Dan Ashe’s Manifesto: It’s a Make-or-Break Moment in Conservation History

In his stirring remarks to conservation leaders and journalists attending our 14th annual Western Media Summit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director challenges us to stay optimistic, fix dysfunction, and keep fish and wildlife issues relevant

It’s an honor for me to speak to you at what is truly a make-or-break moment in conservation history.

Image courtesy of TRCP.

I’m going to cover three topics: First, and briefly, the nature of the challenge we face today, and will increasingly face tomorrow. Second, the growing dysfunction in the conservation community. Third, a specific part, or symptom, of that dysfunction – the growing irrelevancy of conservation.

Many of you have heard me say this: Our challenge in conserving wild creatures is human ecology. The Earth’s population continues to grow. Today, we share the planet with 7.3 billion others of our species. By mid-century, we will be approaching 10 billion. And it’s not just our growing numbers, but our expanding affluence.

The world’s population is growing to be more like us, and increasing its demands for access to things like electricity, education, transportation, and health care. These people will require more fuel, more fiber, and more food, and we will all consume more of the planet’s ecological space just to keep pace. Though we wish it were not so, that means less and less for the rest of what we collectively call biodiversity.

This exploding demand for resources is altering the biochemical processes of the planet. 2014 was the warmest year on record – until 2015. This year could eclipse even that record.

The evidence is all around us:

  • Scorching temperatures and rampant wildfires are bedeviling the southwest.
  • Record high temperatures were recorded in the Arctic in January and February—who would ever have imagined the now routine need to truck in snow for the Iditarod?
  • More than 90 percent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has experienced bleaching in the past several months.
  • PLUS: The great prairies of North America are in crisis. Asian carp assault the Great Lakes. Burmese pythons strangle the Everglades. Elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife are decimated by a global epidemic in trafficking. State and federal refuges in California (anchors of the Pacific Flyway) are starved of water. Mule deer are disappearing from large expanses of the West. Every native trout species is imperiled. Grassland birds are declining precipitously. And on, and on.

And yet, I don’t know if we’ve ever been less prepared, as a conservation community, to cope with these enormous challenges.

Image courtesy of TRCP.

And that’s a good transition to my second point. As a community, we have a significant and growing dysfunction. We seem to increasingly view ourselves as an island in a rising sea of change, seeking to armor ourselves against the momentous tides of transformation around us. We are reflexive, defensive, and increasingly angry at the growing proportion of the population that just doesn’t get it.

Easy things seem hard. Hard things seem impossible.

Case-in-point is what we call “The Sportsmen’s Bill”. And this is not a criticism of the Congressional sponsors, because they are responding to us. We are the problem. This is our dysfunction. Instead of marshalling our resources and asking for Congress’s support to confront these challenges, we ask Congress to address the import of 41 polar bear trophies, killed in 2008, all in the name of sportsmen.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund expires. But in the name of sportsmen, we ask Congress to exempt lead bullets from regulations in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), well-knowing that lead bullets are not being regulated by TSCA.

It’s a failure of imagination, vision, and unity that will continue to cost us, if we don’t address it.

Across the West, the very concept of public lands are under sustained assault from federal, state and local politicians and the special interests who fund them. The illegal occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year was just the latest escalation in an ongoing effort by armed extremists to intimidate public employees and keep them from doing their jobs.

I’ll pause here to thank the TRCP and its grassroots advocates. You stood with us during the occupation, and continue to advocate forcefully against the transfer and sale of public lands. We are enormously grateful for the support.

We need all the help we can get, because these ideologues are waging a relentless campaign to undermine the legitimacy of public lands, public resources, and wildlife held in trust for the public. They want the federal government to divest hundreds of millions of acres of public land—not for sportsmen or women—but for economic development, private use, and corporate profit.

They’re doing what we used to do so well. They’re playing the long game, and they are succeeding in their larger aim—to undercut public support and confuse the issue for voters.

The Malheur occupation didn’t occur in a vacuum. It happened because there are people, many of whom occupy positions of power and influence across the West, who share their values and beliefs, even if they recoil at their methods—for now.

Sadly, the public doesn’t seem to realize the stakes.

We’re heading into the heat of a pivotal election season, one that will likely determine the fate of those public lands and North America’s wildlife for years to come. We will need more strong voices during this election and beyond, as we see this cancer growing in Congress and state legislatures across the nation.

Which brings me to my third point. Conservation is increasingly irrelevant in today’s changing American society.

Relevance is the noun form of the adjective relevant, which means important to the matter at hand. To us—anglers, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts—and our predecessors, conservation has long been relevant, because it sustains the things we care about. The matters at hand. But fewer and fewer people are fishing, hunting, and spending time outdoors. More than eight in ten Americans live in urban and suburban environments. Urbanization is accelerating, and the nation will soon be made up of a majority of minorities.

You, me, our organizations, others in our profession and our community, we do not look like America. We do not think like America. How then can we even understand, let alone achieve, what is important to the matters at hand in a changing America?

This is a crisis for conservation. We simply must address it. We must change and change rapidly. And yes, change comes hard. But, as General Eric Shinsheki teaches us, If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less. We are seeing the early stages of the irrelevance of conservation.

