In 1961, my grandfather and a friend hired a public lands outfitter who took them on the hunting trip of their lives.
On this trip, my grandfather traveled into the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming where he harvested a bull elk, a buck mule deer and a bear. He wasn’t a rich man, but between all the goods and services his trip required, he spent a significant amount of his hard-earned money.
Years later, my father would allocate his discretionary income to fund his own public lands hunting and fishing adventures. Fortunately, I became the lucky recipient of a long-standing and sustainable hunting and fishing tradition. I’ve been able to spend the past thirty years of my life hunting with my father, friends and colleagues.
Last year, for a two month hunting season, I spent about $3,500 on fuel, licenses, food and hunting gear. When you look at the big picture, the recreational activity of 37 million individual hunters and anglers adds up quickly.
I just finished a sportsmen’s D.C. fly-in, and, boy, are my arms tired (ba-dum-chhh).
But seriously, folks.
More than a dozen sportsmen just wrapped up three days in Washington, D.C., last week talking to their elected officials about the importance of clean water to hunting and fishing. It was just in time, too. There’s a disturbing trend in Congress of members ignoring the views of sportsmen who rely on clean water to enjoy quality days in the field. For instance, on July 16, 2014, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved three pieces of legislation that undermine our bedrock water quality safeguards. TRCP partner Trout Unlimited rightly took them to task:
“Forty years ago the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee played a leadership role in enacting one of the nation’s most vital natural resource conservation laws, the Clean Water Act,” said Steve Moyer, Trout Unlimited’s vice president of government affairs. “Today, the Committee hammered the law with some of the most ill-conceived attacks in the history of the act.”
One of the bills would derail a Clean Water Act rulemaking that will clarify protections for headwater streams and wetlands and better define which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act and – just as importantly – which ones are not.
Sportsmen in D.C. last week told lawmakers from several states that this rulemaking is the best chance in a generation to definitively restore some protections to valuable fisheries and waterfowl habitats – protections that existed for nearly 30 years prior to 2001 – and Congress should not interfere with the process.
“Protecting America’s waters is important to anglers all across this country,” said Bob Rees, executive director, Association of Northwest Steelheaders, one of the fly-in participants. “Whether you fish for trout in North Carolina, bass in Missouri or salmon in Oregon, this is an issue that directly impacts us all.”
Signed into law in 1972, the Clean Water Act is one of our most successful environmental statutes. It has transformed rivers that once literally caught on fire into productive fisheries and vibrant aquatic ecosystems. And it slowed a rate of wetland loss that, in 1972, exceeded a half-million acres per year.
What’s been unclear at least since 2001 is to which waters the law applies. In 2001 and again in 2006 the Supreme Court issued decisions concerning Clean Water Act jurisdiction that, combined with subsequent agency guidance, actually confused the issue. What we’re left with is an administrative mess slowing down permit applications and water bodies at increased risk of pollution and destruction. The rate of wetlands loss – one of the great metrics of the success of the Clean Water Act – actually increased by 140 percent during the years immediately following the Supreme Court decisions. This is the first documented acceleration of wetland loss in the history of the Clean Water Act.
Since the Supreme Court decisions, a broad cross section of stakeholders has called for a rulemaking to clarify where the Clean Water Act applies. Many sportsmen’s groups have been asking for a rulemaking for years. So have state agencies, local elected officials, industry associations and farming and ranching groups, as well as Supreme Court justices.
After nearly 15 years of confusion, the agencies responsible finally obliged. On March 25, 2014, a proposed draft rule was published that is open for public comment through mid-October.
“Approximately two-thirds of the 13 million Pennsylvanians get drinking water from headwater streams that would benefit from this proposal,” said Jeff Ripple, chairman of the Environmental Committee for Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited and another fly-in participant. “This is not just about fishing; the status quo is putting the economy and our way of life at risk for the benefit of a few.”
Since the draft was published, we have heard a lot from groups opposing the proposed rule and congressmen intent on derailing the rulemaking even while it is still in the public comment phase. What’s been getting short shrift in this debate are the potential benefits of a rulemaking for America’s 47 million hunters and anglers. Sportsmen, who generate $200 billion in total economic activity each year and support 1.5 million jobs, rely on clean water to pursue their sporting traditions.
