There is a balance to everything in the world. No matter the situation, there is a median—a central point where opposing sides, ideals, or forces can exist comfortably. This is the key to harmony. Yet harmony is increasingly rare these days, mostly because we tend to overcompensate when we feel a lack of balance, throwing weights on the opposite end of the scale so rapidly that it plunges toward the other side of the spectrum. There is no better example of this than when, earlier this year, the Trump administration’s EPA and Army Corps of Engineers announced their new regulations for enforcing the Clean Water Act.
For decades, the 1972 Clean Water Act has served as a guide for the protection of ephemeral streams and wetlands from pollution and industrial corruption. It was originally put in place to act as a preventative and restorative measure to ensure that the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our nation’s waters were restored and maintained. It ensured hunters and anglers would always have safe and healthy places to hunt and fish. It was one of the United States’ first and most influential environmental laws. However, over the years several amendments and additions to the Clean Water Act have made the regulations more and more strict, invoking regulations upon not only industrial companies and corporations interested in collecting natural resources but agricultural interests and private landowners as well.
This led to a great deal of confusion as to where and when the Clean Water Act had jurisdiction. At first it was believed that the original act only applied to wetlands and intermittently flowing streams. Court cases in 2001 and 2008 cast doubt on the actual extent of the law, suggesting the Clean Water Act only applied to waters with permanent surface connections to navigable waters. To alleviate this confusion, in 2009 the Obama administration had the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers write new and more clearly defined rules regarding which waterways were protected under the act.
Since these rewrites, oil, gas, agricultural, and other development industries have fought against the new regulations under the pretense that the federal government had no business telling private business owners and farmers what they could do on their own property. It was couched as an overreach by the government. An unnecessary extension of power. So on January 23rd, 2020, the Trump administration announced they would repeal the previous administration’s ruling on the federal regulation of U.S waterways and reinstate the longstanding, more familiar regulations.
While this was viewed as good news for private landowners and small farmers, the Trump administration’s repeal was not specifically aimed at them—it repealed all of the 2009 amendments. This allowed larger industrial entities such as oil, gas, real estate, and mining companies to once again utilize waterways as they see fit, allowing them to pollute and even backfill waterways and wetlands for monetary gain. This should not sit well with sportsmen.
Small stream headwaters and wetlands are vital to the survival of many fish and animal species. They provide nutrients and passageways to larger bodies of water while acting as nurseries for the young of dozens of fish species. Simply put, headwater streams and wetlands keep the fishing industry and culture alive.
For game animals such as deer and elk, these bodies of water provide the ideal environment for plants and grasses upon which they browse and in which they birth and raise their fawns and calves. Waterfowl such as ducks and geese, too, are especially affected by this, as wetlands are absolutely essential for their survival. The fact is, if small streams and wetlands are allowed to be destroyed, backfilled, and polluted with chemicals, hunters and fisherman might as well hang up their fishing rods, put away their guns and bows, and take up golf, because there will be nothing left to hunt or fish for.
Once again, it all comes down to balance and finding harmony. Just because the Obama administration’s amendments to the Clean Water Act were restrictive to farmers—overbalancing against private landowners’ rights—doesn’t mean the Trump administration should be allowed to completely tip the scale in the opposite direction. The fact is, out of the 3,163 permits issued for commercial use of wetlands by the EPA every year between 2011 and 2015, only eight of them were issued to farmers and private landowners. Eight. The rest went to larger extractive and industrial companies. Yet the administration’s campaign for reverting back to the old rules was presented as a way to protect the rights of small-time farmers, despite them only representing a miniscule percentage of the whole.
The idea of the rollbacks to the Clean Water Act being the result of a fight between landowners and habitat quality is a falsehood, as the real benefactors of the new/old amendments are big companies who care nothing for conservation or wildlife. This leads us to the big question: How can a more harmonious outcome be achieved? The longer we sportsmen allow things to tip precariously toward industrial gain and polluting of the waters we collectively use, the sooner the sporting traditions of hunting and fishing that we love will be destroyed, lost to unchecked greed.