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Build Back Better: What’s at Stake for Conservation?

Build Back Better: What’s at Stake for Conservation?

A hunter navigates public land.

Outside of the Congressional drama, there’s a suite of conservation funding sources that would be created should the reconciliation package pass

The Build Back Better (BBB) Act, one of the largest and most controversial pieces of legislation seen by a recent Congress, was passed in the House of Representatives Nov. 19, by a vote of 220-213.

The $1.75 trillion package, notorious for being held up by moderate Democratic Senators Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) while garnering no support among Senate Republicans, will have major impacts on America’s children, caregivers, elderly, health care, and more should it pass the Senate and be signed into law. But among all of the funding that the reconciliation package provides, there is a surprising amount of monies that would be invested into conservation. 

And at no better of a time. Currently, multiple species are at risk of being listed under the Endangered Species Act, habitat is being lost, and unprecedented weather events constantly bombard the country.

According to a breakdown by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, monies will go to benefit public and private lands, fisheries, and also bolster climate-related action. Wildlife professionals such as John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, believe now is the time to invest in conservation. 

“It’s never too late to start doing something that will contribute to wildlife conservation,” Gale said. “We are, however, losing species across all taxa at an alarming rate far above and beyond normal extinction cycles, and we find ourselves in the midst of a true biodiversity crisis that demands global attention and leadership. Fish and wildlife are facing unprecedented challenges above and beyond historical cycles and it’s imperative for us to invest now in species recovery, ensure intact habitats remain that way, and focus on migratory corridors and restoring habitat connectivity where achievable.”

So for such a large-scale reconciliation bill, what exactly will come out of it? 

Private land conservation funding 

While BBB is a hefty package, it’s worth starting with the private land conservation funding. The Biden Administration, since its first month in office, has been building up the need to invest in private land. From extending the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) deadline and increasing incentive rates and rental payments to its wording—albeit ambiguous—in the 30-by-30 plan, private land conservation is taking center stage at the moment. 

Congress has also followed suit, working on getting bills out like the Rural Forest Markets Act of 2021. That said, it’s not shocking to see that, should BBB pass, $27 billion would be injected into Farm Bill programs through October 2026, something the TRCP notes is the largest investment in private lands since the Dust Bowl. And while this would benefit the more well-known programs like CRP, when asked about the historical funding, Gale noted it’s essential for a suite of conservation titles. 

“There are some lesser-known provisions by the general public like VPA-HIP, the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, that incentivizes habitat protection and conservation on private lands and also provides access for hunting. That’s a huge and widely successful program. There’s also a wetland conservation easement program built in there—formerly the Wetland Reserve Program. As we look at the alarming loss of wetlands that we’ve been facing over the last several years, and the fact that the previous administration unraveled the Clean Water rulemaking from the Obama Administration—which essentially eliminated protections for all the prairie potholes and a huge margin of other wetlands in addition to intermittent and ephemeral streams—there’s a ton that we need to take a look at while the Administration shifts their focus to restoring those protections. 

“In the meantime, let’s make sure we’re investing in those Farm Bill titles so we can incentivize private landowners to do the right thing. And as we see commodity prices fluctuate, and private landowners look to improving their bottom line, we’re seeing a lot of sod busting going on.”

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Sod busting, a term that describes the tilling of intact natural land for production, can be detrimental to a variety of plants and animals. To help visualize the impacts of this practice, Gale used the example of sage grouse—a declining species in the West that relies heavily on intact sagebrush habitats—as their loss spells trouble for other game and non-game species alike. 

“There’s a strong nexus in the grasslands community, which a lot of that is farm country, that is habitat for other species like big game and songbirds,” Gale added. “So as we look at the culmination of all these things, and the fact that they just listed a bunch of new extinct species this year and there are a bunch of other endangered species on the brink, we need to be working with private landowners more than we ever have before.”

Public land conservation funding

On the other side of the coin, a large amount of funding will also aid public land. 

First is $10 million for mapping, restoring, and conserving wildlife corridors. The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—also known as the bipartisan infrastructure package—addressed wildlife crossings in the context of reconnecting critical migration corridors, thus reducing animal-vehicle collisions, but this is the first time a bill in Congress will specifically invest heavily in corridors. This piece of BBB will also play into the roles private landowners have within these corridors.

“The infrastructure package specifically invests in infrastructure issues, natural infrastructure, things like that, but with the Build Back Better Act, we’re looking at serious investments that are appropriated to wildlife corridors,” Gale said. “This is a major watershed moment. And if we look at wildlife corridors across the West, they naturally are going to intersect with private lands. So there’s a massive opportunity to leverage both investments in things like wildlife corridors that, at first blush, don’t look like there’s any support and resources there for private landowners. I think there’s going to be a ton of important partnerships that take place with private landowners as we look at wildlife migration corridors.

“If we look at that $10 million going for wildlife corridors, there’s a ton there.”

