EPA Restores Clean Water Act Protections for Streams and Wetlands
New clean water rule again safeguards habitats that are important to hunters and anglers
Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a new rule that formally restores federal Clean Water Act protections for streams and wetlands that sustain fish and wildlife and hunting and fishing opportunities.
This most recent clean water rule includes several provisions that reflect comments submitted by the TRCP and partners on behalf of hunters and anglers requesting stronger federal protections for headwater streams and wetlands. A 2018 national poll carried out by TRCP confirmed that a significant majority of sportsmen and sportswomen support both the Clean Water Act and strong protections for streams and wetlands.
The benefits of clean, productive wetlands and headwater streams are clear to hunters and anglers. Wetlands—including non-floodplain wetlands like prairie potholes and mountain wet meadow complexes—provide critical migratory and nesting habitats for waterfowl while filtering pollutants, enhancing natural water retention, and promoting resilience to drought. Headwater streams provide nursery habitats for salmon and regulate stream temperatures for coldwater trout fisheries.
The new rule reflects the importance of these aquatic ecosystems by reinstating federal protections for headwater streams and non-floodplain wetlands that significantly affect downstream waters.
It also strikes a positive balance between previous efforts to define the scope of federal protections by both the Obama and Trump administrations. The new rule does away with Obama-era bright-line distance requirements to determine whether adjacent wetlands are federally protected. Many stakeholders found these distance requirements complicated, as they often did not reflect more site-specific and regional factors that should be considered in assessing whether certain wetlands are covered under the Clean Water Act. Instead, the new rule provides categorical protections for wetlands adjacent to larger and interstate river and lake systems, while employing a more fact-specific analysis for other wetlands.
Meanwhile, this new rule also restores federal protections that were narrowed under the Trump Administration, specifically for intermittent and ephemeral stream systems that sustain healthy watersheds, particularly in the arid Southwest. The final rule also maintains several longstanding exemptions for normal agricultural operations and more specific guidance for landowners to help provide clearer information on when mitigation actions are necessary.
This is a final rule, but the EPA continues to meet with landowners, farmers, businesses, and conservation organizations to achieve the original goals of the Clean Water Act. Meanwhile, the agency and stakeholders continue to wait for a ruling this year from the U.S. Supreme Court in Sackett v. EPA, in which the court heard arguments regarding the scope of federal protections for wetlands. The TRCP, along with Trout Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation, joined an amicus brief in the Sackett case, advocating for the defense of federal protections for headwater streams and non-floodplain wetlands. This position was based on both federal court decisions and an extensive scientific record indicating that these aquatic ecosystems play important functions in sustaining healthy watersheds.
The EPA may need to change even this most recent clean water rule, or adopt a new one, depending on the majority ruling in this case.
For more backstory on the Clean Water Act and how its jurisdiction has changed over the years, check out this timeline.
Our organizational and legislative successes made possible by your support
In the TRCP’s 20th year of providing a vital service to the hunting and fishing community, we’re proud to say that we haven’t lost any steam. Conservation remains an issue that creates common ground in an otherwise polarized and contentious Washington, D.C.—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to advance policies and legislation that will benefit fish, wildlife, and America’s sportsmen and sportswomen. With a few weeks still remaining to clinch conservation victories (like these), here are our top achievements to date in 2022.
The House and Senate passed the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, which includes a first-of-its-kind study, conceived of by TRCP, to evaluate natural infrastructure project effectiveness. We’re tracking the conferenced version of the bill, which could pass in an end-of-year spending package as early as next week. Here’s our full wishlist for WRDA.
Legislation passed the Louisiana House to cap the industrial menhaden fishery in the state and create buffers to protect sensitive habitats along the coast. Both of these efforts would move the Gulf menhaden fishery toward ecosystem management, which is now in place along the Atlantic coast. East Coast anglers are still pushing for more consideration of menhaden, however, with more than 10,000 sportsmen, sportswomen, and local residents calling for Virginia decision-makers to move industrial menhaden fishing out of the Chesapeake Bay, a key striped bass nursery. Add your name to the petition.
After the administration implemented multiple recommendations from TRCP and its partners, enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program outpaced expiring contracts, resulting in a net increase of conserved acres. This legislation would boost the CRP even more.
So much of the work we do is educating lawmakers and the hunting and fishing public on conservation priorities. Through digital resources and reports this year, we shared:
Which trout streams are being overlooked, despite qualifying for top conservation safeguards. Explore our map.
