Passing the Shark Conservation Act; Equal Parts Inspiration and Disappointment

In the final days of the 111th Congress, I was actually inspired by the democratic process.  Yes, you read that right.  I witnessed firsthand a bipartisan movement that brought together hundreds of groups and citizens with diverse interests for one purpose -- to ensure that our nations’ public lands and water and the world’s wildlife were protected.  With today’s divisive political climate, it’s hard to believe that such collaboration is possible in regards to any issue.  But lo and behold, American people across the political spectrum saw the value, both intrinsic and economic, in preserving the natural world and its resources.

In late October, the offices of Senator Cardin (D-MD) and Senator Voinovich (R-OH) initiated conversations with environmental groups, historic preservation societies, and others with an interest in lands, water, and wildlife.  The problem they needed to discuss was this--dozens of bills that would preserve and protect our public lands, water, and wildlife had passed the House, been reported out of the relevant Senate committees with bipartisan support, and then sat stalled in the Senate waiting for a vote.  Worse yet, if the Senate failed to pass these bills before they adjourned in a few weeks, years of hard work would have to be repeated.  All the while, wildlife populations would continue to decline and vital habitats would be destroyed.  Some of the Senate bills had been placed on hold, a procedure that essentially allows one Senator to anonymously stifle debate and prevent a floor vote, while other bills had never even been called up for a vote.  Either way, all were the victims of the current toxic political climate.

Time to pass this legislation was limited and so were the options.  With other pressing issues like tax cuts and a continuing resolution up for debate, it wouldn’t be feasible to consider each of these bills individually.  It also wasn’t feasible to prioritize the bills for consideration.  After all, how do you justify preserving public lands while allowing the water that surrounds or runs through them to become polluted?   The best option was to compile the legislation into a package of lands, water, and wildlife bills.  True, the resultant package would be pretty overwhelming and could tip the scales at over 1,000 pages.  But the fact of the matter was that these bills had bipartisan support, had been reported out of their relevant Committees, and called for minimal spending authorizations- not even actual appropriations of money, which would be taken care of in a separate legislative vote.

To pass something of this magnitude, there would have to be a huge outpouring of support from the American public.  And that’s when it happened- a movement, a true demonstration of how the will of the American public can motivate our Congressional leaders.  Over the course of just several weeks, literally hundreds of groups, representing millions of members, joined forces to gather grassroots support for a lands-water-wildlife bill package.

IFAW was in the throws of the action making calls to Senate offices and holding meetings with Congressional staff to discuss the potential package.  IFAW CEO, Fred O’ Regan, traveled to DC and met personally with Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown to discuss pieces of legislation in the package of particular importance to IFAW and its members.  And most importantly, IFAW supporters- like you- took action!  An e-alert was sent to all of IFAW’s members urging them to write their Senators.  Other groups sent similar messages to their supporters.

Before you knew it, thousands upon thousands of calls were made, emails were sent, and letters were mailed.  Once a distant dream, the reality of the lands-water-wildlife package was starting to take shape.  Senator Reid voiced his desire to bring a package to the floor, going so far as to hint at calling the Senate back into session between Christmas and New Years in order to pass the bill.

Now, as you’ve probably realized, this post did not start with the title “REALLY, REALLY, REALLY BIG VICTORY!”  Unfortunately, the lead up is somewhat more rewarding than the conclusion.  In the end, the Senate did not bring the lands-water-wildlife package, which was titled America’s Great Outdoors Act of 2010, to the Senate floor for a vote.  Time simply ran out before all compromises and tweaks could be made.  But, the Senate did pass, by unanimous consent, the Shark Conservation Act – one small piece of the larger package -- a bill that IFAW strongly supports and has worked for years to move forward.

So, although we didn’t see passage of a lands-water-wildlife package, there was a significant victory for sharks. The omnibus package that didn’t pass included legislation to protect declining populations of great cats and rare canids, restore struggling populations of sea otters off the California coast, and reauthorize funding to protect marine turtles.  When Congress adjourned, these issues didn’t.  We’re reminded that there is still a lot of work to be done.

We’re also reminded of the importance of being engaged on issues and speaking out.  Contact your Representatives and Senators - they really do listen. Write, email, call, tweet, and make your views be known.  As we prepare for a new Congress and a changing atmosphere, it’s more important than ever to make our voices heard.  It’s hard for Congress to carry out the will of the people if no one is speaking up.

-- DK

For more information on current IFAW campaigns and to take action, visit www.ifaw.org

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