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January 30, 2017

An Uncertain Future for Public-Land Bear Hunts Like This One in Montana

Here’s what’s at stake in Montana’s Flathead National Forest if our public lands are managed for short-term financial gain

By Guest

On a rock outcropping, I sat perched over a large canyon in the Swan Valley, with my eyes glued to a pair of binoculars, scanning the adjacent mountainside. Montana’s spring bear season had only been open for three days, and typically doesn’t produce this early, but I was too excited not to be out there.

Just a few hours prior, I had been sitting at my kitchen table working on a term paper, but my mind kept wandering back to the thought of snowless foothills, fresh mountain air, and the chance of finding an early-season, public-lands black bear. I had to get out here. It couldn’t wait until tomorrow.

I’d have to reckon with my procrastination later, but my decision to spend that time in the Swan Valley paid off. After glassing for less than an hour, a color phase bear ambled out of the timber to feed. I watched for nearly an hour, long enough to determine that the bear was alone, unaccompanied by cubs, and therefore legal.

The wind spoiled my chances of sneaking in close enough for a shot that night, but I’d be back the next day.

Image courtesy of the US Forest Service


A Shortsighted Proposal

Just a few months later, right down the road from that spot, the Lake County Conservation District (LCCD) pitched a too-good-to-be-true proposal to the locals that would transfer management of these public lands to the state for the next 100 years.

Instead of public lands being managed for multiple-use, the proposal would take a strictly short-term, for-profit approach that would benefit a few at the expense of the rightful owners of these public lands: every single American. Approximately 60,000 acres of the Flathead National Forest would be utilized purely for its available timber commodities, with no regard for the long-term health of the forest or watershed.

Wildlife, like the bear I’d been watching, would surely be an afterthought.

A proposal like this wouldn’t just be bad for today’s sportsmen and women, but for every future generation of public-land users, as well.

The LCCD is now asking for public comment on their proposal, so there is an opportunity for hunters and anglers to put a stop to this. Allowing a proposal like this to move forward sets a dangerous precedent for other transfer initiatives to find footing throughout the West.

Luckily, there is something you can do.

Back to the Bear

When I returned to find the same bear less than 400 yards from where I’d seen it feeding, I moved quickly to get into range before the winds shifted, and I was able to harvest an impressive public-lands bruin.

After field dressing the bear, I sat next to a small fire and admired the thick, full, chocolate-colored hide of a unique black bear. Beside me, spaced out across a log to cool, lay four game bags full of bear meat. Another bag sat full of bear fat, which I’d render down for cooking oil and pie crusts. The bear had wintered extremely well, and none of him would be wasted.

Around midnight, my roommate Eli arrived to help with the heavy pack-out. We raced the sunrise back to the trailhead and were able to make it home with just enough time to shower and rush to campus. I made it to my first class on time, with baggy eyes and a wide, accomplished grin.

“The bear had wintered extremely well, and none of him would be wasted.” Image courtesy of Trey Curtiss.


Time to Take Action

If the LCCD prevails in obtaining land-management control, public-land stories like mine won’t come out of Swan Valley for a long time. And this isn’t just about my ability to hunt this specific spot; the issue of transferring national public lands to the state could play out across our entire country. Every American who takes part in our shared public-land heritage needs to pay attention and take action. Hunters and anglers truly are the #originalconservationists, and now is the time to prove it.

It can’t wait until tomorrow.

Trey Curtiss is a native Montanan and lifelong hunter. He’s currently wrapping up his final semester at the University of Montana, where he’ll graduate with a bachelor’s degree in resource conservation. When he’s not pulling all-nighters packing out big game (or writing term papers) Trey works as an intern for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers in Missoula, Mont.

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January 18, 2017

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.

Image courtesy of Nathan Bailey.

This story plays out for families across the U.S. every year. Young men and women learn lessons that only the realities of the outdoors can teach: Patience, perseverance, responsibility, success, and disappointment are what this lifestyle is all about. Such lessons can only be taught outdoors, but our classrooms—our public lands—are under the threat of being locked up.

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.

Image courtesy of Nathan Bailey.

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.

