Two years ago, sportsmen, conservation groups, and many other stakeholders generated one million public comments that helped to shape the final rule, which was broadly celebrated for restoring protections to 60 percent of America’s stream miles and 20 million acres of wetlands previously at greater risk of being polluted or destroyed because of jurisdictional confusion. Since May 2015, there have been several legislative plays and lawsuits filed to block or roll back the rule.
“If this administration wants to put its stamp on the rule, they should honor the years of solution-oriented consensus on the need to reverse wetlands loss, which has been fueled by legal and regulatory confusion. More clarity for headwater streams and wetlands protections should be the baseline standard from which to improve the rule, not the target of a tear-down,” says Fosburgh.
It remains to be seen if it is even legal to ignore the majority position on a Supreme Court case. Meanwhile, the health of fish and wildlife habitat is the infrastructure of an outdoor recreation industry that fuels $646 billion in annual spending and supports more than 6 million American jobs.
Starting in about 2009 in the Prairie Pothole states (Iowa, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota), the USDA faced a massive backlog of requests for “certified wetland determinations” from landowners and farmers who needed to know whether the wetlands on their property were indeed subject to USDA’s conservation compliance requirements. This determination tells farmers whether draining those wetlands would make them ineligible for federal farm benefits.
In 2013, USDA amped up its work to respond to landowner demand for certifications and reduce the backlog, and began accepting wetland determinations made by the agency prior to 1996. In some cases, USDA staff used pre-1996 determinations to replace more up-to-date wetland data for the same tracts.
While the agency’s actions were well intended, this policy change as described by OIG is highly problematic. USDA’s longstanding policy had been that most wetland determinations made prior to 1996 were inaccurate, unacceptable, and not considered “certified;” up to 60 percent were wrong. As OIG notes, the agency “replaced its backlog of pending determinations with inaccurate determinations.”
As a result, the policy change reduced the acreage of wetlands eligible for protection by nearly 75 percent in the Prairie Pothole Region, the breeding grounds for more than 50 percent of North America’s waterfowl.
Here’s just one example of the result: In 2010, USDA determined there were 34 acres of wetlands on one farmer’s property, but pre-1996 maps showed only 2.5 wetland acres. The change in policy to certify old determinations allowed the farmer to drain 31.5 acres of wetlands, or 93 percent of what was shown on the more recent, more accurate map.
To say this is frustrating would be an understatement. Combine it with the fact that USDA made this change outside of the normal regulatory process—it was not publicized and there was no opportunity for the public to comment on the new directive to use old materials—and it becomes incredibly worrisome. Then consider the previous two OIG reports, and you get a pretty depressing picture of USDA’s oversight of privately-owned wetlands in the U.S. (Fun fact: Private land is home to three-quarters of this country’s remaining wetlands.)
We’re gearing up for the next Farm Bill—the massive legislative package that directs farm conservation programs, including conservation compliance—and contemplating what agriculture policy might look like under President Trump and a GOP-controlled Congress. When many conservationists consider what might be coming down the pike, it might be tempting to view every new challenge as a five-alarm fire and to get nostalgic for the past. But these watchdog reports from the Obama Administration present a stark reminder that good intentions only get you so far, and that there is always room for improvement in conservation policy, whatever your politics.
You can bet the farm that the TRCP and our partners will continue birddogging USDA’s wetlands policy, regardless of who’s sitting in the Oval Office (or more appropriately, in the secretary’s office at USDA). And as always, we’ll continue our work more broadly to make sure that Congress passes laws to improve fish and wildlife habitat, and that the Trump administration faithfully carries out those laws, so you always have a place to hunt and fish.
If Congress is successful in rolling back our say in public land management, these are some of the places that could suffer
Threats to public lands take many forms. The latest attack involves a resolution that would strip away your ability to speak up for how you want your local BLM public lands managed. Furthermore, it would revert the BLM’s planning procedures to those put in place in 1983 and could prevent them from ever being updated with the same solutions for improving agency transparency and public input.
If this all seems a little abstract, scroll through these images to see what we’re fighting for. These are the BLM lands we love.
Charlie Bulla (the photographer behind these stunning images) snapped this spike bull elk on public land overseen by the BLM’s Lewistown Field Office. Someday, a public-lands hunter might shoot him with something other than a camera—thanks to the multiple-use mission of the BLM. Giving the public more opportunities to weigh in on land-use planning could ensure that habitat, critters, and sportsmen get a piece of that multi-use pie.
Freedom Flies Whit Fosburgh, TRCP’s president and CEO, found his calling as a sportsman growing up in the Adirondacks, but he doesn’t forgo many opportunities to head out West. Here, he trades his fly rod for a camera to capture this scene on the Yellowstone River, accessible via BLM land in Montana.
Our Idaho field rep Rob Thornberry will be on the lookout for these Rocky Mountain bull elk again this fall, when he’s hunting on public lands managed by the BLM Idaho Falls District and Upper Snake Field Office. If there had been a mule deer among them that day, Rob’s hunting partner and photographer, Mike Clement, wouldn’t have wasted any time taking pictures.
Firsts with Family Ed Arnett (left), TRCP’s senior scientist, helped his cousin Larry bag his first pronghorn on BLM public land in southern Wyoming. Without public lands, we’d venture to guess that there would be far fewer first hunts like this.
Habitat Improvement The BLM’s Safford Field Office oversees one of nine regions in Arizona and manages 1.4 million acres of land across six counties. By locking the BLM into decades-old planning procedures, Congress would prevent these land managers from adapting more advanced, scientific management across that landscape. Image courtesy of John Hamill, TRCP’s Arizona field representative.