To be clear, the rulemaking must be done in a way that works for our partners in agriculture. We rely on them in many of our conservation efforts and for access to places to hunt and fish.
But efforts to stop the rulemaking before the public has had a chance to review and comment on the proposal are misguided and ignore the wishes of sportsmen. Now is not the time to throw the proposed rule away and lock in the current jurisdictional confusion indefinitely. It is time to improve it through broad public involvement.
TRCP Western Outreach Director Neil Thagard, a Minox Optics Adventure Team member, recently got the opportunity to chase Merriam’s turkeys in Wyoming in an area where he has arrowed numerous birds. This spring, Neil (along with his wife Catherine behind the camera) experienced cold weather with high winds and snow. On the few days he was able to hunt, he found birds, though he never connected.
However, this opportunity would not have been possible without access to public lands. The cooperation of private landowners and the Wyoming Game & Fish Department through the Access Yes program provides hunters and anglers access to otherwise inaccessible lands. For every dollar donated to the program, nearly 4.6 acres of access is provided to all hunters and anglers who hunt and fish in Wyoming – residents and non-residents alike. Many other states have similar access programs.
Watch a video of Neil’s hunt below. How important is access to you? Let us know on the TRCP Facebook page.
The Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act (S. 2363) is an historic piece of legislation that features some of the most important measures to benefit America’s 40 million sportsmen in years. The bill includes a number of provisions to expand public access and conserve fish and wildlife habitat for generations. S.2363 enjoys the support of many major hunting and angling organizations across the country. That support has been matched by a bipartisan cosponsor list of 45 Senators.
America’s hunters and anglers, who annually contribute $200 billion to the national economy and continue to play a vital role in the promotion of sustainable land use, deserve equal footing with other multiple uses on federal lands.
The Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act includes the following 14 provisions:
Permanent Electronic Duck Stamp Act of 2013 (S.738), authorizing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow any state to provide federal duck stamps electronically.
Hunting, Fishing and Recreational Shooting Protection Act (S.1505), exempts lead fishing tackle from being regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act
Target Practice and Marksmanship Training Support Act (S.1212), enabling states to allocate a greater proportion of federal funding to create and maintain shooting ranges on federal and non-federal lands
Duck Stamp Subsistence Waiver, granting the Secretary of the Interior the authority to make limited waivers of Duck Stamp requirements for certain subsistence users
Polar Bear Conservation and Fairness Act (S.847), permitting the Secretary of the Interior to authorize permits for re-importation of previously legally harvested Polar Bears from approved populations in Canada before the 2008 ban
Farmer and Hunter Protection Act, authorizing USDA extension offices to determine normal agricultural practices rather than the Fish and Wildlife Service
Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage OpportunitiesAct (S.170), requiring federal land managers to consider how management plans affect opportunities to engage in hunting, fishing and recreational shooting and requiring the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to keep BLM lands open to these activities.
Permits for Film Crews of Five People or Less, directing the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to require annual permits and assess annual fees for filming on federal lands
Making Public Lands Public, requires that 1.5 percent of annual Land and Water Conservation Fund monies be made available to secure public access to existing federal lands that have restricted access to hunting, fishing and other recreational activities.
North American Wetlands Conservation Act Reauthorization (S.741), provides matching grants to organizations, state and local governments, and private landowners for the acquisition, restoration, and enhancement of wetlands habitat critical to migratory birds.
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Reauthorization, reauthorizing NFWF, a nonprofit that conserves and restores native wildlife species and habitats.
Target Practice and Marksmanship Training Support Act, enabling states to allocate a greater proportion of federal funding to create and maintain shooting ranges.
Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act Reauthorization, enabling the Bureau of Land Management to disburse public lands to private entities, county governments, and others for the purposes of ranching, public works, and related projects and invest the revenue received to obtain additional conservation lands.
The fourth anniversary of the start of the BP Gulf oil spill passed in April with relatively little fanfare.
