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Now that lawmakers have come to a bipartisan agreement on the nation’s largest source of conservation funding, the future looks brighter for fish and wildlife
Across the nation, private lands provide essential habitat and public access for America’s hunters and anglers, driving a rural outdoor recreation economy worth billions of dollars. And to improve the soil health, water quality, and fish and wildlife habitat on these lands, the farm bill provides more than $5 billion to support private land conservation.
But on September 30 of this year, Congress let the 2014 Farm Bill expire and failed to pass a new bill. While most of the law’s major functions—such as caring for the hungry and providing a safety net for agricultural producers—carried on without issue, its support for wildlife habitat and sporting access immediately halted. For landowners and sportsmen and women across the country, this generated considerable uncertainty regarding the future of private lands conservation.
Thankfully, House and Senate Farm Bill negotiators finally announced a deal, leading to the swift passage of the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act by both chambers with record bipartisan support.
Here is a look under the hood of the 2018 Farm Bill and what some of its key provisions mean for sportsmen and women.
When filling up your gas tank, the amount of money spent determines how much fuel you get and how far you can go. Similarly, the amount of funding for conservation determines how many acres can benefit from the habitat and access programs in the farm bill. That’s why, throughout the course of deliberations and negotiations for the 2018 Farm Bill, TRCP led a determined opposition to any cuts to the programs that support healthy soil, clean water, and productive fish and wildlife habitat.
We are pleased to see that the final bill provides full funding—roughly $5 billion—for the critical work of conservation.
Funding for this substantial wetlands program saw an increase of $200 million per year, meaning that roughly $450 million in funding will assist landowners with the protection, restoration and improvement of wetland easements. This natural infrastructure enhances fish and migratory bird habitat while mitigating flooding and boosting water quality by capturing arm runoff.
The 2018 Farm Bill maintains the integrity of wetland conservation compliance, known as “Swampbuster,” while strengthening “Sodsaver” grasslands protections. Combined, Swampbuster and Sodsaver provide critical safeguards for the wetlands and grasslands that comprise a significant amount of our waterfowl and upland bird habitat in the United States.
CRP acreage grew by 3 million to a total of 27 million acres under this voluntary program, which incentivizes landowners to remove highly erodible and environmentally sensitive lands from production. This increase will provide much-needed upland habitat and water quality improvements.
The bill boosts the funds dedicated to wildlife habitat practices under EQIP from 5 percent to 10 percent of the program’s total funds. This will dramatically increase the amount of money available for farmers and ranchers to create wildlife habitat on working lands for species such as the greater sage grouse and monarch butterfly.
Funding for the RCPP tripled to $300 million a year to be spent on landscape scale watershed projects that increase wildlife habitat while boosting water quantity and quality. This program is used everywhere from the Chesapeake Bay to the Columbia River to build resiliency in the face of pollution and drought.
The 2018 Farm Bill provides an additional $10 million in funding for the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. This is a significant victory for sportsmen and women across the country who enjoy public access to nearly 1 million acres of private land opened under this program for everything from hiking to hunting and fishing.
“We’re relieved to see a Farm Bill move forward before this Congress concludes, because every day we go without critical programs for habitat and access it creates more uncertainty for rural America. With full funding for conservation and increased funding for states to create new walk-in access for hunting and fishing, this bill is a win all around—for sportsmen and women, landowners, wildlife, water quality, and our economy.”
— Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
“The Farm Bill is one of the largest single sources of conservation spending in the federal budget and it represents the single largest federal investment in private-lands conservation, so it is easy to see why it is so important.”
—Paul Phillips, co-chairman of the Boone & Crockett Club’s Conservation Policy Committee
“In short, the new Farm Bill is a victory for the conservation and stewardship of the natural treasures that are America’s ranches, farms and forests. The health of these lands is critical to the success of private landowners, to our economy and to rural communities. The bill’s investment in conservation programs, combined with important forestry provisions, will give landowners tools to protect their land and their way of life.”
—Mark R. Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy
“This is the first time CRP acres have increased since the 1996 Farm Bill. Part of that is due to the support of our 140,000 members, volunteers, hunters, farmers and landowners making their voices heard in support of a strengthened CRP.”
—Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever
“On behalf of the more than one million members and supporters of Ducks Unlimited, we’d like to thank Congress for their steadfast support of our nation’s wetlands and waterfowl through the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. By providing full-funding for the conservation title, Congress ensures that these voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs will continue to create opportunities to work with farmers, ranchers, and landowners across the country. Without their cooperation, Ducks Unlimited could not reach our goal of filling the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever.”
—Dale Hall, CEO of Ducks Unlimited
Top photo by Nicholas Putz
As fishing guides, charter captains, and other small business owners share their stories, decision-makers get inspired to make conservation happen in South Florida
From the top of a poling platform in the Florida Keys, a fishing guide scans the flats for a slender outline or a silver flash, whispering instructions to an angler at the bow. “There’s one at ten o’clock. Drop it right in front him. Strip… faster, now…” The more precise the directions, the greater the chance of hooking into the targeted fish. Patience and perseverance are critical, especially when almost every element is outside of your control.
