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In Iowa, farmers aren’t legally required to reduce pollution that is harmful to fish and wildlife—but voluntary clean water practices can go a long way and deserve our support
Last week, a federal judge dismissed a potentially revolutionary lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works, the utility that provides drinking water to the most populous city in the state, against drainage districts in three upstream counties in northwest Iowa. The lawsuit, which has been a hot topic among farmers and other concerned citizens for the last two years, also has big implications for sportsmen: The nutrient run-off that is bad for Des Moines’s water supply is also a problem for waterways and fish.
If the judge had allowed the Water Works lawsuit to progress, it could have completely upended the regulatory regime around water pollution nationwide by effectively bringing farm fields under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, from which they are currently exempted. Instead, the dismissal puts a laser-like focus on the need for farmers to voluntarily reduce the nutrients leaving their fields and entering our waterways.
We’ve written before about how nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous can seriously impair our lakes, rivers, and off-shore waters. They’re like high-octane food sources for algae, causing the microscopic stuff to grow unchecked. Some of the algae are quite toxic on their own, but they also starve waterways of much-needed oxygen and block sunlight from reaching underwater vegetation. The presence of too much algae, deoxygenation, and reduction or total loss of plant life creates a recipe for disaster for fish and wildlife, and therefore sportsmen.A lawsuit puts focus on farmers’ need to voluntarily reduce the nutrients leaving their fields. Click To Tweet
But the run-off problem doesn’t end in our lakes, streams, and oceans. That water can eventually make its way to our sinks, creating major health risks. High levels of nitrates in drinking water can cause suffocation in infants by limiting the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, and have been linked to cancer in people of all ages. It’s critically important that we keep as many nutrients as possible out of the water in the first place, but, failing that, it’s essential that we clean up the water before we consume it.
Which brings us to the lawsuit. The complaint from Des Moines Water Works was that excessive nitrates were flowing from farm fields upstream via the Raccoon River, one of the city’s main sources of drinking water. This required the utility to treat the city’s water to an unprecedented—and very expensive—degree.
In their view, someone upstream needed to be held accountable, and the Water Works pursued a novel strategy under the Clean Water Act: Farmers and farm fields are largely exempt from Clean Water Act permitting requirements, so Des Moines Water Works argued that the drainage districts, which maintain the infrastructure responsible for the flow of on-farm waters into the state’s larger waterways, should be considered “point sources,” which are regulated under the Clean Water Act.
Had Des Moines Water Works prevailed, this new point source definition could have allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to require thousands of drainage districts across the U.S. to get pollution permits, just like large livestock operations or factory pipes that pump sewage into our rivers, launching a new era of farm-focused clean water regulations. However, the court’s dismissal of the suit preserves the status quo, and there remains no federal regulatory reason for farmers to manage the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous from their lands.
There are still many voluntary reasons for farmers to manage their nutrients. For one thing, they’re expensive assets that farmers would rather keep on their fields than watch disappear downstream. More importantly, farmers want the best water quality possible, but conservation and restoration practices can be very expensive for a small business to implement, especially when many of the practices that would have the greatest downstream impact have little to no on-farm benefits.
That’s one of the major reasons the TRCP works on federal legislation like the farm bill. We agree that the government can help farmers protect private waterways for the public’s benefit by offsetting costs. For instance, federal funding can help farmers implement innovative types of infrastructure, like “denitrifying bioreactors,” which force farm run-off through carbon filters like a giant Brita filter, and “saturated buffers,” which function like wetlands by filtering the flow of farm run-off through plant roots and wet soils.
Conserving and restoring actual wetlands improves water quality, too. Our friends at Ducks Unlimited have referred to wetlands as “nature’s kidneys” for their water filtration abilities, and of course, they have the added benefit of providing waterfowl habitat that sportsmen love. Through Congressional investments in farm bill programs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture can help landowners with all of these practices and more.
While we tracked the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit and its many would-be impacts closely, the TRCP and our partners share a long-term dedication to the voluntary, incentive-based conservation on private lands that is key for clean water and healthy fish and wildlife habitat. In the wake of the judge’s decision, it’s even more important that we focus on getting conservation tools to the people and places that want and need them most.