The second piece of funding related to public lands is $100 million to support and restore grasslands. This funding will be placed in grants, which will be awarded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Data shows grasslands are one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, and some reports, such as one published in 2018 by UC Davis, they’re more resilient than forests (Kerlin, 2018). Another report shows that restoring land with high plant diversity could expedite carbon capture and storage (Yang, Tilman, Furey, and Lehman, 2019).

Further, for those in nonprofit and non-governmental organizations like Pheasants Forever, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and others, the $100 million is also a major source of monies that will only work towards projects like Call of the Uplands or the creation of the North American Grasslands Conservation Act, a bill currently in the drafting stage.

Taking action on climate and other provisions

Another provision in the bill is funding for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund ($400 million) which was created in 2000 and is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This money is set aside for habitat work and supporting Pacific salmon and steelhead migrations, though Gale noted the main problem for the fish is dams in rivers. Other monies include $450 million for hatchery repairs and upgrades ($250 million) as well as logistics for federal marine fisheries ($200 million).  

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they have a ton of conservation and restoration work that they need to do for fisheries in the Pacific, namely salmon and steelhead populations and the waters they depend on,” Gale said. “The money going into that is pretty important. I don’t think people fully realize the jurisdiction NOAA has over salmon fisheries. The investments going on there to take a look at their habitat and ensure the future migration … the key thing is those dams need to come down. They will come back; we will see salmon come back to Idaho. If all the dams go, they could come back to Nevada.”

Still, for a majority of the provisions laid out above, the most important funding could be that going into fighting climate change. And, while the $100 million dedicated for grasslands restoration is in itself a major step toward bolstering climate resiliency, the TRCP noted the breakdown of the other monies. It cites $12 billion for the creation of Civilian Climate Corps and $30 for wildfire resiliency and restoration projects; $9.5 billion for coastal and Great Lakes restoration and resilience; and $25 billion for forestry programs. These too will likely work in tandem with investments from the bipartisan infrastructure package. 

The conversation around climate change at the higher levels of government has shifted over the last four administrations as well. Slowly, more leaders in Congress and the international community have worked to bring to attention what climate change has done thus far and what the world could experience should action not be taken. But to keep it domestic, Gale returned to what these investments mean for conservation.

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“The most important thing for everyone to recognize is that climate change is already having a massive impact on our lives,” he said. “And how we talk about conservation, it’s directly connected to fish and wildlife habitat and water resources. If we don’t create programs, funding, and management models that acknowledge that, and help build more resilient lands and waters that help fish and wildlife move up in latitude and elevation—I don’t like to use the word ‘adaption’ because that implies some Darwinian cycle that takes a long time to get there—but as people, we’re going to have to learn to adapt and change the ways we live our lives, the way we do things, the type of resources we rely on to both reduce carbon emissions but also build natural systems that are sequestering carbon. 

“So all these investments that we’ve talked about, whether it’s grasslands or wildlife corridors, they all have one underlying theme in common: intact habitat that’s healthy. Without that, we can’t possibly face the challenge of climate ; we can’t possibly sequester carbon without a super healthy system of wetlands, forests, grasslands, waterways, and riparian areas. It’s all connected. We all rely on occupying the same earth. These types of investments give us hope that we can do better.”

While action is and has been needed—though Gale noted that it’s never too late to do something—one could argue that we have failed in some facets. To that, he agreed but believes there’s still hope. 

“While our system of governance in the U.S. moves slowly and we have failed fish and wildlife in so many ways already, there is real hope,” he said. “Fish and wildlife conservation is nonpartisan and Congressional leaders are finally stepping up in bipartisan ways that remind the American people that we can still work together even when things are tough. From dedicating $350 million to wildlife crossings for the first time in history in the recently enacted bipartisan infrastructure bill to prioritizing major investments across the board in the Build Back Better Act, we applaud our lawmakers for their commitment to meaningful conservation outcomes. 

“Perhaps the most perfect legislative solution to address fish and wildlife populations on the margins is Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. This is the most bipartisan bill that exists in Congress and it is supported by hunters, anglers, wildlife advocates, businesses across a multitude of sectors including major industry farmers, ranchers, and natural resource managers at all levels. We must give voice to fish and wildlife populations that can’t speak for themselves. It is critical for us to narrow partisan divides and come together before we lose even more. We all share a collective obligation to the stewardship of our fish and wildlife as a public trust resource and we remain accountable to the generations that follow us to do our part while it’s our time.”

References

Kerlin, K. E. (2021, October 25). Grasslands more reliable carbon sink than trees. UC Davis. Retrieved December 12, 2021, from https://climatechange.ucdavis.edu/climate/news/grasslands-more-reliable-carbon-sink-than-trees. 

Yang, Y., Tilman, D., Furey, G., & Lehman, C. (2019, February 12). Soil carbon sequestration accelerated by restoration of grassland biodiversity. Nature News. Retrieved December 12, 2021, from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-08636-w#citeas. 

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