Our Public Lands Are Classrooms That Are Too Valuable to Lose
Lessons from a youth hunt in the public lands around Oregon’s Elliott State Forest have a major impact on father and son, but opportunities like this are at risk
The subtle click of the safety disengaging made my heart race. Every emotion, logical thought, and sense focused like a laser to the moment. To say I was a nervous wreck was an understatement.
Chase was a lot calmer than I was. He’d already passed on a shot that he said didn’t feel right, but it was clear he’d made up his mind about this plump little forked horn buck standing across the cut, just east of the Elliott State Forest. As a dad, I prayed for a clean shot, as I have personally experienced the ramifications of a poor one and hoped Chase wouldn’t have to go through that with his first youth tag. But I could almost taste the backstrap, too, so I struggled to keep my cool.
I heard the crack of the .270 and watched the buck fall in its tracks. Emotions poured out of both of us, and a sacred bond had been made between father and son. Chase and I were now of the same make, the same tribe.
There is a big push in the West for states to obtain the federal lands within their borders. On the surface, this might seem like a good idea, but state governments have a long track record of selling off land to meet budget shortfalls.
This issue is very personal to me here in Oregon, where the sale of the Elliott State Forest has been playing out at the expense of taxpayers for years. That sale appears to be tabled for the moment, as our governor has asked to explore ways to keep the lands public, or at least to make a private sale more appealing to the public. But, at one point, there was a long list of buyers, topped by some private companies known for closing public hunting and fishing access. That’s how state ownership goes.
Outdoorsmen—and our sons and daughters—stand to lose much more than access if our national public lands are handed over to the states, which have a mandate to make revenue off these lands. Our outdoor heritage depends on the wild places where it can be lived out.
Nate Bailey is TRCP’s volunteer ambassador in Oregon. When he isn’t exploring the wild public places of southern Oregon, you can find him guiding clients down the Rogue and Williamson rivers. See what makes him #publiclandsproud by following his adventures on Instagram at @southern_oregon_outdoorz.
A woman’s first mule deer hunt in Oregon takes her from hunting skeptic to #PublicLandsProud convert
This fall, I did something I never thought I would do—I went hunting.
I didn’t grow up with hunting traditions. In fact, five years ago, my opinion of hunting was probably more aligned with a stereotype than it was based on an actual person or group of people I knew who hunted.
Then I met Kevin, and suddenly found myself dating a hunter. You know him as TRCP’s Western field associate.
Through Kevin’s passion for hunting and the outdoors, I found myself immersed in a new world. We cooked wild game together, and I sat in on fascinating conversations among his friends regarding hunting ethics, outsider perceptions, and conservation.
I began to see hunting as a culture, and it changed my perspective enough that I thought about giving it a try myself.
A Humbling Hunt
This fall, against all odds, I drew tags for a mule deer buck and cow elk in Oregon—something that I hadn’t totally prepared for, especially since we wound up moving to Missoula, Mont., right before the season started. On the long drive back to the Beaver State, I studied YouTube videos on how to quarter a deer and pondered if there were any quick car exercises that could make up for my woeful lack of preparation in the physical fitness department.
We met up with Alex, a friend from Oregon, and made camp. This was Alex’s third year hunting mule deer, though he had yet to harvest one. Still, I remained confident—how hard could it be?
Sitting against a tree on opening morning, I listened to the forest waking up all around us as the sun rose over the mountains, and I felt a sense of awe. The landscape was breathtaking. If it weren’t for the tag in my pocket, I wouldn’t have seen that sunrise or experienced any of the lessons I learned that day. I was starting to understand what Kevin and his friends had been going on about.
I had no luck on opening day, but each encounter with an animal renewed my sense of excitement. As we crept up over a hill in late morning, Kevin stopped abruptly and whispered, “I see one.” I craned my neck to spot the animal he was looking at, adrenaline pumping. The deer was resting under a tree, partially obscured, but when its head turned, we both saw that it was a doe. That night, I remember having vivid dreams of seeing a buck instead and pulling off the perfect shot. When I woke up the next morning, I was giddy, ready to try again.
The next weekend, as Kevin and I were trudging up yet another steep hill while glassing the opposite hill for movement, our radio went off—Alex had shot a forked horn mule deer, his first! With no regard for any unseen animals that might be nearby, we whooped and hollered over the radio, sharing in his excitement. We got his coordinates and headed his way for the pack out.
