Rob Thornberry

November 2, 2017

Could Restoration Work Revive Habitat and Job Prospects in the Rural West?

Outdoor writer and hunter’s hunter Hal Herring leads a planting crew in Idaho after a series of rangeland fires—the work will help restore wildlife habitat, but the job is a boost for locals

Hal Herring is planting sagebrush on a bluebird day in the Bennett Hills of south-central Idaho, and he is in high spirits. It is the first morning of a 10-day project to restore healthy sagebrush habitat on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The area was once critical winter range for more than 10,000 mule deer until a series of rangeland fires burned much of the habitat to ash. What once was chest-high sagebrush, bitterbrush, and native grasses is now a sea of invasive species, including cheatgrass, medusahead, and rush skeleton weed.

Herring is an awarding-winning writer for Field & Stream and High Country News and a contributor to national magazines such as The Atlantic and The Economist. He’s also a hunter’s hunter and a respected voice on public lands issues. Today, however, he is crew boss for 14 tree planters.

 Arthur Martin swings a hoedad and plants an antelope bitterbrush seedling every 10 paces. It is back-breaking work that he completely enjoys.

 

The crew is on the ground to plant more than 100,000 seedlings as part of a cooperative effort between the BLM, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Mule Deer Foundation, Idaho Department of Lands, and North American Grouse Partnership.

“We are trying to restore the carrying capacity of the land,” Herring says. “We are trying to give each sagebrush plant a chance to catch hold and spread seeds. It sets the stage for the area to return to sagebrush steppe, and sagebrush holds water better than invasive species. That gives the native grasses a chance to succeed, which is a benefit to wildlife and grazing livestock.”

Nearby, Herring’s crew is all smiles as they efficiently plant eight-inch sage seedlings. The process is physically demanding, yet it requires a deft touch, too. Using a hoedad—a hand-tool that’s a cousin of the more well-known Pulaski—each planter takes ten strides, scrapes away the tops of the invasive species and then drives the hoedad into the ground. If it sticks, there is enough soil to plant the seedling. If it bounces off the broken basalt flat, the planter moves to another spot and starts over.

The seedling must be planted perfectly straight up and down and without any air around the roots. If more than 50 percent of the seedlings take hold, the effort is a success. Rain or snow right after the planting is critical, but it takes several years to see the results.

The sagebrush “plug”

 

There are other hunters on the crew. Some have worked almost year-round on restoration projects from seed gathering to planting. Others are graduate students, trail maintenance crew bosses, and backcountry rangers. They are drawn by good wages and the opportunity to work outdoors. Plus, they know they are making a difference.

“Deer food equals big bucks,” says Jeremy O’Day. “It’s a pretty simple equation.”

While returning the ground to a more productive state after the fires is the primary goal of the work, Herring believes it’s just as critical to highlight that restoration work creates jobs across the West. As huge fires become more repetitive, he believes restoration projects can help the wildlife and the economy.

“We all recognize that there is an enormous amount of restoration to be done,” he says. “This is an incredible opportunity to both reignite some rural Western economies and build ecological resilience for the future.”

Herring talks fast all the time, but he drops into fifth gear now to explain. He believes Western resentment of the federal government is fostered by a Congress that won’t give the federal land agencies enough money to adequately manage public lands. That fuels the feeling that nothing is getting done to benefit local economies.

He believes developing a West-wide restoration industry could break down the old argument that environmental regulations kill jobs, while providing habitat and graze for deer, elk, antelope, sage grouse, domestic sheep, and cattle.

“It is a myth that nothing gets done on federal ground, and restoration is the way of the future. It is something that helps everybody,” he says.

Danelle Nance, a natural resource specialist with the BLM, is the federal government’s point person on the sagebrush restoration in south-central Idaho. She says that roughly 125,000 acres burns each year of the 4 million acres the district office oversees. But partnerships with the Mule Deer Foundation, Idaho Fish and Game, National Grouse Partnership, Pheasants Forever, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Idaho Department of Lands help to grow restoration efforts from thousands of acres to tens of thousands of acres.

“It is incredibly important to have these partnerships. They foster interest in local communities and take on a life of their own,” she says. “Success breeds success. And Hal is right—where restoration is needed across the West, it could be a model to follow.”

Herring enjoys plugging the idea of a restoration economy, but there is much work to be done. Planters stock their bags with seedlings and head off to the horizon, “dropping trees” every 10 yards.

“Can you picture it?” Herring says, pointing to the scorched soil. “In time, this will be a functioning winter range, which benefits everybody. I can see it.”

