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On January 28-29, 2015, I attended a forum presented by the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) titled Drought Impacts and Solutions for Recreation and Tourism. Over 40 participants attended from state natural resources and tourism agencies, private companies and nonprofit organizations to discuss drought impacts, innovative drought solutions and technologies, and policy approaches to mitigating the effects of drought in the outdoor recreation and tourism sectors.
This was the fifth and final meeting in a series focused on drought as part of an initiative Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval’s started as chairman of the WGA. The drought forum is designed so states and industry can identify ways to avoid or mitigate the impacts of drought through sharing best practices and case studies of government policies and business improvements seen throughout the West. The results of these efforts will be released and discussed in a report with recommendations at the WGA annual meeting in Lake Tahoe, NV, on June 24-26.
WGA has a nice summary of the two-day event, including a video of the case study discussion of New Mexico’s River Stewards Initiative. What’s most notable about the recreation forum is that it occurred at all. Increasingly, leaders across the West are realizing that hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits are integral parts of our American heritage and economy, a realization that is reflected in state water plans, polling data and economic analyses time and again. WGA should be commended for saying we, including sportsmen, are all in this together, and preserving hunting and fishing must be prioritized in any drought planning process.
I was the only presenter or attendee with a primary interest in the federal role in drought response. Though the states must and should take the lead in managing water resources within their borders, the federal government has an inherent interest in making sure the western U.S. doesn’t run out of water. The feds can do so using two main tools, which is the message I gave at the forum: (1) encouraging cooperative stakeholder processes and (2) funding cooperative solutions. The TRCP is tracking federal programs that do these two things in the Sportsmen’s Water Budget and has profiled ten of the best examples of successes from these programs in a report released on February 26, both of which I’ve written about before (e.g., here and here).
While the drought forum met its main goal of creating a dialogue about problems, best practices and solutions, it’s unclear whether WGA has the ability to move the dialogue into action. There was little talk about replicating the best practices discussed or commitment to changing state policies that may be stifling innovative solutions. Sportsmen should look to the WGA report and recommendations in June to be the judge. In the meantime, sportsmen can help by joining the WGA mailing list at westgov.org and providing comments on the findings of individual drought forum meetings at the Drought Forum website.
Publicly accessible land is THE trending topic in the American outdoor recreation community and a major discussion point for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever members. In fact, land access—or the current lack thereof—consistently ranks as one of the top reasons for members joining “The Habitat Organization.”
To help combat the access issue, the 2008 Farm Bill included a new provision called the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP), commonly known as “Open Fields.” The goal of this program is to encourage private landowners to voluntarily open their land to the public for wildlife-dependent recreation, including hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities. Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever and a host of other conservation organizations have adamantly supported these provisions.
Of course, VPA-HIP is important for more than just access. Private landowners control some very important pieces of the conservation puzzle and dictate wildlife habitat/populations in North America. The traditional conservation model for state and federal agencies is based on land acquisition and easements. VPA-HIP partnerships are redefining the process to open private lands to public recreation and habitat conservation. VPA-HIP provides an excellent opportunity for landowners to have a positive impact on our natural resources with added incentives.
Funding for VPA-HIP helps state and tribal governments boost existing public access programs as well as implement new programs that increase access to private lands. USDA was originally authorized to spend $50 million on VPA-HIP from 2009‐2012, though delays and legislative action ultimately reduced spending to just $9.1 million in 2011. Thankfully, an additional $20 million was allocated in 2014, and USDA recently announced another $20 million in funding for this unique program at the 2015 National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic.
Contrary to what some may think, voluntary public access programs are not found solely in western states. An impressive list of states and tribes from across the country have participated in VPA-HIP to open private lands for public access:
Nearly 70 percent of land in the U.S. is in private ownership—a number that’s even higher in much of pheasant and bobwhite quail country.The more we can work with private land stewards for the betterment of natural resources, the brighter the future will be for wild things and wild places. If you are a proponent of public lands, we invite you to try hunting andrecreating on VPA-HIP land and to keep fighting for publicly-accessible lands with improved wildlife habitat.
