Farmers Might Be Breaking a Conservation Compact, But We Wouldn’t Actually Know

Turns out that botched implementation of the USDA’s conservation compliance program goes deeper than we thought, says internal watchdog report

Earlier this spring, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General—an internal watchdog for the agency that oversees the conservation programs funded through the Farm Bill—quietly issued an interim report that indicated USDA isn’t doing enough to guarantee that, in exchange for federal support payments, farmers are meeting a minimal threshold for avoiding environmental harm. The report isn’t exactly a page-turner (we broke it down for you here in May), but there could be serious consequences for wildlife habitat and water quality as a result of the USDA dropping the ball.

Now, the OIG has come out with a sequel to their initial report and, like so many summer blockbusters, it’s even worse than the original.

On a very basic level, here’s what you need to know: Compliance creates a conservation compact between taxpayers and agricultural producers. Farmers who use government programs to help manage risk and grow their operations must also affirm that they have not planted crops in wetlands or on highly erodible land.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

The OIG’s interim report in March outlined a serious problem with compliance enforcement between 2012 and 2015. The data the agency was supposed to be using to conduct random compliance checks on farmers was incomplete, and many thousands of farmers who had received payments weren’t considered for review during those four years. In fact, in 2015, not a single farmer from ten major agricultural states was on the list to be checked for compliance. So, the areas in greatest need of monitoring for wetland drainage and soil erosion managed to receive the least attention.

This is an inexcusable lapse in enforcement by a federal agency, and thankfully the USDA has begun to take steps to correct the problem. Sources there have told us that they have followed the recommendations of the OIG, and revised procedures are now in place which guarantee that more than two million records, across all states, will be subject to on-site agency reviews. This is great news, but the story doesn’t end here.

Part two of the OIG’s report now reveals that the USDA’s mismanagement of compliance goes beyond a botched data pull. Here’s what else has been going wrong:

The USDA does not have consistent national standards for compliance checks. Farmers in different states—sometimes in different counties in the same state—have been subject to varying levels of scrutiny, and it’s not even clear which field conditions are considered compliance issues. Further, the national quality control processes set up to check the accuracy of the compliance reviews are also applied with varying degrees of consistency across states.

The compliance checks that did get done were incomplete or improper. OIG found that agency staff sometimes stopped their field reviews after identifying a single violation, potentially missing other violations elsewhere on the property. The agency even failed to properly conduct site visits for its own employees who receive farm payments. The watchdog report notes that the agency needs to clarify the rules specific to USDA employees to ensure fair and consistent treatment of all producers.

Field staff don’t know how to proceed when maps and field conditions are inconsistent. Staff who conduct compliance checks rely heavily on wetland inventory maps, which are over 25 years old, despite knowing that these maps often don’t reflect the current size or location of wetlands. You know, as of 2016. As a result, staff frequently check only the previously-identified wetlands for compliance, ignoring national guidance to survey entire tracts for violations. Moreover, national and state officials have incompatible ideas about whether and when staff should offer updates to the maps to reflect actual conditions in the field.

 

Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

Oh, and more data is missing than they thought. In addition to the data issues noted in the interim report, OIG found that the agency missed 325,000 additional records when it compiled its data for 2015 compliance reviews, because of an error tracking county codes. The agency also incorrectly exempted tens of thousands of acres from review, in cases where individual producers farm in multiple areas.

The agency has agreed with OIG’s recommendations, and has committed to corrective action by the end of 2016. But the fact remains that conservation compliance, as currently executed, may not be able to guarantee equal treatment of the farmers who are required to follow the wetland and highly erodible land provisions. It doesn’t seem to guarantee a successful compliance program to the American taxpayer, either.

USDA pays producers about $14 billion per year through farm programs that are subject to compliance, but those payments may go to agricultural producers who have—knowingly or not—violated their end of the bargain. This is a bad deal for farmers, taxpayers, and sportsmen-conservationists who have invested in working lands conservation and deserve plentiful habitat and clean water in return.