So, we’re facing big challenges. Here’s what I believe we need to do:

  • We have to break out of the disciplinary silos that we have built and that have served us so well in the 20th century. We can’t do 21st century conservation if we see the world divided into fish, wildlife, range, and forestry. We have to unite these great disciplines and see conservation in a larger context, and design conservation on a larger scale.
  • We have to have zero tolerance for politicians, at all levels of government, who support divestiture of public lands. No candidate should be able to call themselves a sportsman unless they defend, loudly and at every turn, the benefits and importance of public land ownership and professional stewardship. It’s an election year, and we need a true Sportsmen’s Platform. Not platitudes about rights to hunt and fish. We need sportsmen to make it a priority to support—in every sense of the word—candidates who embody this platform. And to oppose those who do not. We need to support politicians who will stand up for clean air and water and protection of habitat, and stand behind the professional public servants—local, tribal, state, and federal—who dedicate their lives to conserving wild places and wild creatures.
  • We need a professional ethic that unites us as a community. President Ronald Reagan united his political party in the 1980s, and coined what he called the “Eleventh Amendment”: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican. We need our own Eleventh Amendment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow conservationist. Sure, we may disagree from time to time, but these need to be professional, courteous, and respectful differences of opinion. Those in our community who sow seeds of anger and adversity must meet with what Aldo Leopold called social disapproval. If we let these people divide us, and play us off each other, then we, and the resource we love, will lose. How can we expect the faith and confidence of the public if we do not reflect faith and confidence in one another?
  • We must diversify our organizations, our profession, and our community. This must be a collective priority. We need to set measureable goals and attain them. We can’t just welcome families and children from urban and diverse communities to the outdoors – we have to actively seek them out and make it easier for them to experience their natural heritage. We have to recruit them at a young age and expose them to careers in conservation.

The reality is that right now, we look in all the same places, we do what we have always done—and we settle for what we have always gotten.

This has to change.

It’s an issue of leadership, and it’s time for leaders to step up and lead. There’s a new generation of potential conservationists out there. They’re in cities. They’re using iPhones and Androids. They don’t hunt or fish. They’ve never spent a night outdoors. Their skin is red or brown. English may be their second language. They are the voters and leaders of tomorrow. If we lose them, there will be no tomorrow for conservation.

We have to find them. We have to inspire and recruit them. They will become the best-and-brightest. They will make conservation relevant. We have to continue to expand our public lands and open them to new opportunities for Americans of all backgrounds to enjoy with their families.

We’ve made this a central priority in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, creating urban wildlife conservation partnerships in more than two dozen cities across the nation. These include cities where we have a land base—like Philadelphia, San Diego, Albuquerque, and Denver—as well as those where we don’t—like Atlanta, Houston, and Baltimore. Through these partnerships, we’re working with community leaders to help thousands of kids and families develop a personal connection with nature.

We’re partnering with organizations like the League of United Latino American Citizens and historically black fraternities and sororities, like Phi Beta Sigma and Zeta Phi Beta, to mentor young people and help them explore STEM careers.

Wherever and whenever we can, we’re expanding hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation programs on our refuges. In fact, I’m pleased to announce that we’re proposing to expand hunting and fishing opportunities on 13 national wildlife refuges across the United States. This will include sportfishing and hunting for migratory birds, upland game, and big game. Right here in Colorado, we’re proposing elk hunting for the first time in designated areas of Baca National Wildlife Refuge, as well as in expanded areas of Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge.

Expanded relevance. Less dysfunction. More ambition and creativity. Those are the keys to success, and we have to start today. Most of all, we have to act together and focus on the core values that unite us, not the comparatively trivial matters that tend to divide us as a conservation community.

None of this is easy. It requires us to leave our comfort zones and take risks. But nothing great was ever accomplished by playing it safe, or accepting the status quo.

Thank you for listening.

Visit the Online Hub for Western Pushback Against Land Transfer

It’s a one-stop shop for statements of opposition from local leaders in nine Western states and the seminal petition against public land transfer, with more than 28,000 signatures 

Sportsmensaccess.org, the online hub where hunters and anglers can take action against the transfer or sale of federal public lands to individual states, has been updated with new resources on the would-be impacts of transfer and highlights meaningful opposition to this idea that has sprung up across nine Western states.

The homepage now leads off with the Sportsmen’s Access petition and a new video, narrated by hunting TV host and public lands evangelist Randy Newberg, which scrubs out the myths about proposed state management of public lands. “It doesn’t matter how many promises are made, the financial realities would force states to sell off our public lands,” says Newberg. “There goes access to hunting, fishing, camping, and our way of life.”

Image courtesy of Sage Lion Media.

Sportsmen, Westerners, and the media will also find the real facts on what state takeover of public lands would look like in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. Each state page contains a link to download a fact sheet, plus an exhaustive list of public statements of opposition from elected officials, local leaders, and the 115 organizations that stand with sportsmen. An infographic about the threats to multiple use of our public lands, a mandate that keeps fish and wildlife on the landscape, is also available for download.

This week, we will deliver the Sportsmen’s Access petition, which recently broke 28,000 signatures, to surrogates representing presidential candidates Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton at a media event in Fort Collins, Colo. As part of a forum with journalists covering hunting, fishing, and the environment, Donald Trump, Jr., will talk about his father’s conservation priorities, and Congressman Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) will address Clinton’s policy goals for issues important to sportsmen.

Delivering the Sportsmen’s Access petition to Donald Trump, Jr. at the TRCP’s Western Media Summit.

