Savings from “Fire Fix” Should Go to Forest Health and Recreational Access
Dozens of sportsmen’s groups urge Congress to act swiftly so that dollars made available by last year’s wildfire funding solution are not diverted away from forest management
Following up on progress made during the 115th Congress, 34 prominent hunting, fishing, and wildlife conservation organizations are asking federal lawmakers to take the next step in solving the U.S. Forest Service’s budget problems by using newly available funds to invest in the agency’s mission.
In a letter to the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Appropriations Committees in both the House and Senate, these groups—whose members represent a sizeable segment of America’s 40 million hunters and anglers—urged lawmakers to ensure the U.S. Forest Service can allocate full funding to its other vital programs beginning in fiscal year 2020.
The groups emphasized that last year’s act to end the practice of fire-borrowing, which for years had depleted the Forest Service’s budget and staff, would not alone the problem. They noted the agency had a responsibility to direct those savings toward improving forest management.
“Congress has taken a huge step to ensure the Forest Service is no longer hamstrung by an outdated model of paying the massive costs for fighting wildfires,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Now Congress must guarantee that those new resources are invested in good forest management, including restoration and access. By making smart investments in forest health and access, our nation will see lasting benefits to our public lands and outdoor traditions.”
From 2001-2015, the Forest Service saw dramatic declines in its budget for programs related to forest health, recreation, and access, as the costs of wildfire suppression and recovery escalated out of control. Until the passage of the 2018 government funding bill, the Forest Service was forced to use money from other accounts to pay for catastrophic fire seasons.
“We are grateful for the bipartisan support Congress demonstrated when implementing a partial fire-borrowing fix in early 2018,” noted Brent Rudolph, director of conservation policy with the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society. “We’re confident Congress will now provide the budgetary investment to truly reverse the long-term decline in forest management capacity that became entrenched through years of past practice.”
The 34 groups expressed concern that the continued underfunding of the Forest Service mission could have a negative impact on the nation’s $887 billion outdoor recreation industry.
“Last year members of Congress from both sides of the aisle came together to pass a solution to the problem of fire borrowing. This year it’s imperative to implement the fire borrowing fix responsibly by directing funding to Forest Service programs that support conservation and recreation,” said Corey Fisher, public lands policy director for Trout Unlimited. “Anything less leaves hunters, anglers, and recreationists with the short end of the stick.”
TRCP’s Chief Conservation Officer Testifies Before Congress on Ways to Support Fish and Wildlife
We took advantage of this exclusive opportunity to advocate for investments in conservation that support hunters, anglers, and the outdoor recreation economy
Christy Plumer, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s chief conservation officer, told House lawmakers today that America’s conservation legacy is under attack, and Congress must take action to conserve the nation’s fish and wildlife.
Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, Plumer noted that in the 1970s, conservation spending made up more than 2 percent of the federal budget, and today it accounts for only about one percent.
“For more than three decades, budgets for agencies that manage our public lands have been squeezed and shrunk,” said Plumer. “Recreation facilities across the country are being closed or lie in disrepair. The expansion of human development across the landscape— including our cities and towns but also our highway infrastructure and energy development are leading to significant challenges in fish and wildlife management.”
She described these challenges being exacerbated by climate change.
“Sportsmen and women are on the frontlines and seeing the changes in fish and wildlife populations and our natural systems due to climate change,” said Plumer. “This includes shifting migratory patterns and mating seasons. We recognize something needs to be done and want to be part of the solution.”
Plumer noted that generations of conservation-minded leaders have created a public-lands network that is unparalleled supporting the ability of all Americans to hunt and fish, regardless of class or economic status.
“It is a system that benefits everyone, from the sportsman and woman to the hiker and those who simply want to drink clean water or experience wide open spaces,” said Plumer.
She relayed the following recommendations to Congress:
Pass the Modernizing the Pittman-Robertson Fund for Tomorrow’s Needs Act to clarify that this important sportsmen-sourced conservation fund can be used by state fish and wildlife agencies for outreach, communication, and education related to the recruitment, retention, and reactivation of hunters and recreational shooters.
Reauthorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act to provide grants that protect, restore, and manage wetlands and associated habitats for migratory birds and other wildlife.
Pass the National Fish Habitat Conservation Through Partnerships Act to support a voluntary fish habitat conservation program driven by federal, state, and local agencies as well as conservation and sportsmen’s organizations, private landowners, and businesses. These partnerships have created more than 700 successful conservation projects in 50 states, benefitting fish habitat and anglers throughout the country.
Pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act to invest in high-priority habitat, stronger fish and wildlife populations, and a more robust outdoor recreation economy. Right now, 12,000 species in America need conservation action. If these species become threatened or endangered, sportsmen and women will lose out. This bill empowers on-the-ground wildlife experts to implement science-based conservation plans that will preserve these species into the future.
Protect migration corridors from development.
Use the Highway Bill to advance conservation efforts related to America’s roads and highway infrastructure. This could include securing new funding for migration crossings and aquatic connectivity and bringing funding for the Natural Wildlife Refuge System, BLM public lands, and U.S. Forest System up to levels on par with the National Park System. There is potential in the Highway Bill to strengthen coastal resilience by investing in natural and nature-based barriers to flooding and storm surge and streamline permitting as outlined in the FAST Act.
Address the spread of chronic wasting disease by investing more in research, testing, and state wildlife agency resources through the appropriations process.
With Cuts in Trump’s Budget, Congress Must Lead on Conservation
Administration’s budget request indicates a continued appetite for major cuts to conservation, but Congress can choose to ignore the president’s recommendations
President Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2020 includes deep cuts at the agencies that carry out conservation in America. Sportsmen and women are now looking to Congress to lead on the conservation of fish and wildlife habitat and investments in public lands access, water and soil quality, and the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy in the U.S.
“Even after conservation’s share of the federal budget has been slashed in half over the past 30 years, this proposal further handcuffs the agencies that are responsible for public land access, clean water, and healthy wildlife,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Congress has indicated that the health of our fish and wildlife populations, habitat, and outdoor recreation economy is a bipartisan issue and has reliable champions. We hope to see continued leadership in the House and Senate to ensure that investments in conservation are in keeping with the value of the American natural resources that are the envy of the world.”
The funding ask for the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund is down to a fraction of its $900-million potential, despite having bipartisan support in Congress, and many line item reductions are at odds with administration priorities, like conserving migration corridors and enhancing hunting and fishing access.
One bright spot is a $21.5-million boost for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Its total funding of $509.5 million is dedicated to supporting more hunting and fishing opportunities than in years past, after a series of orders from this administration. If appropriated, this would be the highest funding level ever for the Refuge System.
It is important to note that the president’s budget is only a set of recommendations, and Congress has largely ignored cuts suggested in the president’s past two proposals. Government funding is slated to run out September 30, and Congress must pass appropriations legislation by that time to avoid another costly government shutdown.
Here’s how the president’s budget would affect fish, wildlife, sportsmen’s access, and the outdoor recreation economy.
Public Lands in Sportsmen’s Country
The Department of the Interior would see proposed cuts of $2 billion, or 14 percent, from the FY19 appropriated funding levels. Though the president’s budget acknowledges the need to allocate $300 million in additional wildfire suppression funds, severe cuts to critical fish and wildlife programs are a no-go for sportsmen and women.
The Bureau of Land Management is charged with managing 245 million acres—more than any other federal agency—and yet it is slated for an 11-percent cut, which would only make it more difficult for the BLM to do its job.
Sportsmen and women are among the first to be affected by a growing maintenance backlog on our public lands and infrastructure in dire need of repair. The budget’s proposed creation of a Public Lands Infrastructure fund using offshore and onshore energy revenues is a compelling solution to this problem, however the funds being put into this new maintenance account have been stripped away from the Land and Water Conservation Fund in this proposal.
Though conservationists support whittling down the maintenance backlog to accomplish better proactive conservation, it cannot be at the expense of this critically important program—the promise of LWCF must be fulfilled as well.