Commitment to Transparency
Finally, TRCP again received top ratings by charity watchdog groups Charity Navigator, GuideStar, and the Better Business Bureau. We work hard to ensure that every dollar you give goes as far as possible for conservation, and this recognition of where we stack up against other charities is very important to us.
Given all that we’ve accomplished this year to guarantee Americans quality places to hunt and fish, we hope you’ll consider lending the TRCP your support during this season of giving. If you’re a first-time donor, SITKA Gear will match every dollar you give, and previous donors will get a match on any increase over their last gift. There’s no better time to get involved in conservation and make twice the impact.
In honor of TRCP’s 20th anniversary, here are some of our proudest moments as an organization and the biggest victories our team has helped to advance on behalf of hunters and anglers
The TRCP Is Founded to Fill a Serious Need 2002
After starting the modern conservation movement more than 100 years earlier, hunters and anglers had lost much of our relevance in federal policy by the early 2000s. Our community had so successfully committed to bringing back individual species—like ducks, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, elk, pronghorn antelope, native trout, and more—that we became fractured and lost sight of the broader issues of conservation.
This became apparent to James D. Range, a lifelong sportsman and longtime senior Republican staff member in the Senate, who had played a critical role in advancing some of the nation’s most important natural resources legislation, including the Clean Water Act. He knew that our community—if we banded together—could again be a powerful voice for conservation. And in 2002, he created the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to present a united front to decision-makers on the issues that matter to all hunters and anglers.
Roadless Rules Help Conserve Backcountry Habitat
Since the TRCP’s inception, we have advanced policies that conserve large blocks of intact habitat, including roadless areas on our national forests, to maximize hunting and fishing opportunities. Roadless area conservation was one of TRCP’s founding issues, and between 2002 and 2012, the TRCP helped to successfully conserve 58.5 million acres of habitat on public lands in 38 states.
Led by TRCP staff on the ground, sportsmen and sportswomen were a consistent, engaged, and reasonable presence throughout multi-year rulemaking processes in Idaho and Colorado. In 2008, we successfully advocated for strong conservation of backcountry habitat in a final rule for Idaho’s 9.3 million acres of roadless areas. Then, in 2012, recommendations from our community were incorporated into a final Colorado roadless rule that safeguarded 4.2 million acres of backcountry for future generations.
Finally, in October 2012, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the nationwide 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, resolving the issue nationally in a way that conserved these valued habitats and sporting destinations, while providing commonsense flexibility for habitat restoration. These efforts have helped fish and wildlife managers to maximize public hunting and fishing opportunities and safeguard vital habitat for the foreseeable future.
TRCP Defends Wetlands and the Clean Water Act
On Earth Day in 2004, President George W. Bush laid out a strategy to move beyond the “no net loss” policy for wetlands that his father established in 1989. This commitment to increasing wetlands acreage annually was one of TRCP’s signature issues at the time, but this early victory did not mean we could rest on our laurels.
In fact, just two years later, there was talk of the George W. Bush Administration weakening Clean Water Act protections for wetlands. Given his role in helping to write the nation’s bedrock law on clean water, TRCP’s co-founder Jim Range was understandably moved to act. He led a delegation to Texas and drove around Bush’s ranch with the president, ultimately convincing him to abandon plans to weaken the Clean Water Act.
In the 2010s, the TRCP was a key voice in advocating for Clean Water Act protections for both wetlands and headwater streams, after a series of Supreme Court cases and subsequent federal agency actions made it unclear which bodies of water the Act protects. In 2015, after an extensive public process and based on a massive study of hundreds of scientific articles about water quality, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adopted a rule to clarify federal jurisdiction over the “waters of the United States.” Though it was ultimately reversed, the rule was a major victory for hunters and anglers: It would have helped conserve the roughly 60 percent of streams and 20 million acres of wetlands that were at risk of being polluted or destroyed because of jurisdictional confusion.
TRCP Today: Our water resources team has expanded to support conservation solutions in the Delaware, Colorado, and Rio Grande river basins, and we continue to advocate for headwaters, wetlands, and prairie potholes. In June 2021, the EPA and Corps announced that they would reconsider which waters and wetlands should be protected under the Clean Water Act—again. Sportsmen and sportswomen are important stakeholders in this public process that could secure protections for critical fish and waterfowl habitat.