Sportsmen have been called on to defend our public lands a lot lately. Short-sighted proposals have popped up in state legislatures all across the West this winter to transfer the ownership of our public lands away from the American people. Hunters and anglers have been on the front lines, often right on the steps of state capitols, defending more than a hundred years of our national outdoor legacy.
One of those bad ideas has migrated to Washington, with the February 13 introduction of S.490, the Federal Land Freedom Act of 2015. This legislation would turn the management of energy production on millions of acres of American public lands over to the states. The logic behind this bill is that energy production should be the dominant use of public lands, and that literally every barrier should be removed to make sure that production occurs quickly and with little regard for fish and wildlife habitat or access, indeed with little regard for anything.
S.490 is crafted on the principle that states can regulate energy production on federal public lands more efficiently and more effectively than can the federal land management agencies. This may well be true if one believes federal public lands should be singularly focused on the production of energy. State regulations for energy development are generally targeted at maximizing profits on state, and frequently, on private, lands. Our federal public lands were created for a higher purpose than rapid development at all costs. This legislation represents a reversal of the multiple use mandate that has been a foundational principle on federal public lands for more than a century. The American people own these lands and the American people must insist on having a say in their long-range management.
Energy development clearly has a place on federal lands, but it must be balanced with other uses and the public has a right to make its voice heard in that management. The Federal Land Freedom Act, however, makes clear that the public will have no input on public lands decision making when it comes to energy development. The legislation ensures, in no uncertain terms, that the Administrative Procedures Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act will be specifically cut out of the process for determining where energy production ought to go, and where it ought not to go.
The notion that underlies this bill, and many of the other land transfer ideas we’ve seen in recent months, is that these federal lands that have not been industrialized are “unused” or “underutilized.” In introducing S.490, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) said “The states, not the federal government, are the ones best equipped to tend to the extensive unused and unprotected lands across the nation that the federal government has staked a claim to.”
As any sportsmen can attest, the notion that if an area is not industrialized means it is unused is nonsense, and likely spoken by someone who has never left the comfort of his or her vehicle to experience our public lands. It ignores the fact that our public lands are the backbone of the nation’s $646 billion dollar outdoor recreation economy. It ignores the fact that 72 percent of hunters in the west rely on public lands to pursue their passion. And it ignores the fact that wide open places, like Wyoming’s sage country (often referred to as “The Big Empty”) provides critical habitat for 350 different species, from sage-grouse and golden eagles to mule deer and pronghorn.
The reality is that this lack of development on some of our public lands provides access and opportunity for sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts from around the country. Hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation power a rural economic boom that won’t ever go bust, so long as we take care of the habitat and the access.
Hunters and anglers are amongst the strongest champions of federal public lands, as witnessed by the rallies we are seeing across the West opposing selling off or transferring to the states our public lands. We must remain vigilant as well against proposals that don’t go quite so far as wholesale transfer, but that will just as surely forever change the public land landscape.
And we must help decision makers understand that these lands are far from unused.
What do you want our legacy to be? Sign the petition at http://sportsmensaccess.org.
Given all of the media coverage of drought in the West, pollution shutting off public drinking water in Ohio and West Virginia, and interstate lawsuits over water supplies, you may be tempted to think we have a very bleak water future ahead. Without a doubt, we have serious water challenges now and in the future. However, across the nation, sportsmen are demonstrating that federally supported collaborative water conservation partnerships work.
From California to New York, from Montana to Mississippi, hunters and anglers are leading important efforts to improve the quality and quantity of our water resources. The most successful conservation efforts are locally driven with a broad base of support, including federal financial and technical assistance. They honor and respect the traditions of hunting, fishing, farming and ranching while protecting the resources we share.
In a report released on February 26, 2015, the TRCP showcases ten examples of collaborative, sportsmen-led efforts and the importance of federal funding that fuels them. The lessons sportsmen have learned executing these projects tell a convincing story about the need for responsible water management and adequate funding.
But crises, like those we see in the drought-stricken West, demonstrate that we have failed to get ahead of the problem of managing water resources for mutual benefit and multiple uses. If we are to get ahead of the curve, we must replicate and scale up the successes of collaborative partnerships like those described in Snapshots of Success: Protecting America’s watersheds, fish and wildlife, and the livelihoods of sportsmen.
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