“America’s hunters and anglers need more champions in Washington and statehouses across the country—lawmakers who understand that access to public lands where fish and wildlife can thrive is fundamental to our sports, our heritage, and the outdoor recreation businesses that create jobs and prosperity in local communities,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. “But, beyond that, we need our elected officials to recognize that sportsmen see state takeover of our national public lands, and our inevitable loss of access, as a cold-dead-hands issue. This stack of pages containing the names of 28,000 Americans opposed to this bad idea should serve as a visual reminder.”

A diverse coalition of sportsmen’s groups and outdoor brands have rallied against the transfer or sale of public lands since January 2015, and public outcry has grown since the takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year. State legislatures in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming rejected land grab proposals in 2016, yet the House Natural Resources Committee, in a move that was out of touch with Westerners and sportsmen, voted last week to advance two bills on land transfer to the House floor.

To learn more about the latest movement on these and other bills that threaten access for hunting and fishing, visit sportsmensaccess.org.

Six Things We Learned From a Top Pollster About Voter Attitudes Toward Conservation, Public Lands, and Clean Water

Spoilers: Conservation is a primary concern for many Westerners, but they still don’t believe the states will sell off treasured public lands

You can poll voters on their perceptions of pretty much anything and there will typically be some partisan distinction. As a top pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, Lori Weigel can recall uncovering opposing views on French fries that seemingly ran along party lines. (More disturbing still, she and her colleagues identified a segment of the voting population who did not know that potato is the main ingredient in fries.) But, here in Colorado, where the TRCP is hosting our 14th annual Western Media Summit, opposition to water diversions is completely bipartisan.

Image courtesy of Jenni Henry.

That’s a pretty remarkable indication of the passion for healthy fish and wildlife populations in a swing state, and Weigel has a lot more data where that came from. Here are six things we learned about voter attitudes toward conservation, public lands, and clean water in the Western states:

  1. Unsurprisingly, the majority of voters feel the country is off on the wrong track. They want change. Public trust in government is at a near-all-time low, and confidence in other institutions—like banks, churches, police, and the media—have declined remarkably, too. Plus, there is an unprecedented amount of negativity about both presidential candidates.
  2. There is a silver lining: Three-quarters of Western voters say that conservation is an important issue in deciding whether or not to support a candidate up for election, and three in ten regard conservation as a “primary factor” in their decision, even among issues like the economy and healthcare. (Weigel says drought actually eclipsed the economy as a primary issue in recent polls.) Those numbers hold for Colorado and Nevada, important swing states in the upcoming presidential election, and Arizona, an emerging swing state. Conservation issues are deemed important by many of the critical “swing” groups, including sportsmen, Latinos, millennials, moderates, and suburban women.
  3. However, the majority of Westerners believe most candidates for president and Congress do not understand conservation issues well.
  4. Voters themselves don’t understand that oil and gas drilling can take place on public lands, even though energy development is part of the multiple-use mandate for national public lands. It’s actually what makes them quite different than state lands, which do not have a mandate to balance use between energy, grazing, timber, and outdoor recreation. Beyond this lack of understanding, Americans generally want to reduce our dependence on foreign energy, but in ways that are safe and do not make an impact close to home.
  5. But public lands are beloved—93 percent of voters in the Interior West say they visit national public lands. The transfer or sale of national public lands to Western states is more likely to be opposed in the West, too.
  6. But transfer is still a relatively new issue for voters, perhaps higher profile since the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and even sportsmen in the West have a hard time believing that the states would sell off the public lands we treasure. Despite the state track record of offloading lands to pay down deficits, voters are more wary of higher taxes than of losing these lands forever.

It seems to me that we have an opportunity to mobilize even more advocates for our public lands if we can frame state takeover as a conservation issue. Let’s harness the enthusiasm for our public lands, waters, and habitat, and get all those visitors to Western national parks and forests and BLM lands to stand up against handing them over to the states. It’s time to start believing that this could actually happen. The threat is real—two bills that would effectively transfer management of national forests to individual states have already been passed by the House Natural Resources Committee, and they head to the floor of the chamber for a full House vote.

Keeping our public lands in public hands is a conservation issue. It should factor into our voting decisions and motivate our actions. We should be willing to work for the change we want, not just hand off the challenges we have.

But don’t wait until the election to tell your decision-makers where you stand on America’s public lands. 

A Taste of the Nine-Day Gulf Red Snapper Season

With the abundance of fish these anglers experienced, why can’t we fix the access issues?

It’s the best of times and the worst of times for red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.

My apologies to Charles Dickens.

It is the best of times because there are so many snapper out there. Oil rigs, reefs, sunken shrimp boats, lost shipping containers, pipeline stems, concrete rubble, natural drop-offs, humps, and buoy chains all hold fish. As long as a structure is in 50 feet of water, it’s going to be covered in snapper, and this holds true across most of the Gulf.

From my favorite port of Grand Isle, La., the options for catching snapper start at a set of oil rigs named the Grand Isle 20 Block, which is clearly visible from the beach. If, by some strange chance, the snapper on the 20 Block aren’t interested, a quick three-mile jump to the 30 block and then the West Delta 70 block gives snapper anglers additional options in waters up to 140 feet deep.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

The fishing can be remarkable. Throw a handful of chum over one of these wrecks or reefs and prepare for action. Anglers can  slow-crank a snapper up from 50 feet and sometimes the entire school will follow, quickly turning the green water red. Without fail fish on the surface will aggressively attack anything that moves or looks like food.

