U.S. Department of Agriculture Moves to Boost Private Lands Conservation
Farmers and ranchers have more time to enroll in the Conservation Reserve Program
Heeding calls from the hunting and fishing community, the U.S. Department of Agriculture today announced it’s extending enrollment for the Conservation Reserve Program—the nation’s most successful private lands conservation initiative.
Since 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program has offered incentives for American farmers, ranchers, and landowners to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and create wildlife habitat. The current enrollment period for general signup was set to expire on February 12, but the USDA has announced it will be extending that deadline to “evaluate and implement changes.”
“Getting more landowners signed up for the Conservation Reserve Program will improve soil, water, and habitat health,” said Andrew Earl, director of Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s private lands program. “Increased enrollment also benefits sportsmen and sportswomen who hunt and fish on private land, while providing economic support for farmers and ranchers. Further, the Conservation Reserve Program is an important tool in our toolbox of land- and water-based solutions to climate change.”
CRP has helped restore more than 2.3 million acres of wetlands and set aside land that has sequestered more than 12 million metric tons of carbon. Despite these notable successes, enrollment in the program has been dwindling.
The program is currently at a three-decade low of 20.7 million acres enrolled. Just two years ago, Congress increased the program’s acreage cap from 24 to 27 million acres in response to rampant landowner interest. However, in the time since, significant changes to rental rate formulas and incentive reductions have diminished the attractiveness of the program.
The TRCP has been raising alarms about the weakening of the CRP over the past few years and has laid out a plan to strengthen the program moving forward.
Visit the TRCP’s interactive model farm to see how the CRP and other Farm Bill conservation programs make an impact for wildlife habitat, soil and water quality, and sportsmen’s access.
Six Habitat Improvements That Are Also Climate Solutions
These types of conservation projects help to improve hunting and fishing opportunities and combat climate change in a win-win for fish and wildlife
From extreme droughts, flooding, and fires to altered migration patterns and “hoot owl” fishing restrictions, all of us have seen firsthand the impacts of a changing climate. If we are to protect and restore the habitats that support all the species we love to pursue, the hunting and fishing community must be part of climate change solutions.
There is no one silver bullet or single set of actions that will turn the tides entirely—climate change can only be addressed with a comprehensive strategy that involves all of us and all the tools we have. Thankfully, this includes habitat conservation measures already supported by sportsmen and women.
Here are six habitat improvement strategies that provide this win-win proposition: better hunting and fishing opportunities and fewer climate-change-driven impacts to fish and wildlife.
Improve Forest Management
The nation’s forests provide habitat for wildlife, shade to cool trout streams, and many convenient places to hang a tree stand, but they also store carbon—keeping carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere and warming the globe. In fact, across the world, forests store as much as one-third of all emissions from burning fossil fuels or about 2.6 billion tons of carbon each year.
Forests also draw additional carbon out of the atmosphere. Young, healthy growing forests mostly sequester carbon while older forests store it, which is why it helps to have diverse, well-managed forests. Unfortunately, decades of fire suppression and past management practices have left many public forests in poor health and vulnerable to uncharacteristically large wildfires. Poorly managed forests can alter the carbon storage and sequestration balance.
Hunters and anglers are already advocating for reforestation, active management of young stands, and conservation of late-successional forests, because these measures promote diverse habitat conditions, reduce fire risk, and filter polluted runoff that would otherwise harm trout and salmon streams. But these are also natural climate solutions. One of the TRCP’s top priorities this year is pushing decision-makers to ensure that savings from the recent wildfire funding fix will go toward forest health and management. This is just one step toward securing more of the habitat and climate benefits of our national forests.
Reverse Grasslands Loss
Native grasslands are being lost at an alarming rate due to agricultural conversion, development, and other factors. Just like forests, degraded western rangelands and grasslands are less resilient to temperature and weather changes, and their carbon storage and sequestering benefits are altered as more habitat damage is done. Invasive species like cheatgrass now dominate many sagebrush landscapes and have dramatically altered this ecosystem’s productivity, stability, and fire regime.
But grasslands and shrub communities also absorb huge amounts of carbon.
