My folks owned and ran a tiny “ma and pa” motel in North Central Iowa during the late 1960s and ’70s when the area was a premier destination for pheasant hunters in pursuit of Iowa longtails. My earliest experiences were shagging beers from the bottom of the pop machine for hunters in the bird-cleaning room, plucking tail feathers, and marveling at the stories that were told about days afield. That was all near the end of the “good ol’ days” of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Soil Bank Program. Clearly, these memories and the fact that my father was the pheasant biologist for the Iowa Conservation Commission influenced me in my career selection.
The draw from South Dakota as the country’s pheasant capitol was strong, and after high school I headed west to South Dakota State University in Brookings. My schooling in wildlife management included many discussions about relevant factors that influenced wild gamebird populations like pheasants and quail. I learned about the ups and downs of bird populations tied to factors like the Great Depression and World War II, when millions of acres of idled land supported high bird levels, and more about the heyday of the Soil Bank Program that generations of hunters so fondly experienced and reflected back upon. Unfortunately, I witnessed firsthand what the later 1970s and ’80s brought to the landscape in intense fencerow-to-fencerow agriculture and the subsequent decline of bird numbers.
The day President Ronald Reagan signed the Farm Bill creating the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), on December 23, 1985, has proven to be a key date of my early career. CRP’s millions of acres of new grasslands became a haven for wildlife, and by the mid-’90s, it was CRP’s wildlife legacy and the combined voices of millions of sportsmen and sportswomen that made a difference in Washington D.C., allowing the program to continue. I’m sure I didn’t realize it then, but CRP would become a core aspect of the rest of my career.
The Power of Partners—The Process
To get anything accomplished in D.C., it boils down to support from the current presidential administration, 60 senators, and at least 218 representatives. Do the math: To be successful, being bipartisan is a big part of the roadmap to victory for conservation. And building partnerships is the key to garnering support.
The first time I provided testimony in D.C., it was before the Internet, and my testimony was submitted on behalf of four groups: Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, The National Wildlife Federation, and the Wildlife Management Institute. It felt like a pretty good accomplishment at the time. The last piece of testimony that I gave was on behalf of more than 40 conservation groups that represented over 6 million sportsmen and sportswomen.
During the summer of 2000, I attended the charter meeting of what would become known as the American Wildlife Conservation Partnership (AWCP). Representatives from many of our nation’s leading conservation groups spent several days working toward a charter that would facilitate enhanced communications and cooperation among our groups. At its core, AWCP is a communications and information-sharing network and not a traditional membership organization. In the early 1990s, Jim Range, a tough-talking, hard-charging D.C. lobbyist (and my friend and colleague), helped guide much of CRP’s first major reauthorization and played an instrumental role in developing what was then called “open fields”—provisions to support critically needed access for hunters. Thanks to Jim, I became involved with today’s Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), as did Pheasant’s Forever’s CEO Howard Vincent who continues to serve on the TRCP Board. This group differs in that member organizations jointly vet and develop policy recommendations. Both TRCP and AWCP have magnified individual voices of conservationists and groups throughout the beltway in D.C.
Okay, what’s the point of all this? Your individual voice can and does make a difference, and through various pathways like TRCP and AWCP, your individual priorities and concerns are expressed more effectively.
In terms of results, I spent much of my career chasing a suite of federal farm bill conservation programs highlighted by the successful CRP through various farm bills passed into law every several years, most recently in 2018. Collectively working through membership and participating with TRCP and through association with AWCP’s multiple voices, other conservation success stories were also attained during the last Congress. The John Dingell Conservation Act, Great American Outdoors Act, and American Conservation Enhancement Act all mean a brighter future for hunters and conservationists. Each of these successes worked through Congress and were signed into law by then President Donald Trump. All will benefit from permanent full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as support for new refuge system lands and programs focused on quality fish and wildlife habitats.
And if you start to think I just view all of this through rose-colored glasses, we’ve seen some serious setbacks for conservation in recent years. It was painful to watch as CRP slid to the lowest enrollment level in the program’s 35-year history, irrespective of also signing the 2018 Farm Bill that called for CRP expansion. Every bird hunter should be concerned. I’m personally concerned about administrative rollbacks to the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and more.
