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In an increasingly crowded and pay-to-play world, America’s 640 million acres of public lands – including our national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands–have become the nation’s mightiest hunting and fishing strongholds. This is especially true in the West, where according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 72 percent of sportsmen depend on access to public lands for hunting. Without these vast expanses of prairie and sagebrush, foothills and towering peaks, the traditions of hunting and fishing as we have known them for the past century would be lost. Gone also would be a very basic American value: the unique and abundant freedom we’ve known for all of us, rich and poor and in-between, to experience our undeveloped and wild spaces, natural wonders, wildlife and waters, and the assets that have made life and citizenship in our country the envy of the world.
A big game hunter’s bucket list might include a trip to the slopes of Alaska’s Brooks Range for Dall sheep or an excursion deep into the southwestern desert for beautiful little Coues deer. But, one thing is certain: That list will hold a hunt for big bull elk, and there is no better place to do that than on high-country public lands in Colorado.
In Part Five of our series, we head to north-central Idaho.
The narrow trail unfolds before you, cut into a steep side of a hill descending to the creek-bottom, where you can see cutthroats rising in the long green pools. The trail goes on and on, and there’s still a trace of last winter’s snow on the ridge far above you.
This is Kelly Creek, in north-central Idaho, above the North Fork of the Clearwater River. Here, you’ll find backcountry bear, wolf, and elk hunting, fishing for big West-slope cutthroat trout, and freedom—to make camp where night finds you and wake in the morning to wander again.
If you want to car camp and fish, head for the St. Joe River above Avery or the North Fork of the Clearwater out of Pierce. There are dozens of campgrounds and a maze of logging roads to take you up high, where the huckleberries grow in thickets. You could spend a lifetime hunting and fishing here and not see it all, and many people do just that. Every tumbling tributary has wild trout, forest grouse, and game trails leading to other worlds of shadowed glens and big timber.
Nothing cuts this reverie short like the knowledge that the Idaho legislature has been front and center in demanding the transfer of these, and the rest of the 34 million acres of federal public lands in Idaho, from the federal government to the state. The issue has been hotly debated by Idaho residents, because state management of these lands could result in their sale to private interests, just as it did when timber companies began selling off their lands in this area a decade ago. Private ownership of what is now federal land would impact access to lakes and hunting country on which locals – and visitors – have depended for generations.
With its lush forests and excellent, accessible hunting and fishing, the Upper St. Joe contains some of the most desirable real estate in the West. For long-term and big picture investors, the value lies in the area’s water resources—including Kelly Creek, the waterway makes up more than a quarter of the Clearwater River watershed. Those with interests in this area and others were particularly active during the 2015 Idaho legislative session, and four different bills were proposed that would rob Americans of their outdoor heritage. Fortunately, sportsmen worked even harder than the land grabbers, rallying at the Capitol and generating countless newspaper articles and meeting with legislators. Because of their actions, all proposed land transfer bills died in the 2015 Idaho legislature. But sportsmen must remain diligent as it is almost certain that land seizure advocates will make another run at taking your public lands.
When President Theodore Roosevelt created the Clearwater National Forest in July of 1908, he knew exactly what he was doing. The only question now is whether Americans have the will to carry on one of the world’s great legacies of publicly-accessible hunting, fishing, and camping, or whether we will let it disappear in a haze of bad ideas and short-term greed.
Stay tuned. In the rest of this 10-part series, we’ll continue to cover some of America’s finest hunting and fishing destinations that could be permanently seized from the public if politicians have their way.
Last December, I had the opportunity to join Steven Rinella, the host of the popular Sportsman Channel show MeatEater, for a sandhill crane hunt in Texas. I’d connected with Rinella at a few TRCP events and learned that he’d never hunted or eaten cranes, so I invited him to join me and biologist Mike Panasci, a Texas Tech University Ph.D. student I got to know as an adjunct professor. Rinella’s longtime friend Ronnie Boehme rounded out our group. Rinella’s been a great supporter of the TRCP and conservation, but besides that, he is my kind of hunter. I knew he’d appreciate the experience of hunting and tasting cranes for the first time.
Panasci did all the nitty gritty work of lining up lands to hunt on and making our “stuffer” decoys – skinned birds filled with wood and Styrofoam that draw other cranes toward our positions. He and another friend, Jon McRoberts, were responsible for exposing me to crane hunting after I joined the faculty at Texas Tech in 2009, and we’ve hunted together every year since. Hunting cranes is a lot like hunting geese: It’s all about scouting and patterning the birds, setting up the decoys just right, then hiding well in blinds and natural cover, and letting the birds work into the spread—when they cooperate, of course.
