Do you have any thoughts on this post?
Deferred maintenance projects without suitable funding crop up on more than just national park lands, and it could waste your precious daylight hours afield—here’s everything you need to know about the backlog issue, proposed solutions, and why it’s personal
Picture this: You draw a special deer tag in a unit you’ve never hunted before, and like most people, you’re busy. So, you study maps and satellite imagery to mark roads and trails on your GPS, but family and work obligations prevent you from being able to get out there and scout in-person.
You could be pulling into camp the day before a six-day hunt, with your entire strategy reliant on being able to use access that you’ve never laid eyes on. It’s not ideal, but it happens. And there is a real possibility that you’ll be confronted with washed out roads and deep ruts that make passage difficult or impossible by vehicle, while some non-motorized trails are so overgrown that you can’t even find them to hike on.
No one wants to burn up half their hunt frustrated by road and trail conditions that fall short of their expectations. But this kind of access to public lands has become more difficult for America’s sportsmen and women because of the massive maintenance backlogs at many federal land management agencies—not just the National Park Service. It’s time to recognize the breadth of this challenge and how it plays out during your hunting and fishing season.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 36 percent of American hunters depend on public lands for some or all of their access. In the West, where the BLM oversees 245 million acres of multiple-use public lands, 72 percent of hunters rely on public lands. When the roads and trails on these lands become difficult to navigate, these are the sportsmen and women who waste their precious time afield and get frustrated with land managers.
Currently, the Interior Department has a maintenance backlog totaling roughly $16 billion. While the bulk of that figure—or $11.6 billion—is tied to national parks, America’s sportsmen and women remain concerned about the backlogs at the Bureau of Land Management and the National Wildlife Refuge System, which have a combined backlog of $2.2 billion. Meanwhile, at the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service has a backlog totaling more than $5 billion, an issue further exacerbated by the practice of “fire borrowing” before this fix.
Combined, these agencies manage public lands that provide some of the best hunting and fishing opportunities in the country. But nothing is more frustrating than having to ground-truth every route to make sure it’s accessible as presented on a map. Especially in today’s world, when time is precious and most people don’t have extra days to spare.
Loss of access is often cited as the number-one reason hunters quit the sport. With hunting numbers already in decline, creating a ripple that reduces funding for state wildlife conservation, we can ill-afford to let a backlog of repairs put negative pressure on hunter retention and recruitment.
The deferred maintenance backlog across federal agencies and Americans’ access to public lands appears to be top-of-mind for the administration. In his infrastructure proposal earlier this year, President Trump offered a new funding stream to address the maintenance backlog on lands managed by the Interior Department, including our nation’s parks and wildlife refuges. And Secretary Zinke has been outspoken about the maintenance backlog issue, even as he has urged agency staff through two Secretarial Orders to prioritize public access to outdoor recreation like hunting and fishing.
Creating a solution will be critical, but it can’t come at the cost of other important conservation programs. While the TRCP supports initiatives to address the significant maintenance backlog on our nation’s public lands, we are opposed to efforts to restructure programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund with an aim of shifting funding from one important need to another.
Instead, we need an all-of-the-above strategy: Reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund to continue creating access where there is none, recognize that the maintenance backlog issue is meaningful for more than just national park visitors, and identify new funding sources to deal with it.
Fortunately, the House Natural Resources Committee recently showed strong bipartisan support for doing just that. In September, they advanced two pieces of critical public lands legislation that would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund and provide dedicated funding to address the maintenance backlogs in our national parks, Bureau of Land Management lands, and National Wildlife Refuge System.
Now, sportsmen and women need Congress to see these solutions through before the end of the year, when all good intentions are left on the cutting room floor and a new Congress begins. If you agree, voice your support for the public lands that we call Sportsmen’s Country—sign the petition now.
This was originally posted March 27, 2018, and has been updated to reflect recent events.
The scene that shocked East Coast anglers who waited all year to cruise up to striped bass blitzing on an embattled forage fish
I look forward to fall fishing all year long. It is a little cooler, the days a little shorter, and the convergence of baitfish and predators feeds the fabled fall blitz and takes over my imagination. A few weeks ago, I headed out ready to fish the fall migration with coolers full, sandwiches made, and strong reports of striped bass, false albacore, and bluefish in the area. A Long Island Grand Slam was on our agenda.
