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Here’s how Congress will fund conservation in 2020
Every year, Congress must decide how federal funds will be divided among virtually every agency and program, from defense to medical research, federal highways, and conservation. This process of appropriations reflects which issues are most important—or have the broadest appeal—in our country.
At the end of 2019, the passage of H.R. 1865 showed that conservation remains a bipartisan priority for lawmakers. With generally strong numbers across the board, this spending bill for Fiscal Year 2020 reinvests our tax dollars into programs, research, and federal agencies that are essential to hunters’ and anglers’ enjoyment of America’s natural resources.
You’re probably not going to want to read H.R. 1865, which weighs in at over 1,700 pages, but here are a few highlights that sportsmen and women should celebrate.
H.R. 1865 included more than just monetary investments in conservation – The appropriations package also included the Modernizing the Pittman-Robertson Fund for Tomorrow’s Needs Act, which gives state wildlife agencies the ability to use tax dollars they receive through firearm, ammunition, and archery equipment sales to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters. This flexibility is critical to preserve and grow hunting in the United States and, in turn, to uphold and strengthen the North American Model of Conservation. TRCP and our partners have long advocated for this change, and its permanent passage is a landmark conservation achievement for this Congress.
Congress also made substantial investments in water quality and the recovery of aquatic ecosystems. WaterSMART, which stands for Sustain and Manage America’s Resources for Tomorrow, is a critical initiative by the Bureau of Reclamation to ensure that Western states have access to safe, reliable, and well-managed water supplies. At the insistence of TRCP and our partners, Congress boosted funding for WaterSmart to $55 million – a $20 million increase – which will support projects that conserve water, increase efficiency, prevent further decline and accelerate the recovery of species, and address climate-related impacts of the water supply essential to maintaining healthy communities and ecosystems. Additionally, in response to the increased threat of water shortages, Western watersheds received further relief by way of $20 million allocated specifically for drought response.
EPA Geographic Programs, which are used to protect and restore some of America’s most iconic waterways and ecosystems, also saw an increase in funding bringing them to a total of $85 million, including a $12 million increase for the Chesapeake Bay Program. Funding for this program comes at a crucial time: last year the health of the Bay continued its slow decline, alarming ecologists, sportsmen and women, and communities whose economy relies upon the health of the waterway.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), one of the most celebrated federal conservation programs, received a substantial plus-up in funding through H.R. 1865 to a sum of $495 million. While this certainly counts as a big win for FY20, looking ahead the larger aim should be to remove LWCF from the back-and-forth of the appropriations process entirely. Now that Congress has authorized the program permanently, it needs mandatory funding to ensure its continued status as one of the United States’ signature conservation measures.
In addition to LWCF, the National Wildlife Refuge System was funded at $502 million, just $1 million shy of its high-water mark set in FY10. Among other benefits, the bump in support includes additional resources for the upkeep of refuge facilities and equipment, invasive species control, and increased law enforcement efforts across the refuge system.
CWD Funding: A Step in the Right Direction
In the 116th Congress, sportsmen and women have turned up the pressure on lawmakers around another critical issue: addressing the spread of chronic wasting disease in wild deer, elk, and moose populations. But while hunters successfully pushed Congress to reinstate funding to support CWD research and testing after a multi-year lapse, the amount appropriated, just $5 million, falls far short of what is needed to effectively monitor and combat this disease across the 26 states where it has been detected.
Despite this missed opportunity for a more robust response to CWD, the FY20 appropriations bill did include new funds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor the spread of the disease and study the effectiveness of testing methods. Appropriators also allocated funds for a study on the transmission of CWD and testing methods for the disease that will be conducted by the National Academies of Science in partnership with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.
While Congress made many strong investments in conservation in the FY20 bill there is, as always, room to grow going forward.
Though appropriators funded the National Wildlife Refuge System at a near-historically high level, the conservation community encourages Congress to make an even more robust investment in the system in the FY21 budget. Without a larger investment, federal wildlife officers will remain spread thin, certain facilities and roadways will remain in a state of disrepair or closure, and Americans will have reduced access to and enjoyment of the refuge system. TRCP, as a member of the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE), requested $586 million to fully support these initiatives, meaning there’s room for this funding line to be improved upon in the next appropriations bill.
In addition to improving baseline funding levels to combat CWD in the next appropriations bill, Congress should pass the Chronic Wasting Disease Management Act, introduced in the House by Congressman Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), and in the Senate by Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.). This bill would establish a comprehensive, multi-state and tribal grant program to provide funding to agencies and communities on the frontline of this wildlife health crisis by allocating $35 million annually to state and tribal fish and wildlife agencies, along with an additional $10 million to support research grants to study and develop improved management practices to help curb the disease.
Lastly, it remains imperative that Congress continues to at least maintain funding levels for conservation programs across the board. Responsibly managing and safeguarding our land, water, and wildlife is an ongoing project – not just a one-off purchase or investment – and future generations are relying upon us to make it a priority.
