Major Spending and COVID-Relief Package Contains Investments in Conservation
Year-end bill includes wide ranging provisions for fish and wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation access
A sweeping legislative package to keep the government running and invest in COVID relief has become law. Tucked throughout the bill are numerous conservation provisions that invest in climate solutions, sustainably manage water resources, restore habitat, combat chronic wasting disease, and strengthen access for hunters and anglers.
“In a year that has been incredibly difficult for families and communities across America, conservation provides a place where we can find glimmers of hope and common ground,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This sweeping legislation addresses many issues that are top of mind for hunters and anglers, including investments in habitat and access. We can close out this year knowing we accomplished a lot for conservation and turn our eyes toward 2021 and the goals of investing in climate solutions and putting Americans back to work through conservation.”
The more than 5,500-page bill contains the following provisions:
Invests $900 million in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, of this $67.5 million must be used to expand recreational access to public land.
Infuses $1.9 billion into our nation’s public lands, national wildlife refuges, national forests, and national parks, critical new resources for addressing deferred maintenance projects.
Increases communities’ ability to use nature-based solutions to meet their flood control needs.
$7 million for states to manage chronic wasting disease.
$2 million for chronic wasting disease work at the National Wildlife Research Center.
$3.72 million to fund collaborative chronic wasting disease studies, including research to identify early detection tools and carcass disposal.
Invests in the restoration of the Everglades, the Great Lakes, and the Chesapeake Bay.
Allows conservation organizations to access WaterSMART grants, including for nature-based water solutions.
Updates the Army Corps’ Floodplain Management Service program so that it can improve its ability to provide technical assistance that communities desperately need while also prioritizing assistance for economically disadvantaged communities and communities subject to repetitive flooding.
Ensures consistency in cost-sharing requirements for natural infrastructure projects.
Directs the Army Corps of Engineers to update guidance on sea level rise and inland flooding.
Expands the Cooperative Watershed Management Program that allows communities to develop joint solutions to their water challenges.
Establishes a new program to fund fish passage.
Recognizes tribal water rights and funds projects that will provide access to clean, safe drinking water and other critical water supplies.
Urges Natural Resources Conservation Service when converting wetlands to ensure that one acre of impact equals one acre of conserved land elsewhere.
Requires Natural Resources Conservation Service to prioritize implementation of Drought Contingency Plans for Colorado River Basin.
Directs Natural Resources Conservation Service to develop Environmental Quality Incentives Program guidance for local feedback on irrigation district-led projects.
Strongly encourages the Farm Services Agency to prioritize State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program.
Prohibits new oil and gas leases within ten miles of the Chaco Cultural National Historic Park in New Mexico for the next year.
Additionally, the legislation conveys approximately 93 acres in North Dakota to construct the Roosevelt Presidential Library.
U.S. Senate Sends DESCEND Act to President Trump’s Desk
Saltwater anglers applaud lawmakers for promoting better catch-and-release of red snapper
Washington, D.C. – Yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed H.R. 5126, Direct Enhancement of Snapper Conservation and the Economy through Novel Devices Act of 2020 (DESCEND Act). The bipartisan bill requires recreational and commercial fishing boats to have on board a venting tool or descending device that is rigged and ready for use while fishing for reef fish in Gulf of Mexico federal waters.
Sportsmen and women strongly supported the DESCEND Act, which was coauthored in the Senate by Senators Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.). The bill passed the House on October 1, and was led by Congressmen Garret Graves (R-La.) and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.).
“The TRCP thanks the bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives and staffers who worked to pass this important bill. The DESCEND Act affirms that recreational anglers and the groups that support them are truly leading the way in conservation of our marine resources,” said Chris Macaluso, director of marine fisheries for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This bill will work with other important reforms passed in the Modern Fish Act two years ago and other measures to ensure the reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico are well-managed and that conservation is given the highest priority.”
Reef fish, like snapper and grouper, caught from depths of 50 feet or more are vulnerable to barotrauma, a phenomenon which causes the swim bladder and eye sockets to expand after a rapid rise to the surface. When this happens, the fish’s stomach can protrude from its mouth and acts as a balloon, making the fish float. The result is a high mortality rate for fish that are released.
