Executive Director’s Notebook: WGA’s ‘Top 10 Bipartisan Policy Efforts in 2015’

By Jim Ogsbury

As the curtains close on 2015, it’s a good time to reflect on what was a dynamic and successful year for Western Governors. Although it’s impossible to capture the breadth and scope of their accomplishments in a brief year-end blog post, I am pleased to share some illustrative highlights in the following (second annual) list of "Top Ten Bipartisan Policy Efforts."

1. Fire Borrowing: “Fire borrowing” refers to the raid by federal agencies of accounts for forest health and fire prevention activities to fund firefighting efforts when fire suppression accounts run dry. The Governors' persistent work on this issue resulted in a significant "win" in the FY 2016 omnibus spending bill. Wildfire suppression will now be funded at a level -- $3.2 billion for the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, with an additional $1 billion for the FLAME Act fund -- intended to fully reimburse federal agencies’ wildfire funding expenses during FY15 and prevent a recurrence in FY16 of “fire borrowing."

2. Western Drought: The first year of Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval's Western Governors’ Drought Forum concluded with the release of a report and video that identify seven key themes to help western states better anticipate and manage drought. Drought Forum findings also informed an update to the resolution, Water Resource Management in the West. The Drought Forum also produced an online archive of best practices, case studies and resources.

3. Greater sage-grouse: The Interior Department announced in September that it would not list the Greater sage-grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The news followed years of unprecedented collaborative voluntary conservation work by Western Governors. The June publication of the fourth annual Sage-Grouse Inventory documents and highlights such efforts. Considerable work remains for the Governors, who must respond to the federal land use plans released in May by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service for public lands in 10 western states.

4. Governors on Capitol Hill: The first-ever Mission to Washington, D.C. in September was a resounding success. WGA Chairman and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (WGA Vice Chair), North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert participated in a whirlwind of meetings and appearances on Capitol Hill. Governors Mead and Bullock discussed ways to improve the Endangered Species Act in a briefing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife. Governors Mead, Bullock, Daugaard and Herbert then appeared before the House Natural Resources Committee to testify on a number of WGA policy priorities.

5. Improved land management: The National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration, released in August, includes a number of recommendations proposed by Western Governors to ensure appropriate seed resources for rehabilitation and restoration of damaged landscapes across the country. Western Governors also provided comments on Secretarial Order 3336 from the Department of Interior, which offers strategies for federal cooperation with states to prevent and manage rangeland fire and restore rangelands impacted by fire. Also, for the third year in a row, the budget includes language that directs federal agencies to utilize state fish and wildlife data and analyses to inform land use, planning, and related natural resource decisions involving wildlife.

6. Groundwater management: The Governors applauded the news in late February that the U.S. Forest Service had placed its Proposed Directive on Groundwater Resource Management on hold. The Governors opposed the directive (as noted in testimony by WGA Executive Director Jim Ogsbury, right, before the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power, and Oceans) because states are the exclusive authority for allocating, administering, protecting and developing groundwater resources, and they are responsible for water supply planning within their boundaries.

7. Tax-exempt federal Lands: During the past year, Western Governors urged Congressional leadership to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act (SRS) and fully fund Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT). The Omnibus Appropriations Bill for 2016 includes full funding for both programs and the Governors continue to work to identify a permanent funding source for both.

8. Western Transportation: The Governors applauded the December passage of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. The act provides a comprehensive 5-year transportation program in line with the WGA policy resolution, Transportation Infrastructure in the Western United States, which calls for a "viable, long-term funding mechanism" for the "maintenance and expansion of our surface transportation network.” The Governors also supported passage of the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2015, which reauthorizes appropriations for the board through 2020, expands the board from three members to five, and re-establishes the board as an independent agency outside the purview of the Department of Transportation.

9. Resolved! Western Governors approved 8 Policy Resolutions during the 2015 calendar year, including 5 at the Annual Meeting (transportation, enhanced oil recovery, agriculture, water resource management and minerals) and 3 at the Winter Meeting (forest and rangeland management, foreign visitor preclearance, and radioactive materials transport).

10. Passing the nonpartisan baton: Wyoming Gov. Mead assumed the WGA Chairmanship in July and subsequently launched the Western Governors’ Species Conservation and Endangered Species Act Initiative. The Initiative will, among other things, create a mechanism for states to share best practices in species management and explore ways to improve the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act. The first workshop of the Chairman’s Initiative was held during November in Cody, Wyoming. Learn about that meeting on the Chairman’s Initiative website.

I’d like to share more about the Governors’ activities during the past year, but 2016 is right around the corner, and we need to prepare for an even bigger year for Western Governors. I have every confidence that it will be even more difficult to shoehorn their year of accomplishments into a Top Ten list next December.

Happy New Year!

Jim Ogsbury is the Executive Director of the Western Governors' Association. Contact him at 303-623-9378 or send an email. Get the latest news about the West and its governors by following the Western Governors' Association on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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