We had a few struggles on the front end of the hunt, as we quickly learned that hiding a couple of guys from wary cranes is pretty easy, but hiding three cameramen and four hunters is a bit more challenging. After testing a couple of setups and finding a prime location with better cover, we actually had a really successful hunt, as you’ll see in the resulting episode of MeatEater. We even bagged a rare banded bird—you’ll have to tune in to learn more about where that bird has been.
The Texas crane hunt airs on MeatEater this Thursday, August 20 at 8 p.m. on the Sportsman Channel.
Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started the week on a high note by announcing its $20-million dollar investment in giving you better access to hunting and fishing. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack shared the 15 projects that will receive funding under the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) “to enhance wildlife habitat, protect wildlife species, and encourage new opportunities for local businesses.”
Created in the 2008 Farm Bill and reauthorized in 2014, VPA-HIP awards money to states to expand or create public access for hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-dependent outdoor recreation. The program offers financial incentives and reduces liability concerns for landowners who allow sportsmen to access their property, while also providing technical support for wildlife habitat improvement. Among the VPA projects selected this year are first-time awardees Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Oklahoma. These four new states bring the total impact of this program to three-fifths of the country, where deer, turkeys, ducks, and other wildlife will benefit.
This will be the last round of VPA-HIP funding under the 2014 Farm Bill, under which $40 million was authorized for this program through 2018. That’s just a drop in the $956-billion Farm-Bill-bucket, but VPA is the only federal program aimed at enhancing public access to private lands for hunting and angling, making this $40 million extremely important.
Especially since more and more sportsmen and women are faced with fences, no-trespassing signs, or hefty access fees rather than publicly-accessible woods and waters. Lack of access is the greatest barrier to hunter and angler participation, recruitment, and retention, so access to privately-owned farms, ranches, and forests has become even more vital to the future of our uniquely American outdoor traditions. By helping landowners open new access, this program is breathing life into the hunting and angling community.
And our community shows up with our wallets: We spend $646 billion each year on our outdoor pursuits and support 6.1 million jobs directly related to publicly-accessible waters, prairies, forests, and mountains. And thanks to the sportsmen and women who buy hunting and fishing licenses and pay excise taxes on guns and ammo, our state fish and wildlife agencies receive dedicated conservation funding that improves habitat for game and non-game species alike.
Those are some serious dividends.
Local groups could keep mine waste out of rivers like the Animas if not for this legislative roadblock
By now, you’ve probably seen reports of the mine accident in Colorado and the disturbing images of the Animas River turned yellow by the release of 3 million gallons of water contaminated with mine wastes. This occurred after an EPA-supervised cleanup crew accidentally breached a debris dam inside the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, last Wednesday.
As far as we know, there haven’t been reports of fish die-offs or drinking water contamination, and the river is starting to return to normal. The county has requested that the agency assist with analysis of the impacts to fish and wildlife, and outdoor recreation businesses are waiting for the all-clear to regain safe access to the Animas—we’ll be closely tracking news on all of this.
A great deal of blame has been directed at EPA—and deservedly so. Without question, there needs to be a full review of what went wrong and those responsible should be held accountable so this doesn’t happen again.
But we shouldn’t forget that while EPA may have caused this release, it didn’t create the pollution.
Our best estimate is that there are at least 161,000 abandoned mines, like the Gold King Mine, across the West. They are the dirty legacy of past mining booms that helped settle the region. The mines don’t just pollute our waterways after accidents; they are constantly leaking water polluted with heavy metals into rivers and streams—some at a trickle, and others at hundreds of gallons per minute. These mines were excavated prior to the creation of modern environmental laws that help ensure responsible mining practices, and there is no one to be held responsible for them now.
Federal agencies have stepped in to deal with the mess. Between 1997 and 2008, the EPA, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Forest Service spent $2.6 billion on abandoned mine cleanup, with EPA contributing the lion’s share ($2.2 billion).
Many other groups, like Trout Unlimited, want to help. TU wants to return fish to stretches of river so polluted by abandoned mines that they can no long support life, while watershed organizations want to revitalize their communities and boost their outdoor recreation economies and mining companies want to be good neighbors in the areas they operate. These good Samaritan and volunteer groups are stymied by provisions in environmental laws that would force them to be responsible for the entirety of an abandoned mine’s pollution should they even attempt a cleanup. That is a financial and technical burden that is impossible to bear. As a result, they can’t help clean up the worst of the pollution.
My former boss, Sen. Mark Udall (CO), repeatedly introduced legislation to fix this roadblock, and the time has come for other Western lawmakers to take up the cause and unleash the power of well-meaning groups to help clean up the West’s abandoned mines. As proven in the Gold King Mine incident, we can’t afford to leave anyone on the sidelines if they want to help.
Trout Unlimited has been fighting for years to address the problems of mine pollution in the West. To learn more about the abandoned mine problem and how to take action, go to sanjuancleanwater.org.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More