Restoration and conservation of rangelands and grasslands will be an important component of a broad-scale, comprehensive habitat and climate resilience strategy. We need to stop converting these habitats and focus on restoring grasslands to increase their resilience and productivity.
Conserve and Restore Wetlands
Inland and coastal wetlands, marshes, estuaries, swamps, deltas, and floodplains are among nature’s most productive ecosystems—providing vital habitat for migratory waterfowl and both fresh and saltwater species of gamefish—that also store carbon.
Wetlands across the country already provide critical habitat, reduce erosion, improve water quality, and filter flood waters to protect our communities. But they are also being lost—drained, developed, converted to crops, or damaged beyond repair.
Globally, wetlands may presently sequester as much as 700 billion tons of carbon each year. Once drained or partially dried, these areas may become a net source of methane and carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. They are also particularly vulnerable to climate change. Rising temperatures and increased drought can convert permanent wetlands to semi-permanent or seasonal ones.
We need to protect our remaining wetlands and reverse the loss while restoring those that have been altered to help meet the nation’s goals for flood control, clean water, habitat, and carbon reduction.
Boost Farm Bill Conservation Programs
Roughly 40 percent of the United States is in agricultural production. This sector represents about 9 percent of all carbon emissions, but farmers and ranchers also contribute significantly to carbon storage and sequestration when they manage and preserve grasslands, wetlands, and forests.
Our community is already preparing to work with Congress on a 2023 Farm Bill with strong conservation funding, and this would give landowners more of a chance to contribute to climate change solutions, as well. Increasing Conservation Reserve Program acreage to 50 million acres, for example, would enhance the habitat benefits for whitetail and mule deer, prairie chickens, pheasants, quail, wild turkeys, waterfowl, and countless other species—not to mention provide better hunting and fishing experiences for the sportsmen and women who rely on CRP lands for access.
Boosting the CRP would also give landowners the option to conserve grasslands and wetlands that combat climate change. Expanding this and other conservation programs would be a great starting point for strengthening the role that private landowners play in the climate fight.
Continue the Gulf Coast Comeback
Rising seas have already destroyed thousands of miles of coastline and hundreds of thousands of acres of coastal salt marshes and seagrass beds that are vital to many sportfish and waterfowl. Louisiana’s more seasoned duck hunters can likely point to actual ground they once hunted that has now been lost.
The good news is that building coastal infrastructure is a viable solution to fight these catastrophic losses.
Reparation funds from the BP oil spill have already helped to rebuild habitat health beyond what was damaged in the environmental disaster and recover some of what has been lost to subsidence, erosion, and sea-level rise.
The continued conservation and restoration of these habitats can help save lives and protect coastal communities, while providing healthier fisheries, cleaner water, and enhancing resilience to climate change. We need to ensure federal programs and funding are available to identify areas for protection, restoration, or management and to develop effective strategies to sustain the natural benefits of coastal habitats.
Shore Up Streambanks
One of the most obvious impacts of climate change for America’s anglers is rising water temperatures that threaten coldwater trout species. This is compounded in places where streams have been degraded by major floods, wildfires, dam construction and land-use changes. Many conservation volunteers cut their teeth on projects aimed at restoring healthy stream flows, reducing streambank erosion, and ultimately lowering water temperatures, but they may not realize riparian areas have an underappreciated ability to store carbon, both in vegetation and the soil itself.
At the federal level, we will need to invest in numerous solutions to build resilient river systems and ensure our lakes, rivers, and streams are able to function as productive carbon sinks while also supporting the fish and wildlife we love to pursue. Programs and policies emphasizing water conservation, water efficiency, nutrient reductions, and riparian zone protection and restoration will be critical.
Let Habitat Work
Any national climate strategy must include land- and water-based solutions that harness the power of our natural systems. But, as you can see, these habitat improvements are already on our wish list as a conservation community.
