Wired to Hunt ft. TRCP: An Era of Opportunity for Conservation
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Yesterday afternoon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced several long sought after changes to the Conservation Reserve Program that will help boost shrinking enrollment in our nation’s most popular private lands conservation program. Currently, the program sits 4 million acres below the 25-million-acre cap, with another 9 million CRP acres expiring between now and the 2023 Farm Bill.
Yesterday’s announcement is a strong first step in addressing changes to program administration that accelerated this decline to a historic three-decade low. Six provisions that will support the enrollment and re-enrollment of valuable habitat for decades to come include:
Restoring the use of soil productivity as an adjusting factor in soil rental rate calculations. This reverses a June 2018 decision that led to significantly decreased rental rate offerings on highly productive soils and widely varying rates across county lines. Taking soil productivity into account will ensure these rates more accurately reflect county-wide averages and provide consistency—landowners looking to re-enroll in the program should not be met with rental rate offerings well below what they’ve historically received.
Creating a new incentive for climate-friendly conservation practices. A new carbon incentive will provide an additional 3 to 10 percent on top of base soil rental rates for practices that combat climate change. The CRP can be a valuable tool for sequestering more carbon, and most practices will qualify for this incentive. At the same time, better soil quality equates to better habitat and fewer impacts of climate change on fish and game.
Increasing incentives for particularly high-quality conservation practices. The Farm Service Agency provides Practice Incentive Payments to alleviate the cost burden on CRP landowners who make top-quality habitat improvements, control erosion, or enhance water quality on acreage under Continuous CRP. (The Continuous program targets practices on environmentally sensitive lands and is not subject to a competitive bidding process like General CRP. Plus, landowners can enroll year-round and not just during a sign-up event.) These incentives were lowered to 5 percent in recent years, then increased to 20 percent in December 2020. Yesterday’s announcement increases these payments to 50 percent of the cost of putting conservation on the ground.
Boosting incentives for practices that help high-priority local wildlife by administering the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) initiative through Continuous CRP. SAFE facilitates state and local involvement in the development of practices that safeguard particularly at-risk wildlife. In late 2019, SAFE was moved from the Continuous CRP umbrella to the general sign-up, which limited rental rates and signing and practice incentives, lowering landowner interest. Moving the high-value SAFE practices back to the Continuous program restores benefits that will ensure conservation-minded landowners can make an impact for wildlife.
Removing limitations on long-term efforts to improve clean water. The Clean Lakes Estuaries and Rivers (CLEAR) 30 pilot program was created in the 2018 Farm Bill and supports the establishment of 30-year CRP water quality practices. The bill did not place a geographic restriction on the program, but a June 2020 announcement limited its availability to 12 states in the northeast and Midwest. This week’s announcement makes the pilot available to landowners across the country.
The USDA also announced it would increase CRP technical assistance funds at the Natural Resource Conservation Service to $140 million, which will support soil sampling to determine a baseline standard for carbon sequestration within the CRP.
Several of these updates reflect recommendations shared by the TRCP and partners in recent years, as sportsmen and women have urged administration officials to restore the purchasing power of the CRP, which Congress saw fit to expand in the last Farm Bill. Creating a more healthy CRP and providing its full suite of benefits to wildlife and landowners was also among the TRCP’s top ten conservation priorities for the Biden administration’s first 100 days.
The course correction for CRP follows an announcement in February that the Farm Service Agency would be extending the ongoing general sign-up period to allow for a thorough evaluation of the tools available to interested landowners. The TRCP and several partner organizations have been supportive of this process and are encouraged by the outcome.
As we look to the 2023 Farm Bill, a healthy CRP is important to rural America for so many reasons. Beyond healthy soil and water, quality habitat and carbon sequestration, CRP acreage provides landowners and local communities with economic opportunities that extend well beyond the farm. Further, as Congress and the USDA look to prioritize carbon sequestration and climate resilience into federal decision-making, landowners, farmers, and ranchers must have seat at the table. A strong Conservation Reserve Program offers just that.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
When it comes to sizeable federal resources dedicated to improving our hunting and fishing access, there are a few standouts that you probably already know. Of course, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has created outdoor recreation opportunities in every county in the nation and on many kinds of public land, from wildlife refuges to urban parks. And you’ve likely heard us talk about the farm bill program that funds walk-in access programs across the country to help open private lands to public hunting and fishing.
But there’s an often overlooked and underfunded program that could have a direct impact on your access and opportunities if the public lands you hunt and fish are managed by the U.S. Forest Service. It’s the only program in federal government that funds road improvements on public lands based purely on environmental conditions, like where sediment from failing roads is degrading our trout streams.
