America’s Wildlife Restoration Act died in Congress last year. Could it become law?

Just a few months ago, the United States was about to pass one of the most important environmental laws in history: the Restoration of America’s Wildlife Act. The bill, known as RAWA, would fund species conservation across the country and was considered the largest environmental piece of legislation since the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

In June, RAWA passed the United States House of Representatives by a large margin. And months ago, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works stated with bipartisan support. I got the votes of the Senate. Then, in December, weeks before Congress’s term ended, it seemed the time for the bill had finally come: Lawmakers included RAWA in the massive government spending bill.

But before the bill was put to a vote, the RAWA was cut short, largely because Congress could not agree on how to pay for it. Then the term of Congress ended. Rawa died. Lawmakers will have to resume the process. This was just days after more than 190 countries adopted a convention to protect wildlife at the United Nations Biodiversity Summit in Montreal.

“The world has just decided that nature needs more protection,” said Tom Kors, land director for US government relations at the Nature Conservancy. And here the United States was sinking a bill that would protect species even before they were considered endangered. “It’s bittersweet,” he said, “knowing you’re on the cusp of a generational progression to preservation and then realizing you have to start from scratch.”

While RAWA fell short in 2022, it is not dead for good.

The core of the bill continues to have bipartisan support. In fact, some conservationists say it could pass as soon as this year, for real — on the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. Here’s what that might mean and if it could actually happen.

Solve a major problem in American conservation

A third or so of the species in the United States are threatened with extinction, according to the Nature Conservancy. Think about it: one in three species could disappear forever. This includes things like owls, salamanders, fish, and plants, each of which contribute some function to the ecosystems we depend on.

Fortunately, there is such a thing as conservation, and in the United States, much of it is done by state wildlife agencies. The fish and game departments have a range of programs to monitor and manage species that include reintroducing locally extinct animals and establishing hunting and fishing regulations.

American burial beetle, an insect that feeds on dead animals. It has disappeared from much of its range.
Dan Rick / Getty Images

But their work faces two big problems.

The first is that states do not have enough money. Roughly 80 percent of state-led conservation funding comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, as well as federal excise taxes on related equipment, such as guns and ammunition. These activities are not as popular as they used to be. “It results in less conservation work,” Andrew Ripple, a freshwater ecologist at the University of California, Davis, told Vox in August.

Another challenge is that states spend virtually all the money they collect on managing animals that people love to hunt or fish, like elk and trout. “Statewide, there has been almost no focus on fish and wildlife that are not used in games,” Daniel Rolfe, a law professor at Lewis & Clark College of Law, said in August. This leaves many species—including, for example, freshwater mussel species—that play incredibly important roles in our ecosystems.

RAWA could be a solution. The bill would provide state wildlife agencies a total of $1.3 billion annually by 2026, based on state size, population, and number of federally threatened species. RAWA also includes nearly $100 million for Native American tribes, who own or help manage nearly 140 million acres of land in the United States (equivalent to about 7 percent of the continental United States).

One feature of RAWA that makes it so useful, according to environmentalists, is that it requires states to protect endangered animals, whether or not they are targeted by poachers and poachers. “This is financing that doesn’t exist now,” said Rolfe.

RAWA also aims to restore wildlife populations before they are at risk of extinction, to avoid having to list the animals as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, which comes with all kinds of regulatory burdens and costs. (You can learn more about RAWA in this tutorial.)

RAWA is not doomed

After RAWA passed the House last summer, lawmakers turned to the bill’s biggest hurdle: “paying for,” aka how to cover the cost of the legislation, without having to increase the deficit.

Negotiations continued throughout the fall, and lawmakers put forward a number of different proposals. In the final weeks of Congress, it looked as if the government would pay for RAWA by closing a cryptocurrency-related tax loophole, as reported by E&E News’ Emma Domain.

Senator Martin Heinrichs (D-NM) introduced RAWA in the Senate in July 2021.
Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the end, lawmakers could not agree on the details. For this reason RAWA was cut from the overall bill.

However, there has been no opposition whatsoever to the substance of the bill, according to Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hye), who is a cosponsor of RAWA. She had dozens of participating Republican sponsors. “It wasn’t for any ideological or even political reason,” he told Vox. “We have mobilized opposition.”

That’s why environmental advocates hold hope in Congress’ new mandate. “The Senate bill remains completely bipartisan,” said Colin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit advocating for the legislation. That’s huge, he said, because few bipartisan bills and even fewer are “fully baked” — meaning the legislation is largely agreed upon.

So what happens now? Everything that happened last year, basically. The bill needs to be reintroduced in the House and Senate, bring together co-sponsors in both houses, and pass through committee.

Oh, and then there’s the payment issue, which has yet to be resolved. So far, it’s not clear what tool the government will use, O’Mara said, and other congressional priorities could derail the funding debates. (The new house rules adopted by the Republican-led chamber also affect what the government can use to pay for legislation.)

However, O’Mara and Senator Schatz remain confident Congress can get it done, passing the RAWA as soon as this year. “Structurally, we’re in a very good position to pass this in the next Congress,” Schatz said.

And that’s a good thing, too, because we’re “in the midst of a crisis,” O’Mara said, referring to the unprecedented rate of biodiversity loss worldwide. “Failure is not just an option. We have to keep working until it is.”

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