Kristyn Brady

July 1, 2021

House Passes Highway Bill with Strong Investments in Habitat and Access

Senate must now act to establish a first-of-its-kind federal grant program for wildlife crossings and advance other important conservation priorities

Washington, D.C. — In a 221-201 floor vote today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the INVEST in America Act, a five-year highway bill with much-needed funding for fish and wildlife habitat connectivity, climate resilience, and road and trail maintenance across public lands.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is particularly encouraged to see the advancement of a new $100-million-per-year grant program that would help states construct more wildlife-friendly road crossing structures, including over- and underpasses, that benefit migrating big game and many other species. An amendment was also successfully passed to establish a new grant program to fund and support culvert restoration projects, which will help restore essential anadromous fish passages across the nation.

“It’s the right time to invest in America’s transportation infrastructure and jobs, and it’s highly appropriate that we look out for fish and wildlife habitat as we make largescale improvements,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This may be our best chance to knit together fragmented migration corridors and fish habitat, especially now that we know more about the way animals use seasonal habitats and exactly how development affects their movement patterns. The science and technology have advanced, but we can’t create solutions without the dedicated funding provided in this bill, which would create the first national wildlife crossings initiative of its kind and help prioritize culvert restoration across the country.”

The bill also includes an amendment that authorizes the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program through 2030 and requires the U.S. Forest Service to develop a national strategy for using the program—which would have a direct impact on public land access and hunting and fishing opportunities on Forest Service lands. The Forest Service also gets a share of the $555 million per year included in INVEST for the Federal Land Transportation Program, but the TRCP and partners will continue to push for more balance here.

Importantly, INVEST would also:

  • Reauthorize the Sport Fish Restoration Program, the well-known conservation fund that draws from angler license and gear purchases.
  • Create a Community Resilience and Restoration Fund and competitive grant program at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, authorized at $100 million per year.
  • Increase funding for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program to $40 billion over five years. Fifteen percent of these funds would be set aside to encourage states to invest in natural systems and nature-based approaches to addressing local water quality challenges.

The Senate surface transportation bill includes the culvert provisions but only $350 million over five years for wildlife crossings. It also includes a climate resilience program that is not in the House bill. The two versions will need to be reconciled before the president can sign off and advance the much-needed conservation provisions mentioned above.

 

Top image courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

5 Responses to “House Passes Highway Bill with Strong Investments in Habitat and Access”

  1. This is excellent. Many organizations in the U.S. and around the world are working on this and wildlife corridors. Check out their efforts via the internet. Please give to organizations that are supporting this work.

  2. Susan Wells

    We have several wildlife crossing in Utah. A couple up near Park City. I believe they have worked very well to save both wildlife and drivers on our busy highways, but we just don’t have enough of them.

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Melinda Kassen

June 30, 2021

Clean Water Act Protections for Headwaters and Wetlands Will Be Considered Again

The Biden Administration will be the fourth to take on clarifying which “waters of the U.S.” get protection under the bedrock conservation law

Once again, the pendulum is swinging back toward protection of our nation’s streams, rivers, and wetlands – and thus the fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife that rely on these waters.

On June 10, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers announced that they would reconsider which waters and wetlands should be protected under the Clean Water Act, which is now 49 years old. The definitional rule, referred to as “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS), describes which discharges to our nation’s waters and wetlands need permits and, therefore, protective conditions.

Discharges potentially needing permits are both from “point sources,” like wastewater treatment plants and factories, and from development activities, like the construction of dams, diversion structures, roads, bridges, or tracts of houses.

The rule the agencies have committed to repeal and replace was issued in April 2020. It shrunk the wetlands protected by Clean Water Act programs by millions of acres, and the number of stream miles by as much as half. (The agencies do not have precise figures for the rule’s impact.) While there had previously been changes to the range of waters and wetlands that the law governs, those changes were never previously more than a few percentage points. The agencies have now conceded in legal challenges to the 2020 rule that there were over 330 construction projects poised to proceed without permits, i.e., without any mitigation for water quality required.

The potential impact to critical fish and wildlife habitat is frightening. Maybe it is because of our interconnectedness with rivers and streams that, according to a 2018 poll commissioned by the TRCP, 92 percent of hunters and anglers were in favor of strengthening federal clean water protections. That makes us possibly the most supportive demographic in the country.

Last month, my colleague Andrew Earl wrote about the failure of the USDA to protect wetlands in the prairie potholes region of the Upper Midwest—the nation’s “duck factory.” These same wetlands sometimes qualify for protection from being filled with construction dirt under the Clean Water Act, but they were entirely excluded from protection under the 2020 WOTUS rule.

