Experiencing the John Day River in Oregon – and addressing threats to public lands
Southeast and central Oregon are known for vast landscapes of sagebrush steppe and basalt rim rock. This wide open country provides important habitat for numerous species of big game, upland birds and trout. It also offers access to outstanding public lands hunting.
As a sportsman, outfitter and mother, I believe that one of the most important challenges of our time is to ensure that these places are conserved so that when my daughter grows up, she can enjoy the same experiences and opportunities that I have had.
Some of the state’s best hunting for mule deer and chukar, as well as fishing for steelhead, trout and smallmouth bass, occur on rivers and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.
For example, the John Day River is the third longest undammed river in the Lower 48. It also is a stronghold for wild steelhead. The John Day is in my “backyard,” and, as a local fishing outfitter, I take pride in sharing this river with visitors and other anglers.
My husband and I have outfitted on the John Day River since 2001 and annually bring close to 180 people to the local area where they fish, shop, stay in hotels and eat at restaurants. Visitors are mesmerized by the rim rock canyons, the smell of juniper and the solitude experienced on a John Day River float. These experiences connect visitors with something greater than themselves while supporting a major component of Oregon’s rural economy. Public lands are a boon for those who travel from across the country and world to enjoy them, as well as those who call these places home.
As ardent public land users, we know firsthand that public lands in Oregon are faced with increasing pressures. Growing demands for renewable energy resources, uncharacteristic wild fires, fire suppression, invasive species, loss of public access, excessive road and trail densities, and contentious political debates have the potential to diminish the value of public lands for fish, wildlife and sportsmen.
These issues aren’t easy to deal with, but it’s our duty as sportsmen and recreational users to be a smarter, more powerful voice in the natural resource policy debate in order to ensure that the special places where we recreate are conserved, restored and enhanced. We must communicate to state and federal decision makers that the conservation of fish and wildlife habitat – and high quality hunting and fishing – needs to be a management priority.
Intact and unfragmented public land habitats offer some of the best remaining hunting and fishing available on federal lands in the state of Oregon. These unique areas are valuable national resources that should be managed and conserved for future generations. Our hunting and angling heritage, as well as Oregon’s $12.8 billion outdoor recreation economy, depend on it.
Married to the river: commitment and the gateway to conservation
There are things that happen on the water that you have a very slim chance of seeing if you’re not out there regularly. I’d heard stories of behemoths chomping stoneflies, patterning sippers on glassy lakes, epic drake hatches, but I’d never experienced those things first hand. This past summer, I hung up the climbing shoes and mountain bike, and just fished. I wouldn’t waste my afternoons deciding what to do, and I’d make sure I was there when the days that we’re always waiting for finally happened.
I hit a drake hatch on the Gallatin that had trout leaping from the river like they were auditioning for Sea World. I found myself in the right place at the right time for the nocturnal stoneflies, had more nights than I can count throwing PMDs until well after dark, and caught almost every species of trout that swims in the state of Montana. I thought about how much I’d come to love my time on the river, and how much the investment I’d made in getting to know it meant to me, so when I was asked to speak at TEDxBoulder last month I knew that this would be a big part of my message.
I spoke about how our commitment to the things that we love enriches our ability to enjoy them. (And though I wasn’t talking about marriage and kids—I was talking about fishing—my theory certainly applies there.) I think that it’s important for us to see how investing our time and energy in the things that we care about perpetuates a cycle of conservation that not only benefits us personally, but benefits our greater ecosystem.
When we try to do too much, or when we sit the fence and avoid commitment all together, we are denying ourselves valuable experiences and wasting energy. I knew that by giving up the trail for the river, I might miss out on a few things, but I was sure that by focusing on what I really loved, I’d get to do it more and wouldn’t waste time figuring out my post-work and weekend plans. My gear was always packed and I didn’t think twice when someone asked if I wanted to go fishing.