He sees mule deer enduring winter in chest-high sage. He sees healthy sage grouse populations. And he see a healthy economy in rural communities.

5 Responses to “Could Restoration Work Revive Habitat and Job Prospects in the Rural West?”

  1. Matthew Dickason

    I think volunteer/job opportunities could easily be posted and presented by you guys or other organizations like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. With a new wave of people joining up for conservation lately, I think making easier gateways for people to get involved could really unify hunters and outdoors people of all walks of life for one common goal. I get asked all the time how people can get involved with conservation projects, so having a resource to see events, sign up for projects, and see other planning and progress with ongoing projects would be a huge benefit. Not only for recruitment and new folks, but to keep people on the fringe informed and interested. I believe collaboration between groups is a win all around, and could really shape the future for the entire public lands fight, as well as enhance the efficiency of conservation projects. People just need a place to look that is concise, and convenient. Thanks for your time! #Keepitpublic!

  2. Shaun Pfund

    I believe this could be a model duplicated in Arizona and other states. Fires scorch thousands of acres every year, what better way to assist the environment in recovery by implementing this project. In addition, concerns have been raised about the hunting population and it’s decrease. This is an excellent way to introduce younger people to hunting and conservation. I will bring this discussion to one of our State Representatives for discussion. Great Work!

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Steve Kline

October 27, 2017

A Toast to the Patron Saint of Conservation on His 159th Birthday

If you’ve looked at the state of our country lately and thought, ‘What would Theodore Roosevelt do?’ this might be your answer 

Hunting and the American outdoors were fundamental to who Theodore Roosevelt was—without them, he would be unrecognizable. There have been other sportsmen in the White House (Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight Eisenhower were all passionate flyfishermen), but T.R.’s greatness cannot be separated from his passion for the outdoors, which is what makes him the patron saint of conservation in America.

So, it’s no wonder we’re thinking of him today, as his 159th birthday coincides with a pivotal time for our nation and the conservation priorities he helped to set in motion.

Theodore Roosevelt led with a clarity of purpose, and he would have seen clearly the task facing modern-day hunters and anglers—it is no less than the survival of our outdoor traditions. The future of hunting and fishing, not to mention our fish and wildlife resources, is in the hands of decision-makers who are often uninformed or downright hostile. But it is also in our hands. We must move fish and wildlife conservation up the hierarchy of our own political decision-making and vote accordingly.

If, like Roosevelt, hunting and angling are foundational to your very being, something you want to pass down to your children, then you can’t afford to be passive about policies that will affect your access or the responsible management of fish and wildlife habitat.

A generation ago, many elected leaders learned the language of the land as kids, knew the culture of opening day, and shared stories of blaze orange and bird dogs at the Formica counters of small town diners. But today, the lawmakers who understand our culture beyond its value at the voting booth are few and far between. This reality reflects broader trends: an increasingly urban population that’s more and more profoundly disconnected from wildlife and wild places.

Still there is no more important issue in this country than conservation, and to celebrate T.R. is to celebrate his famous maxim.

Subsequently we must hold our elected officials accountable when they make decisions that threaten habitat and access. We must inform others, and be informed ourselves, on the importance of the North American model of wildlife management, and explain how hunters and anglers play an absolutely essential role in the funding of conservation work. After all, following in T.R.’s footsteps, we are the prime authors of some of the greatest fish and wildlife conservation success stories in the history of the world.

To be a hunter or an angler in 2017 is to be a steward for the future. It is no less an essential call than the one that motivated Theodore Roosevelt and a generation of American conservationists, to whom we owe a profound debt of gratitude. The hunters of the next century need us to carry that mantle forward with our words and actions.

Get started right now by pledging to do more for America’s public lands. If we only rally around keeping them public and ignore the more complex issue of responsible land management, it’s possible for decision makers to make access promises while voting to undermine everything we want access to. Click here to learn more.

 

This post was originally published on October 27, 2016 and has been updated.

Ed Tamson

October 26, 2017

An Everglades Restoration Project Could Help Florida Recover from Hurricane Irma

Moving water south from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades has been a goal for decades, but securing funding for and breaking ground on the project could end up helping hurricane-ravaged South Florida recover just as much as the fish habitat

While parts of Florida are steadily recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Irma’s vicious winds and storm surge, rural communities like Everglades City and Chokoloskee—home to fishing guides, marina owners, and others who make a living from the popularity of sportfishing—have a tougher road ahead. For these towns to recover, become more resilient, and continue to welcome countless anglers, there are a number of immediate and long-term challenges to overcome.