Short of catching speckled trout all day on topwater baits or watching a billfish tail walk, it’s as good as fishing gets.

Anglers should be celebrating this abundance.

Instead, they find themselves embroiled in the most contentious battle in federal fisheries management, a chaotic approach often driven by lawsuits against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and shouting matches among user groups.

Abundance usually means more access to the resource, or at least consistent regulations, in any other fish and game management scenario. In red snapper management, abundance combined with error-prone data collection on harvest levels and stock sizes has translated to less access for sportsmen.

More fish means they are easier to catch, but the larger population also brings more regulations. Bigger fish means the poundage-based quota required by federal law is being reached much quicker. Inability to accurately account for the harvest of bigger fish from a larger population has led to, in part, this year’s nine-day red snapper season in the Gulf’s federal waters. Ironically, 10 years ago, when the snapper population was estimated to be much smaller, the federal-water snapper season was 194 days.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

Gulf states have stepped in to provide more consistent access to waters they control, up to nine miles from shore. But, for most Gulf ports, the 50-foot depths generally needed to find red snapper lie beyond that nine-mile boundary. State officials are also working with anglers to improve access and data collection. But, as long as current federal law and management apply, 95 percent of the Gulf will remain off-limits to recreational snapper harvest for at least 11 months of the year.

TRCP and its sportfishing partners—the Coastal Conservation Association, American Sportfishing Association, Center for Coastal Conservation, and others—have been working with policy-makers to find a better way.

The constant battle at the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council and the political debate over snapper management often overshadow how much fun it is to catch these fish. It dampens the appetite of anglers who love snapper, especially when it’s cooked over a charcoal pit, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

This year, rough seas and thunderstorms prevented most anglers from getting to snapper waters during the June 1-9 federal season. NOAA gave anglers two additional days to compensate for Tropical Storm Colin, but the other lost days were victims of the fickle derby system that federal management has created.

Keep America Fishing leaders Gary Jennings and Glenn Hughes joined me and Captain Frank Dreher on Grand Isle on June 8 for two days of snapper fishing. The trip was set up to give us a chance to forget about snapper politics and focus on fishing. The plan was to take Dreher’s 24-foot bay boat out of Grand Isle on day one then slide west to Terrebonne Parish on day two for a ride on a 33 Contender with Tony Fontenot and the crew from Castin’ Cajun, a popular regional TV show.

Flat seas and sharks greeted us early June 8. A couple of short stops at rigs in 50 to 70 feet of water showed schools of snapper on the sounder, but blacktips and jack crevalle were quicker to the baits. At our third spot, we found a school of 5- to 10-pound snapper and the action was non-stop for more than an hour while the placid surface was quickly slopped up by a sneaky 10- to 15-knot northeast wind.

A 3-foot chop turned a half-hour joy ride on the way out into a 90-minute, spray-soaked pounding on the ride home. We quickly forgot about it that evening over grilled snapper filets and Abita Amber beer.

On day two, the seas were sloppier, but the 33-foot vessel cut down on the pounding and the soaking—a little. But the 20-mile ride out of Cocodrie to a wrecked boat in 55 feet of water was worth it: We enjoyed snapper fishing unparalleled by any I have experienced in more than three decades of venturing off Louisiana’s coast. The emerald-green waters were spotted with red all morning, as snapper schools ascended to the surface and ferociously attacked any bait.

Even before boat owner David Prevost positioned us over the wreck, I reeled in an 8-pound snapper that crushed a chunky, soft-plastic grub intended for an aggressive cobia cruising above the structure. Thirty or more snapper followed that first fish and soon multiple hook-ups marked the morning. More than once, I picked out a fish I wanted to catch, pitched my bait, and watched it eat. Fishing does not get better.

Our two days on the Gulf during the brief window provided by federal managers reinforced two things I already knew: Red snapper are abundant, and a federal system fraught with incessant political battles, insufficient data, and misguided management approaches keep anglers from that abundance.

There’s no reason to believe we can’t fix the access and enjoy the abundance.

Glassing the Hill: June 20 – 24

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

The Senate and House are both in session this week. In about three weeks, lawmakers leave town for an extended 6-week recess that spans both party conventions in Cleveland (RNC) and Philadelphia (DNC).

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Last week saw the first House vote on public land transfers—and the bill passed through committee. in the House Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Don Young’s (R-Alaska) bill, “The State National Forest Management Act,” which would sell national forest land to states, passed with a 23-15 vote. Congressman Zinke (R-Mont.) was the only Republican member who opposed this legislation. You can find the vote record here.

“The Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act,” from Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) also passed on party lines. The legislation would transfer forest management authority to a state-appointed “Advisory Committee,” which does not require a person with professional experience in managing forests.

The bills aren’t law yet, and you can show lawmakers that you are opposed to transfer and sale of public land by signing the petition for sportsmen’s access.

The House and Senate Department of the Interior and environmental agencies spending bills include “poison pill riders.” The House “Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” passed in full committee on a party-line vote last week with riders that may interfere with the bill’s passage, including Rep. Simpson’s (R-Idaho) amendment to delay the BLM’s Planning 2.0 Rule, Rep. Mark Amodei’s (R-Nev.) provision that would halt the federal government’s collaborative work with states to conserve greater sage-grouse habitat, and a rider that would block the administration’s Clean Water Rule that defines the jurisdiction of wetlands.