Farm Bill Conservation Expands 2008-present
Since his time on Capitol Hill, Jim Range had envisioned a brighter future for habitat and hunting and fishing access in rural America, where public land opportunities are scarce. Under his leadership, the TRCP championed “open fields,” a farm bill initiative that would incentivize private landowners to offer access to the public for hunting and fishing, ideally in concert with habitat improvements. What became the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program was established in the 2008 Farm Bill and built up in the two farm bills since. It is the only federal program dedicated to creating public access on private lands and a major victory for the TRCP. Unfortunately, Range never got to see “open fields” benefit sportsmen and sportswomen or expand to $49 million in projects across 26 states—he lost his battle with kidney cancer in early 2009 at the age of 63.
Though this loss was heartbreaking, TRCP’s focus on private land conservation never wavered. We pushed for a Conservation Reserve Program Grasslands initiative to help conserve working grasslands and prevent conversion and habitat fragmentation. We championed the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program, another CRP initiative, that has provided habitat for sharptail grouse, sage grouse, woodcock, bobwhite quail, pheasants, a wide variety of waterfowl, black bears, mule deer, elk, salmon, steelhead trout, and many other species across 36 states.
Hunters and Anglers Stop Public Land Grab
Despite the importance of America’s 640 million acres of public land to our hunting and fishing opportunities and our country’s unique outdoor legacy, special interests intensified their efforts to sell off or transfer them to the states in 2015. In response, the TRCP launched sportsmensaccess.org—the home base for hunters and anglers opposed to public land transfer with the latest news on threats to public access. More than 150 sporting groups and businesses joined the coalition and more than 50,000 individual hunters and anglers sent messages to their lawmakers to oppose public land sale and seizure. At the state level, TRCP field representatives across the West helped to beat back all but six of 37 bills advocating for the disposal of federal public lands, driving thousands of hunters and anglers to rally at state capitols and town hall meetings under the slogans #KeepItPublic and #PublicLandsProud.
One congressman, however, was a little slow to get the message. In February 2017, sportsmen and sportswomen flooded the inbox of former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) with letters, tweets, and Facebook messages about his unpopular and dangerous public land sale bill, H.R. 621. In a matter of weeks, more than 10,000 TRCP members contacted their own lawmakers, as well. Shortly after, Chaffetz dropped the legislation, which would have enabled the sale of 3.3 million acres of public lands to pay down the national debt, and he made his mea culpa to hunters and anglers on Instagram under a photo of him wearing a camo coat and holding his dog. Chaffetz retired from Congress that June.
TRCP Today: Presidents Trump and Biden made it clear that this idea would not gain traction on their watch, but the push to sell off public lands hasn’t gone away completely. The tug-of-war between Americans who are proud to have public lands as their birthright and those who seek to undermine these lands for short-term profits has never been tied to one individual bill, state, or lawmaker—it’s a longstanding ideological battle that puts conservation, access, and our hunting and fishing opportunities on the line.
Anglers Demand Better Federal Fisheries Management
After watching federal fisheries management focus almost exclusively on the commercial sector for years, the TRCP embarked on a new effort to improve fish stocks and seasons and urge decision-makers to recognize the value of anglers in this conversation. In 2013, we convened a coalition of groups and industry leaders to lay out a vision for better management of recreational fishing in federal waters. The result was a report outlining six recommendations for conserving marine recreational fisheries, championed by Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops and Scott Deal of Maverick Boats.
What became commonly referred to as the Morris-Deal Report—as well as TRCP-led workshops with fisheries managers, biologists, economists, and conservation groups—laid the groundwork for federal legislation that would bring marine fisheries management into the 21st century. In 2015, NOAA released its first-ever policy recognizing the value of recreational fishing, based on our recommendations, and TRCP staff was invited to testify in support of the Modern Fish Act in 2017. A year later, the bill was signed into law.
First Migration Corridor Conservation Policies Are Created 2015-present
The TRCP field team has worked diligently over the years to raise awareness with local decision-makers about the lack of conservation policies for big game migration corridors and seasonal habitats that, thanks to advances in GPS collars and wildlife research, we can now use to help direct habitat restoration and improvement and prevent incompatible development. These efforts made a big leap forward in February 2018, when then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed Secretarial Order 3362, which directed agencies to give more attention to habitats where mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, and other species migrate, rest, and spend the winter months.