Needless to say, I got pretty good at it, but something else happened that I wasn’t quite expecting. When I used to fish a few times a year, I’d see trash on the river and think, “that’s terrible—I hope someone picks that up!” But now that I’m out there nearly every day, I see that it’s my responsibility to leave no trace, to press barbs, to keep an eye on the water temps and handle fish as responsibly and respectfully as I can. I’ve gotten very familiar with the impact that my use has on the resource, and I’ve come to see first-hand the importance of making sure I’m doing everything that I can to tread lightly.
I know that I am engaging with a fragile species for my own enjoyment, and—because of what I get out of it, because of how much I love interacting with trout and being on the river—I know that it’s my responsibility not just to minimize my impact, but to get involved in maintaining the health of the resource and encourage others to do the same.
Because of a seemingly small decision that I made back in April—to focus my energy—I’ve found not just a love for these beautiful fish and their habitat, but a much deeper understanding of what they need and the importance of giving back.
When I wrote this talk, I didn’t realize that what I was really speaking towards is stewardship—an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources—but that’s exactly what it’s about. And the more you do your thing, with time and stamina, stewardship becomes almost intuitive. And to all the people who’ve asked how they can get more involved in what they love, just keep doing it – whatever it is. Do it with passion and solidarity of focus and the places where your time and energy are most needed will become obvious. Then, commit to being a steward of the resources that bring you the greatest joy. Advocate for them. Protect them. Conserve them. Share them.
Catie Webster is Director of Public Relations and Marketing for Mystery Ranch in Bozeman, Montana.
TRCP’s Center for Marine Fisheries Director Chris Macaluso gets in a quality day of fishing on Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, finding plenty of speckled trout. Hear why this resource is important to TRCP’s fisheries work.
A lot of folks around the West are frustrated with federal land management agencies these days.
Our federal public lands are facing a lot of challenges, like catastrophic wildfires, the spread of noxious weeds like cheatgrass, public land grazing conflicts, conflicts over energy development, and the loss of key wildlife habitat. Agencies are running in circles trying to deal with these conflicts while making resource management decisions that will determine the future of multiple uses on our public lands. Simultaneously, agencies also must manage myriad lawsuits from multiple interests unhappy about the decisions being made. It seems the West is shrinking as more and more people are competing for our public land resources.
As sportsmen, we have our own list of priority public land policy issues: maintaining quality, unfragmented habitat; rehabilitating habitat that has been damaged; and improving existing habitat to make it more resilient and productive so that fish and wildlife can thrive. All of these are important aspects of public land management. We understand the need for development of our natural resources and recognize that economic vitality involves choices and compromise. But we also understand that in a world where high quality, undeveloped wild places are becoming scarcer, it is imperative that we work to identify and protect these public places through balanced management.
As federal agencies try to plan for the future, all these issues come into play. Blaming the agencies for everything wrong in the West is easy, but in reality agency decisions are usually the result of agency mandates – which can have controversial outcomes. Important to remember as well is that these policies and laws result from various interest groups working within the system to advance their particular interests. Often these groups are at odds with one another, and the agency is left to sort out the conflict and formulate a compromise, leaving both parties unhappy about the outcome.
Sportsmen must take action ‘early and often’
This might sound like a fatalist’s view, but to the contrary, the takeaway is that we all have a responsibility and a right to work within our democratic system to put forth our interests and values – and then see to it that these interests and values are implemented. Sportsmen are often conspicuously absent from agency decision making processes and sometimes fail to get involved until they are reacting to decisions that already have been made. Instead, we must get involved early and often.
Earlier this year, the federal Bureau of Land Management launched a new initiative to revamp its long term land use planning processes. Dubbed “Planning 2.0,” this initiative will comprise the most comprehensive overhauls of the BLM’s planning process in decades.
Recently, representatives from the TRCP and some of our partners attended meetings convened by the BLM in Denver, Colo., and Sacramento, Calif. These meetings began the process of gathering public input on Planning 2.0 and discussing how the BLM might make this process as effective as possible.