The Senate version of “The Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” also included language that would block the administration’s Clean Water Rule. The $32.034-billion Senate spending bill would cut funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund by $50 million. The bill passed with a 16-14 vote.

On the Senate floor last week, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) held a 14-hour filibuster demanding gun-related amendments, fueled by the violent events in Orlando a little more than a week ago. The proposed amendments to the “The Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” would prevent individuals on the terrorism watch list from purchasing firearms and expand background checks for gun purchases.

However, this is tying up Senators who need to crank out 12 individual appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year. Lawmakers only have three legislative weeks until they leave for a six-week recess, and the longer they work on other legislation, the more likely it is that a continuing resolution or an omnibus spending package will be considered before September 30. This typically last-minute process locks in spending levels from previous years and isn’t considered to be regular order.

The House is in a similar predicament, with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) continuing to push for floor time on his anti-discriminatory amendment.

On Thursday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on wildfire and forest management legislation. The bill, “The Wildfire Budgeting, Response and Forest Management Act,” is a discussion draft that aimed at addressing wildfire suppression cost and improving forest management. It would provide a budget cap adjustment for wildfire suppression should the funding exceed the 10-year average cost. However, the legislation does not address the U.S. Forest Service’s long-term priorities to reduce wildfire costs, such as forest rehabilitation efforts. The hearing will take place Thursday morning.

The BLM Director will discuss Planning 2.0, legislation that would give the public more say in local and landscape-scale planning, at a Senate hearing on Tuesday afternoon. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Neil Kornze will testify at a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining, showing his support for the new rule. Planning 2.0 would have BLM better incorporate public feedback into their plans while the addressing energy and wildlife concerns in a timelier manner. Language offered by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) would delay the BLM’s Planning 2.0 Rule by 90-days has also been added in the House version of the U.S. Department of the Interior and environmental agencies spending bill. The amendment passed with a voice vote.

The House is expected to consider three additional bills this week: The Internal Revenue Service and related agencies spending bill that would cut the agency’s budget by $236 million; legislation that would replace “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act;” a bill that would give courts more authority on interpreting laws.

Also happening on Capitol Hill this week:

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The National Environmental Policy Act’s (NEPA) role in the permitting process will be investigated in a House Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) justification for regulation will be discussed in a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing

The Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Management program is up for debate in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing

Legislation that addresses air quality standards is on the docket for a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety hearing

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Unethical conduct occurring within the U.S. Department of the Interior will be examined in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing

Several water-related bills will be the subject of a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Ocean hearing

Service corps legislation will be examined in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing

UPDATE: House Committee Passes Public Land Transfer Legislation

Two bills up for committee vote are overt attempts to undermine public land ownership

 UPDATE (June 15): The House Natural Resources Committee, for the first time in history, passed legislation that would sell off millions of acres of our public lands. Rep. Don Young’s H.R. 3650, which would sell land for the primary purpose of timber production and not recreational uses, passed the committee with a 23-15 vote. The only Republican member who defended sportsmen’s rights was Congressman Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.). Listed below are the recorded results:

NAY
Reps. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.)
Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.)
Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.)
Jim Costa (D-Calif.)
Gregoria Sablan (D-Northern Mariana Islands)
Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.)
Jared Huffman (D-Calif.)
Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.)
Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.)
Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.)
Don Beyer (D-Va.)
Norma Torres (D-Calif.)
Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.)
Jared Polis (D-Colo.)
Lacy Clay, Jr. (D-Mo.)

YAY
Reps. Rob Bishop (R-Utah)
Don Young (R-Alaska)
Louie Gohmert (R-Texas)
Doug, Lamborn (R-Colo.)
Rob Wittman (R-Va.)
John Fleming (R-La.)
Tom McClintock (R- Calif.)
Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.)
Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.)
Dan Benishek (R-Mich.)
Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.)
Raul Labrador (R-Idaho)
Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.)
Jeff Denham (R-Calif.)
Paul Cook (R-Calif.)
Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.)
Garret Graves (R-La.)
Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.)
Jody Hice (R-Ga.)
Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.)
Alex Mooney (R-N.J.)
Cresent Hardy (R-Nev.)
Darin LaHood (R-Ill.)

H.R. 3650 is an overreaching bill that would allow each state to buy and manage up to two million acres of National Forest System (NFS) land. Most Eastern states – like Illinois for example, which only has 273,482 acres of NFS land – do not have two million acres of national forests land, leaving a high possibility that sportsmen could be unable to access their public land. Sportsmen contribute over $640 billion to the outdoor economy. We deserve to be represented correctly by our lawmakers.

ORIGINAL (June 14): On Wednesday, the House Natural Resources Committee will vote on two bills that risk essential sportsmen’s access, quality fish and wildlife habitat, and economic balance for American communities. Since the bills were first debated back in February, sportsmen’s groups have been alarmed with Rep. Don Young’s H.R. 3650 and Rep. Raul Labrador’s H.R. 2316, which constitute overt attempts to undermine public land ownership.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

“Make no mistake, these are the first votes on legislation that would legitimize the wholesale transfer or sale of America’s public lands, and sportsmen should be concerned with any ‘yea’ votes,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Young’s bill is sweeping in its impact, allowing states to select and acquire up to two million acres of national forest lands to be completely owned and operated by states and managed primarily for timber production. The Labrador bill would transfer management authority for up to four million acres of our national forests to state-appointed “advisory committees,” but incredibly, these officials would not be required to have any professional experience in forest management.