Hunting and Fishing Access
The TRCP has encouraged Congress to appropriate $900 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was permanently reauthorized in the recent public lands package without any guarantee for funding. This total includes 40 percent or $360 million for federal agencies, $27 million of which should be made available for establishing recreational access, in particular.
But the president’s budget includes just $7.5 million for land acquisition, and not a single penny of that would go to the Forest Service. Elimination of land-acquisition funds at the Forest Service would hamper the administration’s ability to open and expand access to public lands, including the nearly 400K acres of landlocked public lands that the Forest Service oversees.
Given that 93 percent of the West’s 9.52 million acres of landlocked public lands are administered by the BLM, the agency carries some of the greatest land acquisition needs. But not only is there no budget for the BLM to strategically acquire lands, the Trump proposal would rescind $10 million from funds already appropriated for FY19. See TRCP’s report with onX that outlines total landlocked acres by agency.
The president’s budget also seeks to cut $9 billion from the USDA’s voluntary conservation programs for private lands, just months after Congress passed a 2018 Farm Bill that strongly supported investments in habitat and walk-in access.
The TRCP opposes these proposed cuts and urges Congress to provide full funding for these important programs during the appropriations process.
Not Even a Wash for Wetlands
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that manages national wildlife refuges, protects endangered species, manages waterfowl and other migratory birds, and enforces federal wildlife laws, would see a $267-million overall budget cut—that’s 16 percent less than FY19 funding levels. However, a $21.5-million increase for the National Wildlife Refuge System could help address ongoing maintenance shortfalls as refuges expand hunting and fishing opportunities.
There was also a suggested 7-percent cut to North American Wetlands Conservation Act funds, which go toward wetland restoration projects around the nation. Because every federal dollar is matched as many as three times over by non-federal dollars, cuts to grant programs like NAWCA have an outsized negative impact on the ground.
The president’s budget proposes a 31-percent overall cut for the EPA, with deep slices into restoration programs in the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes. Both regional programs would be knocked down to just 10 percent of what they received in FY19, further jeopardizing clean water and fish habitat in watersheds that already face steep challenges. Every other geographic program at EPA—including one in the Puget Sound that helps build fish passages, increase salmon habitat, and protect shorelines—would be eliminated under this budget proposal.
The proposal zeroes out a grant program the states administer to control runoff carrying pollutants like fertilizer, sediment, and chemicals to our rivers and streams. This means that while the EPA is rolling back Clean Water Act protections for wetlands and streams that are being polluted directly, it would be providing states with fewer resources to address pollution from nonpoint sources, as well. The narrative for this section of the budget proposal explicitly touts how the rollback of Clean Water Act protections will streamline permitting, since fewer polluting activities will need permits.
Trump’s proposal also includes a 70-percent cut to WaterSMART Grants, the Bureau of Reclamation’s premier program for funding activities that conserve and recycle water in the West while also benefiting fish and wildlife habitat.
And from too little water to too much: There would be a 31-percent cut to Army Corps of Engineers funding, which is disappointing at a time when flooding has begun earlier than expected throughout the Mississippi River Basin, Tennessee River Valley, and in other major watersheds. Waterway management, natural infrastructure, and coastal habitat restoration couldn’t be more critical.
However, there is a positive provision for water management and wetland restoration projects that could benefit recreational fishing and habitat. Trump’s proposal would allow local sponsors to use federal dollars to build water management projects and rebuild wetlands without being mired in bureaucracy at the Army Corps of Engineers.
The proposal also suggests reforms to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to help invest in improvements. In places like the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and other man-made canals, the inability of the Corps to properly maintain the canal banks or dredge has led to wetland destruction, saltwater intrusion, and loss of recreational access. Receiving additional funding would help better maintain these waterways.
Because Congress still holds the power of the pursestrings, the TRCP will continue to send the message to lawmakers that we will not stand for an endless chipping away at conservation funding. If you want to get involved, sign up for our updates here.