In a moment of such pure concentration, politics should be the furthest thing from the mind of a guide. The unfortunate reality, however, is that our unique experiences on the water—not to mention the livelihoods of countless outdoor recreation business owners in south Florida—are directly affected by decisions made every day in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.
So, these days, the captain who guides you to bucket-list bonefish and tarpon is more likely to be tuned into, and willing to speak out about, the policy decisions that could threaten the future of recreational fishing here in the Everglades.
And it’s paying off for conservation.
For decades now, water quality across Florida’s southern peninsula has declined, causing massive seagrass die-offs and toxic algal blooms. The consequences of this trend are dire: The state’s fishing, boating, real estate, and tourism industries, as well as the health of its residents, all depend on the quality of its water.
Citizen engagement on this issue had been lacking, and politicians at the state and federal level let opportunities to fix these problems slip away. This water crisis could have been fixed years ago with greater awareness of the problem and available solutions.
This realization, combined with the tangible economic impacts to charter fishing businesses, inspired guides like Captains Daniel Andrews and Chris Wittman to take leave of their skiffs and spend their time educating others about Florida’s water mismanagement issues and possible solutions. In 2016, they founded Captains for Clean Water, a non-profit that advocates for clean water and healthy estuaries.
They had no idea that they would be rallying the outdoor industry to the front lines of a decades-old fight.
Fast-forward to May 2018, when hundreds of anglers, business owners, and conservationists traveled to Washington, D.C., for the America’s Everglades Summit, a two-day event hosted by the Everglades Foundation. There, they took to the halls of the Capitol to make their voices heard.
“Our sense of urgency and the passion we share for this place, can only be felt in person,” says Captain Benny Blanco. “That’s why I made it a priority to show up and do whatever I could to convince decision-makers. My livelihood and the livelihoods of every South Florida guide hang in the balance. I think they can hear that in my voice.”
The group’s first request for Congress was to authorize the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir in the 2018 Water Resources Development Act. This project will significantly reduce toxic discharges to Florida’s coasts and restore the flow of clean water to the Everglades, where it is needed.
Since then, the collective efforts of organizations like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Captains for Clean Water have helped to bring anglers together and push lawmakers to pass WRDA with critical support for the Everglades. This is strong evidence that when our community unites, we win.
“Having the ability to move forward on the reservoir south of the lake means that we are one step closer to saving Florida Bay and the northern estuaries,” says Captain Josh Greer, a southwest Florida business owner and fishing guide, who encourages his customers to keep up the pressure on lawmakers. “If we can do that, guides like me can continue to make a living on the water. We need everyone to continue making noise and pushing the state and federal government for funding before we lose the Everglades for good.”
The effort to restore the Everglades is far from over, and attention now turns to providing federal funding for the EAA Reservoir. In 2019, Captains for Clean Water pledges to lead this charge, rallying supporters and working with elected officials to solve this critical issue.
With so much at stake, the time to act for Florida’s water quality and outdoor economy is now.
“Restoring flows to Florida Bay has never been more crucial,” says Blanco, “but we’ve never had more evidence that the voices of recreational fishermen can make an impact.”
Learn more and get involved at captainsforcleanwater.org.
Alycia Downs is the communications associate for Captains for Clean Water, a non-profit advocating for clean water and healthy estuaries. As an avid sportswoman, writer, and Southwest Florida native, she creates content for numerous organizations promoting tourism, conservation, fishing, and outdoor involvement. Downs can be found casting lines along the Gulf Coast, where she lives with her husband Mike. For more outdoor inspiration and to get in touch, visit tideandtale.com or follow her on Instagram @tideandtale.
The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers proceeds with rolling back Clean Water Act protections for headwater streams and wetlands—harming trout, waterfowl, and outdoor recreation businesses
Today, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers took the next step to replace an Obama-era rule that benefited headwater streams and wetlands across the country. The new rule would redefine which waters are eligible for Clean Water Act protections and leave important habitat for fish and waterfowl vulnerable to pollution and destruction.
The rule proposed today would remove Clean Water Act protections for ephemeral streams, which only flow in response to rainfall, and likely excludes intermittent streams, which only flow during wet seasons. These waters are important for fish and wildlife, especially in the West.
Under the new rule, adjacent wetlands will only receive protection if they are physically connected to other jurisdictional waters. This disregards the EPA’s own research that shows wetlands and ephemeral and intermittent streams, even those that lack surface connection, provide important biological and chemical functions that affect downstream waters.
