Infrastructure Bill Includes Strong Measures to Help Fish and Wildlife

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Infrastructure Bill Includes Strong Measures to Help Fish and Wildlife
A bird’s-eye view shows a rendering of the Snoqualmie Pass wildlife overpass on I-90 in Washington, one of 27 structures that, when completed in 2029, will connect terrestrial and aquatic habitats along one of the busiest corridors in the Pacific Northwest.
The Snoqualmie Pass wildlife overpass on Interstate 90 in Washington provides safe passage annually for thousands of animals, including elk and deer.
Washington State Department of Transportation Flickr

Wildlife, fish, parks, and tribal lands are among the winners in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act approved by the U.S. Senate on Aug. 10. If approved by the House of Representatives and signed into law, the act would for the first time provide dedicated resources to construct wildlife crossings to help reduce fatalities and injuries caused by the 1-2 million wildlife-vehicle collisions that occur each year.

The legislation directs $350 million in dedicated funding over five years for state and local governments to build wildlife overpasses and underpasses, which benefit drivers and animals alike. For example, on U.S. Highway 20 in eastern Oregon, vehicle-wildlife collisions cost an estimated $2 million-plus a year. The Burns Paiute Tribe has been advocating for crossing solutions there to help address the decline in the county’s mule deer population, which is important to the tribe for food and traditional uses, and to the state’s outdoor recreation industry. A wildlife infrastructure project on U.S. Highway 97 in central Oregon has helped reduce animal-vehicle collisions by 86% since 2012. 

The National Culvert Replacement Program, also part of the bill, would provide $1 billion—spread equally over five years—in grants to states, local governments, and tribes to repair or remove culverts to improve passage for endangered or threatened fish. Another $600 million per year over five years would be authorized for this program through annual appropriations. Other infrastructure provisions would support the removal of dams—projects that are critical for river restoration and fish passage. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Community-based Restoration Program, for example, would receive $400 million over five years through the congressional appropriations process, with $60 million of this total for tribal governments. 

This culvert on Tomlinson Creek in northwestern Oregon was removed in 2020. Culverts and other barriers can impede fish migration and passage, trap sediments that are crucial for maintaining physical processes and downstream habitats, and harm water quality by decreasing oxygen levels
Culverts and other barriers, such as this one on Tomlinson Creek in Oregon, can impede fish migration and passage, trap sediments that are crucial for downstream habitats, and harm water quality by decreasing oxygen levels. This culvert was removed in 2020.
Justin Bailie

Dams and culverts have multiple ecological consequences, including adverse effects on the biological, chemical, and physical properties of rivers and riparian environments. With access to spawning areas cut off or impeded, salmon and other migrating fish populations are declining throughout the country, hurting the commercial fishing industry and outdoor recreation.  Culverts constructed beneath roads can concentrate river flow, resulting in increased velocity, downstream erosion, and impediments to fish passage.

Today, tribal nations, states, local governments, and coalitions of sportsmen, local businesses, and conservationists are working to reconnect rivers throughout the U.S. In Washington state, for example, the 100-year-old, 54-foot Enloe Dam on the Similkameen River blocks hundreds of miles of salmon, steelhead, bull trout, and lamprey habitat in the Upper Columbia River Basin. The dam is no longer authorized to produce power, and the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation, and a diverse group of stakeholders support its removal. A lack of sufficient funding, however, has stymied such efforts. The infrastructure package, if enacted, could facilitate projects such as the Enloe Dam removal, which alone would reconnect more than 200 miles of river habitat. 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would also provide an increase for the Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Projects program, which funds transportation project repairs and improvements in national parks, other public lands, and tribal lands. The legislation would provide dedicated funding for this program for the first time—$55 million per year, for a total of $275 million over five years. The act also would authorize congressional appropriators to provide up to an additional $300 million per year if the cumulative costs for construction projects exceed the dedicated funding allotment.

Senate passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and its vital wildlife, river, and park provisions is a major step forward for conservation and local economies that depend on healthy ecosystems. House passage and President Biden’s signature on this legislation would lock in those benefits for years to come. 

Marcia Argust directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.

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