I watched as Alex and Kevin field dressed the buck, seeing it transition from being an animal on the ground to different cuts of meat hanging from the trees. Alex kept the hide and cut out the ribs, wanting to savor each bit of his trophy and show full respect to the animal. By the time we loaded our packs and headed out with headlamps aglow, only a pile of guts and a few bones were left behind. For me, a big part of why I wanted to hunt was being able to provide my own meat and know where it came from. In today’s world where so much of our food processing is out of sight, this experience was the circle of life made tangible—an eye-opening experience of hunting for food and wasting nothing.
Although I never did pull the trigger, being a witness to Alex’s achievement was enough to get me hooked, though I don’t know if I’ll ever be obsessed with it the way Kevin is. Hunting is humbling in a way that I hadn’t expected. I went into it with starry eyes, thinking I would punch my tag on opening morning, but it wasn’t easy. I came back to camp at night tired, hungry, and cold. I can only imagine how difficult conditions would be without healthy habitat, plentiful big game, and access to public lands. So, you could say I learned the value of conservation at the same time that I was paying my dues in the field.
All in all, I was refreshed by the beauty and adventure of public lands, no matter the outcome. I’m aware now more than ever of the incredible bounty that public lands can provide, but I’ve also witnessed their fragility. The adventures I had this fall would not have been possible without them. Public lands are ours to enjoy, but first and foremost, they are ours to defend. I now truly know what it means to be #publiclandsproud, and I can’t wait to try again next fall.
Laura Sligh grew up in the tiny town of Holland, Mich. and currently lives in Missoula, Mont. When she’s not adventuring on public lands with her boyfriend, TRCP’s Western field associate Kevin Farron, and black Lab Leo, she’s knitting baby hats with their cat on her lap, or trying to master a new wild-game recipe.
A look back at the highs and lows for habitat, clean water, access, and conservation funding
I think we can all agree that this year has been a political roller coaster ride. Election antics aside, there were a lot of peaks and valleys for conservation in 2016 that may have a major impact on fish, wildlife, and America’s sportsmen and women for years to come.
How the Conservation Reserve Program worked for turkeys, upland birds, ducks, and trout. Still, conservation-minded farmers struggled to enroll in the popular program, due to acreage caps, so sportsmen and many others started calling for a better CRP in the next Farm Bill.
This USDA watchdog report that indicated a lot of private landowners being compensated for conservation efforts weren’t actually held accountable. This could mean bad news for waterways, wetlands, and the American taxpayer.
When the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act almost made it, but Congress ultimately failed hunters and anglers across the country. As in two Congresses before, this package of legislation to enhance conservation funding and access seemed to be on the move. In February, the House advanced a portion of the legislation through the SHARE Act. Then in April, the Senate voted 97-0 to add sportsmen’s priorities through an amendment to an energy modernization bill. In the final hours of this Congress, however, conference efforts fell apart. Translation: Sportsmen and women got left behind to try again another day.
Also, that time when federal lawmakers voted for bills that would give away or sell off your public lands. This one is just beyond words.
And there was resounding opposition to public land transfer at the local level in Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming. Here’s to much more of that in 2017!
Trump’s Pick for Interior is the Best Cabinet Nominee for Sportsmen, So Far
Congressman Ryan Zinke has been solid on public lands and outdoor recreation
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership affirms that America’s hunters and anglers can be optimistic about the management of public lands and sportsmen’s access under President-elect Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Interior. After days of rumors, the transition team confirmed Trump’s intent to nominate U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke in a statement today.
“Zinke is someone we can work with,” says Whit Fosburgh, TRCP’s president and CEO. “He’s shown the courage to buck his own party on the issue of selling or transferring public lands that provide 72 percent of Western sportsmen with access to great hunting and fishing. He’s a lifelong outdoorsman, who we’ve found to be receptive to sportsmen’s interests in Montana and D.C. We won’t agree with him on everything, but we think he’s someone who will listen and has the right instincts.”
In June, Zinke was the only member of the House Natural Resources Committee to cross party lines and vote against a bill that would allow states to acquire up to two million acres of national forest lands to be managed primarily for timber production, locking Americans out of our public lands. Later this summer, he resigned as a delegate to the Republican nominating convention because of the party’s position on the transfer of federal public lands to the states. Zinke is also in favor of full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenues from offshore oil and gas production to conserve important natural resources and open public access.
