Mr. Chairman, and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to discuss the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and S. 260, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Act. I am Dale Hall, Regional Director, Southwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Service is the lead Federal agency responsible for conserving and protecting the Nation’s fish and wildlife resources. Throughout the United States, the Service strives to fulfill this responsibility to the American public through the establishment of innovative programs that implement the Secretary of the Interior’s four C’s initiative – Conservation through communication, consultation, and cooperation.
The Service firmly supports the philosophy that by working together, the Federal government and private landowners can achieve tremendous success in habitat conservation. In August 2004, President Bush signed an Executive Order on Cooperative Conservation asking all agencies to strengthen their efforts to work together and with Tribes, States, local governments, and landowners to achieve conservation goals. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program exemplifies the Service’s dedication to cooperative conservation and our commitment to work with private landowners to further the country’s conservation goals while honoring individual rights. Many Partners Program projects achieve conservation goals alongside ongoing, productive economic activities. Through these efforts, the Service helps the Nation achieve and maintain healthy lands and waters, thriving communities, and dynamic economies.
The Service has long recognized that successful protection of many fish and wildlife species depends significantly on the protection and management of habitat. The vast majority of this habitat is in private ownership. It is, therefore, imperative that the Service look for opportunities to partner with private landowners to protect species and enhance their habitat on private lands. Such cooperative conservation provides opportunities to enhance habitat while maintaining private property rights; it also engages the public in private stewardship. Because restored habitats provide important food, cover, and water, this strategy can contribute to the Service’s mission to conserve trust species such as migratory birds and inter-jurisdictional native fish, threatened and endangered species, and to control and reduce the spread of invasive species.
To help achieve these goals, in 1987 the Service established the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program (Partners Program) under the broad authority of the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act and the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956. The Partners Program is a voluntary habitat restoration program that recognizes the long-standing and strong natural resources stewardship ethic present in many private landowners. The Partners Program helps these landowners restore wetlands and other important habitat on their lands. Through the program, the Service is able to fund on-the-ground projects that enhance, restore, or protect wildlife habitat.
The program also leverages funds, working to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs for projects. On average, the Service succeeds in leveraging Service resources against non-Service resources by a 2-to-1 match ratio. Over the past 16 years, almost 35,000 agreements with landowners have been completed. The resulting partnerships between the Service and private landowners have resulted in the protection, restoration, and enhancement of nearly 2.5 million acres of private and tribal habitat nationwide.
In Oklahoma, the Partners Program has experienced tremendous success. Since 1990, the Service has initiated 684 projects on over 128,000 acres of private land. This includes 14,400 wetland acres, 82,600 grassland acres, 1,300 woodland and shrubland acres, 25,100 acres of other habitat, and 236 riparian stream miles. Furthermore, Partners Program funds have created over 100 outdoor education classrooms on school campuses that will provide future generations of Americans with hands-on experience working with the land and wildlife.
The cooperative conservation fostered by these projects has benefited not only fish and wildlife species, but also local communities in Oklahoma. For example, at the Deep Fork Ranch owned by Robert Baker, 400 acres of wetlands have been enhanced, restored and protected using Partners Program funds. These restored wetlands provide optimum migrating, wintering, and breeding habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds and other wetland dependent wildlife species, as well as essential habitat for many neotropical birds. Since these restoration activities were completed at Deep Fork Ranch, the area’s biodiversity has dramatically increased, and Mr. Baker and neighboring landowners have benefited as well. The Deep Fork River community has a long history of damaging floods caused, in part, by past land use practices in the watershed. However, Mr. Baker’s project has increased the water-holding capacity of the land and will help reduce water volume and velocity on neighboring properties when flooding events occur in the future.
The Administration evaluated the Partners Program for the FY 2004 budget through the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). The PART analysis found that the program was optimally designed to encourage habitat restoration and conservation on private lands and is achieving annual performance goals directed at benefiting fish and wildlife resources. The PART acknowledged the lack of specific authorization for the program, identified general authority for the program, and consensus among the interested partners on the program’s purpose.
S. 260, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Act, would codify the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Because of the tremendous success of the program in working with private landowners to conduct cost-effective habitat projects for the benefit of fish and wildlife resources in the United States, the Administration supports this legislation. However, to ensure that the program retain its present character and flexibility to work with private landowners and to be consistent with the President’s Budget, the Service would like the opportunity to work with the Committee to make technical changes to the bill.
In summary, the Service is lead Federal agency responsible for conserving and protecting the Nation’s fish and wildlife resources. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program is a voluntary, incentive-based habitat restoration program focusing on private and tribal lands that utilizes an innovative approach to further cooperative conservation throughout the country. The Service is encouraged that Congress is also committed to cooperative conservation and support the Partners Program. As a Federal agency, we will continue to strive to fulfill our responsibility to the American people to protect and conserve our nation’s public resources. We continue to recognize that our success is tied to our ability to work with others in the name of conservation – including private landowners.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement on the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and S. 260. I would be happy to answer any questions you or the other Members of the Committee might have.