Perhaps we can all agree that from a conservation viewpoint D.C. is a crazy mix of both successes and failures and that history will be the final judge. Perhaps some agree that what happens in D.C. doesn’t mean anything unless it benefits us back home, our families, and future generations, but here’s where partnerships can once again be helpful.
Passage and funding for your favorite conservation program doesn’t mean much unless it reaches and impacts your own “backyard” where you hunt, fish, and enjoy all forms of outdoor recreation. Locally it’s all about acres of quality habitats and access to those areas. Here’s where those federal, state, and private-sector partnerships can really work. As an example, within Nebraska, partnerships support Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever chapters along with the State Department of Game and Parks and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to jointly deliver private, state, and federal conservation programs directly to farmers and ranchers. Importantly, these partnerships are developed with state-of-the-art, science-driven programs and policies, meaning that they are as efficient and effective as possible, resulting in acres on the ground that make a difference for you.
Moving Forward—Climate, COVID, and Conservation
The new Congress will address the 2023 Farm Bill and its entire suite of conservation programs, including CRP. The final chapter in the ongoing COVID-19 saga is yet to be written.
The Biden Administration has clearly outlined climate change as a top priority, as it should be in my view. While some may disagree with me, perhaps we could reach consensus that conservation is part of the solution. It’s all about carbon and natural-resource solutions, including wetland and peatland restoration and preservation, which can play an important role. Tree plantings can aid in reducing carbon levels. Planting deep-rooted native grasses that sequester carbon and implementing proper rangeland management can be effective. Studies document the loss of more than 51 million acres of America’s grasslands since 2009 and more than 3 billion birds have disappeared since the 1970s, part of which may be attributed to climate change. An expanded and refocused CRP—up to 50 or 60 million acres—can be part of the solution, too.
Climate change means that we can expect more frequent weather extremes. Quail and pheasants rely upon annual reproduction to increase population levels. More frequent extreme events from winter storms to droughts mean that our treasured quarry will need high-quality habitats not only to survive but to thrive. Just as we will prioritize upgrading portions of the nation’s energy infrastructure, we should prioritize habitat conservation to address wildlife needs on our changing planet. All will benefit from the millions of tons of carbon sequestered by CRP native grass and tree plantings. The growing 30 by 30 initiative, targeted at conserving 30 percent of the land and water in the United States, aims to address climate change and loss of biodiversity. Many of our nation’s leading environmental and conservation groups are offering support and helping guide the initiative’s development. Habitat management of wetlands, forests, and grasslands can address the complex issue of climate change and continue to benefit fish and wildlife resources and the outdoor recreation we cherish when hunting and fishing.
Unforeseen over a year ago, COVID-19 impacted wildlife conservation as 2020 brought us substantial participation in numerous forms of outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing. Millions more participated and joined the ranks of gardeners, bird watchers, hikers, bikers, golfers, and many more activities. Perhaps driven by a need for solace, we all reached out for a connection to our natural resources to help sustain us. I’m hopeful that millions more will now develop and recognize the passion for the outdoors that we as hunters and anglers have long known. I hope that this will help move forward new opportunities like the Restoring America’s Wildlife Resources Act—a new grasslands initiative modeled after the successful North American Wetlands Conservation Act, a strengthened suite of conservation programs in the next farm bill, and much more.
A long time ago, a senator asked me a rhetorical question: “Do you know what your biggest problem with conservation is? Out here [in D.C.] it’s everyone’s second priority.” That was recently retired Senator Pat Roberts from Kansas. Senator Tom Daschle from South Dakota once told me that as few as 10 well-written, single-issue letters (pre-email days) could put an issue on a senator’s radar. One of the most satisfying elements of my position through the years was to bring individuals directly to the halls of D.C. to make their voices heard. I fondly recall sitting in the back of a USDA office as a farm couple voiced concerns over the Wetlands Preserve Program. It was great to watch as the woman pointedly and forcefully voiced, “How dare you? How dare you zero-budget a critically important program like WRP?” She clearly got her point across. She made a difference just like the many people I worked with throughout the years. Your individual voice can and does make a difference, and we have much more to do for the future of wildlife conservation.
Get engaged. The beauty of America is that we each have a voice. Choose to use yours. Make yourself heard for conservation. Thank you for your efforts, and I wish you good hunting.
Originally published in Volume 9, Number 4 (June-July 2021) of Covey Rise.
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