A first-time pheasant hunter offers this humble defense of millennials just taking up the sport
There’s a lot of bad press out there about millennials like me. I’m a 26-year-old D.C. resident who likes cold-brew coffee, wears lumberjack flannel in the city, and spends way too much time at the rock-climbing gym. And yes, I’ve even been called a hipster once or twice. I’m not exactly the image that the word “hunter” conjures.
I’m from Los Angeles, which isn’t especially known for its backwoods hunting. I can’t think of a single person I knew growing up who had even held a shotgun or rifle, let alone shot at game. But for my entire professional career, I’ve been working in the fields of wildlife science and conservation policy. I’ve spent a whole lot of time roaming remote parts of the country alone in a (shoddy) pickup truck and have learned as an adult about the immense value of sportsmen and women. I have been ready and willing to be recruited as a sportswoman for years.
And, finally, last month I went on my first hunt.
Without a community of sportsmen to rely on, hunting can be pretty intimidating to the uninitiated. There’s a lot to know about licenses, locations, best practices, and equipment—barriers I’m sure many other prospective outdoorsmen and women face. But more than that, in the past I’ve worried—perhaps unfoundedly—that the community of sportsmen and women would be unwilling to take in someone brand new and so unlike the typical hunter.
But I felt nothing but welcomed when, in late-February, on an unseasonably warm day in Illinois, I took down my very first pheasant with pride. I had just spent a week in an intensive crash-course on everything related to hunting and conservation, from how to hold a firearm to how regulatory decisions influence and are influenced by biology, ethics, public perceptions, and the North American Model of Conservation. It was geared towards potential leaders in the field of conservation, ranging from state agency wildlife biologists to young NGO staffers like me, who don’t come from a hunting a fishing background.
That description applies to more of us than you might think. It’s no secret that hunters are diminishing in numbers, and yet sportsmen and women have been responsible for a good chunk of conservation funding ever since we decided to tax ourselves for our licenses and gear long ago (during the Great Depression, no less.) There’s a lot of talk in the hunting and fishing community about the importance of recruiting new cohorts of hunters, and retaining or reactivating others, in order to keep these dollars flowing.
So the future of habitat and access just may depend on established hunters accepting beginners like me into their tribe.
Especially now, when all signs point to major budget cuts on the horizon for the federal agencies that carry out conservation in America, the dollars that hunters provide for habitat—and specifically excise taxes enacted by the Pittman-Robertson Act—will be even more critical. After all, the dollars we spend on guns, ammo, and licenses are just as powerful as the dollars of a seasoned sportsman.
Will it matter in 50 years that non-traditional hunters, including the dreaded “hipster hunters,” got interested in the sport as adults primarily because they cared about organic, local, and ethically sourced meat? As long as we all share in the responsibility to our natural resources and sportsmen’s access, I don’t think so.
I hope that folks like me remain deferential to sportsmen’s traditions that were established way before millennials started listening to podcasts and Instagramming their avocado toast (for the record, I have never, and will never, post my brunch online.) The history and culture of hunting should be revered, not reversed, by those of us who are just starting out.
As for me, since my first hunt I’m completely hooked—and shopping for a firearm of my own. And of course, a portion of that sale will go back into conservation.
So, here’s the crux of my humble defense of millennial hunters, from my tribe to yours: We’re not in competition for a stake in America’s hunting legacy. We’re like you; we’re bonded by the singular rush you get knowing that you’ve become part of the natural world in a very primal way. We want to work together with you to create a sustainable future for fish, wildlife, and our—yes, our—sporting traditions.
Deep cuts at the agencies responsible for conservation and sportsmen’s access would be felt in every corner of the country
Hunters and anglers would find less healthy habitat and more public access closures under President Trump’s proposed budget, officially released this morning. In fact, the ripple effect of major budget cuts at the agencies that oversee conservation in America would likely be felt most in the rural communities that thrive off outdoor recreation spending related to public lands and other hunting and fishing access.
“With the magnitude of these cutbacks—12 percent at the Department of the Interior alone—the conservation legacy left to us by Theodore Roosevelt and others would be undone very quickly, and the effects would be felt on public and private lands and waters in every corner of the nation,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Several key programs with direct benefits to local communities, such as the Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes program and the USDA’s Farm Bill service centers, would be significantly slashed. Restoration programs for the Chesapeake Bay watershed and invasive species removal efforts in the Great Lakes would be eliminated entirely.”
