Some Wins for Fish and Wildlife in New Spending Bill

Too bad every Congress isn't filled with lame ducks.

While the quackers in the House and Senate were strutting in full plumage for two years, almost nothing got done for the nation in general. And conservation takes a hit when nothing in general gets done, because if you're not protecting fish and wildlife habitat, you risk losing it forever to the dredge, plow, and cement mixer.

But with the end of careers and the year facing this Congress last week, the machinery of government finally began to move, sending a comprehensive spending bill to the president. And there was some really good news for sportsmen: Public lands were protected, including 275,000 acres of wilderness designations, and conservation initiatives were funded.

Now, it wasn't all good news, as you'll see in a moment.

But even that, in a way, was a symptom of a return to normal times because the process involved compromise, the essential lubrication that allows those gears to turn.

With help from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the National Wildlife Federation, I composed this list of some of the highlights:

Protection for almost one million acres of public outdoors recreational lands, including 275,000 acres designated as new Wilderness Areas. This includes passage of four separate acts that provide protections for lands considered high priority for sportsmen, including the Valles Caldera and Columbine-Hondo in New Mexico, Montana's Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wildernesses and the North Fork of the Flathead River, the Hermosa Creek Watershed in southwest Colorado, and the Rocky Mountain Front.

• Four new National Parks and seven new National Park study areas.

• Three new Wild and Scenic River designations and three new WSR studies that are expected to become new designations.

• $474.2 million for the National Wildlife Refuge System, a $2 million increase over last fiscal year.

• State and Tribal Wildlife Grants would receive $58.695 million, level funding from FY14 enacted levels.

• The North American Wetland Conservation Fund would receive $34.145 million, level funding from FY14.

• Forest Legacy Programs would receive $53 million, a $2 million increase from FY14.

• The Land & Water Conservation Fund will receive $306 million, level funding from FY14.

• NOAA would receive $5.4 billion, an increase of about $126 million from FY14.

• The Natural Resources Conservation Service's Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Programs, mandatory programs under the 2014 Farm Bill, would see roughly $200 million in reduced, mandatory spending for 2015.

• National Fish Hatchery System Operations would receive $52,860,000, and publish an operations and maintenance plan for fiscal year 2015 for the National Fish Hatchery System that includes funding allocations by region, together with an explanation of the allocation methodology.

Now, the not-so-good to downright bad news. The bill:

• Prohibits funding for issuing a rule under the Endangered Species Act for the listings of any/all four subspecies of sage grouse in the coming year, although the full implications of this funding moratorium are still in the process of being interpreted at Interior.

• Basically allows approval of grazing permits on public land in perpetuity with little public scrutiny, posing a threat to native wildlife.

• Allows development of the Resolution Copper Mine in Arizona's Sonoran desert without a thorough environmental review.

• Does not allow revision of federal wildfire funding, which has been draining money from fish and wildlife programs, especially at the Forest Service.

Conservation didn't bat 1000, but there was plenty to be happy about – especially from what has been a do-nothing congress.

"It's not a perfect bill, but we're happy with about a million more acres of public lands gaining protection," Judith Kohler of the National Wildlife Federation said in an email. "The areas include some of the West's best hunting, angling and recreation spots and provide habitat for elk, grizzles, mule deer, black bears and Rio Grande cutthroat trout."

All of which makes you like those lame ducks even more.