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Op-Eds and Speeches

ICYMI: 20/20 Vision for Wildlife Habitat Conservation

By House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.)

A good forestry education informs students of the significance of the long game and the truth in the Greek proverb that "A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit." A good engineering education teaches one that science and math are remarkable tools in the toolbox, but they must be used with logic and reason if we wish to benefit mankind. Policies from Washington, D.C. often defy logic and reason, ignore the advanced tools and knowledge we possess as a society, and seem more short-sighted than a rat in the fog. 

According to a 2022 BBC report, the world’s population is literally becoming more short-sighted as rates of myopic eyesight have soared in recent decades due mainly to spending more time indoors. Short-sightedness may be no more evident and no more destructive than in the way we interact with our natural environment, and ironically, that appears to be both literal and figurative. 

America is blessed with abundant lands, fish, and wildlife, but we have lost our long-term vision and take this abundance for granted. Due to a decades-long, short-sighted, passive approach to conservation from our federal government, America’s fish and wildlife are being unnecessarily stressed because their habitats are stressed.  To date, more than 1,700 species have been listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Unfortunately, only 3 percent of listed species are ever delisted as recovered. 

Fortunately, we know it does not have to be this way. Thanks to the work of private landowners, state wildlife and forestry agencies, tribes, and dedicated conservation organizations, both listed and non-listed plants, fish, and wildlife have benefited from good habitat management. 

But our federal government owns almost one third of our land base and not all private landowners have the understanding or resources to maximize their land and water’s wildlife habitat. Most answers to scientific questions of how to manage for wildlife habitat have not only been provided but proven by repeated large scale examples. Logic and reason should lead us to develop a long-term strategy to use our knowledge and tools to broaden the application of sound habitat conservation. Proactive habit conservation would benefit all plant and animal species (including humans) while catastrophic wildfires which destroy habitats and cost billions of taxpayer dollars would be drastically reduced, all of this with the added benefit of enhancing American’s outdoor experiences. 

America’s Wildlife Habitat Conservation Act (AWHCA) is a visionary, logical and reasonable policy to more broadly use our proactive tools and knowledge to improve habitat. It will make strategic investments in state and tribal led conservation on both federal and private lands with the caveat that these conservation efforts can generate funding to reinvest and do even more conservation. By strengthening relationships with states, tribes, private landowners, and the federal government, we will empower them to create proactive conservation programs that have been proven to work both on the ground and economically. Through timber sales from thinning activities and private investments in the value created through habitat conservation work, broad scale conservation can eventually fund itself far more effectively than the federal government can, but federal resources and policies are needed to get the conservation started. 

AWHCA will invest $320 million in yearly grant funding in state and tribal wildlife conservation programs. Additionally, it will fund habitat restoration projects, forest management projects, and collaboration with private partners to conserve habitat. The federal spending is fiscally responsible and completely offset by rescinding federal funds and programs that are underutilized or have outlived their usefulness. The legislation also requires reporting by states and tribes to provide transparency and accountability for how the money is being spent to implement their wildlife action plans. 

If Washington can implement a logical, reasonable, and long-term fiscally responsible approach to wildlife habitat conservation then maybe there’s hope to cure the broader myopic vision that grips our country. Time indeed will tell. 

Bruce Westerman is chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, a licensed Professional Engineer, and a Registered Forester.