Certainly there were some very important reports circulated in the media regarding the detrimental impacts of oil on larval fish, especially tuna, in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And the Coast Guard recently announced it was ending the active cleanup phase of the recovery effort and responding to oiling on a case-by-case basis, despite regular reports of oil showing up on Louisiana’s barrier island beaches. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that more and more workers are commuting to jobs in coastal parishes in Louisiana rather than living in coastal communities, which are growing increasingly vulnerable to flooding from wetland loss, sea level rise and the fact that the land is sinking, something most in South Louisiana have surely noticed on area roads during rush-hour traffic.
Despite these reports ringing alarms along the Gulf Coast, where post-oil spill and post-hurricane realities are ever present, the national spotlight will likely not focus on the oil spill again until next year when its fifth anniversary coincides with the 10th anniversary of the landfalls of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
While many of the larger national news outlets passed on the in-depth examinations of the health of the Gulf and its residents this year, Smithsonian.com published an article that examined the impacts of the spill, attempting to distill fact from rumor and portray as accurate a picture possible of the Gulf of Mexico in April 2014 versus the Gulf of four years ago.
The article illustrated the impacts of hydrocarbons on larval fish such as bluefin and blackfin tuna, though it did not report that scientists and researchers know for certain that those impacts will have long-term detrimental effects on the populations of those fish. Scientists simply don’t know that yet and will need more time to ascertain that information. The article further explained key forage species, especially menhaden, had gone through enough life cycles for scientists to reasonably conclude that their collapse was unlikely, though not out of the realm of possibilities.
The article also quoted oil-spill experts who attested the oil released into the Gulf was a lighter, more volatile hydrocarbon than what was spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 – and it was released into a warmer environment with more micro-organisms in it to help dissipate and consume it. However, despite the ability of the Gulf’s warmer, highly-oxygenated climate to consume oil, once it reached the irregular, marshy shorelines of Louisiana’s coast, the oil was trapped in vegetation and mud – and likely will stay there for generations.
All of these findings, for the most part, had been reported before the piece in Smithsonian.com was published, though it was very helpful to have them all summed up in one tidy, well-researched article, especially as news of the spill’s aftermath has been pushed farther to the back of newspapers and magazines and off the home pages of most news websites.
Of all the points made in the article, one that stood out the most is the fact that the spill did not happen in a pristine environment. The Gulf, like many other coastal ecosystems across the world, has experienced more than its share of habitat loss, poor water quality and man-made and natural disasters.
Efforts to contain rivers from flooding and maintain them for navigation have disrupted vital sediment deposits needed to maintain wetlands that serve as fish nursery grounds and filters for nutrients from agriculture and urban runoff. Over-harvest and poor water quality, including nutrient loading and saltwater intrusion, have limited oyster and scallop production.
Poor water quality also can be blamed for the loss of historic sea grass beds, especially in Florida and Texas. Some places are getting too much freshwater and at the wrong times of the year, while others are simply not getting enough freshwater due to upstream diversions. Since scientists did not have a wealth of knowledge about Gulf fisheries before the spill, it’s difficult for them to draw specific conclusions about what the impacts of the spill are and could be.
None of this is intended to suggest that people do not have their place in the Gulf’s ecosystems. Rather, it is meant to point out that policymakers, lawmakers, scientists and Gulf residents must seize the opportunity to address the impacts and make the Gulf a better, more sustainable ecosystem. That opportunity comes in the form of the penalties that have been and will be paid to help repair the damages caused and exacerbated by the spill.
Efforts to restore coastal wetlands, oyster and sea grass beds; repair damages to coral reefs; return sediment flows back into the Mississippi River Delta and improve water quality across the Gulf are not just “feel good” stories. They are essential to making the Gulf’s fisheries and coastal communities sustainable.
More than 3.5 million anglers hold recreational fishing licenses from Florida through Texas. That number swells by as much as a million when those are included who take charter trips out of states that include the license as part of the charter fee. That fishing activity annually generates more than $10 billion throughout the Gulf. Without efforts to make the ecosystems on which the fish depend more sustainable, those recreational fishing dollars gradually go away, as do the fishing opportunities.
As Gulf-area law and policymakers devise ways to spend oil-spill recovery dollars on “economic development” as the money continues to trickle in, it’s important for the recreational fishing community to remind them the wisest investment is in the ecosystems that already make up a huge part of the area’s economy.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?
The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.