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Expanding a popular Farm Bill program will help more landowners open private land to hunters and anglers who drive spending in rural regions
Today, Representatives Dr. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), Glenn Thompson (R-Penn.), Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced new bipartisan legislation to reauthorize and expand the popular Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program—the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s signature program for incentivizing private landowners to open their property for public hunting and fishing access. Identical legislation was introduced in the Senate in December 2017.
“As an avid outdoorsman and conservationist, I’m proud to introduce the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act, a program that expands hunting and fishing access in Kansas and across the country,” says Rep. Marshall of H.R. 5022. “Our state’s Walk-In Access Program already helps landowners voluntarily open up thousands of acres for the public to enjoy, and enhancing the federal support for access and conservation of private lands will undoubtedly help carry those benefits to more Americans.”
This isn’t just good for sportsmen and women—VPA funds give farmers and ranchers more options for their business plans, and access opportunities draw tourism spending to rural communities.
“Our Voluntary Access Program not only provides essential access for Illinois hunters and anglers, but it also strengthens our local economy,” says Rep. Bustos. “Enhancing the program will boost this investment in the local businesses where sportsmen and women buy their gear, grab their coffee, and gas up their trucks. It’s an investment in the next generation of hunters and anglers, as well.”
States like Illinois, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Michigan use VPA funds to support walk-in access in a number of ways: by compensating landowners for opening their lands, posting signs on the property and publishing the location of access points in brochures and online, improving habitat, repairing roads and fences, patrolling access points for poachers, and sometimes covering the costs of liability insurance for landowners, in case someone gets hurt on their property.
East of the Mississippi, where some states are 99 percent privately owned, this is critical access that might mean the difference between taking a kid on his or her first hunt and not passing the tradition on at all.
“Funds from this program have grown Pennsylvania’s existing Hunter Access Program, providing more places for parents to teach their children about an important American tradition,” says Rep. Thompson. “Sportsmen and women on the east coast deserve to enjoy convenient access to the outdoors, even in states that are mostly private land, and this bill will support the landowners who want to help provide it.”
“Hunting and fishing are part of Michigan’s culture and heritage, and continuing to expand sportsmen’s access and opportunity is important to continuing these rich traditions,” says Rep. Dingell.
Members of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees are currently drafting the 2018 Farm Bill for introduction this spring. Language from the VPA-HIP bills in both chambers would hopefully be rolled into that legislation, and with broad bipartisan support, reauthorization of the program is not likely to be contentious, though funding levels will be up for debate.
“If we have any hope of growing the next generation of sportsmen and women to sustain these traditions, we need quality places to hunt and fish all across the country, not just in states that look like Montana,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Enhancing the voluntary public access incentives in the Farm Bill has long been a part of TRCP’s mission and we’re proud to see lawmakers on both sides of the aisle embrace this solution.”
Though Congress can choose to ignore the president’s recommendations, two documents released Monday indicate that major cuts to conservation could be part of offsetting new costs
If the president’s priorities for the federal budget or a critical infrastructure overhaul are any indication, sportsmen and women will need to speak out against major cuts and dramatic reprioritizations for the agencies that carry out conservation in America and the programs that ensure our ability to find quality places to hunt and fish.
Officially made public yesterday, President Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget request included $3.7 billion in cuts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $1.7 billion in cuts at Interior, and a 23-percent reduction at the Environmental Protection Agency. Many line item reductions seem to be at odds with the administration’s priorities, like enhancing hunting and fishing access. It also suggests slashing multiple programs that help support state efforts to conserve fish and wildlife or match federal grants for projects.
“As it is, federal funding for conservation represents barely one percent of the budget, having been slashed in half over the past 30 years, and it would be impossible to balance the budget on the back of conservation,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Unfortunately, this proposal seems to indicate that cash-strapped conservation agencies deserve these cuts, while public land facilities, forests, waterways, wetlands, and millions of acres of sagebrush continue to fall by the wayside. The $887-billion outdoor recreation economy relies on healthy fish and wildlife populations, quality habitat, and the upkeep of public land infrastructure, and we will continue working with Congress and the administration to ensure these basic tenets of conservation are upheld.”