Hunting and fishing groups have been vocal in urging lawmakers to oppose these bad bills. “With so many opportunities to do right by American sportsmen and women—by encouraging better active management of forests or bigger investments in public land management agencies, for example—these bills are dangerously distracting and certainly represent an attempt to get a foot in the door for public land transfer,” says Ben Bulis, president of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association. “This is bad for fly shops, their customers, and the communities surrounding our national forests.”

“Our public lands system, which includes our national forests, is unique in all the world—it supports our $646-billion outdoor recreation economy, but not without the mandate to keep public lands accessible and to balance the needs of hunters, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts with the many demands on our natural resources,” says Fosburgh.

The TRCP is urging sportsmen across the country to contact members of the committee. Here’s the easiest way.

To learn more about efforts to transfer, sell off, or privatize public lands, click here.

A Whirlwind Tour of a Complex Landscape in the Prairie Pothole Region

Journalists get up close and personal with working lands and at-risk wetlands in North Dakota

After a week in legendary North Dakota—where every day I was up before dawn and in bed long after the northern summer sun set—I am sunburned, windswept, and my body feels like it was hit by a truck.

No this wasn’t a marathon hunt week—wrong season—but an exercise in living like a reporter on the road. I was there with 18 journalists and a handful of partners* to learn about what’s happening to wildlife habitat in the state. We were all hoping to see firsthand the impacts that rapid advances in ethanol, oil, gas, and agricultural production are having on the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).

Journalists hiking across Ducks Unlimited’s Coteau Ranch. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

The PPR is home to a unique ecosystem, created over tens of thousands of years as glaciers retreated across the northern part of the continent. The glaciers left behind rocky soils and millions of shallow, seasonal wetlands known as potholes. These potholes, and the grasslands surrounding them, are prime waterfowl breeding habitat, lending the PPR its nickname: North America’s Duck Factory. Over half of the continent’s waterfowl are born in those grassland-wetland complexes.

The grassland-wetland complex on the left of the road is protected for conservation, while the land on the right has been converted for crops. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

Among the highlights of the trip was an outing to locate duck nests and candle the eggs, to see how well developed the ducklings inside are, estimate hatch dates, and determine nest success. The site we visited boasted about 460 nests, and it was a unique thrill to flush one hen after another from her nest among old Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) plantings. The hens will return to the nests despite our handling of the eggs, and eventually these mother ducks will march their ducklings up to three miles to a wetland to swim, feed, and possibly grow into one of the ducks you’ll hunt this fall.

Fresh down feathers line a nest of duck eggs. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

There’s a lot of other wildlife in the region, especially some of our favorite fish and game—walleyes, wild turkeys, pheasants, sharptail grouse, whitetail deer. We even heard rumors of moose in Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, close to the Canadian border. Unfortunately, all of these critters are at risk because grasslands and wetlands are being converted for agriculture and other uses at a rapid pace.

A bird’s-eye view of the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

The potholes and grasslands of the PPR were once naturally maintained by grazing herds of millions of bison. The bison are mostly gone from this landscape, but cattle have long been their surrogates, keeping the PPR relatively healthy and supporting prairie habitat.

Cattle grazing at sunset on the Black Leg Ranch. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

However, myriad factors are causing cattle to disappear from the land, nearly as abruptly as their native predecessors did. Newly developed seed types and farm equipment have allowed corn and soy crops to move north from the central plains, as those plants can now grow in the shorter northern seasons. Ethanol production and international markets have fostered that migration, as has wetland drainage, which also has the unfortunate side effect of causing flooding and overflowing lakes, literally submerging communities around Devil’s Lake. And the discovery of natural gas in the Bakken Formation has led to hundreds of wetlands being made into well pads. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, it’s hard for cattlemen to compete with these technological advances, and yet they are one of the last remaining forces helping the Duck Factory to persist.

A well pad in the Bakken. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

While the TRCP laments the loss of cattle from the landscape, we do not oppose energy development or technological innovation. We just want it to be done responsibly, in balance with other demands on our public and private lands, and to ensure that sportsmen and wildlife don’t get the short end of the stick.

Most folks in North Dakota, I think, feel the same way. Dozens of times during the trip we heard that sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts are the heroes of conservation, for instance through our Duck Stamp purchases and backing of the Conservation Reserve Program. Many of the industry representatives we spoke with also hunt and fish and they want their children and grandchildren to be able to do the same, so they strive for a conservation-minded approach to development. And just this week, North Dakotans overwhelmingly voted to preserve Depression-era rules, which would limit corporate farm ownership in the state, thereby perpetuating a family farm structure that many believe to be far better for conservation than the alternative.

Summer storm clouds roll in near Jamestown, N.D. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

But the PPR is still suffering a slow death by a thousand cuts. Congress has passed laws through the Farm Bill which should limit grassland and wetland conversion for agriculture, but those laws are unevenly enforced—and even when they are, violators may not be penalized. When it comes to other types of development, there are currently no state or federal laws designed to protect this landscape.

The TRCP wants America’s farmers and ranchers to be successful and profitable, but not at the expense of sportsmen’s access and opportunity. This visit has reinforced our resolve to help develop policies that balance the needs of production agriculture and private landowners with the needs of sportsmen, fish, and wildlife, and that make conservation a financially-viable part of the farm economy.