Unless that pressure is relieved, the fish cannot return to the reef. Anglers can prevent this by using a venting tool to puncture the air bladder or a descending device—a weighted hook, lip clamp, or box that will hold the fish while it is lowered to a sufficient depth to recover from the effects of barotrauma. This device can be anything as simple as a weighted milk crate on a rope to something more sophisticated, like the SeaQualizer, which has pressure-release clips that allow fish to swim away upon reaching the desired depth.
“We thank Senators Bill Cassidy, Doug Jones and John Cornyn for their leadership and commitment to passing the DESCEND Act before the end of this Congress,” said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy. “Congressman Garret Graves got the ball rolling in the House, and these Senators got it across the finish line in the nick of time. What a great Christmas present to America’s anglers!”
There are 2.6 million saltwater anglers who fish the Gulf of Mexico every year and contribute $13.5 billion to the economy while supporting 138,817 jobs. These anglers and the businesses they support understand the value of healthy marine resources and are committed to doing their part in conservation.
“Senate passage of the DESCEND Act caps off a remarkably productive Congress for the recreational fishing community,” said Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. “We are grateful to have champions in Congress that are willing to put in the time and energy to support fisheries conservation. The DESCEND Act will improve fishing opportunities and support Gulf of Mexico reef fish conservation for many years to come.”
“Anglers have long recognized their responsibility to practice successful catch-and-release to ensure our fisheries are healthy and sustainable for future generations,” said Pat Murray, president of Coastal Conservation Association. “Descending devices are an available, effective tool for properly conserving our marine resources and we look forward to the positive impacts of this legislation on recreational fisheries going forward.”
“With the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval of the DESCEND Act, the 116th Congress has proved once again that critical conservation measures like expanding the use of descending devices enjoy overwhelming bipartisan support in an era of political gridlock,” said Nicole Vasilaros, senior vice president of government and legal affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “Ensuring the long-term health and sustainability of prized reef fish like snapper and grouper has and always will be a top priority of the recreational boating and fishing community and we applaud Congress for approving this commonsense policy.”
“Using descending devices is the right thing to do to ensure the health and abundance of our reef fish fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Chris Horton, fisheries policy director for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “We thank Senator Cassidy and Senator Jones for shepherding this angler-supported bill through the Senate and once again demonstrating that recreational anglers are leaders and champions for the conservation of our fisheries resources.”
Between all the mask-wearing, social distancing, and vote counting that Americans did this year, these events made a major impact on our fish, wildlife, and outdoor recreation opportunities
It’s certain that 2020 will be a memorable year for many reasons—the good and the bad. So, in that spirit, here are the conservation highs and lows that we’ll remember when we think back on 2020. Read on for 15 headline-making events, the role that sportsmen and women played in clinching victories or defending against bad ideas, and the consequences for the fish and wildlife habitat that we all rely on.
The One Most Likely to Make the Nightly News
After years of vocal opposition from anglers and outfitters, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently denied developers a permit for Pebble Mine—thus defending the salmon habitat and unmatched outdoor recreation opportunities of Bristol Bay, Alaska. The Corps said in a statement that the proposed mine project “is contrary to the public interest” and “does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines.”
Though it didn’t get as much of the limelight, the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act deserves to be right up there with this victory. The ACE Act does for habitat what the Great American Outdoors Act does for access and outdoor recreation opportunity—by securing and reinvigorating conservation programs and funding sources that benefit deer, waterfowl, fish, and all species in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay watersheds.
The Public Lands That Are Locked Away from the Public
In three groundbreaking reports this year, the TRCP unveiled data on half a million acres of inaccessible public lands across nine states. This was in addition to the 15.8 million acres of landlocked public land in the West that we previously identified through our ongoing partnership with the digital mapping experts at onX. Learn more about the landlocked public lands issue here.
The Ten-Year Milestone for Coastal Habitat
The spring and summer of 2020 marked a decade since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and subsequent oil spill—the worst environmental disaster in American history. But, today, oil spill penalties have been invested in projects that not only address the direct damage from the tragedy but are reversing the long-term decline of the Gulf region’s coastal ecosystems and water quality. In June, we released a comprehensive report on where things stand ten years after the spill.