TRCP and our partners are already working with lawmakers to set the stage for another strong budget in the next fiscal year.
When it comes to the Mississippi River, coastal residents struggle to find a balance between creation and destruction
Over the last 10,000-plus years, as the mouth of the Mighty Mississippi shifted back and forth across the central Gulf of Mexico coast, sediment dropped out and formed a mix of rich, watery alluvial lands crossed and dotted with bayous, lakes, and swamps that eventually give way to marshes and barrier islands.
Since explorers planted a French flag in those soils in 1682, there has been a constant struggle to tame the river and balance the needs of flood control and navigation with the ecological needs of those wetlands and swamps and the fish, wildlife and people who live there.
The struggle intensified in late 2018 through the spring of 2019 as more rain fell in the Mississippi River Valley than at any other time in recorded history.
Levees built in the mid-19th to the mid-20th century protect communities during the average spring flood. But when extraordinary flood levels threaten New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers must direct as much as 20 percent of the river’s more than 1 million cubic feet per second flow rate through the Bonnet Carre’ Spillway and into Lake Pontchartrain, north of the city.
The levees, while saving communities and industries, also cut off the vital, wetland-sustaining annual water and sediment supplies. The consequence has been the loss of nearly 2,000 square miles of fish and wildlife-producing marshes and swamps in the last century, making communities more vulnerable to storm surges from the Gulf and threatening Louisiana’s unrivaled fish, waterfowl and wildlife production.
The State of Louisiana has responded to that land and habitat loss with a coastal restoration and protection master plan consisting of levees, floodgates, barrier island and marsh restoration as well as gates in the river’s levees, called “diversions” that will send sediment-laden flood waters back into the marshes.
The recent, unprecedented freshwater flush across the northern Gulf from the Mississippi River, plus flood-stages on the Pearl River and the Mobile River Delta, sent many commercial and recreational fishermen scrambling to find speckled trout, shrimp, crabs and oysters displaced or, in some cases, killed by the flooding. Local elected officials have asked the federal government for fishery disaster assistance to help address the business losses.
While catches of speckled trout, white shrimp and crabs rebounded in the Pontchartrain Basin after the spillway was closed in July 2019, and redfish and bass catches stayed strong throughout the flood, the spillway opening and other flooding has some in Louisiana and neighboring Mississippi questioning if the planned diversions to save and sustain coastal marshes will have similar impacts.
“The flooding we saw was unprecedented and the Corps of Engineers had no choice but to open the Bonnet Carre’ when the waters threatened New Orleans,” said Brian Lezina, the Planning and Research Division Chief for Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “But, the way that spillway works, by moving 200,000-300,000 cubic feet per second into the open and relatively deep waters of Lake Pontchartrain and then into Mississippi Sound and the Gulf strictly for flood prevention is not how a diversion built specifically to benefit marsh and build habitat is going to function.”
The Louisiana Coastal Master Plan calls for two sediment diversions south of New Orleans, one west of the river called the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion and one east, the Mid-Breton Sediment Diversion. Both are being designed with a maximum flow rate of 75,000 cubic feet per second, far less than the Bonnet Carre’. They are also designed to operate when sediment loads are at their highest in the river, generally from late winter through late spring, to maximize land-building, but at lower flow rates when suspended sediment wanes. Operation plans would allow saltier conditions to return from early summer through late fall each year, the way the river would generally behave.
Lezina and his colleagues have conducted more than 100 public meetings in the last four years with various stakeholders to try and address concerns about the projects and discuss the possible positive and potentially negative affects to fisheries. He said data suggest natural ridges and the small volume of water from the Mid-Breton Diversion compared to the volume of salty waters in the Gulf means different impacts than a Bonnet Carre’ opening.
“Capturing that suspended sediment in the river’s current is essential to sustaining and building wetlands and also preserving the crucial habitat that blue crabs, shrimp, speckled trout, redfish, waterfowl and many other estuarine animals need,” Lezina said. “The majority of popular commercial and recreational estuarine species have evolved with the seasonal inputs of sediment, freshwater, and nutrients. The habitats they rely on for survival, such as vegetated mudflats and marshes rely on that cycle as well. We can control the flow rates of the diversions to mimic the estuary in the same way the river would have done without the levees cutting the system off.”
Many commercial and some recreational fishermen in the areas that will be most affected by the diversions have opposed construction outright despite project openings that are a decade or more away and the crippling coastal land loss of the last century.
Captain Charlie Thomason operates a fishing lodge and guide service east of New Orleans in the town of Hopedale. Areas he fishes will be in the outflow area of the Mid-Breton Diversion. He said he doesn’t completely oppose using the river to rebuild marshes but questions the need for such high flow rates and if his business can survive the seasonal changes to the fishery.