 

Home and Habitat Damage

Initial damage assessments concluded that more than half the houses in Everglades City were destroyed and 95 percent of area businesses were closed. Running water and electricity wasn’t available for weeks, and area sewage treatment failed, with sewage backing up into the streets. While basic utilities have been restored in the last month, many of the areas where vacationing anglers would stay and the homes where locals and guides live are still in disrepair.

Wetlands and waterways suffered, as well. Storm surge brought saltwater deep into brackish and freshwater wetlands, and streams became clogged with debris, like tree branches, sunken boats, siding, and appliances. Sewage spilled into waterways, and samples of receding floodwaters one week after the hurricane indicated the presence of more human or animal waste than the test could quantify.

All of this illustrates the need for basic infrastructure improvements to ensure that the Everglades can remain a pristine and safe place to fish, even after the next hurricane.

 

Restoration Must Continue

Fortunately, many experts on the ecology of the Everglades believe the system will heal itself in time, boosted by ongoing efforts to move freshwater back into the area from Lake Okeechobee. But these projects must proceed into the engineering and construction phases without delay.

Moving clean water south from the lake will help alleviate the lingering effects of this year’s tropical storm season. Heavy rains from Irma and other storms have filled Lake Okeechobee to an unsafe level, potentially stressing the dike that surrounds the lake and protects local communities. Too much freshwater in coastal estuaries, a condition that caused crippling algae blooms in the summer of 2016, is hurting fall fishing for redfish, speckled trout, and snook.

This is why the TRCP and a host of other sportfishing and conservation groups are working with Congress to expedite construction on projects to restore and protect critical habitat for fish and wildlife in South Florida.

In a letter to Senate and House leaders on October 10, a dozen groups—including the TRCP, Everglades Foundation, Snook and Gamefish Foundation, B.A.S.S., Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, and International Gamefish Association—asked for funding to complete a water control structure that is critical to allowing water to move into affected areas. We also requested their long-term commitment to funding other approved Everglades projects.

Our hearts go out to fellow anglers and all Floridians who are rebuilding after the storm. The angling community in South Florida and beyond has responded by raising thousands of dollars to help those affected. This will help in the short term, but the long-term health of the area’s economy will depend on anglers returning to hire guides, buy ice and tackle, stay in area hotels, and eat at local restaurants. It is worth investing in infrastructure and habitat improvements to make sure that happens.

 

Kristyn Brady

October 24, 2017

Congressional Farm Tour Highlights Conservation Achievements for Wildlife, Water, and the Economy

Hunting and angling groups joined members of the Iowa delegation to highlight opportunities to enhance conservation programs in the 2018 Farm Bill

On Friday, congressional staff representing Sen. Joni Ernst, Sen. Chuck Grassley, and Rep. David Young toured four southwest Iowa farm operations that have implemented conservation practices using funding and technical support from the federal Farm Bill. The tour was sponsored by a unique coalition of state and federal natural resource agencies and agriculture, conservation, and hunting and fishing groups working to enhance conservation provisions in the next five-year Farm Bill.

“We appreciate the Iowa delegation’s interest in seeing firsthand the practical application of conservation on private lands, and we hope to see these decision makers go on to lead the conversation about the many benefits of the Farm Bill Title II programs that enhance wildlife habitat, water quality, public access to hunting and fishing, and diverse rural economies,” says Christy Plumer, chief conservation officer for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

The tour highlighted Farm Bill projects that have led to the recovery of pheasant and bobwhite quail habitat, wetlands restoration, nutrient loss and soil erosion prevention, improvements to water quality, enhancement of voluntary public access for hunting and fishing, and efforts to incentivize putting marginal lands into conservation instead of agriculture. The conservation discussion continued after lunch at the Winterset Gun Club with representatives from the TRCP, Iowa Soybean Association, National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, National Association of Conservation Districts, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s easy to appreciate the appeal of or need for Farm Bill conservation cornerstones like the Conservation Reserve Program or Environmental Quality Incentives Program when you see quail, pheasants, and pollinators restored with native vegetation on the landscape,” says Tom Franklin, agriculture liaison for the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. “In Iowa, the results are real and tangible, and we appreciate the opportunity to show lawmakers those results.”

In a recent national survey of hunters and anglers, 75 percent agreed with providing financial incentives to farmers and ranchers to implement habitat conservation, and 87 percent said they do not want to see cuts to conservation programs, in the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill or anywhere else. This summer, the TRCP’s Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group revealed its list of recommendations for conservation and sportsmen’s access priorities in the 2018 Farm Bill, which Congress needs to finalize by September 30 of next year.