Now more than ever, as migratory birds face the loss of habitat due to climate change, all of our government’s agencies should be working to conserve wetlands using every arrow in the quiver.

The administration has promised a robust stakeholder process to develop a new definition of WOTUS, one that the TRCP hopes would be durable enough to withstand the swings of the political pendulum. That process will take time. The administration has already asked the courts reviewing challenges to the 2020 rule to pause their considerations so that the agencies can make changes.

The next step for the agencies must be to repeal the 2020 rule outright and reinstate the coverage that the George W. Bush administration put into place in 2008, following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on WOTUS. That will at least restore wider coverage and perhaps forestall some of the hundreds of habitat-damaging projects that might otherwise proceed.

The current administration must do this repeal as quickly as possible, in part because any “jurisdictional determination” the Corps makes until the rule is repealed would last for five years. That means a project may proceed without a permit without being revisited for half a decade, even if there’s a replacement rule put into place in 2024.

The TRCP appreciates that the agencies want to get a new rule right, so that it can withstand judicial review, and that doing so will take some time. But they cannot be too cautious with the repeal. Without it, too many destructive projects may proceed, and the loss of wetlands and streams is not something easily reversed.

Continue following the TRCP to be the first to know about opportunities to engage in the effort to restore Clean Water Act protections to headwaters and wetlands.

 

Top photo courtesy of USDA NRCS Montana via Flickr.

Why Giving Rivers Space to Flood Helps Fish, Wildlife, and Communities

Levees built right on the riverbank were once the golden standard for preventing dangerous flooding, but setting structures back from the river could help communities faced with increasingly costly storms, while improving habitat

As common flood protection structures, earthen levees line American rivers and streams. Levees constructed in response to historic river flooding—where property damage soared and life loss steadily increased—have been relied upon for generations.

But these manmade barriers also work against our natural environment. Connectivity of a river to its floodplain is critical for the exchange of flows with the river, which deposit and transport sediment through the watershed and support the sustainability of fish and wildlife populations. Levee construction across our major river systems has interrupted and prevented this natural and beneficial ecological function of floodplains.

Over time, Congress acknowledged the adverse impacts of human development that depletes habitat by passing the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973, among other legislation. But levees are still used today. Fortunately, there is a way to make communities more resilient from flooding and reconnect habitat that relies on life-giving sediment and river flows.

It’s Not a Question of Whether Levees are Good or Bad

Numerous levees have performed and continue to perform as they were originally intended. Just ask someone from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For that matter, just ask me. After 34 years of service with the Corps, I’ve seen the good and the bad associated with levees.

On the one hand, levees have prevented devastating flooding from occurring in large cities and small towns—protecting critical facilities (like hospitals, fire and ambulance stations, utility distribution services, government buildings, and military bases) as well as acres upon acres of productive farmland.

However, many of these levees were designed before we began experiencing the apparent effects of climate change, which could pose higher risks now and in the future.

A levee’s height and width will not change once it has been constructed. No matter how much you water it, that levee will not grow. The design conditions are static, with levee performance being based upon the hydrology and hydraulics from when the levee was originally designed. Unfortunately, the climate is dynamic and, as we have witnessed over the past decade, the intensity and frequency of severe weather is increasing along with the failure of vulnerable levees—most recently within the lower Missouri River Basin.

When a levee fails, the results can be catastrophic to people, buildings, infrastructure, livestock, and cropland. Setting levees back far enough to allow the river more room to convey flood waters, while protecting all landward assets, could solve multiple problems.

The photo on the left below illustrates the devastation to the land after a levee breach occurred along the Missouri River during the 2011 flood. The photo on the right illustrates the levee setback that was implemented after the flood, improving flood conveyance, reducing the depth of inevitable floods, and increasing the resiliency of the levee.

Levee breach and levee setback located along the Missouri River. Photos by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Further, the land located riverward of the levee has been enrolled into conservation easements, reconnecting a large portion of the historic floodplain and allowing for that critical exchange of flow between the river and the floodplain.

Environmental Benefits of Levee Setback Projects

Diversification of flood flows through reconnection of the historic floodplain to the river is the greatest environmental benefit associated with a levee setback like this one. As shown in the images below, fish and wildlife are flourishing within the conservation easements, because they mimic natural ponds and wetlands. The positive trade-off of transitioning some productive cropland to conservation easements by realigning the levee is that fewer levee failures will occur, the setback levee is more resilient to flooding, and the environment has an opportunity to recover.

