From the Good News Desk: USDA Rolls Out Huge Investments in Conservation
In the final month of 2016, private land conservation sees an $830-million increase to projects and habitat beneficial to sportsmen
When it comes to national policy news, no one could call the end of 2016—or the start of 2017, for that matter—boring. With all the talk about President-elect Trump’s cabinet appointments, Congress’s failure to follow through on a bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act (for the third consecutive Congress), and, just this week, a move made by House Republicans to make it easier to sell off public lands, it was easy to miss some of the good news coming out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including some huge investments in conservation. Here’s a round-up of some of the more positive USDA stories you may have missed:
$725 Million Invested in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program
In December, the USDA announced $225 million, for 88 new Regional Conservation Partnership Program projects designed and submitted by state, local, and NGO partners. These government and organizational partners also contributed an additional $500 million to the projects. More than half of these projects will improve the nation’s water quality or combat drought, a quarter will enhance fish and wildlife habitat conditions, and the remainder will boost soil health and tackle other resource concerns. Since RCPP was created in the 2014 Farm Bill, USDA has invested $825 million in 286 projects, involving more than 2,000 partners and private investments totaling an additional $1.4 billion for private lands conservation. Wow! You can learn more about the new projects here.
$32 Million Committed to Forest and Grassland Ecosystems
Through an initiative called the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Forest Service announced funding for ten new projects and support for 26 ongoing projects that will improve ecosystems where public forests and grasslands connect to private lands. As with RCPP, local partners will match federal funding, bringing an additional $30 million to the table and helping to extend the Joint Chiefs’ project to 29 states. Brook trout, sharptail grouse, and other critters beloved by sportsmen are slated to benefit from this investment.
$33 Million Announced to Help Landowners Improve Water Quality
Now in its sixth year, USDA’s National Water Quality Initiative delivers high-impact conservation to watersheds around the county by helping farmers, ranchers, and landowners to implement practices that protect and improve water quality where it is needed most. This includes areas besieged by algal blooms and dead zones in places like the Mississippi River Basin, Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and Great Lakes. This year’s announcement covers 197 high-priority watersheds across the country, where communities can expect cleaner drinking water, better fish and wildlife habitat, and improved access to recreation.
11 New “Working Lands for Wildlife” Projects Added to Restore and Protect Habitat
The Working Lands for Wildlife initiative has helped farmers, ranchers, and foresters to restore 6.7 million acres of habitat for seven at-risk species—notably, WLFW helped restore private lands over much of the greater sage grouse’s range, which helped to prevent the listing of the species in 2015. The new projects will directly support game and fish such as northern bobwhite quail, American black ducks, greater prairie chickens, cutthroat trout, and sockeye, chinook, chum, pink, and coho salmon. Even though other projects aren’t designed around sport species, all the critters in these areas will reap the benefits of ecosystem improvements.
Cranking Up the Conservation Reserve Program
USDA’s Farm Service Agency administers the Conservation Reserve Program, in which landowners make a ten- to 15-year commitment to conservation. The biggest parameters defining CRP are locked in by the federal Farm Bill—such as the 24-million-acre cap that the USDA is currently operating under—but the agency does have the ability to tweak the program to make sure CRP works as best as it can for the largest number of people. Recently, FSA has announced a number of small and moderate changes that could add up to big benefits for sportsmen and women:
- Providing $10 million to manage forests enrolled in CRP. Pursuant to the 2014 Farm Bill, FSA will cover some of the costs for landowners to thin, burn, or otherwise manage forests in CRP. This is a long-awaited incentive, which will enhance wildlife habitat, increase biodiversity, improve water quality in these landscapes, and help extend CRP’s benefits to underserved corners of the country.
- Shoring up water quality and wildlife habitat with four different restoration initiatives in one. FSA launched a new Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative to assist landowners enrolled in CRP who want to improve the quality of the water flowing from their lands. At the same time, the agency also boosted the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) initiative by 700K acres, added 300,000 acres of eligible wetlands, and tapped 11,000 additional acres of pollinator habitat—with benefits for upland and grassland game birds.
- Partnering with farmers and ranchers to protect more than 500,000 acres of working grasslands. FSA accepted over half a million acres into the CRP Grasslands program, which helps landowners to maximize the productivity of their land by combining livestock activities that are good for business, like haying and grazing, with prairie conservation activities that are good for water quality, wildlife, and sportsmen. Nearly 60 percent of the accepted acres are in wildlife priority areas and nearly 75 percent are working under a wildlife-focused conservation plan. This is good news for America’s prairies, which are under severe threat of being completely and irreversibly destroyed to make room for row crops and urban/suburban development.
Back-of-the-napkin math shows that these USDA programs add up to a total investment of more than $830 million on 1.9 million acres, supporting dozens of projects and initiatives all across the country in the name of conservation. This is just a fraction of the roughly $5 billion that the USDA spends on conservation every year.
