A federal bill with bipartisan support could bring 20x more money to Illinois conservation efforts
That manatees still swim along Florida's coast, grizzly bears still roam the west and bald eagles still fly in North American skies is due, in large part, to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 — once described by the Supreme Court as "the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species enacted by any nation."
Now, nearly 50 years after that bill's landmark passage, Congress is poised to vote on a new piece of conservation legislation that experts say would, if passed, mark the largest dedicated investment in wildlife conservation — ever.
Called the Restoring America's Wildlife Act (RAWA), the bill aims to bolster state efforts to save endangered wildlife by dedicating $1.4 billion to that effort each year.
"This is truly unprecedented," Illinois Department of Natural Resources assistant director John Rogner told WGLT in an interview. "We tend to call it a game-changer for us here at Illinois DNR."
The National Wildlife Federation estimates that about 80% of funding for state conservation efforts across the country comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, in addition to excise tax dollars on related gear.
Rogner said Illinois' "sportsmen and sportswomen... have been carrying the freight for us, so to speak" but there's a need for additional support.
"While that model has worked really, really well for a long time, we are currently experiencing a really rapid rate of biodiversity loss," said Ashley Maybanks, spokesperson for Illinois' chapter of The Nature Conservancy. "We feel this funding would add additional resources to those species that are more at-risk... and would be transformational."
Illinois does receive some federal conservation funding from grants issued through the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program, which details how the state will preserve the conditions of what are called "Species in Greatest Conservation Need."
RAWA, if passed, would replace that program and the $1.4 billion allocated for funding would be distributed to states based on various factors, like the number of federally threatened species in the state, its size, and other factors.
"We projected in Illinois that we would receive about $24-25 million in new funds on an annual basis, in perpetuity until Congress revoked or otherwise amended the law," Rogner said. "That would be a 20-fold increase in the amount of funds that would come to IDNR. It's a pretty exciting prospect."
The additional funding would allow the agency to expand its conservation efforts to additional endangered species it has previously identified. Of the 12,000-some endangered species identified in the United States, more than 400 are in Illinois (16 are in McLean County).
"The whole idea being: 'Let's ... not let them get to the point where we have to list them as endangered or threatened, which kicks in a whole other series of federal and state laws that deal with those kinds of issues," Rogner said.
Illinois Environmental Council outreach director Lindsay Keeney called the the prospective passage of RAWA a "once in a lifetime opportunity," but noted the expanded scope of efforts may bring with it new challenges.
"Implementing such a huge opportunity is going to ... going to require a lot of coordination between varying level of policymakers and decision makers," Keeney said. "It's going to require bolstering our Department of Natural Resources because at the capacity they're at now — as it is they're able to get their everyday bread-and-butter done but if we're going to ask them to take on more tasks... we'll have to build up the capacity of that agency."
Rogner said new jobs in both the public and private sectors would follow the federal funding due to the state's expanded capacity for conservation work.
Support for RAWA has been notably bipartisan, both in sponsorship and votes. National Wildlife Foundation CEO Colin O'Mara credited Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican, with playing a "huge leadership role" in gathering other Republican voters; O'Mara said Illinois' Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth's contributions had "strengthened" it.
Duckworth's office said she could not be made available for an interview.
If this current Congress intends to pass the bill during its tenure, time is limited; new lawmakers will takeover on Jan. 3, 2023.