Then the Water Resources Development Act—a two-year bill that authorizes water conservation and enhancement projects—passed the House with provisions to help address dangerous algal blooms, combat invasive species, fund Everglades restoration, and smooth the way for more natural infrastructure projects across the country. Complementary language could pass in a Senate spending package any day now.
And constructive, collaborative public land planning efforts continued for millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management public lands in Alaska and Montana.
The Developing Story
The data is still coming in on 2020 hunting and fishing license purchases, but it’s safe to say that stay-at-home orders, work-from-home flexibility, and social distancing drove more Americans to recreate in and appreciate the outdoors this year. This has positive ramifications for not only conservation funding but also for advocacy—the more connected people feel to our natural resources, the more likely they are to stand up and fight for them.
We hope that when they do, they’ll find that the TRCP is a resource and conduit to some of the best policy solutions. If you appreciate the work we’ve done for conservation, habitat, and access in 2020, consider donating to support our efforts in 2021 and beyond. There’s no better time to give than right now: Through the end of the year, our friends at SITKA Gear will match your gift, making double the impact for conservation.
Thank you for your support, happy holidays, and we hope you have excellent hunting and fishing in the new year!
In a year marked by hardships, this conservation opportunity gave sportsmen and women reason to celebrate
It should come as no surprise that conserving the seasonal habitats and migration corridors used by big game herds across the West was a top priority for conservationists and state and federal agencies in 2020. With all the news generated by this issue in the past year, it’s worth revisiting some of achievements made possible by dedicated agency staff, outspoken sportsmen and women, and elected officials who follow the science when it comes to fish and wildlife.
Public opinion shows strong support for this important work: according to polls conducted this year by the Pew Charitable Trusts, an overwhelming majority of voters in both Oregon and Nevada—around 90% in many instances—agreed on the need for new conservation measures to safeguard migration corridors. Likewise, these respondents would like to see wildlife highway crossings prioritized as a means of facilitating big game migration and keeping motorists safe.
So too, does this work have the strong support of wildlife professionals. In New Mexico and Colorado, groups of scientists, former agency leaders, and other natural resource experts penned letters to their respective governors thanking them for the progress made already and urging them to show continued leadership on this issue.
Secretarial Order 3362
Big game migration gained prominent attention across the West when the Department of the Interior issued Secretarial Order 3362 in February of 2018, directing federal agencies within the Department to prioritize habitat quality in Western big game winter range and migration corridors. Since that time, the state and federal government have worked together to conduct research on big game movements and looked to prioritize habitat improvement projects.
In August of this year, the Department released a report on the progress made since the enactment of S.O. 3362. Most impressively, 11 Western states have received $6.4 million from the Department to address state-defined priority research projects and the mapping of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn migrations and habitat use. Additionally, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Partners for Fish and Wildlife programs have provided nearly $10 million, matched with more than $30 million from other partners, for habitat improvement and fencing projects.
Among the most notable of these efforts was the release in November of Ungulate Migrations of the Western United States: Volume 1, a USGS report that maps more than 40 big game migration routes across Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming. These maps will provide critical guidance to state and federal agencies as well as various other stakeholders as they work to conserve these important habitats and the big game herds that depend on them.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Park’s work to conserve and enhance seasonal big game habitats reached a significant milestone late this year with the release of a strategic plan on wildlife movement and migration developed in close consultation with landowner and conservation groups. The document both clarifies how big game migration is already prioritized in the agency’s ongoing management and also identifies areas where this work can be further strengthened. Much of the strategy’s strength comes from its recognition and emphasis on the ways in which private landowners and working lands are central to this conservation opportunity. All things considered, sportsmen and women should be encouraged by the state of Montana’s leadership on this issue and the spirit of collaboration that has guided the agency’s work.
In February of 2020, Governor Mark Gordon signed an executive order prioritizing the conservation of big game migration corridors. The EO followed recommendations from a citizens’ advisory board tasked the previous summer with deliberating various strategies to address the threats to the corridors on which Wyoming’s big game herds depend.
Since that time, sportsmen and women in the Cowboy State have continued to work with the governor, state and federal agencies, and other stakeholders to see Gordon’s order implemented successfully.
In November, Governor Gordon announced the formation of the first local working group for the Platte Valley mule deer corridor in southeast Wyoming. The group had its first meeting in mid-December and the TRCP will be reaching out to Wyoming hunters in the new year to engage in the process.
