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Congress must finish work on popular conservation bill before time runs out

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The clock is ticking and if Congress doesn’t act quickly, it will lose the opportunity to deliver conservation, environmental, and recreational benefits to the Chesapeake Bay region and the rest of the country through the America’s Conservation Enhancement (ACE) Act.

The ACE Act has been stalled until recently, despite enjoying broad, bipartisan support and the enthusiastic backing of the outdoor recreation industry, conservation groups, and fish and wildlife managers nationwide. In a hopeful sign, the Senate on Sept. 16 overcame a few last-minute objections to pass it by unanimous consent.

Now it’s up to the House to act — and soon. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation urges House leaders to put this important bill to a final vote before lawmakers leave town to hit the campaign trail. The Bay region’s 18 million residents, and all Americans, should not have to wait any longer to tap the conservation and economic investments the ACE Act would make possible.

In crafting the ACE Act, lawmakers in both chambers worked across party lines and bridged regional differences to protect fish and wildlife habitat and support outdoor activities like recreational hunting, and sportfishing. The bill also tackles the threat of invasive species and emerging wildlife diseases, conserves wetlands across North America, and compensates ranchers for livestock killed by federally protected species. And who can argue with authorizing grants for local water quality improvement projects?

The ACE Act also contains several provisions essential to restoring the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary and a vital source of jobs and economic activity. Although we’ve made great strides since the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint for restoring the Bay was signed in 2010, that progress has slowed in recent years. The pandemic has only made things worse.

Adding to the challenge, the Chesapeake watershed’s six states and the District of Columbia have less than five years left to meet their commitments to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution that is damaging the Bay’s living resources.

The Blueprint is our last, best chance to restore the health of this national treasure and essential economic engine. Passing the ACE Act would demonstrate Congress’s continued bipartisan commitment to a restored Bay and inject urgently needed funds into the cleanup at this pivotal time.

Most important for the Bay’s future, the ACE Act would reauthorize the Chesapeake Bay Program and incrementally increase funding to $92 million annually by 2025. The Program, created in 1983 under President Ronald Reagan, is the glue that holds the multi-jurisdictional restoration partnership together. Administered by EPA, it coordinates scientific research, oversees each jurisdiction’s cleanup activities, and distributes grants for local restoration projects.

The House has already voted three times to reauthorize the Chesapeake Bay Program: first when it adopted the chamber’s version of the ACE Act last November, then when it passed Rep. Elaine Luria’s (D-Va.) stand-alone reauthorization bill in February, and finally in July as part of the House infrastructure package. The Senate first passed its version of the ACE Act, which includes Sen. Ben Cardin’s (D-Md.) and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s (R-W.Va.) reauthorization language, back in January by unanimous consent.

The ACE Act also includes Cardin’s and Rep. John Sarbanes’s (D-Md.) bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails grant program, which expands recreation, education, and public access to the Bay, and the Chesapeake Watershed Investments for Landscape Defense (WILD) Act. This bipartisan bill led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) would create a new grant program to fund restoration of fish and wildlife habitat across the Bay’s 64,000 square-mile watershed.

Another win in the ACE Act is reauthorization of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), a federally chartered nonprofit whose conservation work includes providing matching funds for on-the-ground projects that reduce pollution and improve the quality of life in local communities.

As one example, a new NFWF grant will enable the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and local partners in south Richmond to plant more than 650 shade trees and provide green jobs training to neighborhoods suffering from extreme heat linked to racially motivated housing discrimination. Planting trees and turning parking lots into parks not only cools temperatures and cleans the air and water, it reduces electricity bills and stormwater fees, lowers residents’ stress levels, and improves the health of the entire community.

Also slated for renewal in the ACE Act is the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which provides matching grants to protect wetlands in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. These projects also create jobs and spur economic growth. Outdoor activity is valuable to the Bay region’s — and the nation’s — economy. Recent studies show that tourists spent $25.7 billion annually in the watershed. And if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the inestimable value of getting outside for our mental and physical health.

It’s not too late for the 116th Congress to improve water quality and protect wildlife habitat in the Chesapeake watershed and nationwide. ACE Act programs are critical to conservation efforts and spur economic active in every state and region of the country. They enhance outdoor recreation for tens of millions of Americans and support the tourism and outdoor industries. We urge Congress to finish the job and pass the ACE Act before time runs out so the American people can enjoy its many benefits.

Jason Rano is federal executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Tags Ben Cardin Bobby Scott Chesapeake Bay Program Chris Van Hollen Elaine Luria John Sarbanes Shelley Moore Capito
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