March 22, 2017

Where Regulation Leaves Off, Other Improvements for Lakes and Streams Can Begin

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.

Impacts to Fish

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

Health Hazards

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.

Other Incentives

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.

Photo: USDA/Flickr.

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.

2 Responses to “Where Regulation Leaves Off, Other Improvements for Lakes and Streams Can Begin”

  1. Eleanor Mattice

    Thank you , farmers, for doing the right thing to protect our water. Only 3% of the world’s water is drinkable so we need to keep it as clean as possible . We also need to support farmers who grow our food. Without clean water and food humans can’t exist.

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March 7, 2017

Congress Rolls Back Your Say in BLM Land Management

Sportsmen now look to Secretary Zinke to restore the public’s voice in the BLM land-use planning process that affects habitat, access, and rural economies

Today, U.S. Senators voted to nullify the Bureau of Land Management’s revised land-use planning rule, commonly known as Planning 2.0, which gives the public more chances to weigh in on land management decisions for 245 million acres of BLM public lands. The House passed a similar resolution of disapproval using the Congressional Review Act on February 7.

President Trump’s signature on this action will revert BLM planning to a decades-old process and may prevent the agency from creating a new rule that has the same benefits for habitat and public involvement. Planning 2.0 was the product of more than two years of collaboration between the agency, state and local governments, and the public.

“Hunters and anglers are puzzled by the fact that Congress would choose to destroy a refined and more inclusive public lands management process,” says Joel Webster, director of Western lands with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Perhaps some additional fine-tuning could have further improved BLM planning, but this CRA action is the equivalent of burning down the house simply because some window trim needed replacing. It’s an overreaction with real-world consequences for fish, wildlife, and the American people.”

Wyoming’s North Platte River. Image courtesy of Brady Owen/BLM.

Nineteen sportsmen’s groups wrote Congress in support of Planning 2.0 revisions that created three additional opportunities for the public and key collaborators—like state and local governments—to be involved at the front-end of the land-use planning process. These additional steps were designed to increase agency transparency and public involvement, and these benefits are still sorely needed to boost overall satisfaction with the management of BLM public lands across the country.

“It is tragic to see so much hard work and public input go to waste, only to be replaced with uncertainty,” says Steven Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute. “Meanwhile, the agency will continue to struggle in using an outdated, ineffective planning process to deal with modern-day challenges on public lands.”

Consideration for big game migration corridors and other planning tools that account for the most recent scientific data are not written into the previous land-use planning rule, established in 1983. Hunters and anglers are looking to the newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior to find other ways of securing these benefits.

“Sportsmen and women are incredibly savvy about public lands management and how planning efforts affect the places we hunt and fish—these are our lands and we deserve a fair shake,” says Corey Fisher, senior policy director for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen Conservation Project. “We stand ready and willing to work with Secretary Zinke to restore the public’s voice in BLM public land management and see to it that important fish and wildlife habitat isn’t overlooked.”

February 28, 2017

Executive Order Could Halt Progress on Reversing Wetlands Loss

Trump’s most recent executive order puts fish and waterfowl habitat back at risk by directing agencies to scrap and rewrite the key rule created to help protect headwater streams and wetlands

Today President Trump issued an executive order directing the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to revise their 2015 Clean Water Rule, which was created to clarify protections for headwater streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The order directs the agencies to consider using former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s minority opinion, which said that seasonal streams and many wetlands do not merit protection, as a basis for revising the rule.

“Sportsmen will not settle for watered down protections or negligence for the habitat that supports the fish and wildlife we love to pursue,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which joined five other leading sportsmen’s groups in issuing a joint statement of support for the benefits of the Clean Water Rule.

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.

Click here to read the joint statement from TRCP, Trout Unlimited, American Fly Fishing Trade Association, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Izaak Walton League, and National Wildlife Federation.

February 23, 2017

Wetlands Were Drained Under USDA’s Watch

Proving that faster isn’t always better, nearly three-quarters of safeguarded wetlands lost their protection when the agency started using old data to move quickly through a backlog of requests

It wasn’t so long ago that we were feeling pretty good about conservation in rural America. Last month, sportsmen and women celebrated the extraordinary amount of federal money invested in improving habitat and water quality on private lands. But the latest news is not so welcome: An internal watchdog report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture details the agency’s thoroughly misguided policies around wetland protection in the Prairie Pothole Region, also known as America’s Duck Factory.

USDA’s Spotty Record with Pothole Wetland Protection

This is the third in a recent string of concerning reports from the watchdog agency, the Office of the Inspector General.

In the first report, OIG outlined that, due to a lack of coordination across the department, USDA wasn’t actually checking on the tracts of land that were subject to conservation compliance, possibly causing the federal government to pay farm subsidies to landowners who drained wetlands or plowed highly erodible land, contrary to federal law and the will of the American taxpayer. Next, OIG reported that where USDA was completing compliance checks, the checks were pretty well mismanaged—meaning inconsistent, incomplete, outdated, and possibly unethical.

Now, OIG reports that the USDA made significant procedural changes that actually allowed producers to drain more wetlands, , further contradicting the intent of conservation compliance. These changes effectively reversed 20 years of agency history and policy. Moreover, they were not officially communicated to field staff and never disclosed to the public.

America's duck factory prairie potholes region
America’s duck factory. Top and above images courtesy of USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr.
Good Intentions Gone Awry

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.)

Moving Forward

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.

Learn more about conservation in the Farm Bill. 

February 20, 2017

The Land We Love: A Photo Essay

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.

The House has already voted to block the updated planning rule and soon it could come to a Senate vote. This is an affront to sportsmen and women, many of whom depend on these lands for hunting and fishing. The time to act is now.

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.


Heads Up
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.


Monster Bulls
Randy Newberg (center) is a passionate and articulate advocate for public lands, and it’s clear why. This photo (and his bull) were taken on BLM land near Casper, Wyoming.


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.


Bachelor Party
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.

Head over to our action alert page to send a letter to your Senator in support of BLM’s planning updates. We also created this Twitter tool to make it easy for you to reach key targets in the Senate directly.

As always, when you sign our Sportsmen’s Access petition, we’ll send letters to your local, state, and national lawmakers saying that you support keeping these lands public.

Enjoyed what you saw? Check out another BLM landscape worthy of conservation from photographer Charlie Bulla.



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.

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