Eye on Washington

Dan Sealy, NEC Legislative Analyst

Rep. Huffman’s FISH Act, to Protect Salmon Strongholds Nationwide

After conducting several town hall style meetings in coastal communities across the U.S., Congressman Huffman used his chairmanship of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife to introduce legislation to protect critical salmon habitat. That legislation was entitled the ‘‘Salmon Focused Investments in Sustainable Habitats Act’’ or simply, the “FISH Act.” 

“There could not be a more urgent time for the Salmon FISH Act than right now. Wild salmon populations throughout the West Coast and Alaska are showing clear signs of struggle due to climate change and habitat loss, and local communities are struggling as a result,” said Tim Bristol, Executive Director of SalmonState.

Congressman Huffman incorporated comments on the FISH Act and is seeking additional comments from stakeholders in preparation for reintroducing the Act in the next few months. You can read the current version of the FISH Act here.

What’s Up with the Great American Outdoors Act?

During the waning days of the last administration, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) which permanently funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund through taxes on offshore oil and gas leases. Though oil and gas leasing were going gangbusters, money for conservation had been siphoned off for decades. That left priority land acquisition, park and refuge infrastructure failing and key ecological restoration funds in short supply. Though the former President signed the law, his team successfully delayed implementation of the funds through poor planning.  On Feb. 9, a congressional subcommittee, mostly friendly to the GAOA, grilled representatives of the Biden administration to assure projects are being properly prioritized and funded. Members of the Senate subcommittee expressed concern that delays may result in loss of revenues with sunset dates. Delays were also frustrating owners willing to sell their private lands within or adjacent to existing National Parks and other federal lands, leaving them no choice but to consider selling to other private entities. In addition, Senators used the hearing as an opportunity to reiterate that agencies such as the Park Service and Forest Service need to increase their budget requests for staffing in recognition of exploding visitation over the last decade and especially during the past two years. 

Can I Backfill My Wetland?

That is the case before the U.S. Supreme Court right now. Though the Biden administration announced it was rapidly rewriting the regulations that define which oceans, lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA), Chantell and Michael Sackett want to fill wetlands on their property that backs onto Priest Lake in Idaho. But they were denied that permit by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which enforces the CWA provisions.  They sued and lost their case Sackett v. EPA, et al.  in lower courts, so the Sacketts, backed by the well-funded and conservative-leaning Pacific Legal Foundation, are appealing the decision saying the wetlands on their property do not qualify as “waters of the United States” (WOTUS).  The Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers, the agencies that manage and enforce the Clean Water Act provisions, disagree, saying the case history has long determined such wetlands are protected under WOTUS. The case will be heard later this summer. In 2006, Justice Scalia wrote an opinion describing what counts as WOTUS saying only “those relatively permanent, standing or flowing bodies of water forming geographic features that are described in ordinary parlance as streams, oceans, rivers and lakes…dry arroyos in the middle of the desert.” If the current court uses his description as the rule, more than 75% of the rivers and streams in the arid Southwest could lose protections as well as countless acres of wetlands across the nation.  

Increasing Controlled Burns to Reduce Impacts of Western Wildfires  

In January the Biden-Harris administration announced a plan to address the impacts of the climate crisis on western forests and local communities.  The plan would require $50 billion for controlled burns, or what Native Americans call “good fire.”  Some Native American tribes used controlled fires to enhance food sources and habitat for thousands of years. Environmental scientists encouraged a return to these practices as early as the 1920’s but it was not till the 1960’s that the U.S. Park Service  became the first agency to officially adopt controlled fires as a management tool. It was followed by the U.S. Forest  Service in 1974 when it adopted a policy to allow naturally occurring fires in wilderness to burn in some instances. 

Beginning this year, regions that have experienced or are likely to experience out of control wildfires such as California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the east side of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and portions of Arizona, Oregon and Washington State will be targeted for an increase in controlled burn plans. Though no specific projects were revealed, the full scope of work envisioned could reach 80,000 square miles and approximately half that acreage is privately owned.  No new specific funds have been appropriated, though the recently-passed federal infrastructure bill includes funds specifically for increasing controlled burns. 

Controlled burns by the U.S. Forest Service have often been stymied not only by fear of fire, but lack of funds for the large planning effort and crews required to conduct controlled burns. Potential for lawsuits by private landowners and nearby communities when controlled burns become outof control by sudden shifts in weather or other conditions are a real concern as well. The public and land management agencies will need to balance that risk against devastating wildfires. It will also require robust research to learn the short and long-term impacts of increased controlled burns in varying ecosystems.