It’s important to note that these actions will not only benefit fish and wildlife, enhance soil quality, and create cleaner water—they will also create jobs and strengthen rural economies. But there is no time to waste, whether we’re talking about implementing natural climate solutions, reversing habitat loss and wildlife species declines, or putting Americans back to work through conservation. We have to stop debating about resolving climate change and get to work on implementing these straightforward natural solutions. Let’s allow habitat contribute all it can to the climate fight.
We can’t move conservation forward if there’s a strict policy of “out with the old, in with the new”
It has become a political ritual for an incoming administration to undo actions from the previous administration. Some of this is natural and appropriate, but if the goal of the Biden Administration is to advance conservation that withstands political whirlwinds, then prudence dictates that we look at every action on its own merits—not simply assume that everything done under the previous administration has to go. It’s worth remembering that the Great American Outdoors Act, the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act, and the Modern Fish Act were all signed into law by President Trump and the permit for the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay was ultimately denied during his time in office.
Here’s a list of actions that the Trump Administration took that we think should be embraced and expanded moving forward.
One of the best ways to help big game adapt to a changing climate is to ensure they can move freely across the landscape. So conservationists cheered when the Department of Interior issued Secretarial Order 3362, prioritizing the conservation of big game winter ranges and migration corridors. Since that time, the states and federal government have partnered to research big game movements and improve habitat for mule deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope. In addition, the Department and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided more than $15 million to implement the order, funds that were matched by about $30 million in state and private funds. This resulted in on-the-ground projects that range from restoring habitat to improving fencing.
The Order also inspired Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming to adopt their own migration corridor conservation programs, with additional states working to join them.
The Biden Administration should build off the Trump Administration’s efforts by ensuring that Bureau of Land Management and national forest management plans prioritize migratory habitats. Agency-wide conservation policies should also be expanded to include wild sheep and moose, as well as summer range for all big game species. Finally, the administration and Congress should team up to direct funding toward migration research and construction of wildlife crossings, including $500 million as part of a new Highway Bill, which Congress is expected to pass in 2021.
In 2019, Congress passed the John Dingell Conservation Act, which, among other things, made it clear that hunting and fishing is allowed on federal lands unless specifically closed through a transparent public process. A separate provision in the Dingell Act directed the federal land management agencies to identify lands within their holdings that were inaccessible or had restricted access and to develop priority lists for making those lands accessible to the public.
Expanding hunting and fishing access on our public lands is not a new idea. During the last two administrations, access was expanded on national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, a recognition that hunting and fishing are, and always have been, important drivers of local economies.
In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Trump worked to, where appropriate, conform access regulations to those of the state. As any hunter and angler knows, rules and regulations can be confusing at the best of times, so when it is possible to keep the rules the same across jurisdictions, it makes the user experience far more enjoyable.
The Biden Administration, too, can be a leader in expanding and enhancing public access for outdoor recreation. Like hunting and fishing, public lands should be open and available to all Americans, regardless of their background or economic status. Hunting and fishing participation numbers have exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic as people head outdoors for recreation and relief. This trend calls for more access and opportunities, be it for hunting, fishing, hiking, paddling, or the myriad other uses that make up the outdoor recreation economy. Access to our public lands is the base of this economy.
In 2019, then-Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed Secretarial Order 3373, which directed the agency to prioritize public access when considering the disposal and exchange of public lands. For the past 40 years, the BLM has been required to identify small tracts of land available for sale or disposal, and prior to the Trump Administration this frequently included public lands that offer important recreational access. The Order changed that, ensuring that small but important tracts would remain in public hands.
This approach to land disposal should be maintained and further implemented by the Biden Administration.
Backcountry Conservation Areas
Bureau of Land Management public lands contain some of the best hunting and fishing in the country, so in 2011, the TRCP—in coordination with other hunting and fishing groups and businesses—proposed a new management tool called Backcountry Conservation Areas (BCAs). We like to think of it is a “keep special places like they are AND make them better” option for land management. For areas with exceptional wildlife habitat, major development would be prohibited, but traditional uses, such as grazing, wouldn’t be affected. And the areas could be improved through habitat-focused restoration and enhancement—a critically important approach for establishing climate resilience and controlling invasive species.
