How to make funding for conservation a front-burner issue, including setting up a revenue stream that helps pay for wildlife and habitat management, is one of those tough policy and legislative nuts that are tough to crack.
Some progress is being made, but it can be painfully slow. Last year, a legislative fix that should help the U.S. Forest Service handle the debilitating costs of fighting catastrophic wildfires was approved. And just two weeks ago, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed by a 363–62 vote the Natural Resources Management Act (S.47), a broad legislative package. It includes more than 100 locally and regionally specific bills. The Senate also showed strong support with a 92–8 vote.
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska introduced the package in January. A new Congress passing such comprehensive legislation in just its first two months might seem remarkable, but many provisions of S.47 had been proposed for several years, often as components of other legislation.
It now goes to President Donald Trump for signature.
Among the conservation highlights is the designation of 1.3 million acres of land as wilderness; creation of four national monuments and six new National Park Service units; and expansion of several national parks such as Joshua Tree, Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve. It also permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund and sets up a funding mechanism to pay for it.
OPEN UNTIL CLOSED
Getting an “Open Until Closed” policy on public land has been a longstanding objective for many groups. In essence, it means that lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service are to be open for hunting, fishing and recreational shooting unless specifically closed for cause.
The legislation directs the Park Service, BLM, Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop strategies for providing access to areas where hunting, fishing, target shooting and other recreation are allowed but cannot be reasonably accessed by the public.
The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation reports that recent studies have included estimates that some 10 million acres of public lands in the west are open to sporting activities, but lack public access for many reasons.
Evan Heusinkveld, U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance president, noted, “For decades, anti-hunting organizations have pressed lawsuits challenging hunting on public land, arguing that federal agencies must jump through laborious procedural hoops to open public land to hunting– resulting in a system where one small procedural mistake would block hunting. This action helps to prevent lawsuits by national anti-hunting groups attempting to use the courts to stop hunting opportunities on public land, and will protect hunting and increase hunting access on millions of acres of public land, similar to protections on wildlife refuge lands that we championed back in 1997.”
KIDS AND CONSERVATION
Another key provision is the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Act, a program designed to provide conservation-related work opportunities to young adults and veterans, and facilitate conservation service projects through cooperative agreements. It expands the number of participating federal agencies that can develop conservation corps projects and establishes a new 21st Century Indian Youth Service Corps focused on tribal lands and communities.
The Every Kid Outdoors program was also renewed. This grants fourth-graders and their families free admission to all national parks for the next seven years.
The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, informally known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, hasn’t changed much since its inception. This important, longstanding legislation is a critical source of funding for state fish and wildlife agencies, apportioning excise taxes on the sale of some shooting and hunting gear back to the states. Now, some of these funds may be used for public shooting sports facilities. A separate provision allows some public land to be permitted or leased for shooting and target ranges.
Another piece of legislation that was reintroduced and passed with S.47 is the WILD Act. This reauthorizes wildlife conservation programs benefitting everything from turtles to rhinos; assists in the management of invasive species; and promotes anti-poaching and measures to curb illegal wildlife trafficking.
One component of the WILD Act reauthorizes the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, a decades-old means of helping private landowners with conservation projects benefitting migratory birds, threatened and endangered species, fish, marine mammals and other species of concern.
Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation President Jeff Crane hailed the Natural Resources Management Act’s passage as a “win for sportsmen and women across the country,” noting Congress didn’t let this bill fall the political gridlock that beset previous sessions.
Crane was also a panelist at the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Conservation Conference in Nashville last month. There, he and his fellow panelists spoke of a crisis in the way conservation is funded in America. The old model, with hunters and anglers paying for the brunt of the work done by state fish and wildlife agencies needs revamping. Other people, such as “wildlife watchers,” need to contribute.
Once concept discussed was the need to communicate the “value proposition” of conservation, getting people to recognize it’s an investment and not just line items in a budget. Panelist Bruce Culpeper, a retired energy company executive, noted that industry can and should help.
“We need to help business leaders understand that if we don’t have a healthy environment and healthy places for all critters to live, we’re going to pay for it, one way or the other,” he said.
The group also discussed whether the term “wildlife conservation” is too narrow and should be broadened to include concepts such as water conservation. For example, sorely needed active management in national and state forests, and many privately owned forests would directly improve watershed health, as well as benefit wildlife.
Crane said the traditional core of wildlife conservationists, namely the hunting and angling communities, will have to do something some see as risky and that’s find a way to join the mainstream environmental movement. “If we stay in our pocket, we’re making a mistake,” he said.