A Meeting of the Minds on Migrating Wildlife and Highway Collisions
A TRCP-led workshop brings biologists, planners, and engineers together to resolve a massive obstacle to big game migration—our roads and highways
With a spectacular sunset hanging over the Nebraska prairie, I loaded my chocolate labs into the truck at the end of a great afternoon of sharptail grouse hunting. It had been the perfect rest stop to break up a long drive, while also yielding some exercise, a limit of birds, and another memory in the field. But it was time to get moving.
Pulling off a deeply rutted dirt road onto pavement, I accelerated to the speed limit—or thereabouts— set my cruise control, and settled in.
And then it happened. Before I could pump the brakes, flash the lights, or honk the horn, I was on top of a small herd of mule deer with only enough time to grab the steering wheel tight and brace for the inevitable impact. Once the vehicle slowed to a stop, I spun the truck around and returned to where my vehicle had struck one of the does.
I’ve walked up on many big game animals taken while hunting, usually with a strong mix of emotions, and always grateful. But as I approached the dead deer on the side of the highway, I only felt regret for what seemed like a useless loss of life.
An All Too Frequent and Costly Scenario
I suspect nearly every sportsman or woman has a story—or several—about collisions and near misses with wildlife on roads and highways. According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, drivers filed more than 1.8 million animal-strike claims, mostly involving deer, at an average cost of about $3,000 each between 2014 and 2017. That’s a more than $5.4-billion cost to insurance companies alone in just four years.
These accidents also cost state transportation and wildlife agencies dearly in time, resources, and other expenses. Rural states like South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, which have high rates of vehicle-wildlife collisions, spend upwards of tens of millions of dollars annually responding to wildlife-vehicle collisions.
But this issue goes beyond safety hazards, loss of human and animal life, property damage, and other economic costs.
Can Deer Even Cross the Road?
Roads and highways are pervasive features across landscapes where they never used to be. By their very nature, they break up habitat into fragments and have the potential to severely disrupt animal migrations. The numerous interstate highways that cross our nation north to south and east to west present major obstacles for animals trying to move from one area to another to reach seasonal habitat and winter range.
Maps overlaid with GPS-collar data show quite clearly how abruptly migrations halt in cases where animals reach an interstate highway. Data from several studies compiled by the Wyoming Migration Initiative indicates that I-80 in southern Wyoming serves as a significant barrier to movement for pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and elk. Likewise in Arizona, biologists have identified a 31-mile segment of I-17 as a hotspot for collisions and a movement barrier for migrating elk.
Fortunately, there are solutions in the form of structural crossings that allow animals to move either over or under the highway, and ample scientific evidence illustrates their effectiveness. More than 20 years ago, the Canadian government installed six overpasses and 38 underpasses along the Trans-Canada Highway, long recognized as a barrier for big game and other wildlife. Now, it’s considered an international conservation success story—these efforts reduced vehicle-wildlife collisions by 80 percent.
Many states across the U.S. have enjoyed similar results from installing over- and underpasses along major highways. Wyoming’s Trapper’s Point on Highway 191 and Highway 9 in Colorado are good examples of how effective this approach can be. Still, there are many places where wildlife-vehicle collisions and barriers to movement remain a problem for human safety and the conservation of our big game herds.
Bridging the Gap
When former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed an Order to improve habitat quality in big game winter range and migration corridors—a policy lauded by sportsmen and women—the Department asked the 11 Western states covered by the policy to submit their top three to five priority project sites for mule deer, elk, or pronghorns to be worked into collaborative action plans. Significantly, highway crossings ranked among the top priorities for every state. Some even called out multiple roadways—all five of Idaho’s priority projects involved highways and issues with animal movement and collisions.
That’s why DOI asked the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to organize a gathering of experts and decision-makers to discuss how we can get more wildlife crossings where they are most needed.
More than 80 participants from 11 state wildlife agencies, 12 state departments of transportation, three federal agencies, and several NGOs and foundations gathered in Salt Lake City in late January. We discussed the differences in how wildlife agencies and DOTs operate, lessons learned from past efforts, assessed what policies currently exist, and identified partnership, funding and policy needs to address the issue.