Altogether, the Denver and Sacramento meetings attracted close to 150 participants. In addition to representatives from a number of sportsmen’s organizations, the off highway vehicle community, other environmental and conservation organizations, state and local agencies, wild horse advocates and citizens at-large were represented. Each meeting lasted about four hours and included “breakout sessions” so that participants could discuss the goals set by the BLM for Planning 2.0
Some of the themes that emerged during the breakout sessions included the following:
Public involvement in the 2.0 process is a must – and should be maximized.
What is the definition of “landscape-level” planning? What is the BLM’s definition, and how will these boundaries be defined?
How will baseline data be gathered? How will “citizen science” or data gathered by citizen groups and other non-governmental organizations be compiled and used?
How can the BLM do a better job of enabling public engagement in the process?
Ultimately, some of the key takeaways comprised the following:
The BLM doesn’t have a clear definition of what defines a landscape, what elements would define boundaries, and how priorities would be set for various interests, e.g., wildlife, grazing, energy development.
The BLM must review what has and hasn’t worked with other agencies, particularly the U.S. Forest Service, with regard to public engagement and the process of gathering and integrating data and information provided by the public.
How will this new process improve the status quo regarding how politics impacts the process – and to what extent will powerful special interests such industry groups still be able to manipulate it to fit their agendas?
These meetings are just the beginning. Sportsmen and sportsmen’s interests must be at the table, working with other stakeholders to find common ground and resolving the conflicts that will inevitably arise. The TRCP and other partner groups will be providing input and advocating on behalf of sportsmen and wildlife conservation throughout this process. We hope this will lead to better policy – as well as conservation of some of our most important and valued Western public lands.
If future generations of Americans are going to enjoy our outdoor heritage, abundant wildlife and unspoiled landscapes, then we all have to get involved and make our voices heard. To learn more about Planning 2.0, visit the BLM website.
Fall means many things to sportsmen – elk in the Missouri Breaks, whitetails in the hardwood forests of Pennsylvania, ringnecks in South Dakota.
For many of us at the TRCP, fall brings to mind Jim Range – and his dogs.
TRCP’s co-founder and visionary, Jim was known and beloved by so many. A lifelong sportsman who served as chief counsel to Sen. Howard Baker during the years when the senator was majority leader, Range played a critical role in advancing some of the nation’s most important natural resources legislation, including the Clean Water Act.
Defined by his passions, Jim was a consummate leader and bridge builder, as well as an enthusiastic hunter of birds and big game and a devoted trout fisherman. His capacity for seeing past differences and finding the common ground among diverse interests, both within the sportsmen’s community and outside it, set the course for the TRCP and our mission.
Jim Range harbored a particular love of upland hunting, and the sharp-tailed grouse held a special place in his heart. Bob St. Pierre, vice president of communications for Pheasants Forever, recalls Jim saying while on a hunt, “I love everything about these birds. The environs where they live, the way they flush and laugh at you as they fly away. I love the taste of their meat, the simple beauty of each feather, their fur-covered feet, and the rose hips all around. I love everything about these darned sharpies.”
Like all upland hunters, Jim was especially fond of his dogs. They featured prominently in his life and his stories, and they served as cherished companions, friends and foils. Plague, Tench, Jambo and Sky are familiar to so many who knew him.
Jim died in 2009 – far too young, following a short battle with cancer – but his legacy lives on. And so do his dogs. The TRCP recently received word that Sky, Jim’s German wirehair, continues to chase birds every chance he gets. Taken in by John Neel Range, Jim’s brother, Sky travels as far afield as eastern Montana on occasion, where he spent some time last month hunting there with John, his son Jake, and Jake’s black Lab Jambo. (The Range family tradition of naming dogs continues.)
“Sky spends a lot of time at our farm in Tennessee,” said Carol Walker Range, John’s wife. “He’s become an Eastern grouse dog most of the time, although he does a pretty good job at our annual dove hunt.”
We at the TRCP think Jim would be glad to hear it.
As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.