When Rhode Island’s Senator Sheldon Whitehouse walked into the chamber for a legislative hearing on the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act this morning, he brought a statement that demanded some attention.
RAWA is a bipartisan, nationally supported conservation bill that would put $1.4 billion in the hands of state and tribal wildlife management agencies for conservation projects involving endangered, threatened, and non-game species. Among other things, the bill is mainly meant to address a massive underfunding of Wildlife Action Plans (blueprints written for recovering species by state and tribal wildlife agencies) while simultaneously alleviating the stress of conservation costs that fall on the heads of hunters and anglers—costs they pay through license fees and excise taxes according to the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson acts.
For any conservation-savvy senators, which much of the Committee on Environment and Public Works is comprised of, the bill is a no-brainer. But this morning, Sen. Whitehouse rendered the room silent when he pointed out an interesting source of tension—a disproportionately low amount of attention awarded to coastal and saltwater species in past conservation funding legislation.
His pointed question was simple: Would RAWA do the same? I’ll ruin the surprise for you: the answer seems to be a resounding “no.” But that doesn’t mean Whitehouse’s concerns aren’t valid.
“The conservation community always says to me, ‘You be with us on this one and we’ll stand by you. We understand that oceans and coasts are being shortchanged, we’ll be there for you.’ Well, it’s getting time for that day to come,” Whitehouse said during the hearing. “Because the dangers to our coasts are very, very real. The environmental upheaval that is happening along our coasts is very, very real. Ask a fisherman.”
“A lot of saltwater anglers are already competing with commercial fishermen, so heavier pressure directly on fish is already coming from somewhere other than recreational anglers,” MeatEater fishing guru Joe Cermele said. “Now add in environmental issues like beach erosion, loss of reefs, and pollution and you've got more threats to a coastal fishery than many inland fisheries. Plus, many of these coastal fisheries are bigger economic drivers than inland fisheries. We're talking hundreds of miles of coast as opposed to a specific lake or stream. I think part of the reason coastal initiatives are often overlooked is simply because it seems so much more daunting to ‘fix the ocean’ than it does a river or lake.”
Luckily, this issue is something RAWA will address directly. The way the bill is set up ensures that at-risk species are the focal point of the funding. Putting the money in the hands of state and tribal wildlife agencies means those states and tribes can prioritize whatever species and ecosystems they want, in accordance with their Wildlife Action Plans (WAPs).
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management revised its WAP in 2015, and roughly 40% of the species included exist in coastal or marine ecosystems. If RAWA passes, Rhode Island DEM would be able to spend 40% of their money on coastal and marine species, or more if they’re so inclined. The same goes for every state and tribe.
For the sake of contrast, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is meant to prioritize “national parks, areas around rivers and lakes, national forests, and national wildlife refuges…state and local parks and recreation projects…working forests, city parks, wildlife habitat, critical drinking water supplies and disappearing battlefields,” according to the LWCF Coalition. No wonder Whitehouse wants to call it the “Inland and Freshwater Conservation Fund.”
That’s the truth.
“I’m preparing a bill to change the name of the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the Upland and Freshwater Conservation Fund,” Sen. Whitehouse said. “Let’s at least call it what it really is. And then we can address the problem of how we protect oceans and coasts in parallel. I don’t know if that’s going to get very far, I doubt it will, but it will for sure make the point that we’ve got to fix this.”
National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O’Mara, one of four witnesses to deliver testimony on behalf of the RAWA, responded to Sen. Whitehouse’s concerns.
“This bill addresses two of the long-standing inequities with some of the other funding programs,” O’Mara said. “It’s land and water area based, but it also has the variable of listed species, which are more coastal in nature. Rhode Island does better under this bill than it does under others, like LWCF, for example.”
What O’Mara means is that Rhode Island will get a decent percentage of the funding under RAWA’s current distribution scheme, which considers how many at-risk species call the Ocean State home. Coastal and marine species are some of our nation’s most at-risk, due to sea level rise, urban sprawl, extreme weather events, pollution, and other threats. So RAWA’s consideration of what proportion of at-risk species exist in each state packs a serious punch for the coastal ones.
And while Lil’ Rhody and other Northeastern coastal states have the disadvantage of being low-ranking in land and water surface area, this consideration might benefit other larger coastal states that have also struggled in the past when population has been a deciding factor for how much funding a state receives. Perhaps the most glaring example of this inequity is Alaska, ranked forty-seventh in population but first in land and water surface area. And although the four most populous states in the country are also coastal states (California, Texas, Florida, and New York), they’re also states with significant inland conservation needs that cast varying degrees of shadow on coastal measures.
“There is a persistent bias toward inland and upland projects versus coastal projects, toward freshwater projects versus saltwater projects,” Sen. Whitehouse said. “There’s a huge discrepancy between what inland states get and coastal states get, if you adjust for population. And then if you go to the coastal states and you adjust for whether [the money is for] an inland and upland use, versus a coastal use, the bias gets even worse.”
At the end of the day, RAWA’s emphasis on state and tribal autonomy, the sheer magnitude of available funding, and little intricacies like what factors contribute to how much each state gets all combine to create a bill that Sen. Whitehouse and any other concerned coastal advocate can get behind. And despite the seemingly doubtful nature of his statement, Whitehouse is already on board. When O’Mara was explaining that Rhode Island would benefit more from RAWA than other legislation in the past, Senator Whitehouse interrupted him with one final remark:
“That’s part of the reason why I’m co-sponsoring this bill.”