Because of their unique bipartisan appeal—with supporters ranging from state wildlife agencies, county commissioners, and BLM retirees to a tribal council—the Obama Administration adopted the concept of BCAs, and then the management tool was implemented by the Trump Administration.
BCAs should now be embraced by the Biden Administration and included in BLM resource management plans as they are updated. This provides a golden opportunity to protect biodiversity, while simultaneously supporting access to outdoor recreation.
The Trump Administration made Everglades restoration a priority, including projects along the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida. It is imperative that this work continues. A functioning Everglades is a giant sponge, slowing and cleaning water as it makes its way south. Not only is Everglades restoration critical for water quality and hunting and fishing, it’s important in addressing the impacts of climate change on South Florida.
In the TRCP’s nearly 20 years of working on conservation issues, we have seen administrations come and go, and we have watched as the political makeup of Congress has shifted. Despite those changes, we have found conservation to be a unifier—bringing people together, providing a place for consensus, and bridging divides.
We know that the voices of sportsmen and sportswomen are integral in making that happen, so we urge this next administration to keep an open mind. We stand ready to help.
Hunters and Anglers Cheer Reintroduction of Colorado Public Lands Legislation
Widely popular CORE Act would open miles of public fishing access and protect big game habitat
Several of the nation’s leading sporting conservation groups are proclaiming their support for the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act aimed at preserving more than 400,000 acres of public lands and waters in Colorado, including significant protection for the fish and wildlife habitat most valued by the sporting community.
Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and Representatives Joe Neguse, Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter and Jason Crow introduced the legislation in both chambers with support from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, National Wildlife Federation, and Artemis.
“The CORE Act preserves prime hunting and fishing destinations across Colorado,” said Madeleine West, director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Center for Public Lands. “This legislation is built with support from local communities, businesses, and recreation and sporting groups—a model for the way on the ground conservation should happen. We want to thank the Colorado delegation for listening to hunters and anglers and working to strengthen habitat for fish and wildlife for future generations.”
The bill merges four previously independent bills into a single public lands package covering portions of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, the Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison, the Thompson Divide southwest of Glenwood Springs and the Continental Divide surrounding the WWII alpine training grounds at Camp Hale. The proposed legislation would conserve critical cold-water streams, enhance high-value habitat for several species of wildlife, and increase public access for anglers in some of Colorado’s premier fisheries.
“Hunters and anglers in Colorado and throughout the nation recognize the importance of protecting the unique landscapes the CORE Act represents and the fish and wildlife that depend upon them,” said Scott Willoughby, Colorado public lands coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Angler Conservation Program. “As we continue to see habitat deteriorate and public access to quality fishing and hunting areas decline, it has become painfully obvious that passing the provisions found in the CORE Act is long overdue. ‘Hunters and Anglers for CORE’ remain as committed to seeing this legislation across the finish line as we are to upholding our sporting traditions for future generations in Colorado.”
A recent Trout Unlimited analysis of fish and wildlife habitat protected in the bill’s framework found that the CORE Act safeguards some 2,416 miles of streams, 100 miles of native cutthroat trout stream habitat, 12 cutthroat trout lakes spanning 804 acres, nearly 7 miles of Gold Medal fishing water and an additional 88 miles of Gold Medal waters downstream of protected headwater landscapes. The bill would also open about 12 miles of public fishing access in the Gunnison River basin, protect hundreds of thousands of acres of critical elk and mule deer range and nearly 100,000 acres of important migration corridors at a time when both the State and Federal government have prioritized protecting animal migration routes.
“The CORE Act protects important wildlife habitat, including headwaters and migration corridors critical to the health of Colorado River cutthroat trout, elk, mule deer, rocky mountain bighorn sheep, desert bighorn sheep and many other species,” said Brien Webster, program manager for Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “This bill has been years in the making through local stakeholder collaboration. Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers remains committed to helping pass the CORE Act, securing needed protections for wildlife and habitat and expanded recreational access for sportsmen and women.”
The bill designates 73,000 acres of wilderness, nearly 80,000 acres of new recreation and conservation management areas, and withdraws mineral rights on 200,000-acres in the water- and wildlife-rich Thompson Divide area southwest of Glenwood Springs.
