Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Government is Listening: What Will It Hear?

The Obama Administration is asking for advice on environmental issues.  Over at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) there is a renewed commitment to implementing the Wetland Reserve Program and enrolling 900,000 acres over the next three years. USDA is asking for ideas on how to work with old and new partners to make that happen.

This week there are listening sessions sponsored by the Council on Environmental Quality through a host of federal agencies seeking input on how to respond to climate change.

And these are just the ones that we know about.

These and other requests from an Administration for ideas from a broad variety of interest groups and stakeholders is unprecedented in my 20 years working in and around Washington DC.  Yes, there have been many efforts to gather ideas before, but they have often focused on a much narrower group of interested parties.   Also these requests have generally come from branches and divisions buried deep within the federal bureaucracy.   What’s different is this Administration is reaching out broadly and asking for big, new ideas from the highest levels of government.

Will it lead to meaningful changes?

I don’t think anyone knows.  There is clearly a desire to get ideas; and at this point there is also the possibility of adding more listening sessions and additional opportunities to comment and provide recommendations.  An enthusiastic response will create more opportunities.

So here’s my two cents.  Stove piped programs hinder progress.  Flooding is handled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, civil works projects are handled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, water quality is handled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, endangered species are handled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and so on.  Sure the agencies are often required to comment on the activities of the other and it makes a lot of sense to divide up the work this way.  In addition many of the barriers against cooperation and coordination are created by statute not by any Administration.

But floods affect commerce, which affects water quality that affects wildlife.  Air pollution affects human health, affecting health care costs. Nutrient runoff (pollution) affects oceans and commercial fisheries and so on.  The challenge is to stop rewarding single purpose activities that only address floods or just address water quality or just support navigation and start rewarding projects and practices that provide multiple benefits—that reduce floods and benefit wildlife and create local jobs.

Will this be tough?  Yes.  It will require asking hard questions.  It will require re-examining programs, program purposes and even beliefs.

Can it be done?  I can think of at least one time when something like this did happen through a report from the Department of Interior that challenged federal wetland policies by identifying incentives to wetland destruction in government programs.  The report was, “The Impact of Federal Programs on Wetlands Volumes I (1988) and II (1994)” by Jon Goldstein and generally called “The Goldstein Report.”  Volume II can be found online http://www.doi.gov/oepc/wetlands2/
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but Volume I had the greatest impact and preceded the Internet. This report provided a roadmap for eliminating programs and policies that incentivized wetlands destruction.

Perhaps a report that identified programs that incentivized single purpose projects could lead to similar changes.

Because I would argue without something like the Goldstein report, the Wetlands Reserve Program’s purpose to ‘incentivize’ wetland restoration might never have been created.  And this Administration would not be inviting partners to make it possible to bring the total wetland acreage restored under the program from 2 million acres to 3 million.

Let the listening sessions begin!

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