As a volunteer TRCP Ambassador here in Oregon, I’m willing to fight to protect our heritage. If you’d like to join me in safeguarding our public lands, so kids like my son Chase can grow into confident, resilient, conservation-minded hunters, sign the petition at sportsmensaccess.org.

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.

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January 12, 2017

My First Hunt Made Me a Public Lands Believer

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.

The author on a beautiful, but chilly, public-lands opening morning. Image courtesy of Kevin Farron.

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.

“If it weren’t for the tag in my pocket, I wouldn’t have seen that sunrise.” Image courtesy of Kevin Farron.

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.

Lessons Learned

“On my first hunting trip, I learned that sometimes all you get is to see the sun come up and go back down, and sore legs.” Image courtesy of Laura Sligh.

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.

 

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December 15, 2016

A Bucket List ‘Bout Empty in the Cowboy State

Ambassador Earl DeGroot exemplifies the lure of public lands in Wyoming

TRCP’s Ambassador program calls on sportsmen-conservationists to help advance our goals by offering local volunteer support. These #PublicLandsProud hometown heroes are not willing to sit idly by as the wild places we love are lost. They know there’s more to our sports than just hunting, fishing, and going home.

Meet Earl DeGroot, our volunteer ambassador in Wyoming. The promise of public lands inspired DeGroot to move to Wyoming some 32 years ago, so it’s no surprise that he’s ready to stand up to threats against them now. DeGroot is a man of action and an experienced asset for conservation. We talked to our latest ambassador recruit about the threats to public lands and what everyday sportsmen can do to help.

A beautiful bighorn taken in the Absarokas. Image courtesy of Earl DeGroot.

TRCP: What’s your earliest memory in the outdoors and how do you spend your time outside these days?

DeGroot: My earliest memories are of shooting ground squirrels (gophers) with my father and my uncle on my grandfather’s farm in North Dakota. I did this quite often from ages ten to 14.  I don’t know why, but that experience got me hooked on hunting and the outdoors. I loved staying at the farm and usually stayed there when I wasn’t in school back in the city where my parents lived.

Thirty-two years ago, I moved to Wyoming to be near an abundance of public land. These days, you will find me enjoying our federal lands for hunting, camping, hiking, snowmobiling, ATVing, snapping photos of wildlife. One of my favorite pastimes is exploring the millions of acres of federal land in Wyoming and Colorado. This year 2016 was extra special for me. I call it “the trifecta year.” I shot my first black bear in June. In September, I cashed in 21 preference points to go on a successful guided Wyoming sheep hunt. And in October, I accompanied my wife on a successful Colorado elk hunt that cost her 26 preference points. It was a banner year!

TRCP: What got you interested in TRCP and the work we do? How do you see yourself helping TRCP achieve our conservation mission?

DeGroot: The federal land transfer issue is a top priority for me. Being a decades-long Republican, I feel betrayed by the GOP for passing a resolution to transfer federal lands to the states. Having worked for and with Wyoming’s state government for 30 years (now retired), I am convinced that the state cannot afford to manage millions of additional acres of public land—they would need to extensively develop lands or sell some/most of them.

At this point, many of Wyoming’s elected officials have not responded to public opposition to transfer. Opposition is often dismissed as fringe group resistance from radical environmental groups, perhaps from out-of-state. To show there is strong grassroots, in-state opposition, a small group of us started a Facebook page entitled “Wyoming Sportsmen for Federal Lands”. The page has grown beyond expectations, currently to 3,500 followers, and has captured the attention of elected officials. One of the goals is to build so much public resistance to transfer that no politician would dare to introduce transfer legislation in the state of Wyoming. That maybe a lofty goal, but I believe we are headed in that direction. I look forward to assisting TRCP with their fight against federal land transfer in any way I might be of assistance.

TRCP: How can everyday sportsmen make a difference for fish and wildlife? Why is it so important?

DeGroot: If federal lands were to be transferred to the states, or privatized, there would be a hugely negative impact on wildlife populations and hunting and fishing access. At the current time, much of the western United States enjoys relatively unrestricted big game migration routes. Extensive development or privatization would make it difficult for big game to travel back and forth from summer range to winter range. Population numbers would almost certainly decline. This is just one example of the negative impact of federal land transfer.