Highlights of CORE Act habitat protection benefiting hunters and anglers:
Curecanti Boundary Establishment Act
In addition to formally establishing the boundary of Curecanti National Recreation Area and improving coordination among land management agencies, the bill ensures the Bureau of Reclamation upholds its commitment to expand public fishing access in the basin, which was lost when the Aspinall Unit was created. The Bureau originally agreed to provide 26 miles of public fishing access in the Gunnison Basin, but has only accounted for about 14 miles to date.
Within Curecanti, 9,180-acre Blue Mesa Reservoir is the largest Kokanee salmon fishery in the U.S. and, along with neighboring Morrow Point Reservoir, has accounted for multiple state records for rainbow trout, mackinaw and kokanee, along with trophy brown trout. The Gunnison River, from 200 yards downstream of Crystal Dam and through Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to its confluence with the North Fork, is designated Gold Medal and Wild Trout Water, including 2.4 miles within Curecanti NRA. Formal boundary designation will also add a layer of protection for 2.2 miles of cutthroat trout stream and 775 acres of cutthroat lake habitat, 5,926 acres of mule deer migration corridor and 7,123 acres of elk migration corridor along with 50,323 acres of elk winter range.
Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act
With its bounty of fish and wildlife habitat, the Thompson Divide area remains critically important to sportsmen and women in Colorado and across the nation. The three main game management units that lie within its boundary are among the most desirable to elk and mule deer hunters in the state, and the largely roadless area serves as year-round habitat for those and other species. More than 34,000 acres within Thompson Divide double as elk migration corridors.
The area also contains several conservation populations of Colorado River cutthroat trout, considered critical to the recovery and maintenance of the species to its native range. Among the 1,550 miles of stream radiating in all directions off Thompson Divide, about 83 miles qualify as native cutthroat stream habitat along with nearly 12 acres of cutthroat lake habitat. The northern boundary of the withdrawal and protection area includes 4.4 miles of Gold Medal fishing water along the Roaring Fork River, and Thompson Divide’s headwater tributaries extend to additional high-quality fisheries in the North Fork of the Gunnison River, the Crystal River and the Colorado River, which sustain surrounding retailers, fishing guides and outfitters that help drive the local recreation economy.
Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness and Camp Hale Legacy Act
The nearly 100,000 acres along the Continental Divide surrounding Camp Hale served as the genesis of Colorado’s robust outdoor recreation economy, not only through the legacy of skiers that that passed through the WWII alpine training grounds and returned to the region post-war, but also through word of the hunting and fishing opportunities the soldiers enjoyed. The landscape is rife with elk and mule deer habitat and migration corridors, including more than 10,000 acres of severe winter elk range that the animals depend upon for survival.
The 474 miles of stream within the bill’s boundaries serve as headwaters to Gore Creek and the Eagle, Blue and Colorado rivers, feeding clean, cold water into multiple Gold Medal fishing sections and supplying more than 11 miles of native cutthroat trout stream habitat along with half a dozen cutthroat trout lakes.
San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act
Wilderness and special management area proposals in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado would protect headwater tributaries of the Animas River among more than 325 stream miles that contain nearly 5 miles of cutthroat stream habitat. Four lakes spanning 6.6 acres within the proposed Sheep Mountain Special Management Area also hold the rare native trout. Roughly 50,000 terrestrial acres serve as summer range and calving areas that support mule deer and elk populations on public lands in the region, and a large elk winter concentration area is found in the Uncompahgre National Forest along the proposed 6,500-acre Naturita Canyon Mineral Withdrawal Area that includes cutthroat trout habitat within a tributary to the San Miguel River near Norwood.
Long before the election, as part of a comprehensive process of preparing decisionmakers in both the Trump and Biden camps, the TRCP team identified the top-tier issues that could be addressed in the first 100 days in office. Here’s our list of the ten most imminent habitat needs and impactful conservation measures that the Biden Administration should influence before April 30, 2021.