The Secretary of the Interior oversees management of public lands, minerals, and endangered species. Senior officials nominated to lead other Cabinet departments will be just as critical to the future of hunting and fishing.
“The Secretary of Agriculture is another leadership position that will drive habitat and access improvements in America through Farm Bill programs, and we simply cannot have someone in that seat who is hostile to conservation,” says Fosburgh.
When One Program Opens Access and Improves Habitat, Everyone Wins
We dig into the across-the-board benefits of a key Farm Bill conservation program on private lands
For every walk-in access sign there are numerous forces at play, granting you permission to use the land and ensuring quality habitat for critters. On private acres, your experience might be thanks in part to Farm Bill conservation programs. One in particular, the Volunteer Public Access and Habitat Improvement Program, provides $40 million specifically to support quality hunting and fishing access on private land—but its benefits don’t stop there.
Private land access helps keeps the sport alive.
Westerners are flush with public lands, while the rest of the nation’s sportsmen and women make do with smaller, isolated public patches that may not be close to home. Some of the non-Westerners among us may travel to Big Sky Country once a year, but access can be a significant barrier for beginning hunters and anglers or anyone who doesn’t have a big-ticket trip with out-of-state license fees in his or her budget.
@TheTRCP Hunting has gotten too expensive for an average huntress on her own…
As its name suggests, VPA-HIP has two primary goals: securing public access and improving habitat. Authorized and funded in the 2008 Farm Bill and renewed in the 2014 Farm Bill, VPA-HIP helps states incentivize landowners to implement conservation-minded practices, such as clearing a forest understory of invasive plant species or creating stream buffers. In exchange, landowners allows the public to hunt, fish, trap, and observe wildlife on their property.
In short, VPA-HIP invests money in states like Illinois, Nebraska, Connecticut, and South Dakota—often in parts of the country where public lands are relatively scarce—to help give more Americans opportunities to hunt and fish.
Local economies get a boost.
Last month, TRCP’s government affairs director Steve Kline spent some time chasing upland birds on private land in eastern Montana, and he’ll be the first to tell you that hunting season supports rural economies. At this time of year, even in otherwise sleepy towns, you’ll see bustling restaurants, packed sporting goods stores, and busy streets—and the economy is better for it.
The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) calculated the actual economic impact in a 2012 study and found that for the $9.1 million invested into VPA-HIP in 2011, 322 jobs were created and $18.1 million in gear- and travel-related spending was associated with hunters accessing newly enrolled private lands. That’s double the investment!
And that figure only covers direct spending. The economic boost echoes down the entire supply chain with more production, jobs, and higher profits, which stimulates even more spending. The report calculates that once those amplifying effects are taken into account, the return on investment for VPA-HIP funds was actually more than $73 million in a single year.
This isn’t just free money.
A common point of criticism for incentive programs like VPA-HIP is that the government shouldn’t give handouts to the agriculture industry. However, this money isn’t free. VPA-HIP isn’t a charity, it’s a payment for services rendered to wildlife and the public. Landowners invest funds into habitat improvements, which critters need to survive. Instead of laying crops all the way up to a stream’s edge, for example, VPA-HIP dollars help a landowner create buffers to keep water clean so fish and waterfowl can thrive. After all, access is basically worthless without quality habitat.
Furthermore, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—the branch of the USDA that governs VPA-HIP—is highly selective when it comes to choosing grant recipients. NRCS prioritizes funding for state and tribal applications that maximize acreage, ensure appropriate wildlife habitat, and are likely to receive matches from other funding sources. States that receive grants are then responsible for deciding which landowners may enroll, and they are similarly selective. Wisconsin, for example, prioritizes larger properties with more usable cover, as well as lands that are in close proximity to existing public hunting or fishing grounds. This kind of scrutiny ensures that every dollar invested creates the largest possible benefit to the public and to wildlife.
Everybody’s a winner!
Sometimes public lands and agricultural lands are viewed as polar opposites fighting for a share of resources in a no-sum game. But when it comes to VPA-HIP, that paradigm is shattered. When landowners and agricultural producers transform acres into valuable wildlife habitat, they’re improving conditions for the critters we love to pursue, while receiving compensation and technical assistance. It’s important to their business plans because, often, the land that is least productive for crop production is the most valuable for wildlife anyway. On top of all that, the public gains access to otherwise closed-off lands. That means more places for moms and dads to take their kids hunting or fishing, more kids growing up loving the outdoors, and more hearts beating for conservation far into the future.