Hunting and Fishing Access Closed and Conservation Work Halted as Government Shuts Down
Congress’s failure to pass a stopgap spending bill means on-the-ground conservation professionals across the federal government won’t be reporting for work
This morning, the federal government will begin the process of closing, after the Senate was unable to pass a stopgap spending bill Friday night.
The effects of a government shutdown will be felt most acutely by sportsmen and women who were planning late-season hunts on national public lands and those who fish on lakes, rivers, and reservoirs administered by the Army Corps of Engineers or Bureau of Reclamation. Conservation projects will come to a standstill as federal land management agency staff are furloughed until Congress can reach an agreement.
“Although there’s less disruption to hunting and fishing opportunities at this time of year, we’re still disappointed to see this inability to find common ground and keep funds flowing to agencies that administer conservation and public access to America’s best fish and wildlife resources,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
The closure of national forests, national wildlife refuges, and other public lands during the 16-day shutdown in October 2013 sparked outrage and prevented licensed sportsmen from accessing hunting and fishing areas, while many outdoor recreation businesses were forced to cancel client bookings at the start of the lucrative fall season. This time around, the Interior Department has said that public lands will remain “as accessible as possible,” but that some areas could be closed without staff, campground maintenance crews, or rangers to patrol culturally sensitive or backcountry areas for visitor safety.
The impacts of a federal shutdown are not limited to national public lands and waters. Private lands conservation professionals at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will be staying home instead of helping farmers and ranchers write conservation plans or prepare for the critical spring planting season. And everything from fish passage projects to chronic wasting disease research will be on hold.
“Hunters and anglers have a long list of things that Congress needs to address, including a much-needed funding fix for catastrophic wildfires,” says Fosburgh. “The continued brinksmanship on Capitol Hill serves no one; it only locks in problems and pushes real solutions further down the road. The public deserves better from its elected leaders.”
Where Public Lands Are in Limbo, Local Sportsmen Help Find a Path Forward
For decades, 500 Wilderness Study Areas in the West have awaited individual acts of Congress to resolve how they should be managed, and those closest to the land are finally helping to make the call—wilderness or something else?
When archery hunter Harvey Dalton drew a coveted bighorn sheep tag for the Dubois Badlands in Wyoming, he knew he was in for a hunt of a lifetime. After all, he’d been applying and collecting preference points for 40 years before drawing the tag.
Unlike most bighorn hunting units where it takes hours in the saddle or on foot to get into the backcountry of rugged northwest Wyoming, the Badlands has plenty of road access. But it certainly wasn’t flat hiking further into the steep draws where sheep are often tucked away. The sweat equity Dalton put in over four weeks made connecting with a big ram even more meaningful, but he was troubled by evidence of ATV and dirt bike use he saw in areas where there should have been none.
Unfortunately, while the Dubois Badlands remains a Wilderness Study Area—one of more than 500 parcels of public land across the West set aside decades ago as potential wilderness—there continues to be confusion from public land users, and even land managers, about what kinds of activities are allowed there.
What Is a Wilderness Study Area?
In 1976, legislation directed the Bureau of Land Management to inventory undeveloped public land for areas that could be managed as wilderness, for the opportunities to find solitude or pursue traditional outdoor recreation. This resulted in almost 13 million acres identified as Wilderness Study Areas, but they weren’t meant to stay in limbo forever. It takes an act of Congress to change the status of these areas, by either designating them as wilderness or releasing them to be managed for other uses, so the process of reaching a final resolution has been slow—as in decades long.
Wyoming has yet to resolve any of its 42 Wilderness Study Areas encompassing 570,000 acres, including the Dubois Badlands. Sportsmen and others are hoping to finally make some progress through the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative—a process where stakeholders, including the public, can weigh in on how the land ought to be managed and make recommendations to legislators.
From Local to Legislation
Here is how the WPLI works: Counties have the option to join the initiative and develop citizen advisory committees made up of hunters, ranchers, energy industry representatives, and other public land stakeholders. Committees listen to public comment and data from agencies, spend time on the ground, and work to reach recommendations for whether Wilderness Study Areas in their county should be designated wilderness, released to be managed for multiple-use, or given some other type of designation. Recommendations from across the state go to elected officials and, if all goes according to plan, eventually become law. It’s no simple task.
This collaborative, local approach has worked well in other Western states. Nevada has been a leader in addressing Wilderness Study Areas since the 2000s—compromises came out of the counties and eventually resulted in bipartisan bills from Congress that struck a balance between conservation and development needs. Some of these efforts were successful within just a few years; others took public land users on a decades-long rollercoaster ride.
It was always worth it, but it had to be done thoughtfully, one study area at a time. One-sided proposals that either designate all areas as wilderness or release all of them get introduced in almost every legislative session—and die as fast as an antelope shot through the heart.
