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Randall Williams

July 15, 2021

TRCP Applauds New Path Forward for the Tongass

USDA to restore conservation safeguards and invest in sustainable economic development in Southeast Alaska

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership celebrated today’s news that the Forest Service will pursue a new management approach for 9.2 million acres of public land in Southeast Alaska that will prioritize the region’s biggest economic engines, local values, and overwhelming public opinion.

Pairing the restoration of conservation safeguards with new, robust investments in the region’s economic development, the decision was welcomed by local communities and various stakeholders as a balanced solution that promises a sustainable future for a region widely regarded as some of the richest fish and wildlife habitat in Alaska. Among other things, USDA’s new strategy will reverse of one of last year’s biggest conservation setbacks and ensure that the Tongass National Forest will remain an iconic hunting and fishing destination.

“Today’s development marks a major step toward restoring conservation safeguards and shifting to more sustainable forest management practices on the Tongass National Forest,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We appreciate this leadership by USDA, and look forward to the timely reinstatement of the Roadless Rule on the Tongass, which will conserve some of Alaska’s most productive fish and wildlife habitat while also allowing for community development projects and cultural uses.”

Roadless Rule protections were rolled back in 2020 despite overwhelming public opposition to the exemption.

The USDA is anticipated to outline several key steps it will take moving forward:

  • The FS will start the process to repeal the Roadless Rule exemption and reinstate full protections under the 2001 Roadless Rule.
  • The Tongass NF will end large-scale old-growth timber sales, but will allow Alaska Natives and small-scale operators to continue limited old-growth harvest.
  • $25 million in new funding will be dedicated to community development projects that enhance recreation, restoration and resilience, including climate, wildlife habitat, and watershed improvements.

“The industries that contribute the most to Southeast Alaska’s economy—such as commercial fishing, recreation, and tourism—rely on the conservation of our remaining old-growth forests and watersheds within the Tongass,” said Jen Leahy, Alaska field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “It’s exciting to see the Forest Service invest in new strategies that align with the values and priorities of rural Alaskans. The TRCP is committed to helping the Forest Service manage the Tongass in a way that conserves vital fish and wildlife habitat, allows for sustainable second growth forest management, and boosts the resiliency of our communities.”

Photo Credit: Ben Matthews

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Randall Williams

July 13, 2021

Hunters and Anglers Unveil Vision for National Wildlife Refuges

Leading conservation groups and industry brands release report with recommendations for the future of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-managed public lands

A new report from 32 hunting- and fishing-related conservation organizations and businesses celebrates the successes of the National Wildlife Refuge System in supporting species conservation and outdoor recreation, and outlines twelve key principles that should guide its management and future proposals for its expansion. This comes as hunters and anglers are enjoying new opportunities on national wildlife refuges, and as the administration continues to define its conservation priorities.

“President Theodore Roosevelt, who more than anyone recognized the inextricable connection between conservation and hunting, established the first National Wildlife Refuge in 1903 at Pelican Island,” said Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute. “Continuing in that proud tradition, I was privileged to serve as the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the 100th anniversary of the refuge system and throughout my tenure worked to encourage hunting and fishing programs on these lands, for which Roosevelt cared so deeply. In opening our refuges to more Americans and planning for expanded opportunities throughout the system, the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to carry out an important mission that is essential to the future of hunting and fishing—as well as that of conservation—in this country.”

According to the report, “strategic and locally supported expansion of the National Wildlife Refuge System would help to provide all Americans with increased access to nature regardless of their income or background, to conserve biodiversity, and to sustain fish and wildlife habitat connectivity.”

“Sportsmen and sportswomen have been the National Wildlife Refuge System’s earliest advocates, most outspoken supporters, and most generous contributors, which helps explain why our community has such a strong investment in building on the system’s proven framework,” said Christy Plumer, chief policy officer for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defines the future of the refuge system—including the potential expansion of refuges—we see an opportunity to ensure that the system continues to benefit numerous species as well as public fishing and hunting.”

Recent events make the report’s release particularly timely. In 2019 and 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service increased hunting and fishing opportunities on a combined 4 million acres within the refuge system, and the agency recently proposed expanded opportunities on an additional 2.1 million acres. Then, in March 2021, several federal agencies released “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” which outlines a ten-year roadmap for conserving at least 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030. Specifically mentioned is a recommendation to work “with States, local communities, and others to explore where there is support to enhance the National Wildlife Refuge System.”

“Not only does the National Wildlife Refuge System conserve irreplaceable habitat for trout and salmon, these public lands also offer world class angling opportunities. Strengthening the refuge system is crucial to help make fish and wildlife populations more resilient to the effects of climate change,” said Corey Fisher, public lands policy director with Trout Unlimited. “This report provides constructive guideposts for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to enhance the refuge system for future generations, and this needs to be coupled with a commitment from Congress to ensure that the agency has the resources and funding necessary to steward wildlife refuges across the nation.”

At the report’s core are recommendations in the form of twelve tenets that, if followed, would help generate broad support from the hunting and fishing community for proposed new or expanded refuges. These principles address concerns ranging from public access and sporting opportunities to state fish and wildlife management authority, as well as funding and administrative priorities.

“Durable land conservation requires open dialogue, strong partnerships, and an interest in finding common ground,” said John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “Hunters and anglers are proven collaborators, and there is a need for our community to remain at the table to help shape a future for the National Wildlife Refuge System that we and others can call a success.”

The report includes feature profiles of four refuges within the system that offer diverse opportunities for hunters and anglers and explains some of the history and characteristics that make these landscapes unique. The voices of local sportsmen and sportswomen help to explain the value of each refuge to nearby communities in places ranging from rural southwest Wyoming to the urban spaces of greater Detroit, Michigan, and Toledo, Ohio.

“Among all of our public lands, national wildlife refuges play an important role in providing Americans access to the outdoors, and include outstanding deer habitats throughout the country,” said Nick Pinizzotto, president and CEO of the National Deer Association. “Sportsmen and sportswomen have a profound appreciation for the opportunities provided by the refuge system and there can be no doubt that the hunting community will speak up to ensure this legacy lives on for future generations.”

See the full list of policy recommendations and read the report at TRCP.org/refuges.

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.

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

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