It is important to note that the president’s budget is only a set of recommendations, and Congress did not follow through on cuts suggested in last year’s proposal. Here’s how the president’s budget would impact fish, wildlife, sportsmen’s access, and the outdoor recreation economy.
The budget fails to address the fiscally catastrophic effects of ‘fire borrowing’ and the ever-climbing cost of fire suppression. The Forest Service estimates that by 2021, wildland fire costs will consume 67 percent of the Forest Service budget, which would be cut by 9 percent overall per the president’s proposal.
Two Forest Service programs were zeroed out entirely: The Forest Legacy Program, which supports state efforts to conserve environmentally sensitive forest lands, and the Legacy Roads and Trails Program, which supports urgently needed road and trail repair and maintenance, road decommissioning, and removal of barriers to fish passage.
One bad idea that could catch on is tapping into the Land and Water Conservation Fund for routine maintenance of public lands. Particularly, a 98-percent reduction in land acquisition funds at the Forest Service would hamper the administration’s ability to open and expand access to public lands. Further, if inholdings are more susceptible to development, this would also increase public access challenges and the costs of public lands management.
The BLM is charged with managing 240 million acres—more than any other federal agency—and yet its FY18 budget of $1.3 billion was just 43 percent of the National Park Service’s budget of $2.9 billion. For FY19, the agency is slated for an additional 17.5-percent cut, which would only make it more difficult for the BLM to do its job. We also noticed a 14-percent reduction for management of lands and resources, including 32 percent less funding for “management of rangeland and forest resources; riparian areas; soil, water, and air activities; wild horses and burros; and cultural resources.”
“Further cuts to the BLM’s budget would only lead to increased public frustration with the agency—it will inevitably be seen as the BLM’s inability to do its job as expected by the American people,” says Joel Webster, TRCP’s director of Western lands. “This is what led to the need for sportsmen and women to fight for public ownership of public lands in the first place.”
The agency that manages national wildlife refuges, protects endangered species, manages migratory birds (including waterfowl), and enforces federal wildlife laws would see an 18-percent overall budget cut. State and Tribal Wildlife Grants would be slashed in half, and Competitive State and Tribal Grants would be eliminated completely.
The State and Tribal Wildlife Grants program gives money directly to state fish and wildlife agencies to fund conservation projects targeted at species of greatest conservation need, but also to improve habitat for countless species important to hunters and anglers. Dramatically cutting funds for projects that help keep species from becoming threatened and endangered ensures higher conservation costs for reduced habitat gains in the future.
In addition, a $7.6-million reduction for the National Wildlife Refuge System would zero out accounts for conservation planning activities, leaving the refuge system flat-footed and unable to address tomorrow’s resource challenges.
There was also a suggested 11-percent cut to North American Wetlands Conservation Act funds, which go toward wetland restoration projects around the nation with every federal dollar matched as many as three times over by non-federal dollars. Deep cuts to matching grant programs like NAWCA have an outsized negative impact to on-the-ground conservation projects.
Beyond a 16-percent cut to USDA’s overall budget, the president’s budget proposes an elimination of the Conservation Stewardship Program and Regional Conservation Partnership Program—both of which help to improve water quality and soil health on private lands. Both programs enjoy tremendous bipartisan support and demand from landowners, and their loss would be felt from the Mississippi River Basin to the Delaware River Watershed.
Trump’s proposal also included a 76-percent cut to WaterSMART, the Bureau of Reclamation’s premier program for conserving and recycling water in the West in ways that also benefit fish and wildlife habitat. Additional cuts, such as the proposed elimination of the EPA program funding local watershed-level clean water projects, or a 90-percent reduction in the Chesapeake Bay Program, further jeopardize clean water and quality fish habitat at the local, state, and regional levels.
Meanwhile, the president’s infrastructure plan—also released on Monday—contains some strong provisions for the systems that ensure we have clean water, including $20 million for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Program, which leverages federal investment with private and non-federal dollars to build new clean water infrastructure.
