The US was poised to pass the biggest environmental law in a generation. What went wrong?

Four young flammulated owls, a species found in Western North America. These owls are among the species that could benefit from a bill called Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. | W. Perry Conway/Getty Images

Recovering America’s Wildlife Act died last year in Congress, but lawmakers may soon get another shot.

Just a few months ago, the US was poised to pass one of the most significant environmental laws in history: Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. The bill, known as RAWA, would fund species conservation across the country and was considered the biggest piece of environmental legislation since the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

In June, RAWA passed the US House by a large margin. And months earlier, it cleared the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works with bipartisan support. It had the Senate votes. Then, in December, weeks before the congressional term was over, it seemed like the bill’s time was finally here: Lawmakers included RAWA in the massive government spending bill.

But just before the bill came to a vote, RAWA was cut, largely because Congress couldn’t agree on how to pay for it. Then the congressional term was over. RAWA was dead; lawmakers would have to restart the process. This was just days after more than 190 nations adopted an agreement to protect wildlife at the United Nations biodiversity summit in Montreal.

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

While RAWA failed in 2022, it’s not dead for good.

The core of the bill still has bipartisan support. In fact, some environmental advocates say it could pass as soon as this year, for real — on the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. Here’s what that would mean and whether it could actually happen.

Solving a big problem in American conservation

One-third or so of species in the US are threatened with extinction, according to the Nature Conservancy. Think about that: One in three species could disappear for good. That includes things like owls, salamanders, fish, and plants, each of which contributes some function to ecosystems that we depend on.

Thankfully, there’s such a thing as conservation, and in the US, much of it is done by state wildlife agencies. Fish and game departments have a range of programs to monitor and manage species that include reintroducing locally extinct animals and setting regulations for hunting and fishing.

Dan Rieck/Getty Images
The American burying beetle, an insect that feeds on dead animals. It has vanished from much of its range.

Their work, however, faces a couple of big problems.

The first is that states don’t have enough money. Roughly 80 percent of funding for state-led conservation comes from selling hunting and fishing licenses, in addition to federal excise taxes on related gear, such as guns and ammo. These activities aren’t as popular as they once were. “That results in less conservation work getting done,” Andrew Rypel, a freshwater ecologist at the University of California Davis, told Vox in August.

Another challenge is that states spend virtually all the money they do raise on managing animals that people like to hunt or fish, such as elk and trout. “At the state level, there’s been almost zero focus on non-game fish and wildlife,” Daniel Rohlf, a law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, said in August. That leaves out many species — including, say, kinds of freshwater mussels — that play incredibly important roles in our ecosystems.

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

One feature of RAWA that makes it so useful, according to environmental advocates, is that it requires states to protect animals that are imperiled, whether or not they’re targeted by hunters and fishers. “That’s funding that doesn’t exist right now,” Rohlf said.

RAWA also aims to restore wildlife populations before they’re at risk of extinction, to avoid having to list 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 explainer.)

RAWA isn’t doomed

After RAWA passed the House last summer, lawmakers turned to the bill’s tallest hurdle: the “pay-for,” a.k.a. how to cover the cost of the legislation, without having to raise the deficit.

Negotiations carried on throughout the fall, and legislators put forward a number of different proposals. In the final weeks of the congressional term, it looked as though the government would pay for RAWA by closing a tax loophole related to cryptocurrency, as E&E News’s Emma Dumain reported.

Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NY) introduced RAWA in the Senate in July 2021.

Ultimately, lawmakers couldn’t agree on the details. That’s why RAWA got cut from the omnibus bill.

Yet there was never opposition to the substance of the bill, according to Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who co-sponsored RAWA. It had dozens of Republican co-sponsors. “It wasn’t for any ideological or even political reason” that it was cut, he told Vox. “We don’t really have an opposition that is mobilized.”

It’s for this reason that environmental advocates are carrying hope into the new congressional term. “The Senate bill is still completely bipartisan,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit that’s been advocating for the legislation. That’s huge, because few bills are bipartisan and even fewer are “fully baked,” he said — meaning the legislation is pretty much agreed on.

So what happens now? Everything that happened last year, essentially. The bill needs to be reintroduced in the House and Senate, accrue co-sponsors in both chambers, and go through committee.

Oh, and then there’s that issue of the pay-for, which remains unresolved. So far, it’s not clear what tool the government will use, O’Mara said, and other congressional priorities could get in the way of funding discussions. (New House rules adopted by the Republican-led chamber also affect what the government can use to pay for legislation.)

Still, O’Mara and Sen. Schatz are confident that Congress can get it done, and pass RAWA as soon as this year. “Structurally speaking, we’re in a pretty good position to pass this in the coming Congress,” Schatz said.

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 just not an option. We have to keep going until it gets done.”

You May Also Like