A Tour of Grey Towers and the Two Men Who Became Icons of Modern-Day Forestry

On a recent trip to the home of Gifford Pinchot, our conservation policy intern was surprised to learn an intriguing lesson about another conservation visionary—Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was a champion of fish and wildlife conservation because he was a champion of public lands. While TR might be most famous for adding five national parks and a big chunk of Yosemite to our public lands system, more than half of the 230 million acres that he conserved during his presidency was given to the U.S. Forest Service, an agency he created in 1905. He entrusted this land to Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service and a member of TR’s Boone and Crockett Club.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Pinchot’s home in Milford, Pennsylvania, and learn a little bit more about him, the Forest Service, and TRCP’s namesake. It turns out that the two founding fathers of conservation were close friends. Roosevelt even introduced Pinchot to his wife Cornelia.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

Considering the role that Pinchot wound up playing in the conservation of U.S. forests, it’s ironic that his family fortune was made in the logging business. His grandfather profited from a time when it was common to purchase and clear-cut forests with no regard for the long-term health of the land. In his career as a forester, Gifford Pinchot felt a deep responsibility for correcting this misuse.

Like many of us, he grew up with an affinity for the outdoors, and his father encouraged him to turn that passion into a career. The Pinchot family even created an endowment at the Yale School of Forestry—which held summer field classes at Grey Towers, the family estate—to help future generations discover the values of the outdoor lifestyle.

Grey Towers was built in the 1880s and donated to the Forest Service in 1963. The partnership between Roosevelt and Pinchot created an agency that now manages 193 million acres of public land. Their understandings of conservation lead the Service to view forest management as “protecting lands against overgrazing, controlling and combating fire, protecting fish and game, and providing public recreation.” Proper natural resource management has kept our national forests open for public enjoyment for more than a hundred years.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

I couldn’t help but think about all the recreational opportunities we are privileged to access because of the foresight of these two men. And what they might say about the current conversation around giving up our public lands.

I think it might go a little something like this: “Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Shannon Fagan is the TRCP summer intern through the Demmer Scholar Program. She is going into her senior year at Michigan State University where she is majoring in Social Relations and Policy and minoring in Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy.

The Fisheries Crisis Just Down the Road from the Largest Sportfishing Trade Show on Earth

While innovation was on display in Orlando, devastation wasn’t far from anyone’s thoughts

Last week’s ICAST show brought more fishing industry brands, buyers, and broadcasters to Orlando than ever before. But in a time of great prosperity for our sports nationwide, there’s a water quality crisis of epic proportions in Florida.

This is why, on day two of our Saltwater Media Summit at ICAST, the TRCP brought together the scientists, researchers, conservation leaders, businesses, and fishermen who are stepping up to figure out what Florida needs to do both short and long term to solve water pollution on the coast lines and restore the Everglades. As our Marine Fisheries Director Chris Macaluso said in welcoming the crowd of over 80 reporters, partners, and interested show attendees, it is an emotional, complex issue, and we all know that we want to do something to protect Florida’s waters wildlife and people. The trick is figuring out how to throw our weight behind the same plan to sway lawmakers and save Florida’s coast and the Everglades.

Image courtesy of TRCP.

Costa’s Al Perkinson, vice president of marketing for the influential sunglasses-maker and lifestyle brand, set the stage for the issue by debuting an emotional video about the impact of development on Florida’s fisheries and the Everglades. The centerpiece of Costa’s #fixFlorida campaign, the video is narrated by angler, guide, and TV host Flip Pallot.

Dr. Steven Davis, a wetlands biologist with the Everglades Foundation, led off with a breakdown of exactly what’s causing this crisis. He explained that the areas in and adjacent to the Everglades and Florida Keys generate nearly $2 billion from saltwater angling, but much of that economic activity is being threatened by the mishandling of freshwater from the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Water that once moved south through the Everglades is now being moved via man-made canals and locks to the east, down the St. Lucie River, and to the west through the Caloosahatchee River. This is leading to fish kills, algae blooms, and thousands of lost fishing opportunities on both the west and east coastlines of Florida.

While those brackish and saltwater areas are being inundated with unnatural freshwater flows, Florida Bay, on the southern end of the Everglades, isn’t getting enough freshwater, and unnaturally high salinity levels are killing seagrass beds and other vital habitat while causing additional algae blooms. Poor water management issues are being compounded by the presence of excessive nutrients traced back to aging septic systems and farm runoff from cattle ranches and sugar cane fields.