“There’s no question that hunters and anglers are at the table as the Farm Bill debate ramps up, because fewer resources for conservation on private lands means fewer options for American farmers and the loss of access and opportunity for sportsmen and women who spend money in rural communities,” says Eric Sytsma, regional representative for Iowa Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “I think our message to congressional staff on the tour was that cuts to conservation in the Farm Bill would be felt across the state, by farmers, hunters, and the folks who run gas stations, motels, diners, and other small businesses.”

Read the full list of recommendations for growing conservation in the next Farm Bill, supported by 31 hunting and fishing organizations.

Christy Plumer

October 23, 2017

Four Ways the Next Farm Bill Can Help the Colorado River

After nearly two decades of drought, the Colorado River Basin needs this boost to private land conservation to support agriculture, outdoor recreation businesses, and a growing population

Even as the Colorado River enters a 17th year of drought conditions, 35 million people and hundreds of thousands of businesses across seven U.S. states are creating an unsustainable level of demand on this stressed waterway. The mighty Colorado, of such strength that it continues to carve out the Grand Canyon, no longer reaches the sea. And future projections for the river system—based on population growth, increasing temperatures, and changing weather patterns—are troublesome to say the least.

But the 2018 Farm Bill could provide some relief for the overtaxed Colorado. Here are four ways that the conservation programs we already know are good for wildlife and water quality can also support innovation and the long-term health of the river.

Farm Bill Benefits By the Numbers

Recent figures indicate the Colorado River supports an estimated 16 million jobs with a $1.4 trillion economic impact. Along with agriculture, outdoor recreation is a significant economic driver in the region. By one estimate, outdoor recreation in the Colorado River Basin contributes more than $27 billion annually to the region’s economy. The seven states within the river basin—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming—attract 1.37 million hunters and 4.2 million anglers annually.

All of this economic activity relies upon the Colorado River system’s ability to sustain fish and wildlife.

But roughly 90 percent of agricultural land in the Colorado River Basin is irrigated by off-farm water-delivery systems, which are not eligible for most Farm Bill conservation program assistance. Many Farm Bill programs are also currently limited when it comes to deficit irrigation, a practice that helps farmers in the Colorado River Basin save water while maintaining important land in production and could help plants “learn” to adapt to drought.

Photo by Doug Greenberg via flickr
Four Ways to a Better Farm Bill for the Colorado

In the next Farm Bill, it may be possible to enhance the flexibility of conservation provisions for the Colorado River and Western farmers and ranchers. Here are four things we’d like to see:

Use the Environmental Quality Incentives program to improve the infrastructure that supports off-farm irrigation. Landowners already use EQIP projects to improve their on-farm water efficiency and, often, because the farmer can divert less water from the stream, they improve stream habitat at the same time. Allowing the Natural Resources Conservation Service to work directly with irrigation districts and the companies that oversee and maintain reservoirs and irrigation ditches would improve the effectiveness of water use on private lands across the West.

Address drought and water conservation practices within the Conservation Reserve Program. For more than 30 years, this popular program has incentivized farmers and ranchers to selectively take land out of production to achieve conservation outcomes, like improving soil and water quality, reducing erosion and nutrient runoff, and enhancing wildlife habitat. Expand it to acres where it might improve water conservation efforts, and give landowners even more options for a successful business plan.

Waive some acreage limits within the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program for projects that address regional drought concerns. Because watersheds in the West are typically larger than in the eastern half of the country, the acreage limits in the program make it difficult for Western irrigators to access these funds. Removing those caps would allow landowners to use Farm Bill dollars to build drought resiliency.

Help innovative partnerships enroll in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. Already popular since its introduction in the 2014 Farm Bill, RCPP allows landowners to partner with organizations to improve soil, water, and wildlife habitat conditions, but enrollment has been cumbersome so far. The next Farm Bill should clarify this funding arrangement and create the flexibility to promote conservation innovations at the landscape scale.

What You Can Do

The TRCP and our partners will be working to inform decision makers in the Colorado River Basin states and key Farm Bill architects of the benefits these enhancements could make. But as the debate around the next Farm Bill continues and comes to a head in 2018, it’s very likely that there are private lands, waterways, and wildlife habitat at stake where you live. Join the TRCP to be the first to know about ways you can support these ideas and other recommendations that are good for landowners, habitat, outdoor recreation, and rural America.

Top photo by USDA via flickr

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