxes toward conservation efforts, hunter’s education, or shooting programs, and facilitate the donation of one percent of their profits to a hunting-related cause of their choice. The effort will be officially launched this winter.
Guests then filtered downstairs to the other half of the refurbished industrial warehouse to enjoy cocktails, pizza, Italian desserts, and a powerful speech by Shane Mahoney. The CEO of Conservation Visions, Inc., is also a filmmaker, writer, and TV personality with 30 years of experience in science, wildlife management, and policy innovation in the U.S. and Canada. He gravely told the group that we have much work to do to protect our great sporting traditions, public land and water resources, and health of all species. “Wildlife are a democratic resource. It is something to inspire us. It is something to give us joy. It is not some side show,” he said. His remarks received a standing ovation from the crowd.
This is how far out of touch Congress is with sportsmen
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about how Congress is ignoring the wishes of sportsmen and voting against clean water protections that are best for fish and wildlife. Now we have the data to prove it.
Our friends over at the National Wildlife Federation have released a poll showing just how broad and deep the support for restoring protections under the Clean Water Act runs among sportsmen. What did they find? A remarkable 83 percent of the hunters and anglers surveyed thought that the Environmental Protection Agency should apply the rules and standards of the Clean Water Act to smaller, headwater streams and wetlands—because we can’t clean up larger bodies of water without protecting the waters that flow into them, and because smaller streams and wetlands are crucial fish and wildlife habitat.
Whether or not to protect smaller streams and wetlands has been a politically contentious issue for nearly 15 years. The Clean Water Act protected the nation’s streams and wetlands from the time it was passed in 1972 until two Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 left it unclear exactly which streams and wetlands could be covered by the law.
In May, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers completed the clean water rule to clear up this confusion. After a multi-year process of holding more than 400 stakeholder meetings and generating over 800,000 supportive public comments, the agencies produced a rule welcomed by sportsmen. Dave Perkins, executive vice chairman of the Orvis Company, said, “The clean water rule is good for our business. Improving the quality of fishing in America translates directly to our bottom line, to the numbers of employees we hire right here in America, and to the health of our brick-and-mortar stores all over the country.”
Nevertheless, Congress is hell bent on stealing this victory from sportsmen. More than half of all senators are on record opposing the clean water rule, and the House has voted in the past to undermine it. Why does a majority of Congress oppose what an overwhelming majority of sportsmen want? That’s a question Jim Martin—conservation director at the Berkley Conservation Institute, a branch of one of the largest tackle manufacturers in the sportfishing industry—asks, too.
“If the support is so widespread why are politicians not voting to support the rule?” wonders Martin. “This poll quite clearly shows what the public supports. Now, it is up to the political leaders to determine if they support the interests of their constituents or special interests on the issue of protecting watersheds.”
These same political leaders will surely get another chance to stand with, or against, sportsmen for clean water, before the year is out. It is incumbent on hunters and anglers to let our leaders in Washington know where we stand, and how we expect them to represent our interests.
A Wildlife-Friendly Ranch, Wading the Simms Factory Floor, and the Sound of 18,000 Names Hitting the Ground
Day Two of our Western Media Summit was packed with immersive experiences meant to give tangible context to complex issues, like federal conservation funding programs, public and private land management, and the outdoor recreation economy.
Before lunch, guests enjoyed a walking tour of the stunning 600-acre conservation easement on Oyler Ranch, a property that was originally homesteaded by the Oyler family in the 1860s and has been continuously grazed since the 1880s. This morning, its rivers, creeks, ponds, and vast green fields were framed by distant white-tipped mountains, dusted with fresh snow overnight. Mike Ellig, who runs Black Gold, a Montana company that manufactures premium bow sights, purchased the property from the Oyler family in 2014 and, with help from the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, immediately began executing a plan for restoration of the fish and wildlife habitat within the ranch’s conservation easement.
“I’ve always had a passion for outdoors,” Ellig explained. “It’s always been a dream of mine to have a place to do the things I love to do.” It just so happens that Ellig is also opening the land to others who love to do the same things—hunt and fish. He’s also using responsible grazing and agriculture practices while looking for opportunities to enhance habitat for trout, deer, bears, turkeys, pheasants, and beavers.
Near Randall Creek, which flows through his property, he paused the tour at the side of 60-acre field, where he hopes to irrigate and create waterfowl habitat. One of his ponds, flanked by chokecherry trees (a favorite food source of local bears), is home to a turtle and two pairs of wood ducks, rarely found in the valley. Near a section of the West Gallatin that enters his land, cottonwood trees are beginning to grow back on the muddy banks of the fast-moving stream, after years of cows trampling the young trees.
“Mike Ellig is a great example of a landowner who is improving sportsmen’s access by opening up his private land to hunters and improving the habitat at the same time,” said Peter Brown with the Gallatin Valley Land Trust. “I think something that is often overlooked about his contribution is that the conservation work he contracts out to local workers actually creates something like a dozen jobs. That’s on top of the benefit that this new public access point will provide to the outdoor recreation economy in Bozeman.”
Later in the day, TRCP’s Chief Conservation Officer Paul Wilkins turned the group’s attention to federal public lands, asking conservation and industry leaders, “Why do public lands matter?” On the same day the TRCP reported that 18,000 sportsmen have signed our Unlocking Sportsmen’s Access petition and more than 174,000 letters have been sent to lawmakers opposing the transfer of federal public lands to the states, our panelists spoke passionately to the group of 40 gathered at Simms Fishing’s 60,000-square-foot Bozeman headquarters about the value of public lands and the importance of sportsmen’s access to local economies. Blake Henning from Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ben Bulis from the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, Joel Webster from the TRCP, and Ryan Busse, a business leader from the shooting sports industry discussed major threats to our public lands legacy and some great opportunities that media professionals have to tell the stories that will kill off this bad idea of handing control over federal lands to the states.
Following the discussion, Diane Bristol, senior director of employee and community engagement for Simms, gave a tour of the production facilities where employees make the brand’s popular waders. She said that the company has 150 employees, having added 10 percent more positions in the past year, and they plan to keep growing. She showed TRCP guests several sections of the headquarters including the cutting room, repair center, testing area, seam taping machines, and custom graphics department. She also shared a bit about the company’s conservation mission: “Public lands and access to good fishing is crucial to our business, and our staff is passionate about these sports,” said Bristol. “I think today was a great opportunity for the media guests to see just how invested we are in conservation, through our work with TRCP and other groups, and in excellence for our products overall.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?
The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.