“No matter which party holds the power in Washington, the needs of America’s hunters and anglers have not changed since we supported the 2015 Clean Water Rule—all streams and wetlands are crucial to supporting healthy fish and waterfowl populations that power our sports, and an entire swath of these important habitats does not deserve to be overlooked or written off on a technicality,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Sportsmen and women will remain engaged in the public process of creating a new rule for how our smaller streams and wetlands are regulated, because our quintessentially American traditions in the outdoors depend on it.”
“The agencies’ refusal to consider the science is detrimental to the integrity and security of our fish and wildlife resources,” says Doug Austen, executive director of the American Fisheries Society. “Headwater streams are key to the sustainability of fish stocks in both upstream and downstream waters. Now, species that are already in trouble will be harder to recover, and more species will be at risk of becoming imperiled. Loss of protections for these waters will have grave ecological consequences for fish and fisheries—and ultimately the communities across the U.S. will lose the economic, social, and cultural benefits that are derived from headwater streams.”
“This proposal is fundamentally flawed for one simple reason: It focuses on the wrong criteria—continuous flow of water—rather than protecting water quality in our rivers, lakes, and drinking water reservoirs,” says Scott Kovarovics, executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America. “This misguided approach is completely unsupported by science and common sense, and it not only jeopardizes public health, it will undermine the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy.”
The Obama administration finalized its Clean Water Rule in 2015 and clarified that the Clean Water Act protects smaller streams and wetlands. The Trump administration’s rule embraces the minority opinion written by late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on what constitutes the “Waters of the U.S.”
Scalia’s definition was not adopted by the Supreme Court and is not supported by hunters and anglers. In fact, 80 percent of sportsmen and women in a 2018 poll said Clean Water Act protections should apply to headwater streams and wetlands. Additionally, 92 percent believe that we should strengthen or maintain current clean water standards, not relax them.
“The administration’s new proposal turns its back on the importance of small headwater streams to healthy waterways and sportfishing recreation,” says Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “Small headwater streams are like the roots of our trees, the capillaries of our arteries. Sportsmen and women know that all the benefits of our larger streams, rivers, and bays downstream are dependent on the health of our small streams.”
Today’s proposed rulemaking would roll back protections on diverse wetland habitats, including prairie potholes in the Great Plains region. Also known as America’s duck factory, these wetlands support more than 50 percent of our country’s migratory waterfowl. Since the Supreme Court created confusion about the application of the Clean Water Act in the 2000s, America has experienced accelerated wetlands loss—only 40 to 50 percent of the original prairie potholes remain.
“From wetlands in the prairie potholes region to the riparian areas that are critical to 80 percent of all wildlife—including big game—our hunting and fishing traditions can’t exist without clean water,” says Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “Hunters and anglers will not stand for shortsighted policies that weaken protections and threaten the integrity of fish and wildlife habitats currently safeguarded by bedrock conservation laws like the Clean Water Act.”
The new rulemaking could also threaten America’s outdoor recreation businesses and communities that rely on tourism spending related to hunting and fishing.
“No one who loves the outdoors wants to fish a lake covered in toxic algae, duck hunt near a bulldozed wetland, or pitch a tent next to sewage ditch,” says Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “Yet more water pollution is exactly what will happen if the administration dismantles clean water protections. It’s bad for wildlife, and it’s bad for the nearly 8 million jobs powered by the outdoor recreation economy.”
Today’s proposal will be published in the Federal Register here. At that time, the public will have 60 days to comment.
Passage before the end of this Congress would deliver certainty for landowners and sportsmen who use walk-in access
House and Senate negotiators have reached an agreement on provisions to be included in the 2018 Farm Bill, setting lawmakers up to pass legislation that makes significant investments in land and water conservation and boosts support for hunting and fishing access.
This is welcome news to farmers, ranchers, landowners, and sportsmen and women, who depend on farm bill programs to restore and improve wildlife habitat, enhance water quality, and make private acres available for hunting and fishing.
“We’re relieved to see a Farm Bill move forward before this Congress concludes, because every day we go without critical programs for habitat and access it creates more uncertainty for rural America,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “With full funding for conservation and increased funding for states to create new walk-in access for hunting and fishing, this bill is a win all around—for sportsmen and women, landowners, wildlife, water quality, and our economy.”
The agreement includes a $10-million increase for the Voluntary Public Access program, which funds walk-in access for hunting and fishing on private land across the country.
“Since the 2014 Farm Bill expired this fall, it has been tough for landowners like me to make definitive decisions about how to put conservation on the ground, despite having the best intentions,” says Zane Zaubi of Horizon Land Development, who hosts youth and first-time hunters on land he has enrolled in VPA. “For farmers, ranchers, and landowners across the country who are willing to do the right thing, it’s a tremendous positive to have a Farm Bill on the horizon, ready to work for our business portfolios, local wildlife, and access to hunting and fishing.”
The conference committee was able to agree on providing increased funding for the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program, which helps landowners protect, restore, and improve wetlands. The legislation also provides a much needed increase in funding and flexibility for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which funds multi-state and watershed-scale projects to enhance soil, water, and wildlife conservation.
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More