The 12-percent cut at DOI would trim $1.5 billion in funding to the agencies largely responsible for public lands. Onshore and offshore energy development under DOI’s jurisdiction would get an increase. The U.S. Department of Agriculture budget would be cut by 21 percent or $4.7 billion, and the Environmental Protection Agency budget would be cut by 31 percent or $2.6 billion.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund—the single most important federal program for enhancing habitat and sportsmen’s access with funding from offshore oil and gas receipts—would be cut to pay for basic operations and maintenance, which should be a core budgeting responsibility.
Undermanned agencies could be faced with the choice to close down access points, stop habitat management, or place heavy financial burdens on the states, which sets a dangerous precedent for the transfer of management authority on America’s public lands. The budget proposal actually indicates that state and local governments will have increased responsibility for the execution of federal programs. Expecting cash-strapped states to pay for natural resources, a critical part of the federal-state partnership, is troublesome and may lead to less management, less enforcement, and stressed fish and wildlife populations.
To compound matters, two key programs providing tax payments to local counties with public lands—Payments in Lieu of Taxes and the National Wildlife Refuge Fund—would get less or no funding at all, perhaps breeding even more unrest in Western states with a large proportion of federal public lands.
President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal does allow agencies to have a great deal of discretion in how to implement cuts. The proposal does not include revenue projections or policy statements, and there is no language addressing mandatory spending. Agencies fear that detailed guidance will reveal even deeper cutbacks on the things that sportsmen care about.
“A much larger hit could still be coming, and with that there would be National Wildlife Refuge closures nationwide,” says Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs at the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “There simply wouldn’t be enough staff or funding to keep hunting and fishing access open or to run education and volunteer programs. Even if states were able to help a little, they don’t have enough funding to take over every program currently paid for by the federal government.”
A sandhill crane hunt in New Mexico that wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of scouting and some die-hard devotion to public lands
Hunting sandhill cranes in southern New Mexico is one of the many hunting traditions my buddies and I enjoy every year in this beautiful state. Several years ago on a cold, early January morning, we headed toward the border in the pre-dawn light. As we got closer, we could hear the distinctive call from thousands of sandhill cranes roosting on a playa one quarter of a mile across the border. There was no need to tote silhouette decoys for this hunt thanks to our extensive scouting. My five buddies and I knew where the birds were headed at first light, and we intended to be waiting for them.
Shortly after daylight, our month-long pre-hunt scouting groundwork paid off. A feeding frenzy led the birds right to the cut grain fields directly behind us. They came in steady waves, directly over our heads, so we had plenty of opportunities. The limit is three cranes per hunter per day, and we came just two birds short of limiting out in one morning. The other two fell from the sky that evening.
I’m proud to say that we all went home with more than enough “ribeye in the sky” to justify the expense of the hunt, but the experience would have been worth it either way. Knowing we’d soon taste those juicy strips of grilled crane breast was just a tasty bonus.
This year, we repeated this tradition with another successful hunt in the northwest part of Doña Ana County close to and on the Rio Grande River. The six of us were hunting public lands on a diversion reservoir in Doña Ana County, one of five counties in New Mexico that recently passed official resolutions supporting public lands. Simply put, without our national public lands, hunts like ours would not be possible.
Like a growing number of county commissioners across the West, Doña Ana elected officials chose to recognize the cultural importance and economic benefits of public lands within their county. A total of 26 pro-public-lands resolutions have been passed by county and municipal governments across the West in the past two years. This is part of a major movement to prove the value of national public lands to detractors who would transfer or sell them off forever. The five counties behind resolutions in New Mexico—Doña Ana, Santa Fe, Bernalillo, Taos, and San Miguel counties—represent one million residents, or nearly half the state’s population, whose lives are improved by the proximity to public lands.
My friends and I were lucky enough to draw coveted permits for the blink-of-an-eye sandhill crane season, just two days long in the southwest portion of the state, and take full advantage of the public lands we love. That includes plenty of pre-season scouting if you hope to be in the action on opening day. Cranes have keen senses and once an area is hunted they usually don’t return to give you a second chance.
When it comes to our public lands, nothing is ever certain. You might get the luck of the draw during tag season, and perhaps a fortunate wind on opening day. But whether we limit out or not, sportsmen and women have to keep doing the work to defend our access and keep public lands well managed. Here’s a good start: Sign the petition at sportsmensaccess.org to let your legislators know that public lands are a critical part of our sporting heritage.
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