A look into the current habitat, wildlife and conservation issues that matter to RGS/AWS members right now.
John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act
In February, the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society celebrated Senate and House approval of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act (S. 47). The president later signed S. 47 into law on March 12, 2019. The bill included permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF has invested over $16 billion in conservation and outdoor recreation since originally passed in 1964. RGS/AWS staff, along with a coalition of our conservation and forest industry partners, worked to secure a $425 million LWCF appropriation in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, a 6.25% increase over the previous year. However, LWCF authorization expired despite a 50-year track record of successfully conserving habitat and expanding recreational access.
S. 47 addressed another RGS/AWS priority by incorporating the Open Book on Equal Access to Justice Act (S. 217, H.R. 752), which will require public reporting of federal agency reimbursements of legal fees on lawsuits against the government. The Open Book Act will curb the abuse of excessive litigation aimed at stopping or slowing down sustainable management of healthy young forest habitat on federal lands. The US Forest Service (USFS) has been voluntarily reporting on these lawsuits and legal expenses in its annual budget request. Compilation and reporting by other agencies will place in context the litigation threats USFS is facing in their struggle to fulfill their obligation to sustain healthy forests.
On June 25, the House passed H.R. 3055, a five-bill appropriations package that included spending bills for federal agriculture, interior, and environmental agencies on a 227 to 194 vote (with no Republicans voting in favor). The budget battles are far from over, but the bill included a total of $16.72 million to combat the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in wild deer and to support research to improve CWD testing methods. RGS/AWS has been encouraging our members – whether or not they also hunt deer – to support proactive CWD management. CWD can place a substantial drain on resource management agencies, and can potentially have a disastrous impact on conservation funding if it drives additional declines in deer hunting participation.
Land and Water Conservation Fund permanent funding
Though the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act permanently reauthorized LWCF, Congress has only fully funded LWCF to the $900 million authorized level twice in its history since 1964. LWCF directs a small portion of federal offshore oil and gas drilling fees to purchase of land and easements to provide open public recreational access at no expense to taxpayers, but Congress has redirected approximately $22 billion of funds intended for LWCF implementation to instead pay for unrelated budget items. The Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act (S. 1081, H.R. 3195) would annually dedicate the intended funding for LWCF without requiring Congressional appropriation. Senator Joe Manchin introduced S. 1081 on April 9, 2019. The House Natural Resources Committee voted to advance H.R. 3195 on June 19, 2019.
Recovering America’s Wildlife Act
Congress requires a State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) to be developed for each state, which identify proactive measures for Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) to prevent the need for future listings under the Endangered Species Act. Ruffed grouse were identified by 18 states as SGCN in their 2015 SWAP, and American woodcock were identified by 28 states. Available funding falls well short of what would be needed to implement each SWAP. The Alliance for America’s Fish and Wildlife – a broad coalition of organizations and businesses that includes RGS/AWS – has backed the introduction of several iterations of a Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) that would address this funding gap. Broad bipartisan support has been cultivated, but passage has remained elusive. Stay tuned for an evolving approach to RAWA to soon be announced.
The federal highway bill might not seem like an obvious vehicle for delivering wildlife habitat management and hunting and fishing access programs. RGS/AWS and other conservation partners are laying the groundwork to ensure Congress is well advised on how to enhance recreational access and maximize wildlife habitat connectivity when the current bill expires in 2020 and a replacement is needed. Lines of communication have been opened to both the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee regarding the opportunity for a paradigm shift, to support a more resilient highway system and invest in measures to support conservation and recreation. These efforts are aimed at an opportunity for conservation to benefit from the recognition by both Democrats and Republicans that transportation infrastructure is a mutual top priority for the nation.