The sun sets on a wetland near Devil’s Lake. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

*Many thanks to Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources for helping to organizing the Prairie Pothole Institute.

Glassing The Hill: June 13 – 17

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

The Senate and House are both in session this week.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

The first vote on two bills that would threaten public lands is set for this week. The House Natural Resources Committee will mark up Rep. Young’s (R-Alaska) “The State National Forest Management Act” and Rep. Labrador’s (R-Idaho) “The Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act,” both of which we strongly oppose.

Rep. Young’s (R-Alaska) legislation would allow each state to buy up to two million acres of national forest land and manage it primarily for timber production. Rep. Labrador’s (R-Idaho) bill would allow up to four million acres to be transferred to state-appointed “advisory committees” that would be solely responsible for managing demonstration forests with little public oversight. Both bills are a major threat to sportsmen’s access to quality hunting and fishing habitat.

Let your Congressional representative know that you oppose legislation that jeopardizes public land—use our Twitter Action Tool!

A red snapper bill is also in the lineup for this week’s markup. Rep. Graves’ (R-La.) “The Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act,” which we support, would allow flexible management of red snapper by the states, in an attempt to address widespread concerns from recreational anglers over ongoing federal management of the fishery. This year, the federal red snapper season for rec anglers in the Gulf was a scant nine days.

With only four legislative weeks left before lawmakers take an extended recess, Congress is running out of time to pass all 12 individual appropriations bills. The likeliness of a continuing resolution in the waning days of September continues to increase, as both chambers struggle to get through appropriations bills.

Before the Memorial Day recess, the House failed to pass the energy and water spending bill due to a controversial provision involving discrimination. Because of this surprise defeat, Republican House leaders have made a departure from their usual “open rule” policy on spending bills and intend to move future funding bills by restricting amendments. Because of this weekend’s tragedy in Orlando, many expect the gun control debate to once again roil consideration of funding bills.

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to mark up “The Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” this week. The bill would cut funding for key conservation agencies—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) by $17 million, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) by $10 million, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by $162 million. Poison pill riders are also included in the base bill. One would block the Obama administration from implementing the Clean Power Plan to decrease carbon dioxide emissions from coal power plants.

Once the Senate takes a final vote on the NDAA, they will move on to consider “The Commerce and Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” this week on the floor. The commerce bill would include a $33.5 million increase in funds for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There are rumors that “The Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” will be considered on the Senate floor, too. The agriculture funding levels would provide $147.7 billion in discretionary and mandatory funds, which is $7.1 billion above fiscal year 2016 enacted levels.

On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies will mark up their version of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and environmental agencies spending bill. On Thursday, the full Appropriations Committee will begin marking up the legislation. The language has not been released, but committee leaders are confident that no poison riders will be included in the base bill. It could mean this legislation will see the Senate floor for the first time in years.

Both chambers are gearing up to tackle WRDA. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Ranking Member Boxer (D-Calif.) are aggressively trying to persuade lawmakers behind closed doors to push leadership to bring “The Water Resource Development Act” (WRDA) to the Senate floor. Inhofe and Boxer want to pass WRDA before July 15, the last day before Congress leaves for an extended August recess. For now, Senate leadership believes that appropriation bills take precedence over WRDA.

The House version of WRDA has passed full Committee, and is similarly waiting for floor time. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Shuster (R-Pa.) and Congressman Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) are reportedly going to meet in the near future to discuss incorporating additional natural infrastructure language into the underlying bill. Ribble would like the bill to include additional language that would encourage the use of natural infrastructure, such as wetlands and natural floodplains, in water resources projects.

Senate Democrats are reluctant to move forward to a conference on the Energy Bill. The four main players in the energy conference, Sen. Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Cantwell (D-Wash.), Rep. Upton (R-Mich.), and Rep. Pallone (D-N.J.), are expected to meet this week to discuss the path forward for conferencing Senate and House energy bills. Cantwell and several other Democrats publically expressed their concerns with some House provisions.

While firefighters battle wildfires in the field, lawmakers are hashing out suppression and management on Capitol Hill. Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee introduced a discussion draft of legislation that addresses concerns with forest management and funding for wildfires. Today is the deadline to submit comments on the draft to the committee. We anticipate a hearing will be scheduled on the discussion draft in the near future.

What Else We’re Tracking

Wednesday, June 15

Department of Interior spending bill, on the table with the House Appropriations Committee at a mark-up of the Department of Interior and environmental agencies appropriations bill

Coastal zone conservation, to be deliberated in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee mark-up on the reauthorization of the Coastal Zone Management Act

National parks legislation will be the subject of a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks hearing

Thursday, June 16

DOI spending levels for fiscal year 2017 to be discussed at the Senate Appropriations Committee mark-up

Why the Western Governors Are Leading an Effort to Improve the Endangered Species Act

Governors will soon reveal results of a year-long initiative to improve proactive conservation of our country’s most at-risk species

In the hunting community, the greater sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken have recently become the face of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). When these game birds were petitioned for listing several years ago, because their populations had declined dramatically due to habitat loss, it was arguably the first time in recent memory that popular game species required this kind of action.