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 has inspired Colorado, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho to adopt their own migration corridor conservation programs, with additional states working to join them.
The TRCP continued to differentiate itself in the next great quest for public lands and outdoor recreation access. In 2018, as authorization for the iconic Land and Water Conservation Fund was nearing expiration, other groups created countdown clocks and posted increasingly urgent messages about the need for permanent authorization of this critical resource. While standing with our community to secure the future of the LWCF, we also went to work to quantify a widespread access problem that was tailor-made for LWCF to fix—inaccessible public lands. The TRCP partnered with the digital mapping company onX to identify 9.52 million acres of federal public lands in the West that are “landlocked” by private land with no permanent legal access.
Our first Unlocking Public Lands Report made national headlines just as the conversation around LWCF was heating up, and we were able to offer sound reasoning, based on data, for full funding at $900 million annually, with a minimum of three percent held aside to improve existing public land access, and a plan to take short-term approvals of this critical tool off the congressional to-do list by making authorization permanent. This was accomplished in 2020 through the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act and the Great American Outdoors Act (see below.)
Between 2018 and 2020, we expanded our work with onX to identify a total of 16.43 million acres of inaccessible public lands across 22 states. The company helped us provide land trusts and federal decision-makers with data about the scale and scope of public land access barriers in their area. We also began collaborating with the BLM and Forest Service to modernize their data to reflect existing road easements that provide the public with permanent, legal access across private lands.
It was at this point we discovered that many of the easement records were only kept in paper files at the back of dusty filing cabinets—at the time, the Forest Service and BLM had an estimated 50,000 recorded easements that were not available to the public in geospatial form. The average hunter or angler wouldn’t have known about these public access areas unless they’d walked into a field office to ask, and the agencies would have had trouble prioritizing future easements and land acquisition if this data was not all in one place.
TRCP Today: This year, at the urging of thousands of TRCP members, Congress passed the MAPLand Act—with unanimous support in the Senate—and President Joe Biden signed it into law on April 29. TRCP is presently working with members of Congress to fully fund MAPLand implementation, which includes digitizing and making publicly available information about public access, within a four-year period.
These bipartisan victories reflect the efforts of the entire hunting, fishing, and conservation community—no one group can take the credit. Where TRCP played an important role was in convening partners at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to forecast how hunters and anglers could advocate for conservation and outdoor recreation jobs, while improving habitat and public lands that were seeing an uptick in visitation during lockdowns. The result was our Conservation Works for America campaign, which outlined recommendations that were taken up in the IIJA and other major funding vehicles. It’s just the kind of victory Jim Range knew was possible if our community could work together.
Thank you for being here and supporting the TRCP, whether you discovered us this year or 20 years ago! We cannot do what we do for fish, wildlife, and hunting and fishing opportunities without the efforts of individual sportsmen and sportswomen who are committed to healthy habitats and safeguarding outdoor recreation access for the next generation. YOU are our inspiration.
10 Conservation Achievements We’re Proud of in 2021
Your support helped to make these organizational and legislative successes possible
Setting the Agenda
In early 2021, the TRCP staff clearly communicated top hunter and angler priorities to the incoming Biden-Harris Administration and members of the 117th Congress. Our top ten must-do list for the administration and top five priorities for Congress were among our most popular blog posts of the year, making it clear that American hunters and anglers are engaged in these policy discussions—and we let decision-makers know that sportsmen and sportswomen are paying attention. At the 100-day mark, we’d seen progress on many, but not all, of our top priorities, and conservation has advanced even further in the remainder of the year. Read on for details.
Strengthening a Popular Farm Bill Conservation Program
Helping to Secure Conservation’s Role in “30 by 30”
Almost immediately after the inauguration, the news of the administration’s support for a global initiative to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030 had left some landowners, politicians, industry executives, and even conservation groups fearful about what exactly this would mean. Fortunately, the voices of sportsmen and sportswomen—including those behind huntfish3030.com—were heard, and the White House’s 10-year “America the Beautiful” initiative includes key TRCP priorities, like expanding habitat conservation, increasing outdoor recreation access, incentivizing the voluntary conservation of private land, and creating jobs through conservation. Here’s what you need to know about 30 by 30.
Many key priorities of the TRCP and our partners are also included in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed by President Biden in November. We successfully pushed for a revolutionary program to build more wildlife-friendly highway crossings and once-in-a-generation investments in stream connectivity, forest health, coastal and estuarine habitat conservation, water quality, and water conservation projects across the West.
Unlocking Public Land Access
In 2021, lawmakers reintroduced and advanced the TRCP-led MAPLand Act, which would require public land agencies to digitize their paper maps and access information. Once accomplished, this would help you identify more inroads to public hunting and fishing areas using smartphone apps and GPS devices. After clearing committees in both chambers, the legislation is poised for floor votes that could send it to President Biden’s desk next year.
Boosting Efforts to Study and Stop the Spread of CWD
Highlighting Individuals Who Are Shaping Conservation’s Future
Part of the fun of what we do is making you aware of the hunters and anglers out there who help to power conservation without asking for any acclaim. This is just a small window into the community that we feel lucky to be a part of. If you need some uplifting reading this holiday season, check out our Q&As with Durrell Smith, Kelsey Johnson, Gregg Flores, and Rachel Smiley. Be inspired by what Clint Bentley was able to accomplish for Nevada’s bighorn sheep populations, just by speaking up. Let Austin Snow take you along on his hunt with Steven Rinella and Janis Putelis of MeatEater. Or take just a few minutes to watch Suzy Weiser, Charles Garcia, and Geo Romero explain why conservation in the Colorado River Basin is personal for them.
That wraps up our top ten for the year. Thanks for following along and supporting our work to create conservation success across the country. It wouldn’t be possible without you. Want to do even more for habitat, access, and the outdoor recreation economy? Donate to the TRCP before December 31, and SITKA will match some or all of your gift. Learn more here.
Email subscribers: The December 17th Roosevelt Report is the last of the year, and we’ll be back on January 7, 2022. Want to get on the list for the next one? Subscribe here.
Alex Funk Heads TRCP’s Clean Water Efforts at a Watershed Moment
Our new director of water resources and senior counsel shares how his work will support conservation across the Colorado River Basin, Chesapeake Bay watershed, and headwaters and wetlands nationwide
In the summer of 2014, still fresh out of law school, I took two pivotal trips from the muggy confines of Washington, D.C., to the American West.
The first of those trips took me to New Mexico to meet with local conservation organizations working to stop a diversion project that would drain the headwaters of the Gila River—a region that Aldo Leopold convinced Congress to protect as the nation’s first Wilderness Area. On the second trip, I found myself on a raft floating down the canyons of the Upper Colorado River for the first time. It rained, and it was cold, but these experiences cemented a desire to focus on conserving our country’s Western rivers.
Looking back on those trips, I remember being in awe of the Western landscapes I saw. The vastness of the mountain ranges and red hues of the soil were alien to someone who grew up along the lush, green banks of the Shenandoah River.
Perhaps most striking to me, however, was how small the Gila River is compared to Eastern rivers such as the Potomac or Hudson—especially considering that the Gila is a major tributary of the Colorado River. That comparison, however, underscores the outsized role of Western rivers in the semi-arid to desert landscapes of the left half of the country. Although comparatively small in terms of volume, Western rivers are the hardest working rivers in the country and support a wide range of ecosystem services and benefits. This includes providing critical wildlife corridors and winter range for a variety of species, like elk and mule deer.
The Colorado River, in particular, provides water for approximately 40 million people in the southwestern United States and Mexico, irrigates nearly 5.7 million acres of farmland, and is the lifeblood for 22 federally recognized Native American tribes. According to an Arizona State University study, the Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in economic output, $871 billion in wages, and 16 million jobs annually. It also underpins countless hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation opportunities that are under threat while the river faces drought and climate change.
As part of the 2018 Farm Bill, the TRCP was instrumental in securing important victories for the Colorado River, including expanding eligibility for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to include watershed-scale conservation and restoration projects and ensuring drought resilience is a key priority for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
I will also be working with TRCP’s Pennsylvania field rep to build a local coalition of sportsmen and sportswomen to sustain critical conservation funding for natural resource management priorities, such as improving water quality and wildlife habitat and strengthening state stream protections for coldwater fisheries.
Overall, I’m eager to be working with the TRCP and its partner community to advance innovative policy solutions to a myriad of challenges facing our nation’s rivers and streams and sustain these resources for future generations. I look forward to keeping all of you up to date on our progress.
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.