As you can see, the USDA can have an immense impact on the landscape. That’s why the TRCP and our partners are committed to working with these decision-makers on conservation funding initiatives that make sense for landowners, fish, and wildlife. As we kick off 2017, welcome a new presidential administration, and take a hard look at the next Farm Bill, we’re happy to celebrate this good conservation news.
Here’s hoping there’s much more to come!
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Ending 2016 with a Bang—Literally
A holiday mixed-bag hunt results in the proud harvest of a first deer and some much-needed inspiration
Back in December, when our lawmakers were ultimately unable to pass many critical provisions for sportsmen and wildlife that have seen bipartisan support in multiple congresses, I was disheartened about the future for hunting and fishing. As a government relations representative for the TRCP, I sit in many meetings with Congressional staff, advocating for policy that would improve sportsmen’s access, fund essential restoration projects, and support the outdoor industry economy. With lots of highs and lows in the final weeks of the year, I was relieved to get in the car and drive far away from the D.C. politics for the holidays and venture into the great outdoors.
It only took a few days in the woods of Tennessee and Missouri with a pretty special Christmas gift—a Ruger .243 from my in-laws—to rekindle my spirit for the work we do. I think you’ll see why.
First, we settled into “base camp”—a cabin my father-in-law built with his own two hands outside Only, Tenn.—and geared up to hunt chukars. These were pen-raised birds my father brought down from a hunting preserve in Indiana—it’s rare to find wild chukars and quail in the region due to the decline in ground cover habitat these birds need to survive.
I grew up hunting upland birds, and quickly settled into a rhythm with my English setter, Belle, as she followed the scent of chukars. We ended the hunt with six out of eight chukars that were ready to be plucked and eaten for our New Year’s Eve dinner.
Later that afternoon, I changed into my camo and quickly switched out my shotgun for my new rifle to sit in a deer stand until sunset. I sat only two crop fields away from where we’d spent the morning with the bird dogs, and though no deer appeared, it occurred to me how fortunate I was to have this special place all to myself.
The next morning, my husband, Hunter, his father, Paul, and my dad, Mike, drove about three hours to private land near Hornersville, Mo., where Paul shares the lease with 12 buddies to have access to excellent waterfowl hunting and keep costs down. It’s pretty typical for this region. The majority of cars on the road with us were from out of state and loaded down with trailers. Many local hotels were full of out-of-town cars, too. It was easy to see that duck hunting was the draw that kept these local businesses humming at this time of year.
Once we reached our destination, we walked to the middle of a flooded rice field in our waders and climbed into a dugout ditch. This was technically my first time in a duck blind. I’d only ever hid in the brush along the river before. After four hours, we didn’t get any ducks into shooting range, but we made plenty of jokes while we waited.
Back at the cabin, on the last day of 2016, I woke up early to make my way to a deer stand that Paul had picked out for me. It was raining and foggy, and I climbed up in the box stand a bit later than I’d planned, burrowing into my oversized clothes to keep warm. Growing frustrated with the lack of deer, I propped up my legs and leaned back to play Sudoku on my phone, allowing an hour to pass. I finally texted Paul to say that I’d head back to base camp within 15 minutes. At three minutes before eight o’clock, I sat up to gather my things and was surprised to see three does feeding on turnip greens in the field below. I slowly got into shooting position. One of the whitetails heard me and began trotting away, but I had my eye on another larger doe. I clicked the safety off, aimed for the heart, and BANG, the doe jumped, and then fell 10 yards away. The adrenaline set in and my hands were shaking uncontrollably to the point where I could barely text Paul to come help me field dress my very first deer.
It was the perfect end to my year—being at ease scanning for chukars, sitting in my first duck blind, and packing up 30 pounds of venison harvested from my first doe. These experiences reminded me how fortunate I am to have access to private lands where I can hunt three different critters in one weekend, and family alongside me to enjoy these traditions. Hunting over the holidays revitalized my passion for the issues we fight for here at TRCP and made a lot of the policies I read and think about much more personal to me.
As for the chukars we lost and the ducks we never saw, there’s always next season. Stories like mine need to be told to Congressional staff. I’m taking my refreshed state-of-mind into 2017 and the 115th Congress, where I plan to make sure our decision-makers understand the value of our days afield.
What We Bagged in 2016
Here’s to another year of chasing critters, filling freezers, and spending days afield with the family, friends, and pups that we cherish
With the new year quickly approaching, it’s time to reflect. The past 12 months were a mixed bag on the conservation policy front—with some exciting wins and a fair share of disappointments—but our staff still managed to get out and enjoy our hunting and fishing heritage.
Here are some of the stories and memories from 2016 that make all of the hard work worth it.
Ed Arnett, senior scientist
This year marks the 14th hunting season for my chocolate Lab, Sage, pictured here with one of my other Labs, Roux, and a limit of Nebraska pheasants—taken on publicly accessible private lands through Nebraska’s Walk-in Hunting Program. These days, Sage can only go on what I call my “high-grade hunts”—short walks in really good-looking habitat that more often than not produces some birds. On this day, Sage put up a rooster from its bed and made about a 60-yard retrieve after I dropped the bird on the second shot.