“You look at all the marsh we’ve lost just in the last 20-30 years and there’s no question that something has to be done to address it, but I think the diversions in the Master Plan are just too large,” Thomason said. “The velocities may hurt our marsh and it will certainly change our fisheries half the year. Our clients want to come here to catch redfish and speckled trout year-round and what we’ll be faced with is a fishery where we’ll have trout to catch in the late summer and fall but not the other six or seven months. Our clients will take their business to other places and not come back.”
Thomason said he thinks the Master Plan does a good job of prescribing marsh creation and barrier island projects built with dredges, but wants any diversions to be closer to the levees, smaller and designed to extend out Gulf-ward as sediment is deposited.
Captain Ryan Lambert runs a guide service and lodge 30 miles south of Hopedale in Buras where he focuses on redfish and speckled trout throughout the year and waterfowl hunting in the late fall and winter. He has been one of the state’s most outspoken proponents of sediment diversions despite the difficult conditions caused at times by the river. East of Buras is one of a handful of places in Louisiana where natural bayous and crevasses connected to the river are depositing sediment and building land each year.
“We have to have that sediment and that water coming out of the river to build our land and habitat,” Lambert said. “With all of the cuts and passes east of the river, we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of water when the river is high, but we still fish there because that’s where the habitat is good and where we can catch fish.”
He contrasts that with the west side of the river where there is no connection to the Mississippi River and the marsh has subsided and been battered and eroded by hurricanes.
“I used to spend 90 percent of my time fishing the marsh west of Buras, but now it’s nothing but open water for six miles between me and the Gulf,” Lambert said. “Without that marsh, the mudflats and the grass, our juvenile shrimp, fish and crabs can’t survive. We must have that water and sediment feeding our habitat. Without it, we have no fish. We have no future.”
TRCP’s president and CEO Whit Fosburgh appeared on the MeatEater podcast to discuss pressing conservation priorities to keep on your radar.
A Quick Primer on the Foundation of Our Hunting and Fishing Heritage
Hunters and anglers have long been the driving force behind wildlife conservation in America. In the second half of the 19th century, hunters began to organize and advocate for the creation of wildlife refuges, after witnessing the effects of market hunting and the wanton destruction of habitat. Some species, like the passenger pigeon, were taken to the point of no return; others such as bison, whitetail deer, and wild turkeys, were pushed to the edge of extinction.
President Theodore Roosevelt is generally remembered as the father of conservation in our country. He credited wild places and wildlife for his own personal development, and feared that the rugged individualism the wilderness taught him would be lost if he didn’t succeed in making conservation the nation’s highest priority. During his tenure as president, Roosevelt set aside more than 240 million acres as national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife refuges. He and his colleagues were instrumental in ending market hunting and ushering forward our nation’s conservation ethos.
Subsequent generations expanded Roosevelt’s legacy by creating funding mechanisms, primarily through excise taxes and license fees, to pay for the professional management and acquisition of millions of acres for the public to enjoy. During the early 1900s, important laws were passed, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act of 1934, the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 (better known as the Pittman-Robertson Act), and the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act of 1950 (the Dingell-Johnson Act).
These statutes and the legal and funding framework that has since developed through these collective actions is now known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The term — coined and further expanded upon by luminaries such as Valerius Geist and Shane Mahoney, and championed by groups such as the Boone and Crockett Club and The Wildlife Society— outlines the principles that have underpinned successful wildlife conservation efforts in Canada and the United States.
As articulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seven features make the North American model distinct:
1) Wildlife is a public resource and held in public trust. In the Unites States, wildlife is considered a public resource, independent of the land or water where wildlife may live. Government at various levels have a role in managing that resource on behalf of all citizens and to ensure the long-term sustainability of wildlife populations.
2) Markets for game have been eliminated. Government actions making it illegal to buy and sell meat and parts of game and non-game species have removed a huge threat to the survival of those species. A market in furbearers continues as a highly regulated activity.
3) Allocation of wildlife by law. Wildlife is a public resource managed by government. As a result, access to wildlife for hunting is through legal mechanisms such as set hunting seasons, bag limits, license requirements, etc.
4) Wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose. Wildlife is a shared resource that must not be wasted. The law prohibits killing wildlife for frivolous reasons.
5) Wildlife species are considered an international resource. Some species, such as migratory birds, cross national boundaries. Treaties such as the Migratory Bird Treaty and CITES recognize a shared responsibility to manage these species across national boundaries.
6) Science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy. In order to manage wildlife as a shared resource fairly, objectively, and knowledgeably, decisions must be based on sound science such as annual waterfowl population surveys and the work of professional wildlife biologists.
7) The democracy of hunting and fishing. In keeping with democratic principles, government allocates access to wildlife without regard for wealth, prestige, or land ownership.
Today, we all have a duty to understand this uniquely American privilege and to preserve it for future generations.
Too often we take for granted what Roosevelt and generations of conservation-minded leaders have left us: a system of public lands that is unparalleled in all the world; the best-managed fish and wildlife populations of any nation; and the ability for all Americans to hunt and fish, regardless of class or economic status.
Top photo: Paul VanDerWerf via Flickr
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