While everyday sportsmen are important in the fight against transfer, their support alone is not enough. We must go beyond sportsmen and get the support of the voting public. Often times, outdoor organization focus too much on their membership which is a small portion of the voting public. They need to cast a wider net, and reach out to the general public.

TRCP: What has been your most memorable hunt?

DeGroot: My most memorable hunt was my spring 2016 black bear hunt. Starting a number of years ago, I began to see more black bear sign in my elk hunting area in southeast Wyoming. I even caught glimpses of a few bears while bow hunting. I have shot many elk, deer, and antelope, but I had never shot a black bear—I hadn’t even seen very many. So, my wife and I began baiting bears in both spring and fall. Baiting is legal in Wyoming and, in fact, it’s an important management tool, but it surprised us how much work it was. Much of the media portrays baiting as too easy and unfair. Our experience was anything but. It was a lot of work sometimes involving snowshoes and sleds, as we made numerous 250 mile round trips to tend baits and check trail cameras.

Last spring we were excited to see we had at least 10 bears on camera, but many of them came during the night when we couldn’t hunt. But we waited, sitting in a blind near the bait, which allowed us a clear short-range shot and provided plenty of time to ensure there were no cubs with the bear. After much time invested, I finally connected with an eleven year old black bear (as later determined by tooth analysis) early on the morning of June 5. Because of the level of difficulty, because it was entirely DIY, because we had to figure it all out ourselves, because it was on public land, and because bears are such an elusive animal, I consider this to be one of my most memorable and rewarding hunts. It was a very rewarding experience!

TRCP’s Wyoming ambassador with his 2016 public lands black bear. Image courtesy of Earl DeGroot.

TRCP: What’s still on your bucket list?

DeGroot: At age 68, most of my hunt bucket list has been accomplished. I now look forward to simply enjoying OUR federal lands.

TRCP: What’s your favorite Theodore Roosevelt quote?

DeGroot: “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin you country of its beauty, its riches, or its romance.”

To find out more about the TRCP Ambassador program, please contact TRCP’s deputy director of Western lands, Coby Tigert, at CTigert@trcp.org or 208-681-8011.

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October 11, 2016

Getting In Close on Public Lands Pronghorns

It’s a privilege to access public lands, but sometimes that means competing for a shot at filling your tag—here’s one story of a successful bowhunt from a blind that almost didn’t happen

I tried hard to control my breathing as the first pronghorn walked in front of my shooting window. I sat motionless, with my bow ready, as the doe dipped her head to drink. For two hours I had been glassing the pronghorn antelope from a ground blind set up on public land in the dry southeast corner of Oregon. There were ten antelope now just 30 yards from my blind. The biggest of three bucks was last in line as they slowly made their way into the waterhole.

Pronghorn archery hunting on public land is extremely challenging, but I felt lucky to be there. The wide open space and lack of cover in antelope country is not conducive to bowhunting at close range. A ground blind on a well-used waterhole upped my prospects, but it wasn’t easy to find one unclaimed by another hunter.

That’s one of the central challenges of hunting public lands—we are so fortunate to have these places to go, but they are a shared resource. Blind hunting, in particular, is first come, first served. From my experience, two blinds with two different hunters on one waterhole will result in neither shooting an antelope. Hunters are much better off simply respecting each other’s right to hunt public land; if someone is there first, move on.

Blind hunting is definitely worth a try. Here’s what I’ve learned:

First, whether your public lands are managed by the BLM, Forest Service, or another agency, check with the local office about restrictions and placement dates. On BLM lands in Oregon, you can place your blind up to ten days before the beginning of the season, but no sooner. And your blind must be removed within seven days of the season’s closure. While all this may seem like a pain, and a longer allowance might be nice, it’s less stressful on the animals if there aren’t blinds set up a month before season and a month after.

As early as you can, based on these restrictions, look to place your blind on the downwind side of some form of natural funnel: a well-traveled trail or an important source of food or water, as was my choice in the arid sage flats of Oregon’s high desert. I’d arrived in my unit four days before opening day, which, having hunted there before, I figured was plenty early. I knew the landscape and that there were only 15 tags given out. Still, I spent an exhausting morning hiking into waterhole after waterhole, all of them occupied by other hunters’ blinds, until I finally got lucky. As I stood in the sage and glassed the hole, I could see it was only occupied by thirsty antelope.