Collaboration Will Be Key
While Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana had held similar workshops at the state level, never before had professionals from multiple states gathered together to discuss highways and big game migration and collisions to learn from one another’s successes and failures. And this collaborative aspect was key for the success of the event. We wanted to foster connections across state agencies and among stakeholders, identify best practices and key points of leverage for action, and advance the states’ priorities under the Secretarial Order on migration.
It became clear that engineers with state DOTs—the talented people who build and maintain roads, bridges, and other structures to allow the movement of vehicles safely and efficiently from point A to B—and biologists need to work better together. Monte Aldridge from the Utah DOT summed up this lesson very simply, advising wildlife managers to “get to know an engineer.”
Another takeaway was that wildlife and personnel from a state DOT and wildlife agency personnel need to communicate early and often, with an eye towards solutions that allow all parties to achieve their goals. In the past, by the time wildlife professionals engaged in the planning process and identified the need for an under- or overpass, it might have been too late.
And, of course, all participants recognized that there is never enough money to go around. Ideas were exchanged about how NGOs, foundations, private landowners, and other entities can partner with federal agencies to help state wildlife agencies and DOTs successfully fund and maintain wildlife highway projects.
The Worst Thing We Can Do Is Nothing
Utah DOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras gave voice to the spirit of the workshop by quoting Theodore Roosevelt and telling the crowd that “the best thing we can do is the right thing, the second-best thing we can do is the wrong thing, and the worst thing we can do is nothing.” He encouraged the group to share not only their successes but also their challenges, pitfalls, and mistakes so that others can learn from them.
The work ahead is really where the proverbial rubber will hit the road, not only for the state-identified priority projects, but also for the many areas across the country where wildlife and transportation conflicts need attention. This workshop was one step toward helping to ensure our wildlife conservation and transportation needs can be integrated, and the lessons learned should help with the larger efforts down the road.
Among other things, this gathering illustrated the role that the sporting community must continue to play as a partner with our state and federal agencies and other stakeholders to address wildlife-transportation conflicts. The solutions, while expensive and not easily planned or installed on a whim, are well-studied and proven. But we need to encourage the support and political will of agency leads and decision-makers to help keep the momentum rolling.
Top photo: Gregory Nickerson/Wyoming Migration Initiative
Deal to Reopen Government Could End These Access and Funding Headaches
A short-term funding patch would open some closed gates and put conservation workers back on the job, but there could be long-term consequences for public and private lands
News outlets are reporting that lawmakers have reached a deal to reopen the nine federal departments that have been shut down for more than a month. The temporary funding extension would buy Congress three weeks to come to a long-term agreement.
Over the past few weeks, sportsmen and women have been posting to social media and speaking with reporters about how this historic shutdown has affected hunting and fishing opportunities across the country. During this time, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Forest Service—some of the nation’s most important land management agencies—have been without funding.
Here are some of the access challenges, risks to public lands, and delayed conservation work that made news during the shutdown.
Understaffing may have contributed to some of the reports we saw of hunters and anglers locked out of public lands. In Idaho, volunteers picked up trash around a popular fishing area within Deer Flat Wildlife Refuge, but the shutdown delayed the repair of an access gate that was damaged on Jan. 1 in a vehicle crash. Normally, the timer-operated gate closes automatically at 5:30 p.m. to discourage vandalism after hours. For now, it remains stuck closed.
In mid-December, the EPA and the Army Corps took the next step to replace a 2015 rule that benefited headwater streams and wetlands across the country. We know from a 2018 poll that 4 in 5 sportsmen and women supported this move, but the agencies’ new rule would instead roll back these Clean Water Act protections. Because of the shutdown, however, hunters and anglers have been prevented from voicing their feedback on the new rule, keeping waterfowl and fish habitat in limbo.
Waiting for Numbers
Another unintended consequence of the government shutdown might be delayed research that could help sportsmen and women advocate for better policies. For example, it is likely that some marine fisheries stock assessments will be postponed. And this could influence decision-making if the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meets to consider important management questions without the latest striped bass stock assessment—which is likely to show that the population is overfished.
As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create jobs, restore habitat, and preserve fish and wildlife.