February was a busy month in Washington, D.C., with actions in the Senate and by the administration that have big implications for agencies such as the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service. Additionally, Good Samaritan legislation was introduced in the Senate, the culmination of years of efforts by BHA and our partners to address abandoned hardrock mines in the West. Read below for updates on all this and more.
Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act
On Feb. 3, Sens. Heinrich (D-NM) and Risch (R-ID) introduced the bipartisan Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act. This critical legislation would allow Good Samaritan entities such as state agencies, local governments and nonprofits to clean up abandoned hardrock mine sites without assuming future liability. Currently, Good Samaritan groups who want to volunteer to restore these abandoned mines and improve water quality as well as fish and wildlife habitat would be liable for any future pollution from the site.
By implementing a pilot program with permits for qualified entities, the Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act would facilitate private investments to fill resource and capacity gaps. With an estimated 40 percent of watersheds in the West contaminated by mine tailings and runoff this legislation is critical to restore healthy fish and wildlife habitat for future generations to enjoy. BHA staffers are working with our partners to increase congressional support for this legislation, which is already being led by five Democrats and five Republicans.
Senate Hearing on Great American Outdoors Act Implementation
On Feb. 9, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks held a hearing to discuss implementation of the Great American Outdoors Act passed last Congress. Both Department of the Interior and Forest Service officials were at the hearing to testify and answer questions.
Reviewing the implementation of this landmark law is particularly important as the Trump administration’s Interior Secretary David Bernhardt instituted a litany of new rules governing deployment of LWCF funds, including eliminating outright funds for projects enabling land acquisition by the Bureau of Land Management and infringing on private landowner rights by stipulating that state and local officials can veto LWCF-funded land acquisitions from willing sellers who are dedicated to the conservation and stewardship of our natural resources. In February of last year, the incoming Acting Interior Secretary announced a secretarial order to reverse Bernhardt’s changes and restore the intent behind the bipartisan language overwhelmingly passed by Congress.
Martha Williams Confirmed USFWS Director
On Feb. 17, Martha Williams was confirmed in the Senate by a voice vote as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with overwhelming bipartisan support. This followed the January vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee of 16-4 to report her to the full Senate. Williams is a hunter and an angler who has worked alongside BHA in past roles. We are confident she will be a capable leader of the USFWS. Williams has a long career in fish and wildlife management, including as director of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, as the Interior Department’s deputy solicitor for parks and wildlife, and as the principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Laura Daniel-Davis DOI Nomination Hearing
On Feb. 8, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a second hearing on the nomination of Laura Daniel-Davis to serve as Interior Assistant Secretary - Lands and Minerals. A previous hearing on Daniel-Davis was held in September of last year before she was reported out of the committee with a tied vote of 10-10. With experience serving in the Interior Department under two previous administrations and as chief of policy and advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation, she is remarkably qualified for this role. BHA continues to support her nomination and hopes to see her move forward as quickly as possible to a vote by the full Senate.
Record funding for the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program
On Feb. 11, the Department of the Interior announced that the agency received $1.5 billion in funding for wildlife conservation efforts through the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program. These are the revenues generated by the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act and Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act. These funds come from hunters and anglers through excise taxes on hunting, shooting and fishing equipment as well as boat fuel. Over its existence this program has dispersed more than $25.5 billion in funding provided by sportsmen and women for the advancement of conservation and outdoor recreation opportunities. The Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program was reauthorized by the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act late last year.
Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act
On Feb. 23, BHA and other conservation organizations welcomed the full implementation of the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA), which was permanently reauthorized in 2018. Under FLTFA, revenue from federal land sales by the Bureau of Land Management will fund the purchase of high-priority conservation lands within or adjacent to BLM, Forest Service, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands. A successful land exchange program, FLTFA will increase recreational access to public lands, support economic development, consolidate land ownership and conserve special places in Western states. The Department of the Interior and Forest Service signed the implementation agreement in January, reestablishing FLTFA.
On Feb. 8, the House passed what is expected to be a final extension of the fiscal year 2021 (FY21) spending levels in advance of government funding running out on Feb. 18. One day before a pending government shutdown would occur, the Senate also passed its short-term extension. Until Mar. 11 the federal government will continue to operate on the FY21 budget. That gives Congress one last window that it is widely believed will allow them to negotiate the FY22 budget - a process that should have begun back in October.
Both the Interior and Environment appropriations bill passed by the House and the Senate’s draft Interior and Environment appropriations bill include important funding increases supported by BHA. The Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Wildlife Refuge System and North American Wetlands Conservation Act would all receive increased funding if these bills are signed into law.
As these negotiations continue, the FY23 cycle is also beginning. BHA is advocating for the same increased levels of funding in the coming year as well as funding for the new hardrock mining reclamation program created by the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law late last year.
Gray Wolf ESA Protections
On Feb. 10, a U.S. District Court judge restored Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolf populations in the Great Lakes, Southern Rockies and Pacific Coast states. This decision reverses a prior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to remove them from the endangered species list. BHA’s position on this issue remains the same as it has in the past - that the gray wolf is a remarkable ESA success story and that with their strong population growth and expansion, we support the USFWS decision to delist and return management to state wildlife agencies, with the exception of Mexican wolves. While this decision reverses course for many wolf populations, wolves in the Northern Rockies (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) remain delisted and managed by the states. Concern over new management laws passed in Idaho and Montana, however, could force the USFWS to reconsider whether they are warranted for future listing considerations. We will continue to work with federal policymakers to track this issue and keep you updated. You can read BHA’s policy statement on gray wolf management here.