With both chambers of Congress on recess for most of the month, August tends to be a quiet time in Washington, D.C. However, this year’s recess was delayed and then interrupted with both the Senate and the House of Representatives voting to pass a tenuous, large legislative package known as the Inflation Reduction Act. This bill, despite its wide scope, provided the single-most significant conservation funding opportunity in a generation.
Inflation Reduction Act
This comprehensive bill was signed by the president on Aug. 16, following swift passage by both chambers of Congress. Although the legislation focused on climate, healthcare and taxes, because it was moving through a budget reconciliation process with support from House and Senate leadership it provided an opportunity to secure funding and other wins for public lands, waters and wildlife. (Read more on the BHA blog.)
Though various iterations of a budget reconciliation deal had been negotiated over the last year, the previous version (known as the Build Back Better Act) was replaced by a significantly pared back Inflation Reduction Act.
The final version of the bill included significant funding for forest management, a total of $5 billion with more than $2 billion going to the National Forest System. The Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service received $500 million to carry out projects for resiliency and conservation, as well as ecosystem and habitat restoration. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received $121.25 million for the restoration of units in the National Wildlife Refuge System and state wildlife management areas. These are welcome and necessary investments in the management of our public lands.
With a total of $20 billion in the bill’s agriculture conservation subtitle, this legislation provides the single greatest investment ever in private land conservation. The funding would largely go to programs administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to work with private landowners, ensuring farmlands, grasslands and private forest lands are restored and preventing conversion that would eliminate wildlife habitat.
Also included was an important reform for oil and gas leasing on public lands. By eliminating noncompetitive leasing and raising minimum bids, language in the bill would ensure that large swaths of public lands would no longer be acquired through speculative bidding and, in effect, locked up in leases that rarely go into production. Nearly half of all existing oil and gas leases on public land were acquired through a noncompetitive process, with no bidding cost, and a majority of these are nonproducing. Minimum bids would be raised from $2 an acre to $10 an acre by this legislation, also helping to ensure public lands aren’t given away through speculative leasing.
Two significant pieces of water-related funding were included in the bill. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received $2.6 billion, available for the conservation and restoration of coastal and marine habitats, with Pacific salmon specifically listed as a priority among marine fisheries. The Bureau of Reclamation received $4 billion for drought mitigation, much of which is targeted at the Colorado River Basin.
The final version of the Inflation Reduction Act includes significant allocations supported by BHA; however, previous iterations of the bill contained important provisions that were ultimately stripped out. The budget reconciliation process would have been an opportune vehicle for language that would repeal the oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which in fact was mandated by Congress through the same process in 2017. And underscored by the fact that 2022 is the 150th anniversary of the 1872 Mining Law, the modernization of hardrock mining rules on our public lands is long overdue and should have been addressed by the Inflation Reduction Act as well.
Permanent Protections for Bristol Bay
Back in May, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a public comment period on its proposal to finalize permanent protections for Bristol Bay in Alaska under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. This would be accomplished by restricting the use of the watershed as a disposal site for mine waste. The comment period, which initially was slated to end on July 5, was extended to Sept. 6. We are encouraging individuals to sign our petition to the EPA.
For decades hunters, anglers, tribes and commercial fishing companies have sought permanent protections for this irreplaceable fishery, which supports the largest run of sockeye salmon in the world, alongside every other Pacific salmon species and 30 other fish species. The proposed Pebble Mine would threaten the watershed by removing miles of streams in addition to storing more than 10 billion tons of mining waste upstream from the fishery.
Earlier this month, researchers completed field work for annual surveys on the number of salmon that reach the spawning grounds. This contributes to our understanding of the importance of Bristol Bay for salmon and those who rely on that resource.
Twin Metals Lawsuit over the Boundary Waters
On Aug. 23, the foreign mining conglomerate Antofagasta filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court in Washington, D.C., through its U.S. subsidiary Twin Metals seeking the reinstatement of leases near the Boundary Waters canceled by the Department of the Interior in January of this year. It was determined by DOI that the leases were improperly renewed by the previous administration.
BHA President and CEO Land Tawney offered the following quote to Field and Stream, “The Boundary Waters is America’s most visited wilderness for good reason: no other place compares to these public lands and waters that are utterly unique. After a thorough assessment of the environment and the region’s complex hydrology, science is telling us that this project would be a bad idea, and we have an obligation to protect this pristine ecosystem. The lawsuit brought by Twin Metals is, quite frankly, doomed. It fails to acknowledge the will of the people - the millions of hunters, anglers and others who spoke up in support of the Boundary Waters’ permanent conservation.”
Earlier this month on Aug. 12, the Forest Service closed the comment period for the proposed 20-year withdrawal of mineral leasing in the 225,000-acre region of the Superior National Forest. More than 2,700 BHA members and supporters shared their views during this comment period. The environmental assessment for this proposal showed that copper-nickel mining in the Rainy River watershed poses a major risk to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. BHA supports this proposed withdrawal, an effort that has spanned multiple administrations. However, only action by Congress to pass Rep. McCollum’s (D-MN) H.R. 2794 can permanently protect the region from mining that would leach mineral tailings and acid mine drainage into the Boundary Waters
Take action to support H.R. 2794!
Legislation to Stop the Spread of Invasive Mussels
On Aug. 2, bipartisan legislation was reintroduced by Sens. Bennet (D-CO) and Daines (R-MT) aimed at stopping the threat of invasive mussels from spreading between water bodies. S. 4717 would improve prevention efforts by explicitly giving the Bureau of Reclamation authority to partner with states and municipalities to inspect and decontaminate watercraft. At-risk basins would also receive prioritized funding to combat the spread of invasive aquatic species.
BHA President and CEO Land Tawney shared the following quote as the bill was introduced, “Backcountry Hunters & Anglers applauds Sen. Bennet and Sen. Daines for their leadership in combating the threat that aquatic invasive species pose to Western waters. By improving coordination between agencies and partners for the inspection and decontamination of watercraft, the Stop the Spread of Invasive Mussels Act will help prevent the spread of invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels. These invasive species quickly overwhelm native species at the detriment to the ecosystem and once established are nearly impossible to eradicate. We must act now.”
Similar legislation led by Reps. Garamendi (D-CA) and Amodei (R-NV) passed the House of Representatives earlier this year as language included in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2022.