Featured Podcast: Will Congress Act in Time to Pass a 2018 Farm Bill?
Tune in to find out how the Farm Bill could enhance habitat and access on private land—if lawmakers can strike a deal in time
The hosts of the Your Mountain Podcast remind us that decisions are being made every day that could affect your land, water, and wildlife. So you should know about them. That couldn’t be more true right now, when we’re anxiously awaiting an agreement on the next Farm Bill. This critical legislation helps landowners implement conservation practices and open hunting and fishing access you wouldn’t otherwise have in rural America.
Here’s what you need to know about the time crunch and how conservation could lose out if lawmakers need to start the process all over again next Congress.
BLM’s Revised Sage Grouse Plans Continue Conservation But Create Uncertainty
The agency’s revised sage grouse conservation plans for 11 Western states will play a major role in determining the future of the sagebrush ecosystem, which supports more than 350 species
Today, the Bureau of Land Management revealed its revised plans to conserve greater sage grouse populations across nearly 70 million acres of public land in 11 Western states. The Trump administration’s approach will replace the original Obama-era plans, which helped to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confidence that the species did not warrant listing as threatened or endangered in 2015.
While the state-specific plans maintain the basic framework of the originals, which were created through years of collaborative effort, the new plans do not provide the same safeguards for certain sagebrush habitats. There is more potential for development and mineral extraction within sage grouse habitat in the new plans. Combined with the Department of Interior’s policy shift on habitat mitigation, this could be cause for concern.
“These new plans are a mixed bag, with some changes addressing legitimate requests from the states to help align with their conservation approaches and other changes stripping back protections for core sage grouse habitat and creating more uncertainty for the West,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
“Unless the impacts of development are properly mitigated to avoid further habitat loss, sage grouse could easily become a candidate for the threatened and endangered species list yet again. Success will ultimately come down to implementing these new plans to the letter, and never wavering from an approach that produces results for sage grouse populations and other species that depend on the sagebrush ecosystem. We will continue working with the BLM, the states, industry, and local partners to ensure that happens,” says Fosburgh.
Changes That Create Uncertainty
The revised plans eliminate focal areas, a subset of about 11 million acres of priority habitat on BLM land that would have been permanently withdrawn from any potential mineral extraction in the 2015 plans. The original no-surface occupancy policy remains—meaning infrastructure for development cannot be built on priority habitat—but the revised plans also give the BLM more flexibility to waive these protections in certain cases.
Mitigation also remains a sticking point, now that the Department of the Interior maintains that it lacks legal authority to require developers to pay for any negative impacts to habitat. (Quick tip: Here’s a metaphor that helps explain mitigation using beer!) This shifts the onus of regulation to the individual states, each of which has different mitigation standards and legal requirements. The states now must ensure their mitigation approaches are not only effective at curbing habitat loss, but also at holding all developers accountable on a level playing field.
“We cannot manage grouse at a level where we are only one major event away from having to list the bird,” says Steve Belinda, executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership. “Habitat, particularly on public lands, must be managed to withstand events we cannot control, like drought, fire, and disease, so conservation can be balanced with energy development, grazing, and other human activities we can control.”
No Time to Waste
The Trump administration first initiated a review of the original conservation plans in 2017. Since that time, secretarial orders and instruction memorandums issued by the DOI set the stage for amending the 2015 plans and changing how habitat is prioritized in relation to eligibility for oil and gas leasing.
A year ago, 105 wildlife and habitat experts urged the BLM and Secretary Zinke not to deviate from what the best science indicates is necessary in sagebrush country. They warned that major amendments to the 2015 plans and a lengthy delay in implementing conservation work could drastically alter the course for habitat conservation and undo years of hard work.
This is time that sage grouse don’t have to waste.
It will be important to move forward swiftly with implementation of any plan to conserve sagebrush habitat and begin tracking the effectiveness of conservation measures. “Whatever approach we take, the outcome for sage grouse and sagebrush habitat will need to be legally defensible,” says Dr. Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If there is not enough regulatory certainty, if there is too much flexibility leading to negative impacts on habitat, and it is determined that our actions were not effective, we may end up facing a legal challenge deeper than the one we started from years ago. At that point, it’s difficult to see a future where sage grouse aren’t reconsidered for listing.”
“The scale and magnitude of sage grouse conservation planning, while extraordinary, has always been an enormous experiment, and management actions largely remain untested,” says Dr. Ed Arnett, chief scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We need solid research and monitoring to demonstrate that management efforts implemented in these plans are, in fact, good for grouse. Until we see conservation manifested on the ground, we still just have good intentions for habitat and birds on paper in planning documents.”
