Eye on Washington – Jun/Jul 2018

Eye on Washington logoCongress is currently wrestling with left-over bills from 2018—the Farm Bill being one of the most important. They also begin the 2019 federal funding authorizations in an attempt to avoid a government shutdown in fall that could affect the 2018
November elections.

This Congress—with both chambers held by a single party that also controls the White House—is emboldened to pass as much legislation as possible before the uncertain outcomes of  the November elections. If the House, Senate, or both chambers switch to Democratic majorities, new committee chairs and staff could change the course of all legislation affecting conservation.

Farm Bill (H.R. 2) 

The Farm Bill is must-pass legislation—in part because the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, receives funding through this bill. The Farm Bill also includes funding for many conservation programs and federal assistance for all things “farm,” including fire prevention assistance grants and grants for farmers to provide for wildlife habitat. As of this writing, the Farm Bill is being held up in the House by members of the conservative Freedom Caucus until the House acts on immigration reform and the Dreamers Act.

As with all must-pass legislation, the Farm Bill attracts a wide array of amendments and riders—many of concern to conservationists, including:

Allowing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make internal, self-serving determinations regarding the effects of toxic and potentially dangerous pesticides on endangered and threatened species without obligation to consult with expert federal wildlife agencies. The “Unlawful Acts” provision will shield pesticide manufacturers and end-users from fear of citizen lawsuits for killing endangered wildlife if the EPA determines that the pesticide won’t jeopardize listed species’ total populations or destroy critical habitat.

Allowing approval of 6,000-acre logging projects without basic public review and oversight provided under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and runs contrary to the fire funding and forestry compromise Congress reached (with input from conservation organizations) in the fiscal 2018 omnibus bill.

Threatening Roadless Areas (National Forest land that has been set aside to protect it from the impacts of development) by including a provision that would open up millions of acres of pristine forests—places where Americans come to hunt, fish, and find solitude—to logging projects.

Allowing the U.S. Forest Service to ignore impacts to Endangered Species Act (ESA) listed and sensitive species, wilderness areas, and other extraordinary circumstances when approving the use of NEPA exemptions.  The bill would allow the U.S. Forest Service to waive endangered species consultations and determine that an activity is not likely to adversely impact listed species or critical habitat with only internal review.

Exempting farmers from needing permits required under the Clean Water Act to apply pesticides on and around water sources—even those used for drinking water by communities downstream.

An amendment by Rep. Newhouse (R-WA) would allow the delisting of gray wolves nationwide.

Conservation organizations spend a great deal of time and energy reporting concerns about bad bills to their members and constituents each year. Typically the worst elements are removed when legislators realize how unpopular the proposals are. This year feels different with so much media attention placed on White House drama. Environmental issues, though important to citizens, rank low in terms of immediacy. Some in Congress who see a narrow window are forging ahead under the cover of other important political concerns.

Take Action: Look up your representatives in Congress (more information found at the top of the page) and share your concerns regarding riders and amendments that undermine protection of our environment, including endangered and sensitive species and their habitats.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Leaders Forget the Mission

Although the mission of the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is to protect our nation’s plants, animals, and habitats, USFWS staff can no longer advise builders when they need to obtain a permit (mandated by law) to maintain endangered species habitat, according to new Interior Department guidance. USFWS Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan would remove USFWS oversight of federal land transfers. He told  staff it was “not appropriate” for personnel to tell private parties when they are  required to request  an incidental take permit (ITP).

Noah Greenwald, Endangered Species Director with the Center for Biological Diversity, wrote:  “This new memorandum essentially muzzles USFWS biologists from telling private landowners that they need to apply for an incidental take permit when they will harm threatened or endangered species even though it is USFWS’s job to ensure listed species are not harmed.”

Appropriations 

National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 

The NDAA, heard in the House in May, included anti-environmental riders that would block or remove ESA protections for three species, weaken a core safeguard of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and circumvent longstanding protections for National Wildlife Refuge System lands and other public lands by overriding NEPA protections for land withdrawals.

In a move that has some biologists concerned, the bill also moves management of anadromous fish (those that migrate from fresh to salt water) from the National Marine Fisheries Service to the USFWS. Time will tell if this is best for protected fish like salmon.

The bill undermines  safeguards of the MMPA by extending  the  period for permitting “take,” or potential killing,  of marine mammals by the Department of Defense from five to 10 years. Marine mammals are extremely difficult to monitor in the wild, so this would undermine critical safeguards that ensure that the military uses up-to-date science and appropriate mitigation measures.

The bill would remove USFWS oversight of federal land transfers and circumvent the process for withdrawal of our public lands. This could limit the ability of  the USFWS  to engage in  these Defense Department planning processes and advise on wildlife management and threatened and endangered species conservation.

The NEC, along with other conservation organizations, opposes this authorization bill.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Appropriations

The House Appropriations Committee approved the 2019 Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations bill that would broadly cut $62.5 billion from those departments, which include NOAA, NASA, and the National Science Foundation. More than $750 million will be cut from NOAA’s budget, including a 38 percent reduction for climate change programs.