Without long-term action to address these issues and restore habitat, many of South Florida’s most popular fishing areas face a bleak future. But Davis pointed out that two comprehensive restoration plans do exist: One is incrementally being shepherded by the state and one still requires Congressional approval to get off the ground.

Image courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“There is a comprehensive plan already under way, with a lot of components closer to completion and others ready to come online soon,” said Kellie Ralston, the Florida fishery policy director for the American Sportfishing Association. “But the plan is looking at 30 years—that’s too long. And the 50-50 split between federal and state agencies tends to slow the process down. We need to fast-track these projects and work collectively as a group. With a conservation plan waiting to be authorized by Congress, that’s something we can focus on.”

And the grassroots support is certainly there—Captains for Clean Water helped introduce the #NowOrNeverglades declaration of support for conservation and funding just a week before ICAST, and Capt. Daniel Andrews says they already have more than 13,000 signers and 200 organizations backing it. “We formed Captains for Clean Water because a lot of people were angry, but didn’t know what they could do,” said Andrews, who also showed a video that the group produced with hook manufacturer Mustad. “I grew up in South Florida, fished Florida Bay and the Caloosahatchee, and I’d seen the destruction firsthand. This is degrading the river that made me want to become a fishing guide. That’s why we want to get companies and individuals together and be part of a solution.”

There’s no research left to be done, added Dr. Aaron Adams, director of science and conservation for the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. “It’s a statement you’ll rarely hear a scientist make, but we don’t need more data,” said Adams. “When it comes to fixing Florida’s water problem, we have actionable knowledge. It’s a political and economic issue at this point.” He explained that time is of the essence, because a lot of the affected habitat is already at a deficit: 50 percent of the area’s mangroves and 9 million acres of wetlands are already gone. “The assembly line that creates healthy habitat is already weakened,” Adams said, adding that restoration can’t begin until the water quality, flows, and storage issues are addressed. “It’s like giving a lung transplant to someone who refuses to quit smoking. If we’re going to preserve Florida as the sportfishing capital of the world, we need to fix the hydrology, reduce contaminated inputs, and then talk about restoring habitat.”

Here’s what needs to happen now:

  • Plans to restore water flows and improve habitat—known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project, or CERP—need to be adequately funded and implemented, as promised.
  • The Central Everglades Planning Project needs to be fast-tracked.
  • Conservation dollars approved by Florida voters need to be used to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee, which has already been identified, to create reservoirs for storing and cleaning water.
  • We need to develop comprehensive strategies to reduce the amount of nutrients in the freshwater entering the estuaries—this includes curbing sewerage, septic leakage, and excessive fertilizer use.
  • Natural freshwater flows, taking into account the time of year and how much water is flowing, need to be restored.
  • Marshes must be restored to filter nutrients from the freshwater that is entering estuaries.

With the momentum of ICAST behind us, the TRCP is joining this coalition of engaged and enthusiastic sportsmen working to improve the Lake Okeechobee Basin. We recently hired our first-ever Florida field representative, Ed Tamson, to roll up his sleeves and work alongside the sportfishing partners, conservation leaders, grassroots advocates, and state and federal agencies trying to restore Florida’s fisheries. We welcome our new colleague Ed, and the challenge of collaborating with many different stakeholders to improve the water quality on the east and west coasts of Florida and restore the Everglades to its former glory.

Meet Our First #PublicLandsProud Contest Judge: Marty Sheppard

Marty Sheppard is a fishing guide in Maupin, Oregon possessing an almost missionary zeal for teaching others and sharing in the pure joy of rivers. Born and raised in Oregon, Marty grew up on the banks of the Sandy River, spending much of his time devouring books, especially those written by such notable and insightful naturalists as Roderick Haig-Brown and Bill McMillan. Marty is the proud husband of three -time World Champion Spey Caster, Mia Sheppard, who is also the Oregon Field Representative for TRCP and father to a spunky little fly fisher girl, Tegan. In 2003, they purchased Little Creek Outfitters, a fly-fishing guide service on some of Oregon’s best rivers. As ardent public land users who depend on continued ability to access rivers and backcountry areas, the Sheppards understand first-hand the wide-reaching economic benefits to individuals, as well as local communities, who rely on outdoor opportunities.

Image courtesy of Marty Sheppard.