Put Americans Back to Work Through Conservation
Conservation funding spans a wide range of federal departments and agencies and touches upon nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Yet, conservation’s portion of the pie has been cut in half in the past 40 years—from 2 percent of the total federal budget in the 1970s to less than one percent today. This decline in federal funding has had significant impacts on our nation’s public lands and on federal agencies’ ability to protect and improve habitat.
The recent enactment of the Great American Outdoors Act will provide an important infusion of federal funding to address deferred maintenance backlogs, as well as land acquisition and public access priorities. This dedicated funding comes at a critical time, as visitation to our nation’s public lands, particularly during COVID, continues to increase at a dramatic scale. But more can be done.
The Administration must support Congressional efforts to increase conservation funding in the Farm Bill, improve the resilience of transportation infrastructure, invest in pre-disaster mitigation and sustainable water systems, and strengthen coastlines and habitat. These investments can help our nation recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic, while also spurring conservation.
Building on that, the president’s fiscal year 2022 budget is slated for delivery to Congress in early February, and it should provide strong investments in conservation. Beyond the first 100 days, a new budget deal will need to be negotiated with Congress—which holds the power of the pursestrings, no matter what the president’s budget request may include—to secure these investments and create conservation jobs.
Use Habitat Improvements to Address Climate Change
Hunters and anglers are on the front lines of climate change, observing changes in fish and wildlife migration patterns, altered breeding seasons, shifts in home ranges, loss of habitat from sea-level rise, and even loss of trail and road access due to extreme weather events such as flooding and storm surges.
We need to focus on harnessing the power of natural systems—in other words, habitat—to remove and sequester carbon from the atmosphere and protect communities faced with severe storms and other impacts of a changing climate. This would not only advance our country’s climate resilience but also improve air quality, soil health, and water quality. In the balance, sportsmen and women would gain stronger, more adaptable fish and wildlife populations and support for our vibrant outdoor recreation economy.
Invest in a Coordinated Response to Chronic Wasting Disease
This administration should take definitive steps to stem the spread of chronic wasting disease, which threatens the very future of deer and deer hunting, by investing both in state surveillance and testing efforts and in federal research on the disease.
Further, to ensure that the captive cervid industry is holding up its end of the bargain, we’d also like to see a third-party scientific review of the Herd Certification Program—a voluntary program at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for keeping captive deer herds at “low-risk” of contracting and spreading CWD. Until this review is complete, and its recommendations are implemented, the administration should place a moratorium on the interstate movement of live deer.
Max Out Conservation Reserve Program Acres
With just 21.9 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program—the lowest enrollment since 1987—the incoming administration must restore the health of this popular Farm Bill program and its benefits to wildlife and landowners. Under the Trump Administration, the Farm Service Agency changed how CRP rental rates are calculated, reduced incentives, eliminated management cost-shares, and failed to roll out forest conservation practices. This has led landowners to look elsewhere when evaluating how best to manage their lands, leaving millions of potential CRP acres on the table.
In the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress raised the total CRP acreage cap from 24 million to 27 million acres, in part to accommodate growing landowner interest. In the first 100 days of Biden’s term, the administration needs to hold an emergency General Signup for the Conservation Reserve Program that offers incentive and cost-share payments at historic levels and restores soil productivity as an adjusting factor in rental rate determinations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture should also develop a public timeline for CRP signups to provide certainty as landowners make decisions regarding use of their lands.
Restore Roadless Area Protections in the Tongass National Forest
The Tongass National Forest is America’s largest national forest, encompassing nearly 90 percent of the southeastern panhandle of Alaska. By lifting roadless area safeguards in the Tongass, the Forest Service under the Trump Administration has threatened 9.2 million acres of undeveloped forest, potentially undermining the region’s world-class fisheries and vital habitat for Sitka blacktail deer, bears, moose, and Roosevelt elk.
In the first 100 days, the Biden Administration should halt any pending projects that could undermine the habitat value of roadless areas and take immediate steps to restore roadless area safeguards for the Tongass.