The U.S. Forest Service is finalizing its own amendments to eight forest plans dealing with sage grouse conservation in the West. The public comment period for those proposed amendments closes on January 3, 2019.
We Make Time for the Outdoors, So Why Not for Conservation?
The TRCP is joining forces with REI to urge you to #OptOutside on Black Friday—and get more involved every day in the conservation issues that matter
As we prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, we’re proud to link arms once again with our friends at REI—and hundreds of global brands—to urge hunters and anglers to #OptOutside.
This year’s theme is about breaking our routines and finding time to spend in the outdoors. And this resonates with many of us, even if, as hunters and anglers, we probably go outside more than the average American. No matter how many days you log in the woods or on the water, don’t you feel the tug of your smartphone screen or the ping of a busy schedule?
It never hurts to slow down, shut our devices off, and head down the trail to where true adventure is within our reach—even if we may be unreachable for a few hours. But making time to enjoy the outdoors (and derive the cortisol-lowering benefits of testing ourselves in the pursuit of game and fish) is only meeting half the need.
It’s also critical that we prioritize taking action to safeguard our outdoor recreation opportunities for the next generation.
Engaging in the fight for well-managed public lands, cleaner water, better habitat, more funding for conservation, and stronger outdoor recreation businesses looks different for everyone. You might donate to an organization you trust. (After all, Giving Tuesday is coming up—hint hint.) You might sign a petition, attend a workday, or share an article on social media that taught you something about conservation, hoping others will learn from it, too.
But how many times has something like this happened: You get an email about an upcoming meeting hosted by your local BLM field office to collect public comments on a proposed plan for managing public lands in your area. As someone who cares about the fish and wildlife resources and hunting and fishing opportunities on these lands, the stakes are pretty high for you, and your opinion carries a lot of weight in this public process. But the meeting is on a weekday night and you’re not sure you understand all the issues. You delete the email.
Or this: You’re scrolling through your Instagram feed and see a call to action about the lapsed Farm Bill. A conservation organization you trust says that we lose out every day we go without the programs that help farmers improve habitat and walk-in access for hunting and fishing, and it’s imperative that we pressure Congress to take urgent action. You click the link in their bio, but then a stream of text messages come in that you need to respond to, and before you know it, you’re late to drop the kids off somewhere.
Getting more involved in conservation isn’t always convenient, especially when it’s all we can do to carve out time to actually use our hunting and fishing licenses or the access we worked hard to secure with a landowner’s permission. Still, the routine we may need to break is the one where we tell ourselves, “I’ll do it later,” “This is not my fight,” or worse, “Someone else will do it.”
It’s up to all of us to find the time and energy to dedicate ourselves to the conservation issues that will determine whether or not our children and grandchildren have quality places to hunt and fish. We must sign up, step up, and speak out for more responsible management of public lands, stronger habitat and access incentives for private landowners, and the best possible clean water standards and conservation funding levels.
As REI reminds us, #OptOutside is about more than a company making a bold move on Black Friday. It’s about inspiring a movement.
So find the time. Stretch your legs and your mind. Replenish your soul in the outdoors. Then, when you finally head back to your screens and social networks, do whatever you can, whenever you can, to support conservation.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership was created to bring together nonprofit partners, individual hunters and anglers, and outdoor recreation businesses to rally behind common conservation policy goals. Here’s why we do what we do—and how you can help.
Seven Bills That Sportsmen and Women Need Congress to Pass During the Lame Duck Session
If Congress can pull off a Hail Mary pass for legislation that benefits hunters and anglers in the remaining weeks of 2018, here are the bills we want to see land on the president’s desk
Now that Election Day has come and gone, there may be as little as three weeks of worktime left in the 115th Congress—and that means we have one last window to finalize top legislative priorities for habitat, clean water, sportsmen’s access, and conservation funding. It’s important to note that bills written, introduced, debated, and passed this Congress will head back to square one at the start of a new session on January 4, 2019.
Time is short, but it isn’t over ‘til it’s over.
Fortunately there’s already support from both sides of the aisle on crucial legislation to enhance habitat conservation and sportsmen’s access on public lands. And Congress has the opportunity to put these priorities to bed so that 2019 can be spent making more progress for conservation, not making up for lost time.
These are the seven bipartisan, ready-to-vote pieces of legislation they’ll need to carry across the finish line during the lame duck session to make that happen.
The Hunting Heritage and Environmental Legacy Preservation for Wildlife Act, or HELP for Wildlife Act, is one of the strongest pieces of legislation for habitat conservation to emerge in decades—and one of the most meaningful things Congress could get done in the waning days of 2018.