From now through July 31, Marty is guest judging your best summer fun on public lands photos for this round of the #PublicLandsProud photo contest. He’s looking for a winning photo that calls the viewer into the moment, so make sure your summer fun moment beckons! And watch the TRCP Instagram account this week too, as Marty will be taking over our account and giving us a glimpse into his life on public lands.

TRCP: So, Marty, how do you like to spend your time outside?

Marty: What makes me happy is that I have the freedom to explore. Without public lands, this would be extremely limited. I am thankful to have the ability to hunt, fish, hike, and investigate such beautiful places.

Image courtesy of Marty Sheppard.

TRCP: What makes a great photo of a summer day spent on public lands? What will you be looking for in the winning photo?

Marty: I am a huge fan of capturing light at the appropriate time. This is what makes a good photograph for me. Combine that with an activity, or more specifically, a sportsman-themed endeavor and we will have a winner!

TRCP: What makes you #PublicLandsProud?

Marty: I am proud to live in a place with the opportunity to roam on public land. I am proud to have representation from groups like TRCP, who has my back in protecting the heritage of access to these special places. I am proud to be a husband, dad, and business owner who puts public lands as a high priority in shaping our lives. I am #PublicLandsProud

Show us your #PublicLandsProud moment and you could be featured on our blog and win a #PublicLandsProud prize package. It includes a new pair of Costa sunglasses, a copy of Steven Rinella’s new book, The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game, a Simms TRCP-branded hat, a First Lite merino wool neck gaiter, TRCP/Sitka-branded YETI rambler tumbler, Orvis fishing shirt, and Bantam buck knife. 

This Could Be the Future of Federal Fisheries Management

Coalition reveals the findings from a series of workshops on alternative solutions for federal fisheries

Today at ICAST, the world’s largest sportfishing trade show, recreational fishing and conservation group leaders revealed the preliminary findings from a series of collaborative workshops on alternative approaches to federal fisheries management.

The same broad coalition behind the 2014 landmark report on recreational fisheries management worked closely with NOAA Fisheries, state game and fish managers, biologists, and researchers to identify ways to revise the current approach. Right now, federal fisheries managers set catch limits for both commercial and recreational sectors in a way that undervalues recreational fishermen and their $70-billion contribution to America’s economy. Innovative new solutions could give anglers more predictable seasons, boost conservation, and improve local economies in coastal communities and beyond.

Image courtesy of TRCP.

“Although recreational anglers only catch two percent of the total fish harvested in U.S. waters, we create almost as many jobs as the commercial fishing industry”—455,000 jobs, in fact, said Mike Nussman, president and CEO of the American Sportfishing Association, the trade group that produces the ICAST conference and events. This year’s is their biggest show yet, with 13,000 attendees walking a 650,000-square-foot showroom packed with close to 600 exhibitors—a perfect backdrop for a discussion of new ideas.

The first workshop, facilitated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Tampa this May, was geared towards identifying where existing federal fisheries management approaches fail to adequately accommodate the unique nature of recreational fisheries and specific ways to address these issues. The group discussed alternatives that are rooted in existing management practices currently used for fish and waterfowl at the state level, such as:

  • Managing for a harvest rate, rather than a quota that must be tracked in real time.
  • Spatial management, or allowing fishing out to certain depths or distances from shore, while making deeper waters off-limits to recreational harvest so brood stock can replenish.
  • Looking at temporary and long-term allocation shifts between the recreational and commercial sectors, which might include shifting some species from recreational to commercial allocation and others from commercial to recreational.
  • Developing new programs to gather better recreational harvest data or take advantage of existing voluntary harvest data.
  • Reducing release mortality with new technology or better education on existing tools.

These initial conclusions were presented to congressional staff and representatives of the environmental community at a second workshop this June in Washington D.C. The group also discussed the potential legislative and regulatory changes needed to achieve these possible alternatives. Some solutions possibly require changes to the existing federal fisheries law, but others could be addressed through collaboration with NOAA Fisheries.

Image courtesy of TRCP.

“When the Magnuson-Stevens Act was written 40 years ago, recreational fishing was an afterthought in the statute, and it is unlikely that this Congress will get around to discussing reauthorization,” a process that might allow for beneficial updates, said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation. “But we’ve found friends at NOAA who are trying to help. There are things that can be done by an agency that’s willing to look at things a little differently.”