While we currently know them as Wilderness Study Areas, these are also the places where we’ve enjoyed epic fishing with friends, camping in remote canyons with more deer sign than human tracks, or the sheep hunt of a lifetime. These areas matter and we owe it to them to follow through on what we started in 1976. The WPLI effort is an opportunity to clarify the future management of these lands and provide certainty to all who rely on them.
This is why the TRCP is representing sportsmen on the Fremont County committee and collaborating with our local partners—like Bowhunters of Wyoming, where Dalton serves as vice president—in other counties to finally resolve the status of these public lands. We want to make sure that the best possible path forward for management of fish and wildlife is clear, not confusing, and that areas like the Dubois Badlands continue to provide quality backcountry hunting and fishing opportunities.
But we can’t do it alone. Sportsmen and women are some of the most active users of our public lands and, as such, perhaps some of the most knowledgeable about current conditions. We also have a lot at stake in management changes. If you want to share your input with the WPLI committees or attend a meeting, learn more here.
You can also encourage our decision makers to advocate for responsible management of public lands, especially through initiatives that bring locals to the table, by signing the Sportsmen’s Country petition. It’s our latest effort to safeguard public-land hunting and fishing opportunities by not only keeping public lands public, but also keeping them well-managed. Help us get to 10,000 signatures this year!
Top photo courtesy of Bill Sincavage @jakeysforkwyoming.
Six New Year’s Resolutions We Wish Congress and DOI Would Make
These conservation policy priorities, if accomplished, would ensure that America’s fish, wildlife, public lands, and sporting traditions all prosper in 2018 and beyond
It’s the time of year when many of us, to the point of a cliché, personally examine our priorities and plan for future improvements. And since we’re in the business of safeguarding America’s fish and wildlife habitat, clean water, sportsmen’s access, and outdoor recreation economy, we’d love to see our country’s decision makers resolve to create or move policies forward that will allow hunting and fishing to thrive.
Here are the New Year’s resolutions we wish that Congress and the Department of the Interior would make for conservation.
Fix Our Forests
A looming budget deadline offers a great opportunity to finally fix the way we pay for catastrophic wildfires—and reform forest management to help prevent fires in the first place. Lawmakers should pass a comprehensive fire funding fix in the next budget deal to stop taking funds from forest restoration programs like prescribed burning and removal of invasive species and diseased trees. Make sure your decision makers hear about this by using our quick and easy Twitter tool.
Bulk Up Water Quality Efforts in the Farm Bill
In 2018, Congress will need to pass a new Farm Bill—and we hope it’s one that strengthens and maintains funding for USDA conservation programs. The work done with these funds keeps tons of pollutants out of rivers and expands water conservation on farms, which improves river flows that support healthy fisheries, strong outdoor recreation businesses, and flourishing rural communities.
Invest in Access on Private Land
With legislation as massive and far-reaching as the Farm Bill, there’s also a unique opportunity to boost hunting and fishing access in areas where there are few, if any, public lands. If Congress can reauthorize and expand the popular Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program—the U.S. Department of Agriculture program that incentivizes landowners to open their property for public hunting and fishing access—the improved opportunities for hunters and anglers would create a draw in some rural communities that desperately need an economic boost.
Defend the Clean Water Act
Congress should not let the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers pass a rule that guts the Clean Water Act. Americans overwhelmingly support protecting headwater streams and wetlands, which are critical to fish and waterfowl populations. Trimming down on regulation doesn’t have to mean leaving these foundational waters and rapidly disappearing wetlands vulnerable to pollution or destruction.
Modernize Marine Fisheries Management
For the last five years, the leading advocates of recreational fishing and conservation have worked with policy makers to improve federal recreational fishing management by modernizing data collection and allowing more involvement from state agencies and anglers. These badly-needed changes were included in legislation that passed the House Natural Resources Committee in December and will now head to the House floor. But the Senate has the opportunity to improve upon this legislation and ensure that the vital contributions—cultural, economic, and conservation efforts—of the recreational saltwater fishing industry are finally recognized in federal law and policy.
Champion Conservation and Access Equally
Some of the best news of 2017 came out of the Department of the Interior on new hunting and fishing access on previously landlocked public lands and national wildlife refuges. While this is to be celebrated, we’d like to see the DOI define a “conservation vision” for valuable habitats and hunting and fishing areas, to work in tandem with the vision that they have already established for expanding sportsmen’s access. This should include clear measures to recognize and conserve wildlife migration corridors, avoid or minimize impacts to habitat from development, plan locally to safeguard our best hunting and fishing areas, and let the conservation plans for greater sage grouse work as intended.
“Nothing beats spending time outdoors hunting, fishing, backpacking—it’s the Montana way of life,” says Sen. Daines. “The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act will strengthen Montana’s outdoor recreation economy and open up more space for families and sportsmen to enjoy local wildlife in Montana and across the country.”
