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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 Six of our series, we head to the north-central part of Montana.
Thousands of years ago, the Missouri River in Montana ran north of where it is today. As the ice ages ended, the river took a new course below the Bears Paw Mountains, near the present-day town of Havre, cutting a wide channel through the fine clay soils of the plains. Rain and snow have since carved the earth into a vast and twisted maze of coulees and canyons, some of them hundreds of feet deep, marked by cliffs of yellow sandstone and weathered buttes, steep slopes of scree and gumbo soil.
The Breaks were one of the last places to be settled in the West. Much of the land went unclaimed while the region was homesteaded. A lot more of the land was abandoned later, when fierce winters and seemingly endless droughts forced even the toughest families to leave.
Today, most of the Missouri Breaks is public land in the care of the Bureau of Land Management. American hunters know it as perhaps the most unique and legendary elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep country in the world. If you’ve never seen it, ponder this: Mountain hunters are accustomed to going up into the hills to seek their quarry. In the Breaks, you hike down, eventually reaching the big river itself. This is the home of the second-largest elk herd in Montana and some of the West’s biggest trophy bulls.
Nothing comes easy here. There’s galling heat, clouds of mosquitoes, and big rattlers during bugling season. Sometimes in September there’s snow or gumbo mud that will defeat the most determined off-roader. By November, there’s howling blizzards and subzero temperatures. Here, you pack meat uphill and risk missing that one coulee that leads back to the truck. It’s a tough place, and that’s the way Missouri Breaks hunters like it.
So, imagine their dismay at hearing the Breaks are in the crosshairs of the movement to transfer public lands into state—and possible private—ownership. On June 24, 2014, the Montana GOP announced that it had taken a position of “shifting public land management away from Washington, D.C., control,” and interest in private ownership of Missouri Breaks land remains at a record high.
A Texas family recently purchased more than 300,000 acres in the area for hunting purposes. The once-abandoned and unclaimed lands, now rich with big game, solitude, and adventure, are the on-the-ground equivalent of diamonds and gold. If transferred to the state of Montana, these lands could be sold and closed forever to the average American sportsman.
Five individual bills were introduced into the Montana legislature in 2015, and all sought to eliminate or undermine America’s public lands legacy. Rank-and-file sportsmen reacted strongly to these proposals and several hundred of them rallied at the Montana Capitol in opposition to the seizure of public lands. In the end, the voice of sportsmen carried the day, and lawmakers put a stop to every land seizure bill under consideration.
We won this round, but those who want to seize your outdoor riches and opportunities for great adventure will be back with new proposals aimed at eliminating America’s public lands legacy. Sportsmen must be prepared to fight another day.
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.
TRCP president and CEO will help advise federal agencies on ways to advance habitat conservation, hunting traditions, and sportsmen’s access.
Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, has been selected to serve on the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council, a group established in 2010 to advise federal agencies on wildlife habitat conservation and hunting-related policy issues. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement last week.
This is the first time that Fosburgh will represent TRCP on the council, comprised of 18 discretionary members appointed by the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture and seven non-voting, ex officio members representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, and Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
“I’m honored to work with this exemplary group of industry leaders, including many of TRCP’s coalition partners, to create better awareness of sportsmen’s issues in Washington and to benefit fish, wildlife, and public access through thoughtful conservation policy,” said Fosburgh.
The council is an official advisory group established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act to help promote and preserve America’s wildlife and hunting heritage for future generations. This group will provide advice on conservation endeavors that benefit wildlife resources and recreational hunting throughout fiscal year 2016. In fiscal year 2015, the council made recommendations on greater sage-grouse conservation measures, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the next phase of BLM land-use planning—all issues on which the TRCP has been actively engaged.
“The appointees to the Council represent top leadership within the conservation community and possess the expertise to provide us with insightful recommendations to better manage resources critical to America’s rural communities,” Secretary Vilsack said in a release. “Hunters were the nation’s first conservationists, and supporting America’s hunting heritage goes hand-in-hand with pursuing our conservation mission.”
Here are the new and returning appointees to the Council:
For more information about the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council, click here.
Late Thursday, a federal judge in North Dakota blocked the EPA’s new clean water rule just hours before it was due to take effect. Here’s our take:
“The EPA’s rule simply restores clean water protections to what they once were, a move that is essential for the future of outdoor recreation, public health, and the economy,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “It’s disappointing that opponents of clean water would prefer legal maneuvers and confusion over clarity in the law, which benefits industry and conservation alike. To ensure the health of one in three Americans, who get their drinking water from streams currently without protection, and the $646-billion outdoor economy driven by hunters, anglers, and others who rely on clean water, this rule must be allowed to move forward.”
My dad and I spent the morning of August 28, 2005, tacking up plywood to cover the windows of his house in Baton Rouge. It’s a routine part of preparing for any hurricane, the same way you look for anything the wind can turn into a missile and take it inside.
Dad lived through Hurricanes Betsy and Camille in New Orleans in the 1960s, and we both watched Hurricane Andrew churn and chew through central Louisiana in 1992. We both suspected Katrina would be worse.