We couldn’t get out there fast enough when we saw what every angler wants to see: birds dive-bombing the water above a huge pod of bunker. These Atlantic menhaden support pretty much every sportfish we care about. And they’re so critical to the ecosystem that anglers up and down the East Coast would like to see them managed with their value as a forage fish in mind.
Through binoculars, we saw an even larger flock of birds indicating some action in the distance, so we got the boat up on plane and gunned it to see what was going on. But we were not prepared to see a 200-foot purse seining boat vacuuming up millions of bunker.
I knew this was happening down in Virginia—where a single company represents the last holdout in the commercial harvest of menhaden—but what the heck were these boats doing up in New York waters? Hearing about it is bad, but seeing the scale of this type of fishing in person is shocking and demoralizing. There was a spotter plane flying above to find the fish and two smaller boats dispatched by the mother ship to surround the school with a huge net.
They were removing millions of pounds of bait that make our best days on the water possible. And, quite simply, if you remove the bait, the predators will leave, too. Imagine a fresh chill in the air and no birds on the horizon.
Standing there with my rod and reel, I felt really insignificant next to this industrial operation. New York doesn’t allow reduction fishing—the practice of “reducing” commercially harvested fish like menhaden into fishmeal or fish oil—in the three miles offshore that constitute state waters. In fact, reduction fishing has been banned off the coastal waters of every Atlantic state, with the exception of Virginia. But we were just beyond that boundary within federal waters, where reduction fishing of this sort is currently permitted in what is known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. (Ironically, all striped bass fishing–both recreational and commercial–is strictly prohibited in the EEZ.)
How can removing that much forage from the marine food web be the best use of the resource for New York fishermen and our economy? These boats, run by Omega Protein, would soon be taking these fish back to Virginia to be processed and then shipped to Canada to feed farmed salmon. But what about our wild stripers, albies, and blues?
Not too long ago, menhaden were in real trouble due to overfishing. Scientists agree that the menhaden’s recovery began when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the government body that manages the species, enacted the first-ever catch limits on bunker in 2013.
But the return of menhaden has now also brought the Omega Protein fleet back to our waters with their spotter planes, and our future fishing opportunities could be left in their wake.
For decades, Omega (now owned by Canadian Cooke Inc.) has opposed a more ecological approach to fisheries management and consistently lobbies for aggressive catch increases that would jeopardize the return of menhaden populations. Why? Because their business depends on churning out more fishmeal and fish oil.
Omega’s return to New York and New Jersey has created outrage and should spark action. If menhaden populations in Virginia are as healthy as Omega says, why did they need to travel 270 miles from their home port in Reedsville to catch their quota?
Removing a critical food source for sportfish in the New York Bight and taking it back to Virginia is an irresponsible use of the resource. We need this bait for our predators and the outdoor recreation economy they support. Our policymakers should not allow local anglers to sacrifice for the benefit of one company.
All but one of the Atlantic Coast states have banned the ecologically damaging practice of menhaden reduction fishing in their territorial waters. Perhaps the time has come for the federal government to do the same.
Top photo courtesy: David Blinken
With management and conservation cutbacks looming, the future of Pennsylvania’s fisheries depends on anglers’ leadership in footing the bill
Hunters and anglers have always stepped up to the plate when it comes to conserving our best fish and wildlife habitat for future generations. Right now, Pennsylvanians have another golden opportunity to do just that.
In recent years, fish and wildlife conservation programs at both the state at federal level have seen cuts in funding, leading to fewer quality hunting and fishing opportunities across the country. Among those agencies affected by this trend is the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which is tasked with providing safe access to Pennsylvania’s 86,000 miles of rivers and streams, the most of any state in the lower 48. The commission also handles the enforcement and regulation of boating and fishing on all waters within the Commonwealth. Revenue from the sale of fishing licenses provides the PFBC with its primary source of funding, and it receives no money from the state general fund. In short, this model means that the PFBC’s scope of responsibilities has no bearing on the size of its budget.
The last increase in recreational angling license fees occurred in 2005, thirteen years ago. Only eight years later, expenses were projected to soon outpace revenues, and in an effort to lower operating costs the PFBC planned to close two hatcheries. The announcement caused an outcry among sportsmen, and as a result lawmakers in 2013 promised to work alongside the agency toward a license fee increase.
Five years later, little progress has been made. And, still, the PFBC continues to operate with diminished funds.
The most visible consequence of this inaction is fewer wildlife conservation officers, who not only respond to waterway emergencies but also investigate pollution reports and provide resource education.