Introduced and passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee with broad bipartisan support in October 2017, this legislation includes reauthorization for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Chesapeake Bay restoration program through 2022. Additionally, the bill contains the National Fish Habitat Conservation Act, which would improve fish habitat and expand recreational fishing access. These provisions have made it this far before, only to be left behind as Congress wraps. It’s time to get them done.
Another key sportsmen’s priority is the Modernizing the Pittman-Robertson Fund for Tomorrow’s Needs Act of 2017, which would help address the decline in hunter participation that has wildlife professionals worried for the future of conservation funding.
The original Pittman-Robertson Act is the foundation of our unique wildlife conservation funding framework, where excise taxes on the purchase of firearms, ammunition, and other hunting gear go toward funding state-level wildlife conservation work. Modernizing Pittman-Robertson would allow a percentage of funds to be used for activities related to the recruitment, retention, and reactivation of hunters and recreational shooters, thereby improving the trust fund’s ability to support our state wildlife agencies.
This is bipartisan legislation that has already passed in the House and should definitely be in the mix if lawmakers want to be part of a long-term solution for boosting conservation coffers.
Modern Fish Act
Benefits for recreational fisheries and forage fish
Last move: Passed out of Senate committee and House this summer
The Modern Fish Act addresses many of the challenges faced by recreational anglers and represents the fishing community’s practical wishlist for updating fisheries management and data collection. The bill aims to benefit fishing access and conservation by allowing science and technology to guide decision-making, all while placing a higher priority on the needs of anglers.
We have been operating within a system designed to manage commercial fishing for too long—our coastal economies deserve to see us build upon the bipartisan support for MFA, not head back to the drawing board in January.
The Wildlife Innovation and Longevity Driver Act, or WILD Act, would reauthorize the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, a critical initiative to assist private landowners who want to voluntarily restore habitat on their lands, for the next five years. The program also establishes a series of Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prizes to help prevent poaching, promote wildlife conservation, manage invasive species, and conserve endangered species.
This program has become a household name among outdoor recreation enthusiasts—and for good reason. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a critical tool for conserving habitat and opening access to public lands, but Congress allowed the LWCF to expire on September 30.
Even though the LWCF doesn’t use a single taxpayer dollar—it’s funded from a portion of offshore oil and gas fees—the program has rarely been funded to its full potential and short-term authorization cycles create uncertainty for proposed outdoor recreation projects. While majorities in both chambers currently support permanent reauthorization and full funding, the ultimate length and funding levels are matters of continued negotiation.
Still, bipartisan legislation to save LWCF has broad support in both chambers and could easily pass today. We’d be excited to see this program put to work on the 9.52 million acres of landlocked public land across the West with no permanent legal access. Take action to let your lawmakers know.
Benefits for states with landlocked public lands
Last move: Introduced in both the House and Senate
Sportsmen have been advocating for several bills that would fit well in a comprehensive public lands package by the end of the year. One of them, the Advancing Conservation and Education, or ACE, Act, would improve the quality of public lands and allow Western states to generate more revenue for state land-trust beneficiaries, such as schools.
ACE would facilitate land-swaps to unlock state lands entirely surrounded by federal lands, or vice versa. In both cases, these swaps are designed to improve land management in the West by streamlining jurisdiction over land parcels. (Imagine how hard it would be to manage upkeep and improvements on your land if you had to cross someone else’s property to do it.)
This bill enjoys bipartisan support from Western lawmakers who oversee a complicated mosaic of public, state, and private land. And since ACE is a winner when it comes to improving public lands management, it’s a strong candidate for inclusion in a package alongside permanent authorization and full funding for LWCF.
It’s difficult to overstate the threat that chronic wasting disease poses to the future of deer and elk hunting in America or the conservation funding generated by this powerful segment of the sportsman population. Though additional solutions must be proposed soon, legislation introduced in the House this year would kick start one critical component of a nationwide response to the rapid spread of CWD.
The bill directs the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study on how CWD is transmitted between wild, captive, and farmed deer in the United States. The aim would be to identify factors that contribute to the spread of the disease and where the deeper focus of research should be. The bill also calls for a review of the best practices and standards around managing CWD in both captive and wild deer, resulting in a report of findings and recommendations.
A Senate companion bill could be introduced any day, and support for both will be crucial. But if these bills can’t cross the finish line this year, we hope they at least indicate strong interest in continuing to create solutions for curbing the spread of CWD. Our wild deer and elk herds are depending on it.