Landmark Legislation Offers Major Benefits to Hunters and Anglers
America's hunters and anglers received very good news last week from an unlikely legislative corner of Washington. The highway bill passed by Congress and headed to President Bush's desk for his signature includes an unprecedented level of funding dedicated to better conservation of fish and wildlife and improved access for hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation.
The regularly renewed highway bill typically is thought of only as a vehicle for financing highway construction and repair and public transit and safety programs. But thanks to the hard work of leading hunting, fishing and conservation organizations and grassroots support from American sportsmen and women, this particular bill has established an important new precedent: the highway bill can and should be used as a means to improve fish and wildlife conservation in the United States and address the needs of American hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
The "Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users" as this version of the highway bill is titled, provides more than $2 billion in funding that will benefit fish, wildlife and sportsmen by supporting programs to:
reduce wildlife/vehicle accidents (includes better wildlife passages including culverts and bridges such as those proposed for construction in Washington state pictured above);
limit the spread of harmful invasive plants;
minimize the impact of highway projects on significant wildlife habitat;
increase meaningful habitat mitigation projects;
and improve access to hunting and fishing areas for sportsmen and women by repairing and creating trails and roads.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, working closely with its partner organizations led by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (IAFWA), the American Sportfishing Association, and in concert with the Congressional Sportsmens Foundation facilitated a multi-year coalition effort that ensured key lawmakers creating this highway bill would address the priorities of the hunting, fishing and conservation community.
"This is the most significant legislation for sportfishing and boating since 1984," says Gordon Robertson, TRCP Policy Council Member and Vice President of the American Sportfishing Association. "For sportfishing, the center piece of the Transportation Bill is the successful capture of all of the federal fuel tax on motorboats and small engines. These funds paid by anglers and boaters will now be, rightfully, dedicated to sport fish restoration, angler and boating access and boating safety programs across the United States. Along with other fishery components in the bill, this stands as the most significant legislation to pass for fisheries in many years."
Terry Riley, Vice President of Policy for the TRCP, points out that "while the federal budget is very tight these days, Congress still must regularly pass large infrastructure and subsidy bills. Our community has secured desperately needed conservation funding from such bills, like the Farm Bill, but we have to think creatively and look for funding opportunities in bills not primarily intended to address conservation goals. We've done that with this highway bill."
Adds Riley, "The new funding in this highway bill will have a very meaningful impact on fish and wildlife populations. In some parts of the country more animals such as deer are killed by vehicles than by hunters, and current highway projects include plantings that actually attract deer and other animals to highways. We've known there are ways to address these problems – we just haven't had the necessary funding. We also haven't had funding for the agencies responsible for access roads to hunting areas such as national forests. Now we'll be able to improve those roads and make it easier for the public to get into good hunting and fishing areas."
IAFWA's Executive Vice-President and TRCP Board Member, John Baughman, commenting on the good news pointed out, "Every year, transportation programs have a profound impact on how outdoor enthusiasts are able to pursue their pastimes and on how fish, wildlife and their habitats are affected by the projects. It is vital that transportation projects be delivered with science-based considerations during the earliest phases of planning for protecting and enhancing valuable habitat through appropriate design to avoid or minimize impacts or through appropriate mitigation if impacts are unavoidable."
Securing this huge new block of conservation and sportsmen's access funding has been a top priority for the TRCP and its partner organizations for more than two years. "In many ways this is exactly what the TRCP was set up to do," says TRCP President Matt Connolly, explaining, "Conservation has slid way down the funding priority list in Washington over the years. When we find new ways to get funding, we need the resources in Washington and coordinated support from the entire hunting, fishing and conservation community to pursue it. With this highway bill, we were able to facilitate the necessary group effort and maintain vigilance together here in Washington ensuring that sportsmen were making their voices heard on Capitol Hill."
Specific Funding Highlights Include:
Sportfishing and Boating Safety - Reauthorized funding of critical sportfish restoration, boating safety and outreach programs. An amendment of the revenue title of the highway bill recovers the full 18.3 cents of excise tax revenue attributable to motor boat fuel taxes and places it into the Aquatic Resources Trust Fund adding an additional $110 million to the trust fund annually.
Recreational Trails Program - $74 million annually is authorized in TEA – 21 and continuing this program is critical for the maintenance and development of thousands of miles of trails for hunters, hikers and fisherman.
Forest Roads Maintenance / Fish Passages - Amendments to the public lands highways program to permit up to $10 million for forest road maintenance and to include the repair of culverts and bridges to facilitate appropriate fish passage and ensure reasonable flows.
Refuge Roads - Increased annual funding levels from $20 million to $29 million.
Wildlife and Highway Safety - Authorizes significant new funding for measures "to eliminate or reduce accidents involving vehicles and wildlife."
Control of Invasive Plants - Authorizes new measures and funding to control noxious weeds and the planting of native grasses along our nation's highways.