Today, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to discuss improving coordination between the federal government and Western states—a conversation that is welcome and necessary—and the “need for the government to defer to state authority”—a sentiment that sportsmen should definitely question.
Access to state and federal public lands is vitally important to hunters, anglers, and other Americans who either work in or support the outdoor-recreation industry across America, particularly in the West. This $646-billion segment of our economy is often ignored—in fact, it was never even mentioned in the briefing memo for today. We believe that energy, forestry, water use, and wildlife should all be considered in the management of federal lands in the West, but future land management decisions cannot ignore sportsmen, our financial contribution to local economies, or our ongoing commitment to wildlife conservation.
Sportsmen are the first to agree that there are real challenges with federal lands management, but it’s impossible to make an apples-to-apples comparison between state lands management and the track record of federal agencies, because there are key differences in how states manage their lands compared to the federal government. States are constitutionally mandated to maximize profits from their state trust lands, which can reduce the quality of outdoor experiences and, at times, prohibit public access. In Idaho, for example, the state’s current asset management plan for “endowment” lands calls for dispersed recreational uses to be accommodated, provided that they don’t impair financial returns from other uses, like logging operations.
Federal lands are managed under a multiple-use mandate by which recreational opportunities are emphasized in management planning, while allowing energy development, grazing, and forestry to continue. If federal public lands had been managed for maximum profit since the time of Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold, our country would most likely look very different today.
States Do Play a Crucial Role—as Partners
The best solution for balanced management of our public lands is collaboration, not deferment. A great example of this can be found in the state and federal plans meant to benefit the greater sage grouse. Eleven Western states crafted conservation plans that are critical and meet the needs of their constitutional mandates, while the feds crafted complementary plans that, by default, must be stronger. All efforts—state plans, federal plans, and voluntary conservation measures undertaken by private landowners—were necessary to get to the not-warranted decision announced on September 22, and none of these plans can stand alone and deliver the necessary habitat conservation or regulatory certainty to avoid a future listing.
Opponents of the federal plans have no scientific evidence to support their claims that voluntary efforts alone are working, or that substituting state plans for federal plans would provide adequate conservation for sage grouse. In fact, the recently documented increase in males attending leks (up 63 percent from 2013, the second lowest count on record) has not altered the overall downward trend in the bird population observed from 1965 to present (an average annual decline of 0.83 percent.) This year’s increase falls within the normal range of fluctuation for game bird populations, which are known to shift rather dramatically with climatic factors, like precipitation. The majority of the greater sage grouse’s range has experienced excellent precipitation in the past two years, helping habitat conditions rebound and facilitating improved nesting, brood-rearing, and chick survival. Read more about that here.
Furthermore, the notion that the federal conservation plans for BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands are “just as restrictive, or more than, a listing decision” is simply wrong. Had the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the species, these same federal plans undoubtedly would have been required as part of an overall recovery plan, but the Service would also be required under Section 7 of the ESA to consult on every project impacting sagebrush habitat. This would certainly have added extensive time and costliness to the process.
Hunters and anglers agree that improvements should be made to forest and range management on federal lands, and we are ready to engage in those conversations with state and federal agencies. Better habitat means increased opportunities for sportsmen who pump dollars into local economies, and all the while, energy development, grazing, and other activities will continue. This opportunity for the West shouldn’t be squandered on political and litigious intervention. Congress needs only to support and fund efforts to implement critical conservation efforts and remember that sportsmen are an equally lucrative part of the Western economy.