View of fish and wildlife using conservation easement near a setback along the Missouri River.
Consider the Setbacks

The cost of setting a levee back from the river can be millions of dollars. The cost of not setting back certain levees, especially those that continue to encounter flood damage, may be costlier in terms of damage to buildings, infrastructure, livestock, cropland, and the environment. While funding from the federal government flows with fewer restrictions to states and local governments after a disaster, it would be beneficial for states and federal agencies to identify vulnerable levees now—prior to flooding.

We must acknowledge that our needs have changed since levees were first designed and constructed. Continuing to rebuild after every damaging flood, rather than implement forward-thinking solutions, like levee setbacks, all but guarantees that fish and wildlife habitat will continue to suffer.

Learn more about this issue and proposed solutions here.

Randall Behm is retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after 34 years as a professional engineer. As a consultant, he now works nationally on the implementation of nonstructural flood mitigation measures and advocates for the setback of perennially damaged levees to improve flood-risk management and environmental benefits.

Top photo by Justin Wilkens on Unsplash

Guest Blogger Ad Crable

June 21, 2021

How Reducing Farm Runoff in PA Streams Benefits More Than Just Fishing

The state’s plan to send fewer nutrients downstream to the Chesapeake by 2025 will also boost whitetail and pheasant habitat, farm operations, stream connectivity, and more

Lancaster County farmer Roger Rohrer waded through swaying switchgrass on a hillside overlooking his fourth-generation poultry and crop farm. Two whitetail does jumped up and porpoised into nearby woods. Nearby, he showed a visitor a 20-year-old wooded buffer with tall grass underneath that traced a small but clear meandering stream with no name.

Planting steep fields in warm-season grass cover and placing vegetative filters along a stream prevents soil and fertilizer on adjacent fields from running off and ending up in Chesapeake Bay, a threat that contributes to algae blooms and smothers key underwater grasses.

To Rohrer and his sons—all hunters—these changes not only bring the satisfaction of doing the right thing for the environment. Their hunting opportunities and wildlife sightings have boomed. Instead of driving to deer camp upstate, they now shoot trophy bucks each year on the farm. The whitetails use the riparian buffers as travel lanes and the grassy fields as bedding areas.

For the first time, turkeys are around, gobbling from nearby forest ridges. They use the grasses as nesting areas and to hide from predators. Ducks have appeared on the stream.

Lancaster County’s Roger Rohrer in a 20-year-old forested buffer on his farm. The buffer is used by trophy bucks for travel corridors. Photo by Ad Crable.

“Everything you do to enhance wildlife is also good for water quality,” says Rohrer, who has become something of an activist in pushing to restore riparian forests. For Rohrer and Pennsylvania sportsmen, there are many side benefits of the state’s massive commitment—almost $5 billion so far—to reduce nutrients and soil from running into the Bay.

Pennsylvania’s latest blueprint to try to reach its promised nutrient and soil reductions by the 2025 deadline is known as Watershed Implementation Plan Phase III, or WIP III. It includes a number of new initiatives and accelerated strategies that will benefit anglers, hunters, and anyone who uses the outdoors or cares about clean water.

For example, the new plan puts a premium on land conservation practices that enhance fish habitat or create other ecosystem benefits. And buffers will be favored if they bring contiguous stretches of waterways together to better support fish populations.

In setting a goal of 83,000 acres of new forested buffers along streams, WIP III specifically mentions how creating shade along streams may help buffer sensitive native brook trout, the state fish, from the warming effects of climate change. And, as Rohrer found out, the strips serve as travel corridors for game.

A forested buffer along a Pennsylvania stream. Buffers with trees are one priority for the state’s new blueprint for meeting pollution goals to help restore the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Ryan Davis used to work with Pheasants Forever in western Pennsylvania. He was so impressed at how streamside buffers attracted pheasants and other wildlife that he became a full-time advocate for riparian buffers and forest restoration with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. Though pheasants are becoming an uncommon game bird on the Pennsylvania landscape, Davis has seen concentrations of ringnecks in buffers.

“These kinds of scruffy, brushy habitats are essential for pheasants to survive over the winter,” he says.

A long-lasting scourge from past land abuses, acid mine drainage is next to agriculture in polluting streams in Pennsylvania. But cleanup projects under the Bay restoration have restored more than 55 miles of streams from 2010 to 2018, in many cases allowing native fish and insects to move back in.

“Many streams that were once heavily polluted are now places where residents gather to swim, fish, boat and play,” says one section of the implementation plan.

Land conservation is another key strategy of the plan. “That protects existing habitats and hunting grounds from conversion to other land uses,” notes Wesley Robinson of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The WIP’s call for more conservation of forest land is just as important for sportsmen and sportswomen as it is for the Bay. These local hunters and anglers are called “among our best stewards of the environment” by Michelle Price-Fay, acting director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office.