These fish and wildlife resources not only serve as an important food source for thousands of local families—including many from indigenous communities—they provide outstanding opportunities for recreational hunting and fishing that fuels Southeast Alaska’s vibrant tourism industry. Today, the region’s recreation and fishing industries account for more than 25 percent of all local employment. Given the opportunity to influence forest management practices and budgets, the administration should also prioritize sustainable forest uses—including restoration and recreation projects—that have the greatest potential to support the region’s long-term economic growth.
Ensure That Savings from the “Fire Fix” Go Toward Forest Health
In 2018, Congress passed a spending bill that finally helped us shift away from a dysfunctional model of funding wildfire suppression and recovery, in which the U.S. Forest Service was forced to dip into conservation accounts during catastrophic fire seasons after running out of appropriated funds. This practice was crippling the ability of agencies to manage forests effectively and actually reduce the risk of future megafires.
But, to date, the Trump Administration and Congress have not used the fire funding fix as intended. While federal agencies can now access emergency funding when they run out of fire suppression dollars, the fix was also designed to provide substantial new resources—more than $400 million for the Forest Service in 2020—that agencies could use for forest restoration and other activities. This funding was not made available in the 2020 budget.
In the first 100 days, the Biden Administration should ensure that these vital funds are invested in the health of our forests.
Rebuild the Bedrock Conservation Law That Protects Our Streams and Wetlands
The Clean Water Act has been one of the country’s most successful conservation tools since its passage in 1972. Sadly, in the last 20 years, uncertainty about the scope of the Clean Water Act—drawn from confusing Supreme Court decisions and several Trump Administration rules weakening the Act—has accelerated wetlands loss and threatened our most vulnerable trout streams.
The Biden Administration needs to move quickly to reverse this damage, while allowing for robust public comment. They should conduct public listening sessions and work to reach agreement on a durable definition of which waters and wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act. Sportsmen and women can then engage—and show up in force, as we have in the past—to support the conservation of our headwater streams and wetlands.
Commit to Modernizing Fisheries Management
The TRCP and its sportfishing partners have been working for the last eight years to advance fisheries policy and law that recognizes the conservation, cultural, and economic importance of saltwater angling. The recently passed bipartisan Modern Fish Act finally recognizes the fundamental difference between commercial and recreational fishing and prescribes changes in fisheries management to improve data collection and conservation strategies.
The Biden Administration should renew this commitment in its management of the federal agencies that oversee fisheries management. It is vital that the incoming administration recognize the need for NOAA Fisheries to move away from its history of focusing solely on commercial fishing and continue to develop relationships and policies that recognize the management needs and economic importance of recreational fishing. It is also vital that NOAA Fisheries examine how it applies policies and laws related to coastal habitat restoration as states seek to restore wetlands, barrier islands, and reefs that have been damaged by development, subsidence, and sea-level rise.
Restore Strong Conservation Plans for Greater Sage Grouse
These plans were revised and ultimately weakened under the Trump Administration, which stripped out safeguards for certain sagebrush habitats and created more potential for development and mineral extraction within sage grouse habitat. A court injunction prevents these 2019 plans from being used, but in the meantime habitat continues to be lost and long-term grouse population trends remain in decline.
TRCP strongly recommends that the Biden Administration renew and expand efforts on all fronts on sage grouse conservation and management, including by restoring the strength of conservation plans that convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird.
Reverse Mining Decision in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters
Minnesota’s one-million-acre Boundary Water Canoe Area is the most visited Wilderness Area in the country, a playground of fish, wildlife, and water adventure that supports a thriving recreation economy. In 2012, a mining company bought old leases and asked the Forest Service to renew them so they could open a massive copper mine five miles upstream of the Wilderness. The Forest Service completed an environmental analysis and in 2016 denied the lease renewal, because it was just too risky. The Forest Service also temporarily withdrew the land for mining and began a study of mining effects on the landscape.
But in 2018, the Trump Administration reinstated the leases, rushed through a cursory review to justify undoing the mineral withdrawal, and refused to publicize any part of the abandoned study. The Biden Administration should act quickly to develop and implement a strategy for reversing these decisions and protect the Boundary Waters permanently.
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.