It’s called the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation program, and this month we gathered 18 partners to help us push congressional appropriators to give it a boost. Here’s why our coalition requested that $100 million be dedicated to Legacy Roads and Trails projects.
The Forest Service manages more than 191 million acres of public land that provide essential habitat for a wide range of North American fish and game species. Across the country, from the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia to the Colville National Forest in Washington, projects funded by the Legacy Roads and Trails program have made major improvements to water quality and aquatic habitat while making Forest Service roads and trails more durable.
The program’s targeted activities create outdoor recreation and conservation jobs across the nation and save American taxpayers millions in road maintenance costs. These activities include:
Maintaining and/or storm-proofing thousands of miles of roads to protect habitat, water quality, and downstream communities. These investments on our public lands have helped to improve drinking water and increase flood resiliency in the face of increasingly unpredictable and intense weather events.
Reclaiming thousands of miles of unneeded roads to prevent erosion from damaging streams and reconnecting fragmented habitat. Research has consistently shown that big game species need big, wild country, uninterrupted by motorized disturbance. The LRT program helps address this wildlife need by removing and restoring unused tertiary motorized routes. These efforts help provide secure habitat for sensitive species like elk and mule deer, while also providing hunters opportunities to experience the solitude, challenge, and reward that hunting wild public land provides.
Replacing more than 1,000 culverts to restore fish passage, aiding the recovery of fish species important to restoration goals, tribal communities, and sportfishing enthusiasts. Over half of the money used for fish passage and culvert projects came from external partners, amplifying the effect of Legacy Roads and Trails seed funds.
Improving more than 5,000 miles of trails, driving the $778-billion outdoor recreation economy.
If those results aren’t convincing enough, here’s what else we told lawmakers: The Legacy Roads and Trails program works because it is targeted and results oriented. Collaborative stewardship of the program has made fishing and hunting better, while providing high-paying jobs that help support families in rural communities.
The program is also uniquely positioned to help the Forest Service address its historic maintenance backlog. The Service has identified a backlog of over $3.5 billion in deferred maintenance for roads, close to 400 high-priority culvert projects requiring nearly $110 million, and $675 million for priority watershed restoration projects in just a portion of the watersheds nationwide.
With its proven track record and broad bipartisan support, the LRT program is ideally shaped to begin addressing these needs once again.
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Image courtesy of Kyle Mlynar
Late last week, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued a series of secretarial orders that reverse policies that have eased the way for energy development at the risk of damaging fish and wildlife habitat.
Secretarial Order 3398 revokes a series of policies geared toward energy dominance that conflict with efforts to combat climate change and conserve big game migration corridors. This includes reversing the last administration’s shift away from requiring mitigation of impacts to fish and wildlife habitat from development projects.
“The TRCP appreciates the actions taken by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland through Secretarial Order 3398 to restore balance to public lands management,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “While energy development is an important use of public lands, it should not outweigh other activities of equal importance under a multiple-use management framework, including wildlife habitat and public recreation. We look forward to working with the Interior Department to restore compensatory mitigation and balanced leasing policies to our public lands.”
Secretarial Order 3399 establishes a departmental task force to develop a strategy for reducing climate change impacts on public lands. It also provides policy guidance to ensure climate change is appropriately analyzed through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process and that diverse interests are engaged. Climate strategies such as nature-based solutions would boost the productivity of fish and wildlife habitat and create enhanced opportunities for hunters and anglers.
“The TRCP is ready to work with the newly established Department of the Interior Climate Task Force to shape the role that America’s public lands will play in addressing and confronting climate change,” said Fosburgh. “From thoughtful planning and citing of renewable energy development and transmission to natural solutions that boost the adaptive capacity of public lands, the future of our outdoor traditions depends on well-informed climate policies.”
Though the orders mark an important step toward restoring balance to public land management, the TRCP has also outlined a list of actions that the last administration took to advance conservation. “We would like to see the Biden Administration build on these successes—we can’t move conservation forward if there’s a strict policy of ‘out with the old, in with the new,’” said Fosburgh. “These orders stand on their own merits, and that’s why we celebrate them.”
Almost immediately after the inauguration, the Biden Administration announced its support for a global conservation initiative known as 30 by 30—the goal of conserving 30 percent of the planet’s lands and waters by 2030.
News about the initiative spread fast across several media outlets and has left many, including sportsmen and sportswomen, wondering what this effort is and where it is headed. Words like “protection” or “designation,” often strike fear among landowners, politicians, industry executives, and even some conservation groups. Especially when used with broad strokes that allow people’s imaginations to wander and reach sweeping conclusions. Predictably, many immediately criticized the 30 by 30 initiative and expressed fear of classic top-down federal restrictions.