Sunrise Scoping TRCP’s Western field associate, Kevin Farron, snapped this photo of our Western lands director, Joel Webster, as he was glassing for mule deer at first light on BLM lands within the Dillon Field Office district in Montana.
Happy Harvest Newberg with yet another public-lands success story, this time in the BLM Rawlins District in Wyoming.
Cows Can Come, Too During a mule deer hunt, Farron snapped this classic Western scene—a cattle gate on public land in the Dillon Field Office BLM district. Hunting, fishing, cattle grazing, and other extractive activities are permitted on BLM lands. Public comment periods are necessary to keep the agency accountable to an appropriate balance—and one Senate vote could leave hunting and fishing priorities in the dust.
Rising to the Ridgeline Vistas like these can make even an unpunched tag worth the trip. Horse Camp Trail in the BLM Lewistown Field Office area puts on a pretty nice show. Image courtesy of Charlie Bulla.
Making Memories Joel Webster and his father at the end of a successful hunt on BLM lands in Utah’s Henry Mountains.
Here’s what you can do.
We’re not going down without a fight, and we’ve created a couple of tools so you can let your lawmakers know that you aren’t either.
House Votes to Eviscerate Rule Giving Sportsmen More Say on Public Land Use
Representatives would revert BLM land-use planning back to an ineffective and outdated rule and prevent positive changes from being included in future revisions
Using an obscure legislative process, a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to block the BLM’s new land-use planning rule, known as Planning 2.0, and roll back the additional opportunities the rule affords the public to voice concerns about land management decisions on 245 million acres. The Senate is expected to vote on a similar resolution next week.
Nineteen sportsmen’s groups, conservation organizations, outdoor recreation trade associations, and businesses that rely on public lands sent a letter to congressional leadership this week opposing the move to roll back Planning 2.0 through the Congressional Review Act, a little-known law that enables Congress to roll back regulations within 60 legislative days of their enactment. Once repealed through this process, a substantially similar rule cannot be rewritten.
The letter urges lawmakers to allow the incoming Secretary of the Interior a chance to address concerns with the new rule, rather than scrap it altogether.
“A Congressional Review Act repeal of the BLM planning rule would eliminate Planning 2.0, revert BLM planning to a problematic decades-old planning process, and likely eliminate the BLM’s authority to revise its planning regulations ever again in the future,” says Joel Webster, director of Western lands with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We urge Congress to take a different course and address remaining concerns by working collaboratively with the new Secretary of the Interior.”
“Under the spirit of Planning 2.0, improvements are already being made to the way we conserve once-overlooked habitat that elk, mule deer, and other big game animals rely on, even if it’s just for a portion of their journey,” says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Increased coordination under the rule will only mean that the best possible science is used to our advantage, not ignored.”
Outdoor recreation businesses deserve better, but sportsmen and women will not stay quiet on this issue, says Ben Bulis, president of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association. “If recent public outcry against bad public land policy proves anything, it’s that we’ll be heard either way—we’d just rather be part of the democratic process.”
Congress Overreaches to Roll Back Americans’ Say in Public Land Management
Lawmakers pursue obscure legislative process for blocking a rule created to give the public more say in management plans for 245 million acres of BLM public lands
Sportsmen, landowners, and former Bureau of Land Management employees strongly criticized a move by senators and representatives to overturn the BLM’s revised land-use planning rule, known as Planning 2.0. Using the obscure and rarely used Congressional Review Act, federal decision makers took a first step toward repealing the new rule and rolling back opportunities for the public to have more say in land management decisions.
In a statement, Senate co-sponsors of a Congressional Review Act resolution cite bad information as motivation to revoke the rule, namely that the final rule fails to prioritize feedback from all stakeholders, including local governments. However, if lawmakers are successful, the BLM would continue using outdated guidelines for land-use planning established in 1983, which keep the public in the dark until very late in the planning process.
“It has been publicly recognized by county commissioners and conservation districts that the BLM took meaningful steps between the draft and final planning rules to accommodate requests from local governments and the public in reworking land-use planning,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Now, Congress is taking steps to reduce agency transparency and limit the public’s ability to have a say in how their public lands are managed. While a few concerns might remain, Congress is going about this the wrong way.”
The Congressional Review Act is a little-known law that enables Congress to roll back regulations within 60 legislative days of their enactment. The BLM planning rule, while under development since 2014, was finalized in December 2016, so it falls within the window of eligibility for repeal by the CRA. The process has only been successful once.
“The Western Landowners Alliance supports the BLM’s efforts in updating planning to meet today’s needs in the West,” says Lesli Allison, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance. “There are opportunities for improvement, but not to the detriment of eliminating all the good progress that has been made to date. We believe working through the Secretary of Interior is the best way to achieve our goals and constructively address any remaining concerns with the rule.”
Most disturbingly, once a rule is overturned through the CRA, no new rule that is “substantially the same” can be developed.
“A Congressional Review Act repeal would eliminate Planning 2.0 and likely eliminate the BLM’s authority to revise their planning regulations ever again in the future,” says Jesse Juen, president of the Public Lands Foundation and a longtime BLM employee. “Instead of stripping the incoming Secretary of the Interior of his authority before he takes office, lawmakers should work with the new administration to make refinements to a planning process that many stakeholders championed.”
Hunters and anglers in Western states can click here to write their lawmakers and urge them to let Planning 2.0 stand.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA
As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.