Set up your blind, check your shooting lanes, and get comfortable enough to sit all day long. For me, this means a small stool, lots of snacks, and plenty of water. Temperatures inside of a hunting blind in the direct sunlight can reach staggering highs. You want to be alert and ready to shoot when the opportunity presents itself, not lightheaded and dehydrated.

Similarly, as much as I’d like a cross breeze, I usually insist on keeping all but one of the windows closed. The goal is to have it as dark as possible inside the blind. I practice drawing my bow and aiming out the front window to make sure there are no obstructions. Any flaps or screens that are in the way are dealt with now. I also like to remove my hiking boots and put on another pair of socks to keep me quieter in the blind. Antelope will still act especially wary when approaching a waterhole, and any noise or movement from inside of the blind will put them on the run.

Then you wait, with your bow at arm’s length and an arrow ready to fly.

For me, all this preparation paid off. As the doe’s mouth touched the water, a second doe came into view. As she stepped up to the water to drink, I lifted my bow and nocked an arrow. My heart was beating so fast and loud in my own ears that I was sure the antelope could hear it, too. I willed the blind to do its job of concealing me. Suddenly, the big buck charged into view and trotted into the water about knee-deep.

My bow came up, and the arrow touched my cheek as I came to full draw. The buck’s nose hit the water, and my arrow was gone.

I watched the arrow slide into his ribcage and bury itself into his far shoulder. The waterhole exploded as antelope ran every direction. I watched the buck run 60 yards and turn around to look back. The other antelope caught up to him, settling into a walk toward the short sage.  Another 40 yards and the big buck lowered himself to the ground.

Relieved, I too sat back. I set down my bow and started to put on my boots. It was time to get to work.

Ground blind hunting was very effective for me this fall, and though the search for my very own piece of public land was frustrating, I remain grateful for the privilege. I guarantee that when a big pronghorn buck walks in to 20 yards and stares right into the dark black rectangle you are sitting in, you’ll forget all about your hike past other blinds and how hot, cramped, and bored you were ten minutes ago.

If you agree that hunts like this are worth the wait, take a minute to support our opportunities to hunt and fish on public lands, especially those undeveloped, pristine BLM lands in the backcountry. Having better tools for managing these lands ensures that “Sportsmen’s Country” can thrive. It only takes a minute, and it might mean a shorter sit next season.

Mike Roth is a born-and-raised Oregonian, and a third-generation hunter. He prefers the intimate experience of bowhunting, and when he’s not chasing big game on public lands, he’s salmon and steelhead fishing from his drift boat.

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September 15, 2016

Six Out-Of-Office Replies That’ll Make You Proud to Be a Sportsman

When we’re not working tirelessly to protect our country’s hunting and fishing heritage, we’re outside enjoying it, so leave a message

For the next few months, you can expect to get a lot of automated out-of-office replies from folks who love to hunt and fish. And, while we never stop working to guarantee all Americans quality places to pursue these sports, TRCP staffers definitely take the time to get outside and enjoy the season when we can.

We like to have a bit of fun, while we’re at it. Here are the real and embellished email replies you’ll get from some of us this fall, complete with shout-outs to our favorite spots and critters. Our time out there inspires what we do for conservation, and it might just inspire a little envy for those of you stuck at your computers.

Spot and Stalk

Coo, Hiss

 Free Relationship Advice, Anyone?

Unicorns and Daydreams

Steak Out

Why We Do This

TRCP’s director of Western Lands. Image courtesy of Joel Webster.

 

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September 13, 2016

A Conservation Convert Goes Back to School

Our summer intern leaves for the fall semester with a newfound appreciation for habitat conservation, sportsmen’s access, and the outdoor recreation economy

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

After a summer interning for the TRCP in Washington, D.C., I’m headed back to school with a whole new perspective on conservation policy, Congress, and the role of sportsmen. So, for my final blog, I’d like to share a little bit of what I learned about the TRCP and what they do for sportsmen and women across the country.

From day one, I was surprised by the range of issues that impact our ability to hunt and fish. For example, at first glance, the Farm Bill might not seem that important to sportsmen, but I learned that this giant bill encompasses many provisions that affect wildlife. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), in particular, helps establish and conserve habitat for quail, pheasants, waterfowl, whitetails, and countless other critters that are important to sportsmen. For you anglers out there, CRP also helps protect 170,000 stream miles through riparian buffers, which keep pollutants from reaching the water.