This doesn’t have to be the case. The administration’s directives specifically call for “conserving” 30 percent of our lands and water, not “protecting” them. What’s the difference? As Theodore Roosevelt and others have noted for more than a century, humans are a part of the land and can wisely use that land, conserving it and nature for future generations. Moreover, the Biden order calls for a deliberative stakeholder process to determine what will be considered “conserved.” This is good news for our community as it provides us with an opportunity to help shape 30 by 30.
Based on the administration’s messaging and direction thus far, it appears that more than just wilderness, national monuments, and national parks would be part of what we consider conserved habitats. It will also include working lands that are managed for long-term ecological sustainability. Because sportsmen and women depend on functional habitats for our pastimes, we have an historic opportunity to turn this initiative into a real win-win for fish and wildlife, landowners, our changing climate, outdoor recreation, and our economy.
30 by 30 is a laudable goal that could benefit our community greatly if implemented successfully. Here’s what you as hunters and anglers need to know to push for conservation goals as part of this initiative.
The Biden Administration didn’t come up with 30 by 30. Scientists have championed the initiative for years to conserve biodiversity and mitigate the impacts of climate change. The hunting and fishing community has been on the front lines of conservation for more than a century and we know that science-based conservation for game species also benefits ecosystem health, biodiversity, and local communities. Efforts to mitigate climate change through proven natural solutions will also benefit biodiversity, habitat, and the hunting and fishing community while contributing to 30 by 30 goals.
This is critical to understanding what, where, and how lands managed specifically for conservation—under public and private ownership and beyond just permanently protected areas—are contributing to the broader goals of 30 by 30. Our community believes that contributions from long-term or permanent easements on private lands, Conservation Reserve Program enrollments, and other conservation measures can and should be rolled into the initiative.
If conserving biodiversity is also a goal, I would argue that well-managed national forests should be considered “conserved.” Prudent timber harvest can help reduce wildfire and provide critical habitat diversity.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 12 percent of the country’s lands are already permanently protected, and studies show about 26 percent of U.S. ocean waters, mostly in the Pacific, are currently protected. How to achieve the remaining 18 percent of land needs to be defined. While we don’t have an acreage total for lands that would be considered “conserved,” meeting the 30 by 30 target will require an additional area twice the size of Texas—that’s more than 440 million acres—within the next 10 years.
As always, science-based conservation measures should be developed through a stakeholder-driven process that includes sportsmen and women, private landowners, states, tribes, industry, and others. If it is to succeed, this will be critical in defining the goals and definitions for habitats to include for 30 by 30.
Moreover, access, including hunting, fishing and general recreation, should be encouraged as long as it is well managed. Conservation requires public support, and we help achieve that by letting people enjoy conserved areas. The TRCP has joined with other hunting and fishing organizations to ensure our community has a seat at the table and that the initiative recognizes the important role of sportsmen and sportswomen in powering conservation in the U.S.
We will need our local communities, both urban and rural, to be fully invested in the broad conservation outcomes envisioned by the 30 by 30 initiative. With the challenges of a changing climate, fire, invasive species, and other stressors affecting our fish and wildlife habitat and natural systems in the U.S., conservation approaches are most durable and lasting when they are well-grounded in local communities and in building trust and common ground with local decision-makers. This is also an opportunity to ensure we are building toward conservation outcomes that create equitable access to nature, clean water, and recreation.
Connectivity is fundamental to improving biodiversity and should be of paramount importance when considering which lands, waters, and conservation actions will contribute to 30 by 30 goals. Freshwater connectivity, and the critical role freshwater plays within our landscape, is an important factor for the administration to consider as it develops next steps for 30 by 30.
There are millions of acres of degraded habitats across the country warranting restoration. Restored habitats will ultimately contribute to the goals of 30 by 30 over time and investments need to be made to combat invasive plants and restore ecological function to damaged ecosystems. Programs supported by sportsmen and women that have provided millions of dollars of investment into habitat restoration will need to be included in the solution set for this initiative. This includes the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the National Fish Habitat Partnership, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and the Environmental Quality Incentive Program.
It is incumbent on our community to work with Congress, states, local governments, and all stakeholders on defining conservation that works to achieve long-term goals. Any legislation must also tie together 30 by 30 goals with ecosystem health, robust fish and wildlife populations, climate benefits, and economic stimulus—particularly through investments in job-creating conservation projects and better access to outdoor recreation.
And, importantly, implementation of the 30 by 30 initiative must not divert funding from ongoing conservation, restoration, or natural resource management activities.
The TRCP, along with 50 other groups, has signed onto this statement from the hunting and fishing community, which outlines the 30 by 30 policies that support existing habitat management approaches and recognize hunting and fishing as important and sustainable activities. Learn more at huntfish3030.com.
Images courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
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.Learn More