Possible cuts to agency budgets and programs that help facilitate access to outdoor recreation experiences on public land seem to be at odds with an appetite for investing in the infrastructure of our national parks and drastically reducing the maintenance backlog on public lands. It remains to be seen where the $200 billion needed for the president’s infrastructure plan will be cut elsewhere in the budget, but one line in the plan suggests that public lands could be sold to offset costs.
There is ongoing concern that a forthcoming bill might include provisions to limit public input and environmental review on infrastructure projects, as well.
“Make no mistake, we are paying attention to the clear shift away from budgeting for public land acquisition and questioning whether the infrastructure plan is really implying that we should sell off public lands to make improvements to roads, bridges, and airports,” says Fosburgh. “An infrastructure bill should present a major opportunity to enhance natural solutions for modern infrastructure challenges. Restoring wetlands and creating wildlife-friendly roadway passages, for example, not only boosts fish and wildlife habitat, it also helps mitigate flooding that threatens American communities during more and more frequent catastrophic storms. These natural solutions are often more cost-effective and worthy of American taxpayer dollars than gray infrastructure, which only begins to deteriorate after day one.”
The TRCP will continue working to amplify the voices of sportsmen and women, who want decision makers to stop chipping away at conservation policies that have made America’s natural resources the envy of the world.
When it comes to the untouched habitat and superior water quality of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a cursory review isn’t enough—we need your help to demand more for the fish and wildlife and regional economy of Northeastern Minnesota
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is made up of 1.1 million acres of the most visited wilderness area in the country—it is, by all measures, a public land success story here in the northeastern corner of Minnesota.
There are world-class fishing opportunities all over the BWCA, in no small part because of the water quality and abundant habitat. In fact, 20 percent of the freshwater in the entire 193-million-acre national forest system is found in the Superior National Forest, which surrounds the Boundary Waters. The two biggest walleye ever caught in Minnesota were landed off the Gunflint Trail on the eastern edge of the BWCA—one of which, a 17-pound, 8-ounce behemoth, has held the state record for over thirty years.
Unfortunately, all of this is threatened by a proposed sulfide-ore copper mine on the southern edge of the Boundary Waters. A Chilean mining company is working to acquire leases a quarter mile from the edge of the wilderness area. These leases would give the company the right to develop a sulfide-ore copper mine, complete with new roads and mining infrastructure, alongside Birch Lake and the South Kawishiwi River. The proposed mine site sits at the headwaters of the Rainy River watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters, Voyageur’s National Park, and most of the Superior National Forest.
This proposed mine is incredibly contentious, and recent changes to complex land management and leasing policies have given hunters and anglers new cause for concern.
In 2016, the Department of the Interior announced that the Bureau of Land Management had the discretion whether or not to renew these leases, but the U.S. Forest Service had to consent first. When asked, the Forest Service withheld consent to renewal, leading the BLM to reject the mining company’s application. The Forest Service also proposed making 234,000 acres of public land at the edge of the Boundary Waters off limits to federal mineral leasing for 20 years, which triggered a two-year segregation on mining while the agency crafted an Environmental Impact Statement.
In late December 2017, the new administration at DOI reversed the 2016 decision, declaring that the mining leases were entitled to automatic renewal and no longer needed the discretion of the Forest Service to determine if these areas were suitable for development.
Then, on January 26, the Forest Service took a step back from their ongoing efforts to craft an Environmental Impact Statement on their own proposal. Instead of a thorough analysis of how this mine will affect nearby habitat, which an EIS would have provided, they will proceed with an Environmental Assessment typically used for simple, non-controversial projects. The EA will take the agency less than a year, beginning with a comment period that we now have less than a month to engage in.
In comparison, the EIS required to withdraw controversial mineral leases outside the Grand Canyon was given careful consideration, and the agency took the two years it needed to complete the two-volume report and provide multiple opportunities for public input before and after the study was completed. While the potential for serious impact was considered to be low, the risk was too high in such an important a place.