The rallying cry from Pennsylvania officials in recent years has shifted from save-the-bay to touting the benefits of making local streams clear for Pennsylvanians’ sake, where better water quality in the Bay is an added benefit.

Pennsylvania farmer Roger Rohrer stands in switchgrass planted on a sloped former crop field to prevent nutrients and soil from running into streams and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. The grasses have attracted deer and turkeys. Photo by Ad Crable.

Of nearly 49,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams in the Bay drainage—about half the state—more than 15,000 miles remain polluted or impaired in official terms.

“Failing to restore Pennsylvania’s impaired waters will mean that our drinking water sources, outdoor recreation, wildlife, and public health and safety will remain impacted,” the WIP III states.

The plan draws on a number of federal partners that have land in the state. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a goal in WIP III to restore, enhance, and preserve wetland habitat to support 100,000 black ducks baywide. In Pennsylvania, that would focus on 54,000 acres of wetlands in the Elk River watershed in the southeastern part of the state. The Corps also seeks an 8-percent increase in brook trout water in headwater streams.

The biggest target of WIP III is agriculture, which is next to forest cover as the biggest land use in the state. A closer bond between sportsmen and farmers “represents a huge opportunity for habitat restoration for game species,” suggests Lamonte Garber of the Pennsylvania-based Stroud Water Research Center. “Strengthening ties between conservation-minded farmers and sportsmen can only help improve Pennsylvania’s sporting resources.”

Take action now to support conservation investments in Pennsylvania.

 

Ad Crable lives in Lancaster, PA, writes an outdoors column for LNP newspaper, and covers Pennsylvania environmental issues for the Chesapeake Bay Journal.

Top photo by Derek Eberly

 

Restoring 350 Miles of Impaired Streams in PA’s Amish Country

Years of planning and collaboration, especially with local farmers, could make this a model of success for at-risk fish habitat across the country

With its Amish farms and quaint architecture, Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County is a tourist destination where people hope for a glimpse of the past. With its urban sprawl, disappearing farmland, and impaired waterways, it now offers, rather more tellingly, a good look at the future.

That future just got a good deal brighter. Let’s set the stage.

Photo by Derek Eberly.

Lancaster County is home to some 550,000 souls, roughly double the population of 80 years ago. The increase in population has brought in quite a few sportsmen and sportswomen, but also all of the environmental threats that go with urbanization and industrial and transportation development. This has coincided almost precisely with the age of chemical agriculture, with pesticides, herbicides, and liberal application of fertilizers having become the norm.

The result? More than half of the county’s 1,400 miles of stream are listed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as impaired. Taken together, we may have more hunters and anglers but ever fewer places to hunt and fish in a seemingly inexorable trend.

There’s every reason to hope that the trend is about to be reversed. Lancaster Water Partners has received $7.4 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to commence what may become a massive cleanup.

The goal is to take 350 miles of Lancaster County streams, or close to half of the area’s degraded waters, off the EPA’s impaired list by 2030. That’s an ambitious agenda for such a sum, but the key element is collaboration.

Some government agencies and nonprofits are important partners, but the most impact may be had by the farmers in stream catchments areas. By cooperating in the program and voluntarily improving their management practices, the farmers can reduce the sediment and nutrient loads that landed the streams on the impaired list in the first place.

Education and public awareness, therefore, are also part of the goal of the project. Sponsors hope for 75 percent of the county’s adult population to be aware of the work, and to support it, by the time this phase is complete.

Photo by Derek Eberly.

One important partner, the Chesapeake Conservancy, has used advanced geographic information system techniques to create maps that will serve as a starting point for determining stream needs and the best candidates for restoration. So far, 19 catchments have been identified in the Conestoga, Chiques, Pequa, and Octoraro watersheds.

This strategic approach is the result of years of planning. Now, we need to make sure there’s robust and dedicated funding moving quickly where it’s needed to get shovel-ready projects started and people back to work.

There is likely to be a considerable lesson here. Lancaster County is by no means the only place with impaired streams, and agriculture is not the only culprit. From acid rain to abandoned mine tailings and industrial waste, all manner of pollutants have degraded waterways across the country. Lancaster’s program is setting an example that can spread—and quickly.

 

Take action now to support conservation investments in Pennsylvania.

 

David Terrell is retired from the U.S. Geological Survey and living in Elizabethtown, PA. His background includes print journalism and staff work in the U.S. Senate.

Top photo by Derek Eberly

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CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA

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.

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