Oregon has developed an action team on migration made up of around a dozen conservation groups working to advance Secretarial Order 3362 and other priorities in the Beaver State. Over the summer, the team organized an interagency migration meeting to bring together more than 30 participants and discuss strategies for reducing barriers to migration and maintaining big game populations in Oregon.
Oregon’s newest underpass for wildlife crossings, near Gilchrist, on Highway 97 was completed in August of this year. The directional fencing, which relies on private funding, is expected to be installed in spring of 2021 to complete the project. To date, almost $800,000 has been raised out of the $900,000 required. Around $185,000 of that money was funded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Department of the Interior through S.O. 3362. Another crossing project is in the works as well on Hwy 97 just south of Sunriver and is expected to be completed in 2022.
In 2020, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the state’s sportsmen and women continued to build a strong foundation for the future of migration management in the state.
A year ago, the Department, with financial support from multiple partners, secured conservation easements on the private lands where wildlife crossing structures will be built along Highway 30 in southeast Idaho. The crossing structures are slated to be built in 2025, but the easements are a critical step to maintaining the connectivity for 6,000 mule deer.
In September, IDFG released the latest version of its migration action plan, which lays out the state’s long-term priorities.
Finally, in December of this year, the Army Corps of Engineers collaborated with the Department and considered sportsmen input when deciding not to construct a new mountain bike trail in crucial winter range that supports about 3,700 mule deer near Boise.
Following Governor Jared Polis’ 2019 executive order to prioritize migration corridor conservation, Colorado Parks & Wildlife released a status report in May of 2020 that provides the public with the best-available science regarding Colorado’s migratory big game populations. The report also details ongoing research and identifies areas for further study, as well as makes recommendations to address various threats to big game migration in the state.
In the fall, after a lengthy process to revise its mission, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved a slate of new regulations that, among other things, now direct the agency to safeguard migration corridors against negative impacts that might result from drilling and exploration. Operators will be required to consult with Colorado Parks & Wildlife when proposing development within big game migration corridors and will be required to prepare mitigation plans that maintain the functionality of these habitats.
Top photo by Gregory Nickerson and Travis Zaffarano/Wyoming Migration Initiative.
Amidst a Flurry of Recent Actions, Another Significant Land-Use Plan Is Released in Alaska
The TRCP commits to seeing hunting, fishing opportunities maintained in BLM’s Central Yukon plan
Today the Bureau of Land Management released a draft resource management plan that—when finalized—will guide future public land management decisions on 13.1 million acres of public lands in central and northern Alaska for the next 15 to 20 years.
“The outcome of this process will have big implications for recreational and subsistence hunters, anglers, and trappers due to the Central Yukon planning area’s enormous acreage and unique qualities,” said Jen Leahy, Alaska field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “From the boreal forests and river valleys of Interior Alaska to the towering Brooks Range and vast tundra of the Arctic, these public lands provide the type of wild, backcountry opportunities that many sportsmen and sportswomen dream of experiencing someday.”
The Central Yukon planning area stretches across approximately 56 million acres, extending from the northern border of Denali National Park and Preserve to the Arctic Ocean. The region’s diverse wildlife habitat supports several caribou herds including the Western Arctic—the largest herd in Alaska and an important food source for many rural communities—plus Dall sheep, brown bears, black bears, muskoxen, moose, and furbearers. The Brooks Range is revered among sportsmen and sportswomen for its remarkable solitude and world-class hunting, trapping, fishing, and wildlife-viewing opportunities.
The release of the draft RMP is a key step in the public process of land-use planning, which helps determine how fish and wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation opportunities, and resource development are balanced in a particular area. The Central Yukon RMP presents five different management approaches and names one option—Alternative C2—as the agency’s preferred alternative.
“The BLM needs to conserve important habitats in the Central Yukon planning area in order for future generations to continue to enjoy our hunting, trapping, and fishing traditions,” said Leahy. “This planning process still has a long way to go before it will be completed, and the TRCP is rolling up our sleeves to engage with our members, local stakeholders, and agency partners to ensure that the final plan reflects our shared conservation goals.”
The 90-day public comment period begins December 11, 2020, and is slated to close March 11, 2021.
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 conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.