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.
In Part Seven of our series, we head west to Central Oregon.
For early conservation pioneers like President Theodore Roosevelt, strenuous lives spent in the outdoors, with room to hunt and fish, were key elements of the American experience and essential to a strong and engaged citizenry. Nowhere in America is a strenuous outdoor life more accessible than in the heart of Oregon, in Deschutes River country. This major tributary of the Columbia River on the east side of the Cascade Range wanders north through basalt cliff canyons and offers world-class fishing and hunting to anyone willing to access the river canyon through public lands.
Prime mule deer hunting and upland bird hunting for chukar partridge make the BLM lands here a year-round destination for outdoorsmen and women. Anglers come from all over the world to fish for the “redsides,” a variety of powerful redband trout. Steelheaders, oblivious to cold water and rain, or the thousands of casts it takes to hook into these powerful fish, flock here from near and far. Steelheading doesn’t get much better than on the Deschutes.
This kind of habitat health and access wouldn’t have been possible without the establishment of public lands early on. The Deschutes River is born in Little Lava Lake, which is found in the 1.8-million-acre Deschutes National Forest, protected since 1908. Access is a given here, with much of the lower Deschutes managed by the BLM as a designated Wild and Scenic River, with multiple campgrounds for fishermen, whitewater rafters, and anyone else who wants to follow some very simple rules in order to experience the river.
Oregonians seem to appreciate and celebrate the tradition of public lands, but the takeover fever that has gripped some Western politicians (even if it has not gripped Westerners themselves) is here, too. In 2014, the Klamath County Board of County Commissioners announced that they would be “the tip of the spear” in supporting the Transfer of Public Lands Act, state legislation that originated in Utah and demands that federal public lands be transferred to individual states. Then, four different bills that were designed to seize or undermine America’s public lands legacy were introduced during the Oregon 2015 legislative season.
Knowing that the state has already sold all but 776,000 acres of the 3.4 million acres it was granted upon attaining statehood, hunters and anglers stepped up to put a stop to these harmful bills. Oregon’s ranching interests weren’t friendly to these efforts, either—the current grazing fee on Oregon state lands is seven times more than the federal charge.
Rivers like the Deschutes, with its headwaters in Oregon’s high elk country, do not exist anywhere else on earth. If these public resources were sold off, they would bring a premium price. The loss would be felt by all Americans who once had unfettered access to some of the world’s finest hunting and fishing and the lifestyle that went with it. That’s why sportsmen will continue to send a message to decision makers that we won’t stand for proposals aimed at limiting our outdoor opportunities.
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.