All that work readying the house seemed a waste the next day, when Katrina’s winds pushed an 80-foot-tall oak tree right across the roof, allowing torrents of rain to pour in. The feelings of grief, disgust, and helplessness at the sight of that destruction were nothing compared to what my dad felt when he stepped out of a boat onto the roof of my grandmother’s house in New Orleans four days later.
Thankfully my grandmother was safe. Far too many were not. She never returned to the house my grandfather built. It was just a mile or so from Lake Pontchartrain and a couple blocks from the London Avenue Canal. Like other homes on Pasteur Boulevard and all across New Orleans, her house remains empty a decade later, still wearing the watermarks imprinted upon the bricks and stucco, a reminder of the failed federal levee system that turned the city into Lake Pontchartrain’s backwater.
Nearly everyone in south Louisiana and Mississippi has a Katrina story. If they don’t, they have a story about Rita, the oft forgotten storm that brought wind and surge equal to Katrina’s into southwest Louisiana just a month later. I didn’t lose my house. Many of my family members lost their homes, and the memories and possessions that went with them, but they didn’t lose their lives. The struggles of living in Baton Rouge, where the population swelled by 100,000 overnight, even without electricity, paled in comparison to what was unfolding in New Orleans, Lafitte, St. Bernard Parish, Slidell, and Biloxi.
The very least that my roommate and I could do to help was to welcome strangers into our home for a couple of nights. So, we hosted a father and young son who had nowhere else to go. We delivered food and clothes to shelters and helped elderly neighbors clean debris from their yards. We did anything we could to help in a time of such overwhelming helplessness.
Fishing is never far from my mind, but it was hard to even envision the pleasure of heading to the coast amid such chaos. The reality was that places I had fished just days before the storm made landfall, like Grand Isle, Shell Beach, Slidell and Lafitte, were flattened. Roads were broken to pieces, covered in boats, houses, trees, and anything else the storm shook loose. No tackle shops were open. No marinas. Camps and houses were ripped apart. Grocery stores and gas stations had been pushed off their foundations. Bridges were completely washed out.
Friends who made their living as fishing guides lost their businesses overnight. Other friends who sold live bait and owned boat launches had nothing left but the slabs their bait tanks once rested on. Bayous and canals were choked with debris and sediment, making many impassable.
My first post-Katrina fishing trip was in mid-October to Lake Pontchartrain. The fishing was pretty good, despite fears that floodwaters draining and being pumped into the lake would suck the oxygen from the water. The fishing was unremarkable compared to how awestruck I was by the destruction of literally every camp and house along the lake’s northern and eastern shorelines. It was living embodiment of the cliché term—“war zone”—that reporters used to describe everything, almost casually and nauseatingly, in the weeks since the storm. It was absolute destruction on a scale I had never seen. A dozen or more sailboat masts broke the lake’s surface, while the boats themselves rested 14 feet below, and root balls of a half-dozen pine trees were driven top-down, like nails, into the Pontchartrain’s sand and mud bottom.
In the 10 years since Katrina and Rita, communities have been rebuilt, some smaller but smarter, with homes elevated and constructed to better weather the next big storm. Marinas, boat launches, tackle shops, and gas stations—some of which had to be rebuilt again after Gastav, Ike, and Isaac pounded and swamped our coast over the last seven years—are back and bustling.
Those who rebuilt their homes, communities, and businesses in Katrina’s wake generally aren’t interested in the press conferences, commemorative speeches, and hour-long TV retrospectives on the 10 years that have passed. Those spectacles help only if they come with a renewed and unyielding commitment to continue to fix the failures that occurred at every level and led to Katrina and Rita’s destruction.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was rightly ashamed in admitting that its levees failed. Lawmakers had no choice but to commit the funds needed to fix those mistakes, because many of them shared in that shame. But culpability and urgency is still lacking in addressing the policies that have led to the loss of nearly 2,000 acres of wetlands which once helped to shield Louisiana’s communities from devastating storm surges. Chief among those policies is one that does not permit the lower Mississippi’s waters and sediment to feed and sustain its delta’s swamps and marshes.
Louisiana has developed a coastal restoration and hurricane protection master plan since Katrina and Rita, and there is an agency to ensure the plan’s implementation. The state has eliminated many of the divisive bureaucratic processes that often had levee-building and coastal restoration agencies at odds, competing for the same small pools of funding. With those impediments put aside, the state has admirably advanced science-based projects and initiatives that recognize the value of multiple lines of defense, including the vital role of wetlands, barrier islands, and natural ridges, in ensuring the integrity of levee systems and the safety of our citizens. But, the diversion of sediment back into a delta that’s wasting away from sediment starvation, a large-scale restoration of the delta’s ecosystem, has yet to be addressed. Some politicians have even suggested diversions not be built at all, bowing to pressure from constituents who insist the move will cripple fisheries and that compromises can be made.
As painful as it is for Gulf residents to be reminded of Katrina’s toll this August, hopefully those reminders reinforce our resolve. Hurricanes don’t take pity on us for poor policies and bureaucratic morass. They don’t stop threatening while politicians sort through their priorities. And, as Louisianans have seen three times since Katrina and Rita, storms continue to bring devastation while we wait to protect our communities and restore our wetlands.
There is no such thing as compromise when it comes to restoring our coast, unless we’re ready to accept that the next Katrina could take this coast from us completely.
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