Repeal, Remove, Regret

The Recent Past and Immediate Future
of U.S. Conservation Policy

above “Doug Roland and I left the ramp early on a chilly December morning, headed north from Charleston, SC, toward Cape Romain to fish some not-so-familiar water. Long runs in tiny skiffs are always a treat when the wind isn’t blowing, and this particular morning was very calm. Although we had hot coffee, the prospect of big redfish was enough to keep us jittery.”
Photo: Jeremy Clark

While I consider myself a flyfisherman first and environmental advocate second, over the past decade I have spent more time in the swamp of Washington D.C. than in my home waters of Michigan. Until recently, I was chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, where my responsibilities included managing policy teams and working with federal  agencies implementing conservation and combating climate change. I was privileged to take part in many important conservation discussions, and during the final two years of the Obama administration I saw more accomplished for fish, clean water and other valuable natural resources than I could have imagined.

The action stemmed from President Obama’s Climate Action Plan that included land, water and wildlife conservation initiatives as key priorities. Yes, reducing emissions was priority one, but ensuring our land, water and wildlife were more resilient to a changing climate became a vital parallel strategy. The president established a constant refrain that we cannot do conservation without addressing climate change and vice versa. With this ambition, we were often reminded by the president that hard things are hard for a reason and therefore worth pursuing.

It started with commitments to reduce and establish limits for domestic carbon pollution stemming from vehicles and utility power plants. Moreover, given that climate pollution knows no boundaries, the president’s climate team and negotiators worked to lead 190 countries to commit to historic climate pollution reductions in the Paris Agreement.

Back home we worked to protect roughly 550 million acres of land and water—more than any other president in the history of this nation—which included natural areas such as the world’s largest marine preserve in the Pacific to the headwaters and home of the native redband trout. While controversial to some special interests, outdoor recreational access—including fishing—was at the forefront of these designations.

Specific fish-first policy wins included the first ever traceability program for commercial fishers. Known as the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fisheries Enforcement Act of 2015 and the Moratorium Protection Act, these measures combat pirate fishing to help ensure what we purchase is not fraudulent or harvested illegally.

The president established a constant refrain that we cannot do conservation without addressing climate change and vice versa. With this ambition, we were often reminded by the president that hard things are hard for a reason and therefore worth pursuing. 

Climate change continues to exacerbate the decline of biodiversity. While in office, we were able to maximize creative collaborations to help recover more endangered and threatened species than any previous administration. These wins included a coalition that includes 11 states across 70 million acres of the American West to prevent the continuing decline of sage grouse and an iconic Western landscape.

We applied this model of partnerships internationally to stiffen penalties for wildlife trafficking—one of the most challenging conservation efforts of our time as black-market demands continue to decimate wildlife across the planet. While challenging to track, estimates suggest that more than 26 million tons of fish per year are a part of illegal trade—not to mention animals such as rhinos and elephants that have seen dramatic rises in poaching.

Few of these conservation priorities were “fish-only” initiatives. They touched aspects such as drought resiliency, water quality, clean air and therefore nearly every part of our population, whether you fish, hike, bike, ski or just enjoy a respite in your local park. As a result, good fish policy contributes billions to our economy through increased fish stock for commercial fishing, better habitat and access for recreational anglers and improved outdoor experiences for all users—not to mention decreases in costs to our nation’s public health.


above “A clear, calm day on Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald can be nothing shy of magical. The pebbled lake bottom revealed through the gin-clear water appears as a galaxy of stones hovering over a perfect reflection of the distant peaks.” Photo: Nick VanHorn

While proud of these efforts, we weren’t able meet the call from every community to protect neighboring public lands from special interests. As a nation we will need to take more aggressive steps to meet scientists’ calls to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 2050 to prevent economic and environmental disasters. As an administration, we also failed to convince enough of our conservative colleagues that conservation does not have to be at odds with strong economic policy. Conservation work is hard by nature and requires extensive locally led discussions with diverse people. We made progress and built new partnerships, but building trust requires time and investment.

We knew we were playing a long game when we were enacting this conservation agenda. Unfortunately, President Trump is rallying against it. Fish policy and general conservation priorities are looking at an abysmal future. Given the last administration’s conservation agenda, any incoming president would have a lot to live up to for anglers. Yet, President Trump seems to be moving in an entirely different direction. He has time to course correct but the initial facts look bleak:

• Signing executive orders to roll back initiatives reducing carbon pollution, limit coal mining on public lands and diminish the traditional scope of the Clean Water Act. Other orders include a review of the 55 national monument designations dating back 20 years and totaling close to 580 million acres as well as a rollback of offshore drilling protections.

• Nullifying a Bureau of Land Management rule that would have included more people—such as anglers—in major management decisions on our public lands.

• Overriding a long-overdue set of standards to ensure mining companies responsibly plan and monitor how they affect stream quality, which is has been a significant detriment for upstream waters such as those in our native brook trout’s range.

• Announcing a budget proposal that takes a machete-sized cut to every natural resource account in the federal government—Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent, Department of Interior by 12 percent, Department of Agriculture by 21 percent.

Love, hate or remain agnostic about government, these agencies and programs are critical partners to states and conservation organizations that help provide us all with more fishable waters and provide all Americans with a higher quality of life in their own backyards.

I know what bipartisan conservation policy looks like. I worked with Republicans and Democrats crafting natural resource and conservation policy over the past decade in Washington D.C. I am, however, biased as a flyfisherman. It is early in the new president’s tenure, but as I gauge these actions, conservation interests are far from the bully pulpit.

The conservation efforts that are most successful have a diverse following from cities to rural America, and from hunters and fishermen to hikers, skiers and bird-watchers. Likewise, we do not need our federal government to do the entire job of conserving our valuable resources. Success in conservation has never looked like that, but we need government at the table offering solutions and convening conversations.

If we want to sustain fish and the amazing places they live, we will always have to be part of the conversation and we will sometimes have to demand that one takes place. As a conservation community, we have much to be proud of and can do more if we continue down a road of collaboration and seek new partners to work with. Bottom line: If we, as the fish community, want to continue the great legacy of conservation in this country we will need to band together and join our favorite fish organizations and partner with folks who wouldn’t know a five-weight from a spinning rod, because if hard things are hard, they are worth doing.

This story originally appeared in The Flyfish Journal Volume 8 Issue 4.


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