Russ Dunn, the national policy advisor on recreational fisheries at NOAA, added that the agency is currently addressing each of the six recommendations from the coalition’s 2014 report. “It’s undeniable that NOAA Fisheries is more receptive to recreational fishing now than at any other time in its history,” he said.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and its sportfishing partners are committed to working within each region and with each fisheries council to determine ways to implement new innovative approaches to federal fisheries management, and conservation leaders are calling for collaborative effort from state partners and the public. “Using a commercial fishing paradigm to manage recreational fisheries is holding back our economy, and nasty fights on issues like red snapper keep anglers from engaging on critical national conservation fights, like state takeover of our federal public lands,” said Whit Fosburgh, TRCP president and CEO. “With NOAA’s renewed commitment to recreational anglers, there’s a lot we can do.”

Picture This Crowd of Gear-Hungry Anglers When You Think of the Outdoor Recreation Economy

Weave your way through the crowd at ICAST and then try to tell us that recreational anglers don’t represent some serious spending power

It’s still common in Washington, D.C., to hear lawmakers dismiss the power of the outdoor recreation economy. You and I know that $646-billion figure by heart, and repeat it often, but more stubborn than facts is the belief that the extractive industries create well-paying jobs, while hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, mountain biking, and the hundreds of other activities that Americans pursue in the great outdoors supposedly prop up just a few fast food and convenience store chains.

The extractive industries do create good jobs, and we at TRCP believe, like Theodore Roosevelt himself, that “conservation means development as much as it does protection.” The keys are balance, science, and planning. But there are flat-landers who still can’t grasp that the outdoor economy employs over six million Americans—that’s right, more than the oil and gas and real estate industries combined.

Image courtesy of TRCP.

I challenge them to come to ICAST. This is the world’s largest sportfishing trade show. Put on by our friends at the American Sportfishing Association, this year’s show features 600 exhibitors on 650,000 square feet of floor space showing off some of the most innovative American companies in any industry.

Didn’t know you needed a Yeti Rambler Lowball? Poor soul. How else can you enjoy your bourbon on the river this summer? And when you buy it, you can take comfort in knowing you are supporting a great Austin company that manufactures its Tundra coolers in Iowa and Wisconsin.

Always wanted to try fly fishing? Simms is here showcasing their newest gear, from waders to sandals to shirts. Simms manufactures all of its waders in Bozeman, Montana, where they just expanded their manufacturing and shipping center by 14,000 square feet and will add 27 new jobs this year.

Image courtesy of TRCP.

Fishing, hunting, and getting the next generation of Americans outdoors is big business. Even while the broader economy tanked during the great recession, the outdoor industry grew by 5 percent annually. Because who can walk out of their local Bass Pro Shops (a company that employs 20,000 people nationally, by the way) without a little something?

At ICAST this week, we’ll get the chance to meet the entrepreneurs responsible for creating great products that make it more fun to go fishing. But they are also creating thousands of jobs in communities across the country.

This is what I hope we can make our lawmakers understand.

Rob, the Henry’s Fork, and the So-Good, Very Bad Day

A memorable day on the iconic river cost our Idaho field rep his gear, his cell phone, and his dignity, but it was still a day on the water

Sometimes a day in the woods is all about fighting through the challenges. Thrilled to be free from chores on a recent Sunday, I decided to go fishing. I had no inkling I was in for a memorable day, for something other than trout.

Green drakes hatch each June on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in Idaho. Anglers from around the world descend on the famed river, hoping for a chance to see huge fish cruise the clear water and destroy unsuspecting bugs. I am lucky to live within an hour of this public jewel, and as I drove north I planned my attack: I’d start at Seeley’s and visit the backwaters before returning home for dinner. It was the perfect plan for a fishing addict. As always, expectations were high and thoughts centered on success. Sure, there is always a chance that Mother Nature will rule the day, but optimism always reigns.

The day, however, quickly took a troubling turn.

Image courtesy of Scott Butner.

My first three fishing spots were filled with people. Seeley’s was choked with four anglers in a section of river built for two. On the backwaters, fishermen looked like picket fences on both sides of the river. Undaunted, I headed upriver in search of a solitary spot, laughing at my optimistic belief that I’d have the river to myself. Upon reflection, I should have returned home to fish another day, but I was too gripped by the fly-fishing fever.