Less visible, however, is the effect of declining revenues on conservation programs, like the wildly successful Unassessed Waters Initiative, a collaborative effort by the PFBC and conservation groups. Guided by recommendations from sportsmen and anglers, PFBC staffers and wildlife science students from local colleges visit streams that have never been surveyed to document the presence of wild trout. Waters with wild trout populations often qualify for additional protections, so that these habitats and the fishing opportunities they offer will be conserved for generations to come.
Given the sheer volume of running water in Pennsylvania, this is a time-intensive effort. As of January 2017, PFBC staffers and partners had only surveyed approximately 32,442 stream miles, but a more robustly funded PFBC would allow the UWI to operate at full potential. “A license fee increase would have a profound impact on the Unassessed Waters Initiative,” says George Kutskel, an officer for the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited.
Legislation that has been introduced in the state capital could provide the agency with the license fee increase it needs to operate conservation programs currently under threat. The bill’s future, however, remains uncertain. While some have raised concerns regarding the amount of the proposed increase, the PFBC has determined that a $7 increase on the cost of an annual fishing license would allow the agency to better fulfill its mandate to “protect, conserve, and enhance the commonwealth’s aquatic resources.”
Despite the tremendous good that this license fee increase would do for fish, clean water, and the future of Pennsylvania’s angling traditions, sportsmen and women will only see progress on this front in the next legislative session if we make our voices heard. Concerned residents should let their state representative or senator know the importance—and urgency—of this issue.
Pennsylvania residents can look up contact information for their state representative and state senator at the following link:
Photos courtesy: Chesapeake Bay Program
Water infrastructure package with benefits for fish, wildlife, and the outdoor recreation economy heads to president’s desk with bipartisan support
Today, in a 99-1 vote, senators acted overwhelmingly in support of water resources and sent landmark legislation to the president’s desk that would expedite restoration efforts in the Everglades. The “America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018” (S. 3021) also takes important steps to advance nature-based infrastructure solutions—like restoring wetlands and dunes to reduce flood and storm damage—that are more cost-effective for the American taxpayer.
The House passed the bill unanimously last month.
“This is the biggest step forward for natural infrastructure that we’ve seen this Congress, and it builds on recent momentum to restore critical habitat and water quality in the Everglades,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “American sportsmen and women should be heartened to see this level of bipartisanship for conservation, especially at a moment in the political calendar when both sides typically retreat to their own corners. We appreciate the leadership of Sen. Barrasso, Sen. Carper, Rep. Shuster, and Rep. DeFazio.”
The legislation advances two critical projects that will improve clean water flows throughout South Florida and supports the development of technologies to reduce harmful algal blooms that infamously killed fish across the state this summer. It will also provide for more advanced research on preventing the spread of invasive species like Asian carp and zebra mussels, whose growing populations threaten many popular fishing destinations.
“Today is a great day for America’s Everglades and the people of Florida. Construction can now begin on a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that is vital to reconnecting the lake to the Florida Keys. The economic benefits of this project cannot be overstated, as Florida’s economy depends on clean water, thriving fisheries and a robust real estate market,” says Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation.
Indeed, improving habitat and supporting predictable fishing opportunities will benefit Florida’s $2.9-billion recreational fishing industry.
“Passage of America’s Water Infrastructure Act is a monumental step in restoring the Everglades and providing clean water for Florida’s fisheries. This legislation is crucial to reducing the ongoing estuary discharges and algal blooms affecting the state, and we greatly appreciate the leadership of Florida’s Congressional Delegation in securing its passage. We look forward to working with Congress to ensure that sufficient funding is available to carry out the Act’s provisions,” says Kellie Ralston, Southeast Fisheries Policy Director of the American Sportfishing Association.
The bill also greenlights a feasibility study for habitat restoration projects in the Lower Mississippi River region. These projects could produce multiple benefits for fish and wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities across six states.
Another important provision of this legislation will help to give higher priority to natural and nature-based infrastructure solutions that reduce storm risks, enhance public safety, and conserve fish and wildlife habitat near Army Corps of Engineers project sites. Lawmakers supported requiring the Government Accountability Office to examine the costs and benefits that the Corps considers when authorizing projects. The current process likely underestimates the long-term cost savings of natural infrastructure projects, and bringing greater transparency to project deliberations is a positive step toward righting this imbalance.
Photo courtesy of Oliver Rodgers.
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More