I was surprised that despite support from farmers, sportsmen, and both sides of the aisle, eligible CRP acreage has been shrinking, which means less habitat benefits for fish and wildlife. Not only did I see firsthand how the TRCP engaged in discussion with partners about how to protect the program, but I also got to sit courtside as we launched a #CRPWorks petition to urge lawmakers to build a better CRP in the next Farm Bill.

Because of the TRCP’s Sportsmen’s Access campaign and website, I learned a lot about the ongoing threats to America’s public lands, as well. I grew up on the east coast and I go to college in the Midwest, where folks are not as aware of talk about transferring public land to states, despite some local governments’ history of selling or closing off land to recreation.  At the TRCP, I gained valuable perspective on this issue from the Western field representatives, who live and work in the communities that would directly feel the impacts of these proposed policies, and the government relations team in D.C., who do their best to share this local sportsmen’s perspective with members of Congress.

I understand now that my name on a petition does make a difference, and when a stack of names—like the more than 32,000 on TRCP’s petition opposing public land transfer—appears on the desk of your Congressmen, it’s hard to ignore. I’m grateful that groups like the TRCP won’t let lawmakers forget that they aren’t standing with their constituents who hunt and fish if they support or vote for land transfer.

I’ve also learned that sometimes the provisions that aren’t included in legislation are just as important to sportsmen as the provisions that are. For example, the TRCP staff has spent a lot of time and energy trying to keep language that would effectively halt federal conservation plans to restore and protect greater sage-grouse habitat out of the National Defense Authorization Act. And, in a big win for public lands this May, lawmakers blocked a proposal to transfer the popular Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to the commonwealth of Puerto Rico for debt relief, a move that would have set a harmful precedent of privatizing public lands that are crucial to outdoor recreation.

Overall, I had an amazing summer here at the TRCP. I learned a ton about federal policy, habitat conservation, the outdoor recreation economy, and how they are interconnected. It’s been great to work with a dedicated staff that is also intelligent and incredibly kind. I came to D.C. as an outdoor enthusiast, and I’m leaving as a well-informed conservation advocate, ready to take action and support the ambitious community of conservation partners I’ve come to admire over the past few months. I look forward to seeing all the great things to come for conservation!

Shannon Fagan was the TRCP summer intern through the Demmer Scholar Program. She is now in her senior year at Michigan State University where she is majoring in Social Relations and Policy and minoring in Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy.

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August 24, 2016

Celebrating Our National Parks: Public Lands Feed the Soul (and Six Hungry Young Men)

Hard-earned fish and forage in a national park that’s far from the crowds

Freshman-year procrastination still in full effect, a handful of my closest friends and I picked up the last of our food, fuel, and supplies on our way to the Queen IV ferry dock in Copper Harbor, Mich. We figured we had enough. Ready or not, we watched the shoreline creep away. Our weeklong public lands adventure in Isle Royale National Park had begun.

Isle Royale is a 45-mile-long island on the north end of Lake Superior. Only accessible by seaplane or on a wavy 3.5-hour ferry ride, the park hosts fewer visitors in a year than Yellowstone National Park sees in a single day, but that’s just the way we like it. None of us had ever attempted a trip like this. We were car campers at best, with most of our fishing days spent on the decks of our parents’ motorboats. Canoeing and portaging our way from one waterway to the next through a secluded national park would be exciting, unchartered territory.

Lunch break and rock hunting at one of the many historic light houses of Isle Royale. Image courtesy of Ethan Hornacek.

The remote island is protected by 450 smaller islands and peppered with dozens of inland lakes, making the archipelago an ideal destination for anglers but also quite a challenge. Fishing while paddling six miles against the wind on big water proved difficult, and we ended our first day with sore backs, blistered hands, and exactly zero fish.

On day two, we tried a calmer three-mile paddle into a protected cove of Lake Superior. From here, we conducted the first of our trip’s seven portages, lugging our 60-pound backpacks to the destination, doubling back, and then making the trek a third time with our aluminum canoes over our heads.

No wonder we were the only fools doing this.