The beauty of fishing public water? I can go anywhere, anytime. The challenge, at times? So can everyone else.

It wasn’t a good start, but I have spent more than 25 years on the Henry’s Fork and I had backup plans for my backup plans. I decided to hike about a mile downstream to a little reach that is too far to venture for most foot-bound anglers.

As I dropped off the sagebrush flat, I rejoiced because it appeared my spot was empty.  My excitement was brief. As I went to step on a riverside rock, I noticed a guide boat and two anglers tucked into a back eddy, largely hidden from view. Maybe I was rushing. Maybe it was the sight of other anglers. Whatever the case, at that time I stepped on a wobbly rock, which lurched to the left and bucked me face first into a mud bog dotted with cow patties.

As I spit muck from my mouth, the anglers watched in bemusement. An older lady started to offer help, but her husband chided her for leaving rising fish to help some stranger. The guide just shook his head.

Undaunted, but a tad embarrassed, I washed off in the river and listened to the woman’s advice on safe wading. I didn’t have the courage to point out that I fell walking, not wading.

As I scooped mud from my waders, I moved to my fifth choice for fishing and finally found a spot to myself. I caught fish and generally had a ball. My troubles seemed to be resolved.

On my return to the truck, I spied a nice fish feeding near the bank, not 20 yards from my earlier dive into the muck. But I rushed my cast and hooked the highest branch on a tree behind me. To retrieve my bug, I had to scramble up a rather large boulder and lean into the tree, stretching awkwardly over another rock. At exactly the wrong time, a branch broke and I tumbled. I bounced off two rocks and fell face first again, this time into the river.

To the applause of downstream anglers—who again wouldn’t leave rising fish to bother with me—I did an almost perfect belly flop.

Having already broken one rod this spring, my four-piece loaner rod was now a seven-piece. My hat floated downstream and snagged on a rock. My glasses sunk quickly to the bottom. My phone went swimming too. Actually, it seemed to float like a feather to the river’s bottom. After resting the phone in rice for 24 hours, in the hopes that it would miraculously pull through, I had to replace it.

My attempt to rescue a $1.78 fly caused more than $1,000 in damage, plus my humility.

Bemused by the arc of the day, I spilled water out of my waders and hung my shirt in the tree to dry. I didn’t know what to do, worried that given the clear course of the day I’d take myself out of gene pool with any sudden movement.

Image courtesy of Rob Thornberry.

Still, the fish that kicked off the whole belly flop escapade kept rising, taunting me. I stomached the urge to throw all my gear at the trout and used six of the seven broken rod pieces to MacGyver myself a new rig. What was once nine feet now stood at a little less than seven.

I tied on my second best fly—the first remained lost in the riverside bramble—and made a cast at the lunker. And, as if launched out of a cannon, the fish devoured my imitation. I set the hook and then promptly broke the 5x tippet.

Cursed again.

We all love the outdoors and dream of the days when it all comes together, whether it is a deer within range or a fish on the line. On this particular outing, however, I got nothing but scrapes, bruises, and an uncontrollable urge to brush my teeth.

Defeated, I headed home. Yet another memorable trip into the woods was under my belt.

Glassing the Hill: July 11 – 15

The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress

The Senate and House are both in session this week. They will return on Tuesday, September 6.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

This is the last week before a lawmakers leave for a seven-week recess, and they are concentrating on appropriation bills. On Monday, the House Rules Committee will vote on “The Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.” They will consider more than 150 amendments to it, including one that would prohibit the Land and Water Conservation Fund from being used in wetland restoration projects, and decide what will be considered on the House floor. All amendments that have been filed to the Interior bill can be found here. The underlying bill includes other poison pill provisions, such as blocking the administration’s Clean Water Rule, halting federal and state governments’ collaborative efforts to conserve greater sage-grouse habitat, and a 90-day delay on the implementation of the Bureau of Land Management’s Planning 2.0 Rule.

Meanwhile, Senate leadership continues to clash on spending bills. Last week, the defense appropriations bill did not reach the 60-vote threshold needed to invoke cloture. Democrats failed to support cloture because the bill breaks the bipartisan budget agreement from October 2015, and because Democrats have long pledged to oppose a defense funding measure that had increases for military spending, without equal increases in domestic funding. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is expected to bring the defense spending bill back to the floor for another go-round this week.

Leadership hoped to pass all 12 appropriation bills before members leave for the seven-week recess and prepare for their respective national party conventions. However, more and more lawmakers believe a continuing resolution will need to be passed before September 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Public land renewable energy development is up for discussion on Wednesday. The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will meet to discuss Rep. Paul Gosar’s (R-Ariz.) “Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act,” which would provide modern approaches to energy development and conserving fish and wildlife habitat on public lands.

Steve Moyer, Trout Unlimited’s vice president for government affairs, will testify on behalf of the sportsmen’s community and our support for the bill.

Other legislation on the floor include a bill that would extend the authorization of the Federal Aviation Administration programs; the Senate bill that would require genetically modified food to be labelled; a bill that would address the concerns about health care providers offering abortion services.

The Senate will consider a House passed bill that would combat the opioid epidemic.

What else we’re tracking:

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

  • Public lands legislation will be discussed in at Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee markup hearing
  • Changing demands and water supply uncertainty in California are up for debate in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans hearing
  • Opportunities and challenges of developing the Mancos Shale resource will be discussed in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing
  • The Securing Energy Infrastructure Act will be discussed at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing
  • Conservation-related legislation is on the docket at a House Natural Resources Committee full committee markup

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

  • The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act will be debated at a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy oversight hearing
  • The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act of 2015 will be the subject of a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing

Thursday, July 14, 2016

  • The Status of Ivanpah and Other Federal Loan-Guaranteed Solar Energy Projects on BLM Lands will be deliberated at a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing

Nevada’s Desert Bighorns and How Ewe Can Protect Them

TRCP’s Nevada Field Representative goes back on a promise to himself, for the sake of the sheep

The Carson City BLM district holds some of the best desert bighorn populations in Nevada today. Because of the efforts of sportsmen working with Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), this area is now home to more than 2,400 desert bighorns, and this year, 83 lucky hunters will be hunting rams in this part of the state. More than 350 rams have been taken by hunters in the Carson City district in the last decade—just imagine all those stories filtering down to 350 sets of grandkids, who are raring to get outside and hunt!

Image courtesy of Carl Erquiaga.

With a little extra effort from the BLM, plus conservation-minded volunteers and advocates, wildlife can continue to thrive for this new generation of hunters. That’s why I recently found myself doing something that I said I would never do again—building fences.

I grew up on a ranch and spent plenty of days unrolling and stretching barbed wire in the hot Nevada sun. They’re not exactly part of my happiest memories outdoors, but wildlife fences could have been responsible for a few hunts that were. The livelihood of our wild bighorn sheep depends on barriers that keep wild bighorns away from domestic sheep, which carry diseases the bighorns aren’t resistant to. I recently volunteered to build a fence between some private property and a two public hunting units that hold some amazing sheep—also thanks to sportsmen.

The Excelsior Mountain Range in Nevada’s Mineral County has been the focus of NDOW’s program to re-establish bighorns since the 1980s. Natural water is lacking in these arid mountains, so there has been an ongoing water development effort parallel to the release of these sheep. More than a dozen guzzlers were funded by sportsmen’s dollars and built with nearly all volunteer manpower, particularly by groups like Nevada Bighorns Unlimited (NBU) and Mineral County Sportsmen. As a result, the current population estimate for bighorn sheep in units 206 and 208 is more than 300 animals.

Image courtesy of Carl Erquiaga.

The most recent release of bighorns was carried out in Garfield Hills on the northern edge of these units this January. These were pregnant ewes that are being followed as part of a doctorate research project focused on desert bighorn lamb recruitment and resource selection during the lambing period. There is hope that this research will provide greater insight into causes of pre-winter mortality in lambs and the effects of translocation on lambing activities.

As wild sheep often do, some of these recently released ewes are developing an affinity for the part of the Garfield Hills near the private property and its farm flock. To address these concerns, NBU offered to provide the materials and manpower to strengthen the property owner’s fence and rebuild sections that were in disrepair. Discussions are also taking place to secure an easement and build a second fence inside the private property, parallel to the existing one, to provide a buffer zone and hopefully prevent nose-to-nose contact between the wild and domestic herds.

My involvement with NBU spans nearly 30 years, and in that time I have volunteered on many water developments, including some in this hunting unit. When the call for volunteers went out to repair this fence, I put aside my disdain for handling barbed wire and made the two-hour drive on a Saturday morning in March. There, I met many familiar volunteers, plus some new faces who were eager to help. After a long hot day, we were even treated to a steak dinner, so everyone went home with full bellies, knowing we’d made a difference.

Image courtesy of Carl Erquiaga.

When I’m trying to paint a picture of a special place, one with a conservation success story that’s worth doing some work to improve or preserve, I think of the Excelsiors and those bighorns. The area holds large expanses of intact habitat that needs to be protected and could be enhanced through active management practices, such as continued water development and protection, pinion-juniper removal, and management of the feral horse and burro populations.

As active as Nevada sportsmen have been in bighorn releases, raising funding for conservation, erecting wildlife watering structures, and, yes, building fences, we need to be just as active about urging the BLM to manage these special places with the best tools available.

Backcountry Wildlife Conservation Areas (BWCA) are new tools at the agency’s disposal, and there’s an opportunity to apply this management concept on at least200,000 acresin the Excelsior Range and the Gabbs Valley Ranges, as well as in other high-value habitat. Conservation of intact backcountry areas is needed to maintain the hunting opportunities that are found there today. And every hunter’s voice matters. Contact the Carson City BLM district and state BLM Director John Ruhs and let them know you want to see these areas included as BWCAs in the final Resource Management Plan for the area.

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While Forest Service Chases Down Wildfires, the Solution Gets Away From Us

TRCP’s new communications and operations associate grew up in wildfire country—now in D.C., she’s experiencing the impacts of fire in a completely different way

It was 4am on a school night when I woke up to sirens wailing in the streets. Firefighters were shouting into megaphones, informing us that our neighborhood was being evacuated. I couldn’t even finish brushing my teeth before first-responders were knocking on our door, making sure we were awake and on our way out. My family had already packed our SUV full of photo albums, social security cards, and sentimental odds and ends, so we piled in and headed across town to my aunt and uncle’s house.

Image courtesy of Anthony Citrano/Flickr.

Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, we didn’t really have winter, spring, or autumn. We didn’t have tornadoes, hurricanes, or blizzards. We had TV pilot season—and we had wildfires.

I still remember hiking around my old neighborhood and stumbling upon the last line of fire—that charred boundary between the thriving chaparral and its blackened mirror-image. It was about a quarter-mile from my house, and just a few hundred yards from a friend’s. It was jarring to see how close we were to the flames. Though I never lost my home to fire, I knew people who did. Last month a single wildfire in California took two lives and more than 250 homes.

Our wildfire epidemic has always felt personal to me, but now that I live in Washington, D.C., safely removed from immediate danger, I’m realizing that we all feel the burn—and the enormous costs—of fire suppression.

The U.S. Forest Service’s budgetary allocation for wildfire management has been soaring, siphoning money away from critical activities such as wildlife and fisheries habitat management. Meanwhile, the Service’s maintenance backlog has exceeded $5 billion. That’s because over half of the Service’s budget is now dedicated to wildfire management—up from 16 percent in 1995.

Even the remaining 48 percent of the budget, the portion not dedicated to wildfire management, isn’t secure, because “fire-borrowing” is crippling non-fire programs. Essentially, when firefighting costs exceed what’s been budgeted, the Service is forced to dip into other unrelated program budgets and spend cash meant for habitat restoration, water quality improvements, and new public access points for hunters and anglers.

Image courtesy of Kansas Sebastian/Flickr.

The result of all of this is dramatic—instead of investing in preventative measures that benefit forest health, as well as suppression and rehabilitation efforts, we’re scrambling to control the damage as it’s happening. We’re chasing the problem down, instead of getting in front of it.

Living here in our nation’s capital, my relationship with wildfire has changed. I’m no longer worried about my house burning down, but I’m worried about the wild places that are at home in my heart and memories—the lands we all inherited from Theodore Roosevelt that are full of trees and wildlife and unrelenting beauty.

So, no, it’s not just the people within view of the fire line who should be paying attention to this problem. We need a wildfire funding fix, and we need it soon.

Here’s a possible solution.