More than a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt launched the revolutionary idea that the federal government should play a significant role in protecting our country’s natural resources. While plume-hunters ravaged egret populations, market hunters wreaked havoc on waterfowl and shorebirds, and unregulated loggers shaved eastern North America to bare ground, Roosevelt’s revolution caught on. Since then, hundreds of national wildlife refuges, parks, and forests have been established. Notwithstanding the recent armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by a band of self-absorbed zealots, the existence of publicly owned and managed landscapes across our country, serving the public good, is broadly appreciated and supported. Indeed, the idea of public investment in protecting natural places and resources has been emulated all around the world since Roosevelt’s day.
Landmark public-private funding vehicles were later enacted to provide federal assistance for habitat acquisition and for state conservation agencies, but these laws came with a catch. Most nongovernment contributions come from hunting and sport-fishing communities, in the form of excise taxes on guns, ammunition, fishing gear, and motorboat fuels; “Duck Stamp” purchases; and hunting and fishing license revenues. These funds have made possible extraordinary accomplishments in wildlife conservation, providing ample proof that scientifically informed conservation actions can reverse population declines and stabilize natural systems for game species.
But crises loom for nongame species and their habitats. Though management for game species provides collateral benefits to habitat, nongame wildlife are critically underserved by today’s system of federal and state wildlife agencies. More and more nongame species are candidates for Endangered Species listing, yet public funding is shrinking even as economic costs multiply with each new listing. Furthermore, as our human population urbanizes, connections between people and nature are waning. Urgent need exists for new public-private collaborations that will safeguard the thousands of species that are not hunted or fished, and actively reconnect public citizens (and their politicians) with nature.
This backdrop recently prompted the convening of a Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources, on which I was privileged to serve. Cochaired by a Western politician (David Freudenthal, former governor of Wyoming) and a captain of the sporting industry (John Morris, founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops), the panel’s final report was issued in early March. The report outlines the crisis, emphasizes that environmental protection is “not a partisan challenge, it’s common sense” (a quote from Ronald Reagan), and makes two recommendations. First, Congress should dedicate up to $1.3 billion annually in existing revenue from the development of energy and mineral resources on federal lands to the already-established Wildlife Conservation Restoration Program. This program was created to provide funding for states to implement wildlife action plans, but to date it is unfunded. These are public lands producing the revenue through energy and mineral extraction, so the land will get some of the money back in the form of nongame habitat management.
Second, some of the funding from federal energy and mineral revenue should also go to states to provide more public access to open spaces. We need to understand better how our increasingly urban, ethnically and culturally diverse communities can become reacquainted and connected with nature.
The Cornell Lab remains a Roosevelt disciple. We wholeheartedly endorse both recommendations of this unprecedented blue ribbon panel. As our mission centers around science and training, science-based decision-making, public communication and engagement, and biodiversity conservation, we are especially well positioned to help fulfill the second objective, and we will be devoting considerable resources to its realization.