Simply put, the Boundary Waters watershed is Minnesota’s Grand Canyon. It is much an icon of the Midwest as Yellowstone is of the West, especially considering it is the largest continuous tract of public land east of the Rockies and north of the Everglades.
Leasing this area is anything but simple and non-controversial, and there should be no shortcuts to the assessment or public review process. Hunters and anglers should not only have the right to comment, but also the right to review this controversial proposal after the completion of the environmental assessment. The Boundary Waters, and all Americans who have a stake in their management, deserve the most robust review possible for such a risky mine at the headwaters of some of the best public land to hunt and fish on in Minnesota.
These public lands and waters belong to all of us, and Minnesotans are overwhelmingly in favor of a “stop and study” approach to assessing the effects of sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed. A 2017 poll showed that 79 percent of Minnesotans favor the most thorough review possible, and an overwhelming majority agree that the Boundary Waters, as well as the hunting and fishing habitat they encompass, are a unique place that deserves special attention.
We’re making the strongest case we can for our public lands and waters, but we can’t do it alone. It’s up to all of us to defend our public lands, waters, and sporting heritage.
Spencer Shaver is the conservation policy director for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters and a Minnesota native. He is lifelong hunter and fisherman, a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s environmental science, policy, and management program, and has guided Boundary Waters trips since 2014.
Top photo courtesy of Brian O’Keefe.
Secretary Zinke announces first steps to assess, map, and conserve seasonal habitat that are critical to the survival of big game populations
Today, Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order directing agencies within the Department of Interior to work toward better conservation of critical big game habitat, including migration corridors, stopover habitat, and seasonal ranges.
This is the first step in giving greater attention in land management and planning to areas where mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, and other species migrate, rest, or spend only a portion of the year. The order was signed by Zinke at the Mule Deer Foundation’s annual western hunting and conservation expo in Salt Lake City.
“Sportsmen and women have long advocated for recognition and conservation of wildlife migration corridors in the land-use planning process, because habitat conditions along these migratory routes can affect whether big game animals arrive healthy enough to survive the season,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We’re grateful to Secretary Zinke and this administration for taking the first step toward conserving these areas which have been overlooked or only recently identified. Bringing our conservation policies up to date with what we’ve learned from the latest research and GPS tracking technology will allow America’s hunting traditions to continue to thrive and support our country’s $887-billion outdoor recreation economy.”
The landscape of the western U.S. supports the ability of large animals to move and find food as the seasons change, and this makes America’s flourishing big game herds the envy of the world. But migration is tough on animals, and many barriers can threaten their ability to move freely. Fences, highways, housing developments, and oil and gas development can change movement patterns or close off migration corridors altogether.
“Big game animals need big landscapes and that’s why conserving all of the habitats they use—including their migration corridors—is critical for populations to thrive,” says Ed Arnett, TRCP’s chief scientist. “It doesn’t matter how much work we put into maintaining or restoring mule deer summer or winter range if wildlife can’t reach those areas, are prevented from stopping along the way to rest and recover, or don’t arrive in good health.”
The order specifically directs DOI agencies to identify a department coordinator that will work with states, other federal agencies, and conservation organizations to identify and map migration corridors and winter range. Within 60 days, the coordinator will develop an action plan defining next steps for implementation. The order also directs the department to assess migration corridors early in the landuse planning process and develop site-specific management activities to conserve and restore these habitats. Within 180 days, all responsible bureaus within DOI will update existing regulations, manuals, policies and other documents to comply with the order.
“We’ve known for decades that these animals migrate, but recent research and technology has helped to define the exact locations of critical corridors and stopover areas,” says Arnett. “What has been missing is the policy and specific guidance to land management agencies regarding the conservation of these habitats. We now have that direction from the Secretary and look forward to working with DOI agencies, state wildlife professionals, and our partners to ensure that these wildlife migration conservation measures are effectively integrated into agency policies and implemented on the ground.”
Top photo by Sara Domek
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