“This program has rewarded Colorado’s farmers and ranchers for providing new opportunities for the next generation of sportsmen and women and improving wildlife habitat across our state,” says Sen. Bennet. “As we work on the next Farm Bill, we’ll continue to prioritize funding for this successful program.”
VPA-HIP is the only federal program aimed at enhancing access and opportunity on privately owned farms, ranches, and forest lands. The program grants money to states and tribes to support landowners who enroll in the program. Since its reauthorization in the 2014 Farm Bill, wildlife agencies across 29 states and tribal lands have received $40 million to expand public access and enhance wildlife habitat on more than 2.5 million acres.
“Loss of access is one of the top concerns for American sportsmen and women, especially considering the recent decline in hunter numbers,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program has been a signature issue of ours since the TRCP was founded, and we have worked to see it introduced, implemented, and expanded over the past two Farm Bills. Given its popularity among landowners and sportsmen, we are thrilled that this bipartisan legislation now seeks to provide more funding to enhance the program and keep up with demand.”
“When you combine the Farm Bill programs that help enhance habitat, soil health, and water quality with a stronger, more effective vehicle for opening sportsmen’s access in states that are predominantly private land, it creates a ripple effect in our rural economies,” says Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “Landowners and sportsmen see a benefit, but more access to healthier fish and wildlife habitat also drives outdoor recreation spending across small communities, from gas stations and diners to motels and sporting goods stores.”
It’s Time to Put the Most Engaged Public Lands Advocates Back to Work
RACs, the regional groups that help land managers balance multiple uses of public land, are allowed to start meeting again after a half-year hiatus, but there is a catch
Having partial ownership of 640 million acres is a unique privilege that comes with a huge responsibility, and that’s why you’ll often hear us say that sportsmen and women need to do more than simply keep public lands public. Quality management of America’s public lands requires balancing all the diverse demands on these lands.
This land belongs to all of us, and each stakeholder group—from hunters and anglers to ranchers and commercial interests—has its own distinct goals. This makes the grand ideal of multiple-use management pretty complicated to carry out on the ground. So, to make this juggling act work, land managers need to hear directly from local and regional interests.
Up until recently, one of our best channels for communication between locals and public land managers was temporarily shut down—we’re slowly getting back to the table to have meaningful discussions about how public land management impacts locals, but things have changed. Here’s what you need to know.
The RAC Pack
Public-land resource advisory councils—commonly known as RACs—are collaborative committees made up of individuals from diverse interest groups, usually with relevant professional knowledge, who provide input on management of the natural and cultural resources on public lands. Having served on the RAC for Bureau of Land Management lands in Southeast Oregon since 2015, I’ve been a part of a developing recommendations on land-use planning, motorized vehicle access, sage grouse conservation, recreation fees, wild horse and burro management, grazing, and fire projects.
The Department of the Interior oversees more than 200 individual advisory committees, including 38 RACs that meet with the Bureau of Land Management—the largest public-land management agency in the country. There are two other TRCP field staffers serving on full RACs in Idaho on New Mexico and weighing in on issues affecting BLM lands. Or they did, until their meetings were suspended.
Per instruction from the Department of the Interior, the BLM notified all RAC members in May 2017 that meetings would be postponed until at least September in order for the agency to review the “charter and charge of each Board/Advisory Committee.” Members could not meet to discuss pressing local issues, like sage grouse conservation, or get clarity on public lands issues of a national scope, like the review of certain national monuments.
In short: Those of us who have been passionate enough to devote our free time to collaborating on the best use of our land were effectively asked to stand down during a time of important decision-making.
Slowly Returning to the Table
In October, the suspension was lifted, and in Southeast Oregon, our full RAC has been able to have our first meeting back. But there’s a catch: Our subcommittee meetings are still not being scheduled, and since we can’t meet without approval from the national BLM office, our hands are tied.
Subcommittees might sound like a trivial thing, but they are where the action happens. These groups collaborate and compile detailed information and research on specific topics and pass recommendations along to the full RAC and district managers. Continued delay of the subcommittee meetings could mean a less effective RAC overall.
For example, I serve on the Lands with Wilderness Character Subcommittee. Before the suspension, we began some thoughtful discussions on land-use planning and possible management approaches to the district’s revised Resource Management Plan, a draft of which is expected in January. Our subcommittee’s feedback is not likely to appear in the draft, since we haven’t met to finalize any of our initial thoughts and recommendations—the final plan will guide the management of our BLM public lands for 20 years or more.
Put RACs Back to Work
RAC members care about our public lands and public participation. This is a platform where diverse users come together, talk about our differences, and, more often than not, find common ground to forge agreements. The longer we go without proper meetings, the harder it is to say that federal land management agencies value our local perspective.
Really, we just want the chance to get back to work for public lands.
Like all members of the public, there is something we can do in the meantime—let our decision makers know where we stand. A great place to start is the Sportsmen’s Country petition to support responsible management of public land and wildlife habitat.