How lawmakers can build on recent conservation wins and advance habitat, access, and recreation solutions that were narrowly missed last session
The 117th Congress was a productive one for hunters and anglers. Together, our community succeeded in passing legislation to digitize and map public land access, provide landowners with tools to address our changing climate, invest in Everglades restoration, and, most recently, address the increasing spread of chronic wasting disease.
The 118th Congress is now underway, with narrow majorities in both the House and Senate and a considerable workload in the coming year. Fortunately, conservation issues have a way of garnering bipartisan agreement—a necessity as Congress takes up landmark legislation like the 2023 Farm Bill. The TRCP and our partners look forward to working with both sides of the aisle to advance conservation solutions in the coming months.
Here’s what’s at the top of our list for habitat and access in 2023.
Investing in Landowner-Led Conservation
Providing over $6 billion each year for voluntary, incentive-based conservation, the Farm Bill is the biggest piece of legislation impacting fish and wildlife in the U.S. Congress crafts a new Farm Bill every five years, and with the last bill expiring in September, 2023 is when decisions will be made that shape habitat on private lands for half a decade.
That is why the TRCP and our partner groups have been hard at work over the past several months to develop a comprehensive platform for what hunters and anglers would like to see in the 2023 bill.
This includes tripling investment in the popular Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which provides dollars directly to state agencies to expand local walk-in hunting access opportunities by working with willing landowners. VPA-HIP provides a significant return on investment, with $5.20 in economic activity for every dollar invested in the program. That supports not just the landowners that choose to enroll, but also local businesses like game processors, diners, motels, gas stations, and more. The access, of course, is a boon for sportsmen and sportswomen, particularly in states where there are few public lands. In fact, when polled, nearly 60 percent of hunters in Illinois said that the land made available through the Illinois Recreational Access Program was the only huntable acreage accessible to them.
Beyond VPA-HIP, hunters and anglers are looking to lawmakers to improve the Conservation Reserve Program to ensure it remains a premier tool for habitat conservation, prioritize the enrollment of conservation easements to keep working lands and their habitats in place, and ensure that wildlife remain a co-equal focus of USDA conservation programs as climate mitigation becomes a growing priority in agriculture.
Outside of the Farm Bill, the North American Grasslands Conservation Act, which mirrors the successful landowner-led model of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, remains our best opportunity to curb the rapid depletion of our nation’s most imperiled ecosystem.
Improving Recreation Opportunities on Public Lands
As lawmakers negotiated an end-of-year funding deal in late 2022, a proposed package of recreation and public lands bills wound up on the cutting room floor and should receive top billing in 2023.
This starts with the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act, a bipartisan package of bills developed by Senators Manchin and Barrasso to enhance recreation opportunities on public lands. Included are bills directing the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to expand access to shooting ranges and complete road-use planning on their lands. Other bills would streamline permitting processes for guides and outfitters, limit the spread of invasive species, support gateway communities, and make it easier for outdoorsmen and women to experience our vast public lands.
In addition to the recreation-focused legislation, there are several locally developed land management changes and protections for top-notch hunting and fishing destinations like Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands, Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, and Colorado’s Thompson Divide. While some of these bills have been on the table for years, they could see renewed attention in the Senate.
The TRCP has remained engaged in these conversations and continues to work alongside Republicans and Democrats to advance these and other proposals to improve access and conserve one-of-a-kind habitat. Our community is confident in the ability of Congress to unite around these sensible natural resource policies, as they’ve proven able to do so through passage of legislation like the Great American Outdoors Act, America’s Conservation Enhancement Act, and John D. Dingell Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act in recent years.
Providing Necessary Resources for State Wildlife Management
For more than a century, sportsmen and sportswomen have led the charge on new ways to invest in fish and wildlife habitat. That leadership role continues in 2023 as we look for a way to pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, landmark legislation that would provide $1.4 billion annually in dedicated funding to state wildlife agencies to conserve species of greatest concern. Not only would this new funding restore habitat and benefit hunters and anglers, it would also keep those species from being listed under the Endangered Species Act, minimizing untold costs to the energy industry, developers, and small businesses.
The RAWA was widely celebrated, enjoyed broad bipartisan support, and nearly made it to the finish line in 2022. Now, its base of support is greater than ever before. Hunters, anglers, conservationists, recreators, landowners, and business owners agree on the importance of passing RAWA. While the path is never easy, the TRCP and our partners will be working to expand congressional support, secure approval in the House Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and send RAWA to the president’s desk in the 118th Congress.
Accelerating Conservation and Restoration Projects
We’re expecting Congress to consider legislation to improve project approvals—especially for energy development, mining, and other infrastructure projects—early in 2023. It may be a surprise to some that challenges with permitting and approvals don’t only slow down development projects, but also the stream and wetland restoration, forest health, and other environmentally beneficial projects. Costly and often redundant planning processes discourage local partners from participating and result in wasted time and energy while federal funds remained locked up with the agencies, rather than benefitting fish and wildlife.
Additionally, when it comes to improving mining and renewable energy development on public lands, hunters and anglers have long fought for bipartisan solutions like the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act and Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act. PLREDA, for example, would balance renewable energy development and habitat needs, while funding for fish and wildlife conservation projects. The Good Samaritan legislation would reduce existing barriers to abandoned hard rock mine cleanup, making it easier for local partners to help improve water quality and habitat.
Accelerating conservation and restoration projects will ensure that the funds made available by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and other recent legislative successes touch down on the landscape. In the year ahead, the TRCP will be engaged on both sides of the aisle, bringing conservation and habitat restoration priorities to the permitting conversation taking place in Congress.
For more information, and to take action in support of these critical conservation priorities in the year ahead, visit the TRCP Action Center. To follow important conservation legislation as it makes its way through Congress, follow @theTRCP on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Top photo by Aaron James.