Chris Macaluso, Center for Marine Fisheries director
Over Thanksgiving week, I had the chance to take my four-year-old son, Hank, and my dad, Joe, fishing over in the marshes and canals east of New Orleans. Hank had been asking me to take him to catch a redfish for months and we finally got the chance. We caught speckled trout all day and finally, at our last stop, I hooked this 25-pound red. Hank got to help me fight it and he jumped up and down when we landed the fish. He couldn’t get over the fact that we had just caught a fish almost as big as him. This instantly became my favorite fishing trip of all time.
Nick Dobric, Wyoming field representative
This year, I helped two of my buddies each get their first elk—a rewarding experience for all of us. Then, after an amazing archery season chasing bugling elk but never getting a shot, I was fortunate to find an elk on my first morning out with a rifle. The first evening after backpacking into some wild country, I glassed a herd dropping over a pass and into my drainage. At first light the following morning, I was up on the ridge where I expected them to be and started hearing some bugles. Then I watched a cow pop out of the trees, and a big six-by-six shortly followed. I never had a good shot so I was just about to go put a stalk on him when this smaller bull popped out and started grazing broadside, and well within my range. I couldn’t pass him up.
Ed Tamson, Florida field representative
Yes, Florida water quality and Everglades restoration are ongoing challenges. Yet in spite of these stressors, it’s still possible to catch some backcountry red fish and snook. It’s a great motivator!
Kevin Farron, Western field associate
With a cow elk and a few limits of blue grouse in the freezer, my first fall in Montana has been rewarding. But more often than not, my reward for a day spent hunting is nothing more than a tired puppy. On this single-digit December day, Leo and I tried our luck for pheasants, something we’ve never hunted, and we were skunked. With the near-endless miles of Montana public lands to hide in, we had to tip our hats to the birds for avoiding us that day. But we’ll be back.
Steve Kline, director of government relations
Earlier this month I had a successful end-of-year reunion, about four minutes from our staff retreat location this past summer, with Chris Macaluso (who works from Louisiana) and former TRCP’er Cyrus Baird.
Joel Webster, Center for Western Lands director
Another great elk season on America’s public lands. Conditions were tough, but our party hunted hard and managed to pack four bulls and three bucks into our Montana hunting camp. The freezers are full.
The Wild Ride That Was Conservation in 2016
A look back at the highs and lows for habitat, clean water, access, and conservation funding
I think we can all agree that this year has been a political roller coaster ride. Election antics aside, there were a lot of peaks and valleys for conservation in 2016 that may have a major impact on fish, wildlife, and America’s sportsmen and women for years to come.
Looking back on 2016, we’ll always remember:
- When the shocking actions of the armed occupiers at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge became a major conservation and access issue. Real conservation work to combat invasive species was blocked and Americans were kept from their public lands for 41 days. When the refuge takeover was diffused and the accused were ultimately acquitted of criminal charges, we channeled our outrage into positive action for conservation and justice.
- How the Conservation Reserve Program worked for turkeys, upland birds, ducks, and trout. Still, conservation-minded farmers struggled to enroll in the popular program, due to acreage caps, so sportsmen and many others started calling for a better CRP in the next Farm Bill.
- When the BP oil spill settlement was signed, sealed, and delivered—finally. What’s still TBD is if these funds will actually go toward boosting the $10-billion recreational fishing industry on the Gulf Coast.
- This USDA watchdog report that indicated a lot of private landowners being compensated for conservation efforts weren’t actually held accountable. This could mean bad news for waterways, wetlands, and the American taxpayer.
- How some very cool scientific innovations helped us understand why mule deer migration routes need protection, how tarpon react to changing habitat conditions, and where sage grouse populations differ according to their DNA.
- How fishermen and guides got organized to restore Everglades fisheries and Congress actually came through to authorize necessary funding to kick off critical projects.
- When the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act almost made it, but Congress ultimately failed hunters and anglers across the country. As in two Congresses before, this package of legislation to enhance conservation funding and access seemed to be on the move. In February, the House advanced a portion of the legislation through the SHARE Act. Then in April, the Senate voted 97-0 to add sportsmen’s priorities through an amendment to an energy modernization bill. In the final hours of this Congress, however, conference efforts fell apart. Translation: Sportsmen and women got left behind to try again another day.
- Also, that time when federal lawmakers voted for bills that would give away or sell off your public lands. This one is just beyond words.
- And there was resounding opposition to public land transfer at the local level in Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming. Here’s to much more of that in 2017!
If you’d like to help us work on positive solutions for fish and wildlife, consider making a donation to the TRCP right now.
Happy holidays! We hope you have excellent hunting and fishing next year.
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CHEERS TO CONSERVATION
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