Greater sage grouse were determined to be not warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act in September 2015, based on the strength of proactive collaborative conservation efforts. Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

Sportsmen understood what was at stake—losing the opportunity to pursue sage grouse and lesser prairie chickens would come with a full-blown listing. Industries and ranchers feared for their bottom lines, and livelihoods, too. Some pointed to the listing of the northern spotted owl, which brought a region and an industry to its knees in the 1990s. All sorts of political posturing and litigation ensued—in fact, it continues today, even after final decisions were made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened in March 2014 and to forgo a listing of the greater sage grouse last September, based on the strength of collaborative conservation efforts from sportsmen groups, state and federal agencies, and private landowners promising to take widespread protective action.

There are wide-ranging opinions on the ESA, and it’s easy to get swept up in all the controversy and ignore the original intent of this critical legislation, which is to protect ecosystems and imperiled species from human development and other threats. The finger-pointing and contentiousness could make us forget that careful management by fish and wildlife agencies and the $1.6 billion dollars that hunters contribute annually to conservation is meant to keep us from the precipice of listing species in the first place.

Many decision-makers have called for reforms to the ESA. Congress has long suggested opening the Act, and some lawmakers would certainly use Paul Bunyan’s axe rather than a scalpel on certain provisions. So, it may surprise you that the Western Governors’ Association (WGA), a group of lawmakers who definitely have a vested interest in the ESA and its influence on the states, are not answering the call of some in Congress who want to tear down the legislation entirely.

The WGA, under leadership from Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and his staff, has spent the last year exploring ways to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Endangered Species Act, while elevating the role of the states in species conservation. The group held several workshops across the West to bring diverse stakeholders to the table, where they shared their opinions and ideas on the ESA’s use, misuse, effects on the economy, and actual impact on the ground. The results of these workshops will be unveiled next week at the annual WGA summer meeting in Jackson, Wyo.

The author presents his views on species conservation and the Endangered Species Act at the first of four Western Governors’ Association workshops on the subject. Image courtesy of Western Governors Association.

This should be encouraging to sportsmen, because whether or not the ESA should exist is not the right question. We need legislative checks and balances to conserve wildlife and habitat while allowing for other uses of the land to continue—history has proven that. Using the expertise of the people who rely on these lands, the Western governors are exploring not only how to improve the ESA, but also this: How do we shift from reacting to conservation crises requiring need for the ESA to launching proactive conservation measures that ensure we never get to crisis mode?

I generally agree that some reasonable reforms could likely improve the effectiveness of the ESA, but I also strongly believe that the very best solution for improving the Act is to avoid having to use it in the first place. This is where sportsmen are a very real part of the process and need to engage. And conservation efforts to benefit the greater sage grouse should be the model we celebrate. The future of species conservation has to focus on proactive, collaborative conservation efforts similar to what was recently accomplished for the sage grouse.

But until sportsmen, industry, private landowners, wildlife advocates and other non-consumptive users can take the proactive initiative to prevent these threats from happening in the first place, the regulatory hammer of the ESA remains necessary to force conservation into action. Until we make conservation a long-term investment, and no longer a nice thing to do only when discretionary funds are available, we can’t give into reforms that would weaken the ESA.

Shifting from reactive to proactive action will require change. The WGA has kickstarted the conversation, and now we need to incentivize a new way of doing business for all stakeholders. A key challenge will be securing investments in conservation and engaging stakeholders early in the process, so we’re pointed toward a common goal. Sportsmen can and should help move this revolution forward. Let’s start using an ounce of prevention, rather than paying for a pound of cure.

Get Your Kids Out On the Water for National Fishing and Boating Week

Our conservation policy intern has a message for parents of young anglers—the tangled reels are worth it

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

I learned to fish about the same time that I learned to walk. I’d grab my tiny fishing rod and waddle down to the dock, while my dad dutifully trailed behind me with the tackle box, net, bait, and snacks—which were arguably as important as the bait. All fishing requires patience, but teaching a particularly young child to fish is on a completely different level, so I’m thankful that my father stuck it out through all the tangled reels, the constant need for re-baiting, and the rescue missions when I managed to knock our gear into the water.

I guess it’s easier to find the patience when fishing is a family tradition. It was something my dad used to do with his father. I never got to meet him, but the lures my grandfather made by hand are still in the family tackle box. They serve as a powerful reminder that fishing is more than just a sport—it’s a means of connecting with the ones we love.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

That’s what I hope kids across the U.S. will experience during National Fishing and Boating Week (June 4-12), which wraps up this weekend. Learn more about this national celebration of the importance of fishing and boating, not only to our families and culture but also to the American economy and our bedrock conservation funding initiatives, by visiting our friends over at takemefishing.org.

Now that I go to college out of state, I miss the time spent outdoors and appreciate all the memories I have with my family. I can’t think of a more beautiful place to be. These experiences have also fueled my appreciation for and my interest in conservation policy, which led me to an internship at the TRCP.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

I’ve always been appreciative of our country’s fish and wildlife resources—never tired of noticing all the shades of green you can find in the woods, always dazzled when the sun reflects just right off a fish. In this country, we have incredible access to these riches. But my time in Washington is starting to make me recognize more than ever that this is a privilege, and these places require our active care. And everyone who loves to hunt and fish needs to stay informed on the issues that impact our fish and wildlife, so we can actively advocate for conservation.

I hope that, when the day comes, our generation will have put in the tough work on conservation so that my father can go fishing with my children. I hope they’ll be able to lift the lid on our family tackle box and wonder at my grandfather’s lures, before counting all the greens in the trees and tossing a worm off the dock, bound for undetermined depths—or a snag on a tree branch. Either way, it’s worth it.

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.