Our campsite that night was on an inland lake 2.5 miles in, making it a 7.5-mile afternoon. We were quickly rewarded, though, with a plethora of northern pike. We ate our fill that night.

The author holds up his bruiser of a lake trout caught jigging on Siskiwit Lake, Isle Royale’s largest inland lake at 4,150 acres. Image courtesy of Ethan Hornacek.

It is critical for any hunter or angler to know the regulations of the area—it’s the part we all play in conservation—and we were armed with a Michigan fishing license for Lake Superior and its banks. We were surprised to learn that no license at all is needed to fish the island’s inland lakes, where you’re only limited by how much you can eat—no need to catch more than that, though you could. Additional rules apply, of course: Barbless hooks are required and, to keep the fishery productive, instead of minimum size requirements, park regs insist that we don’t keep fish above a certain size. Brook trout are off-limits, too.

Once we hit the island’s lakes, we couldn’t keep the fish out of our canoes. We caught northern pike, walleyes, and even some big lakers. We coated the fillets in fry mix and seasonings, then pan-fried them over our camp stove. Our remaining rations—flaked potatoes, pasta, beans, and rice—became side dishes instead of entrees. The chipmunks looked mighty jealous.

Even with the bounty of fish, we quickly realized that we underestimated the number of calories needed for six men on a weeklong backcountry excursion; our food supplies were getting low and we couldn’t eat enough. Fires are not allowed at most campsites, and frying fish over a camp stove uses quite a bit of fuel. Once we ran out, we’d have no way of cooking the fish or boiling water. We were saved when a group camping nearby watched us pull fish in one after another and commented on how tasty a fresh fish dinner would be. Turns out they had overpacked on fuel and were happy to shed some pack weight. Some good ol’ backcountry bartering ensued and we struck a deal: three filleted walleye for two cans of isobutene-propane.

We hit Lake Superior again the next day and pulled in a 41-inch northern pike, a Coho salmon, and two whitefish. We chilled the stringer in the frigid waters of the deepest and biggest of the Great Lakes to stretch our supply over multiple meals. Just when we thought it couldn’t get much better, we stumbled upon a jackpot of wild blueberries.

Late August is berry season on Isle Royale, and there are no bears to compete with at this National Park. Pictured here, wild blueberries. Image courtesy of Ethan Hornacek.

The park fed us, and I’ll never forget how proud I was of our self-reliance. With so few visitors, it felt like we owned those waters and wild areas. As the debate over federal land ownership continues, I realize this is exactly the case: We do own these lands. So, as we celebrate the National Park Service Centennial, I’m proud to remind others of the true value of public lands and the treasures they hold.

Even if you’re months away from your next backcountry hunt or hike, you can sign the petition to keep public lands in public hands right now.

Andrew Farron holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. He resides in Traverse City, Mich. with his fiancé, Sarah, and black Labrador, Luna. Andrew seems to always catch more – and bigger – fish than his older brother, Kevin.

All month long, we’re celebrating the National Park Service centennial with a blog series about our most significant experiences in the parks. Check back here for new posts from the TRCP staff and special guests, and follow the hashtag #PublicLandsProud on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

 

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August 8, 2016

Celebrating Our National Parks: Students Trade Spring Break Beaches for Park Service Projects

This spring, our policy intern volunteered with a group of other college students to help tackle the NPS’s maintenance backlog across the country—here’s what she learned

For many college students, spring break means piling into a car, driving to Florida, and spending a week on the beach. But this spring, I spent a week with eight other students volunteering for the National Park Service (NPS) through my university’s Alternative Spring Break program. Organized by schools across the country, students get the chance to learn about issues impacting communities near and far from home through hands-on service opportunities. As a volunteer at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in Georgia, I saw firsthand just some of the issues that our National Park Service is facing as we celebrate the agency’s 100th anniversary.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

Fort Oglethorpe wasn’t the most glamorous destination, but it gave us an opportunity to work directly with park rangers at one of the 412 areas of the National Park System, which covers more than 84 million acres. They put us to work on Glen Falls Trail, one of the most popular places to hike in the park, and we spent our week removing invasive species that threaten native biodiversity, building rock stairs to make the trail more accessible, and pruning overgrown vegetation, like thornbushes that had the potential to injure hikers.

