'Cooperative conservation' should be treated as more than just a slogan

Perhaps you've heard of the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that requires federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service, to perform environmental impact reviews on dam building, grazing, offshore drill...

Perhaps you've heard of the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that requires federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service, to perform environmental impact reviews on dam building, grazing, offshore drilling and other such actions that may encroach on the natural world.

The act is set up, more or less, to improve environmental outcomes by requiring the federal government to analyze and, more importantly, disclose environmental impacts of proposed actions, whatever they may be.

Many in conservation circles argue that in recent years, the Bush administration and Congress have been doing their level best to water down the Nixon-era act. For example, public input -- from Indian tribes and local governments to hunters and anglers -- for a number of projects has been stifled. Still, the NEPA process is being marketed as "cooperative conservation," a slogan that is all hat and no cattle.

Several months ago, I wrote a column on Trout Unlimited's Driftless Area Restoration Effort, one of the largest and arguably most ambitious geographical recovery plans in the organization's history. The plan is spelled out in the Driftless Area: Landscape of Opportunities, a report released by TU earlier this year that calls for the widescale restoration of the region's streams and rivers, which, TU officials believe, will bring "enormous environmental and economic benefits to local communities."

Missed by the last major glaciation more than 10,000 years ago, the 13,000-squaremile Driftless Area is home to hundreds of rivers and coldwater streams and has some of the Midwest's finest trout and smallmouth bass fishing. Thousands of anglers from across North America travel to the Driftless Area each year, which includes parts of southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa and northwest Illinois. The region, often called bluff country for its picturesque limestone bluffs, is also noteworthy for its topdrawer white-tailed deer and wild turkey hunting.


I mention TUDARE because if the federal government wants to follow a blue print for real "cooperative conservation," the TUDARE model, while still in its infancy, is a good place to start.

The restoration plan will utilize the collective expertise of federal, state and local natural resource and agricultural agencies to implement watershed conservation projects. Landowners will be involved in the process. So too, will nonprofit conservation groups and their members, as well as business and corporate interests. The goal is to cultivate strategic alliances to foster an efficient, well-heeled conservation delivery system for the region's watersheds.

"There's real momentum and excitement to get this done," said Chris Wood, vice president of conservation program for TU.

Like other parts of the US, the Driftless Area is grappling with a host of environmental problems and challenges. Increased development and intensive farming are increasing sediment loads, and pollutants, into the region's rivers and streams. Fish kills from manure spills are happening with greater frequency. And the continued loss of wetlands and grasslands, both of which are barometers of healthy watersheds, are slowly degrading water quality.

But a healthy Driftless Area will provide broader benefits, TU officials argue.

In addition to bolstering the region's economy, the TU report noted that restoration would bring major environmental benefits, including a reduction in sedimentation and farm pollutants, in the upper Mississippi River basin, into which the watersheds of the Driftless Area drain.

Currently, the federal government spends nearly $20 million on environmental management programs -- including extensive dredging projects -- in the upper Mississippi River basin alone, and millions more attempting to address problems associated with the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Here's the deal: Better conservation practices "Up North" will improve the environment down south.


For TUDARE to be successful, funding is needed and being sought.

A $350,000 earmark, approved recently in a U.S. Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill, will help with planning efforts for Driftless Area conservation activities that officials hope will begin in spring 2006.

However, the appropriation, introduced by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), must be agreed to in a budget conference with the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I can't help but think that it (the appropriation) will make it through the conference committee because it is an example of good government

-- good government that emphasizes partners and cooperation at the local, state and federal levels," said Chris Wood, vice president for conservation with Trout Unlimited. "The money will help us do the long work of prioritizing watersheds for restoration and provide some seed money for actual on-theground work. If approved, it would be a good first step."

Assuming conservation dollars are secured, Wood said he wants to design a protocol to assess which streams should be priority watersheds and "actually begin work" on some of them. The goal is to have at least one pilot restoration project completed for landowners and politicians alike to see and talk about. "We want to show results," he said. "If we do, then we will be more apt to secure additional funding."

As Wood noted, the Driftless Area is a national treasure that deserves national attention. The good news is that there's a plan in place to make it happen. Call it cooperative conservation -- the real thing.

Babe Winkelman is a nationally-known outdoorsman who has taught people to fish and hunt for 25 years. Watch his award-winning "Good Fishing" and "Outdoor Secrets" television shows on Outdoor Life Network, WGNTV, Fox Sports Net, The Men's Channel, Great American Country Network, and The Sportsman's Channel. Visit for air times where you live.

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