We also focused on making the mile-long trail safer by widening it, removing hazards like fallen trees, and improving drainage, so the trail wasn’t as heavily impacted by storms. The staff at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park greatly appreciated our commitment to enhancing their park and working on projects they didn’t have the resources to complete on their own. By removing all the garbage on the trail, we even made a small contribution to the fish and wildlife in the area.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

These projects represent just a few drops in the bucket of deferred maintenance projects that are plaguing federal land management agencies, like the NPS, that don’t receive adequate funding. Earlier this year, the park service alone reported a $12 billion maintenance backlog. NPS seasonal and full-time staff was also cut from 21,897 people in 2010 to 17,967 employees this year, despite an annual increase in national park visitation. But the issue is a lot more complex than some would make it seem. The NPS has no way to track exactly how many visitors hike or walk their dogs down Glen Falls Trail, so it’s easier for Congress to underestimate how much money the rangers need to maintain these areas.

Knowing how strained the agency’s budget has become, I couldn’t help but feel disheartened that park staff spend any time removing the amount of trash we found that week. As the daughter of a sportsman, I learned at a young age to “leave no trace,” and I grew to understand why, after catching my fair share of flip flops and chip bags (a big disappointment when I thought I was reeling in a particularly shiny fish). It detracts from our outdoor experiences and, in some cases, keeps someone else from doing their job.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

So, I offer this advice as we celebrate the NPS Centennial this summer: Find your park and respect it. Teach kids and grandkids that America’s public lands are unique in all the world. Tell your lawmakers to fund conservation and support the agencies who care for our national parks and other public resources. You can also check out NPS Volunteer Days to help get the job done a little faster.

All month long, we’re celebrating the National Park Service centennial with a blog series about our most significant experiences in the parks. Check back here for new posts from the TRCP staff and special guests, and follow the hashtag #PublicLandsProud on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Shannon Fagan is the TRCP summer intern through the Demmer Scholar Program. She is going into her senior year at Michigan State University where she is majoring in Social Relations and Policy and minoring in Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy.

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July 19, 2016

A Tour of Grey Towers and the Two Men Who Became Icons of Modern-Day Forestry

On a recent trip to the home of Gifford Pinchot, our conservation policy intern was surprised to learn an intriguing lesson about another conservation visionary—Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was a champion of fish and wildlife conservation because he was a champion of public lands. While TR might be most famous for adding five national parks and a big chunk of Yosemite to our public lands system, more than half of the 230 million acres that he conserved during his presidency was given to the U.S. Forest Service, an agency he created in 1905. He entrusted this land to Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service and a member of TR’s Boone and Crockett Club.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Pinchot’s home in Milford, Pennsylvania, and learn a little bit more about him, the Forest Service, and TRCP’s namesake. It turns out that the two founding fathers of conservation were close friends. Roosevelt even introduced Pinchot to his wife Cornelia.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

Considering the role that Pinchot wound up playing in the conservation of U.S. forests, it’s ironic that his family fortune was made in the logging business. His grandfather profited from a time when it was common to purchase and clear-cut forests with no regard for the long-term health of the land. In his career as a forester, Gifford Pinchot felt a deep responsibility for correcting this misuse.

Like many of us, he grew up with an affinity for the outdoors, and his father encouraged him to turn that passion into a career. The Pinchot family even created an endowment at the Yale School of Forestry—which held summer field classes at Grey Towers, the family estate—to help future generations discover the values of the outdoor lifestyle.

Grey Towers was built in the 1880s and donated to the Forest Service in 1963. The partnership between Roosevelt and Pinchot created an agency that now manages 193 million acres of public land. Their understandings of conservation lead the Service to view forest management as “protecting lands against overgrazing, controlling and combating fire, protecting fish and game, and providing public recreation.” Proper natural resource management has kept our national forests open for public enjoyment for more than a hundred years.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

I couldn’t help but think about all the recreational opportunities we are privileged to access because of the foresight of these two men. And what they might say about the current conversation around giving up our public lands.

I think it might go a little something like this: “Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Shannon Fagan is the TRCP summer intern through the Demmer Scholar Program. She is going into her senior year at Michigan State University where she is majoring in Social Relations and Policy and minoring in Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy.