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A few years ago, even my closest friends were skeptical. I was leaving the State Senate to raise money for a film that would market an epic conservation effort out West to an urban audience in an attempt to heal 100 years of racial wounds and restore an iconic fishery. Some people said I was taking a big risk to win over people who wouldn’t care.
I confess, when you put it all into one sentence, it does sound like a risk. But I believed that a wrong had to be made right, so I set out to make a world-class film about the 300-mile Klamath River, where one of the West’s greatest fishing runs had been all but destroyed. Stretching from Oregon to Northern California, the Klamath is a place torn apart by racism and the exclusion of tribal communities, and a place where some of America’s greatest agricultural leaders live. I hoped it could be a place of healing and bravery, too.
I wanted “A River Between Us” to speak to an audience who takes the subway to work, because if I could get them to care about the Klamath, I believed we could accomplish a very complex set of goals. First, we wanted to tell the very personal stories of the people who rely on the river, like farmers, anglers, and the tribes, and how these groups have come together to create a historic water rights compromise for the good of all. Using the film to score support, our hope was to begin working on the largest salmon and steelhead restoration in U.S. history.
Little did I know that most films don’t get finished or distributed. With the confidence that comes with ignorance, I got the film completed, paid for, and it comes out on October 13 (pre-order it on iTunes now.) It’s beautiful and I’m really proud of the story. Festival audiences have fallen in love with the characters and the notion that if you heal people, together we can heal the river.
Politics follows culture, so we tried to change culture. We’ve created momentum for the Klamath restoration project through social media, which makes the issue legitimate. For years, I’ve been on the receiving end of letters, petition requests, and write-your-Senator campaigns. They are good, but never as effective as showing a politician that culture has shifted right under their feet, and you’ve made it easy for them to get right on the bus and take credit. I made 26 behind-the-scenes clips of the film production and then spent two years lining up all my friends in conservation, culture, social justice, and politics to push them out. Every Facebook like, share, and send makes “A River Between Us” and the Klamath River restoration culturally relevant. That makes this a much easier ask, with four times the political muscle.
I recently put this entire issue on the President’s desk, assuming I’d only get 60 seconds to make the case for a lifetime worth of work. I boiled down the entire issue into a single sentence: With the President’s existing authority, we could remove four dams, provide liability assurances to industry, guarantee water for farmers, create trust between water-users and area tribes, and complete the largest salmon and steelhead restoration in U.S. history. To leverage a film, and say with confidence that America is talking about it, I had to make sure that every side, not just special interests or lobby organizations, were represented in the political push to save this river. My team has men and women, Republicans and Democrats, East and West coast, by design.
In the end, it’s as true today as it ever was: You can accomplish anything if you give all the credit away. I want everyone who has helped, from President Obama and Secretary Jewell right down to that college kid who sent me 20 bucks through the crowd-source campaign, to take credit. I’m happy knowing that our film is not the final chapter of the story about one of the West’s greatest rivers.
Jason A. Atkinson is a public servant, filmmaker, author, consultant, and passionate outdoorsman. Atkinson served in the Oregon legislature for more than 14 years, and was a candidate for Governor. He took a sabbatical from public life to make the film “A River Between Us,” which will be released in October 2015. He writes on public land, conservation, fish, and wildlife issues for various publications and is the author of “Inside Out: Stories of Oregon’s stewards, unsung heroes of the land. Field & Stream named him a Hero of Conservation in 2015.
Today, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to discuss improving coordination between the federal government and Western states—a conversation that is welcome and necessary—and the “need for the government to defer to state authority”—a sentiment that sportsmen should definitely question.
Access to state and federal public lands is vitally important to hunters, anglers, and other Americans who either work in or support the outdoor-recreation industry across America, particularly in the West. This $646-billion segment of our economy is often ignored—in fact, it was never even mentioned in the briefing memo for today. We believe that energy, forestry, water use, and wildlife should all be considered in the management of federal lands in the West, but future land management decisions cannot ignore sportsmen, our financial contribution to local economies, or our ongoing commitment to wildlife conservation.
Sportsmen are the first to agree that there are real challenges with federal lands management, but it’s impossible to make an apples-to-apples comparison between state lands management and the track record of federal agencies, because there are key differences in how states manage their lands compared to the federal government. States are constitutionally mandated to maximize profits from their state trust lands, which can reduce the quality of outdoor experiences and, at times, prohibit public access. In Idaho, for example, the state’s current asset management plan for “endowment” lands calls for dispersed recreational uses to be accommodated, provided that they don’t impair financial returns from other uses, like logging operations.
Federal lands are managed under a multiple-use mandate by which recreational opportunities are emphasized in management planning, while allowing energy development, grazing, and forestry to continue. If federal public lands had been managed for maximum profit since the time of Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold, our country would most likely look very different today.
States Do Play a Crucial Role—as Partners
The best solution for balanced management of our public lands is collaboration, not deferment. A great example of this can be found in the state and federal plans meant to benefit the greater sage grouse. Eleven Western states crafted conservation plans that are critical and meet the needs of their constitutional mandates, while the feds crafted complementary plans that, by default, must be stronger. All efforts—state plans, federal plans, and voluntary conservation measures undertaken by private landowners—were necessary to get to the not-warranted decision announced on September 22, and none of these plans can stand alone and deliver the necessary habitat conservation or regulatory certainty to avoid a future listing.
Opponents of the federal plans have no scientific evidence to support their claims that voluntary efforts alone are working, or that substituting state plans for federal plans would provide adequate conservation for sage grouse. In fact, the recently documented increase in males attending leks (up 63 percent from 2013, the second lowest count on record) has not altered the overall downward trend in the bird population observed from 1965 to present (an average annual decline of 0.83 percent.) This year’s increase falls within the normal range of fluctuation for game bird populations, which are known to shift rather dramatically with climatic factors, like precipitation. The majority of the greater sage grouse’s range has experienced excellent precipitation in the past two years, helping habitat conditions rebound and facilitating improved nesting, brood-rearing, and chick survival. Read more about that here.
Furthermore, the notion that the federal conservation plans for BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands are “just as restrictive, or more than, a listing decision” is simply wrong. Had the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the species, these same federal plans undoubtedly would have been required as part of an overall recovery plan, but the Service would also be required under Section 7 of the ESA to consult on every project impacting sagebrush habitat. This would certainly have added extensive time and costliness to the process.
Hunters and anglers agree that improvements should be made to forest and range management on federal lands, and we are ready to engage in those conversations with state and federal agencies. Better habitat means increased opportunities for sportsmen who pump dollars into local economies, and all the while, energy development, grazing, and other activities will continue. This opportunity for the West shouldn’t be squandered on political and litigious intervention. Congress needs only to support and fund efforts to implement critical conservation efforts and remember that sportsmen are an equally lucrative part of the Western economy.
Johnny LeCoq, the founder and CEO of Fishpond and Lilypond, has woven conservation into the fabric of his businesses. He isn’t shy about recruiting the rest of the outdoor recreation industry for the cause, either (read about how he told outdoor retailers to take responsibility for the future of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.) And with a passion for outdoor photography, we though he’d make a great guest judge for the second round of our #PublicLandsProud photo contest.
Johnny will be reviewing your photos of epic public lands scenery and will select a winning photo for this category on October 5. Think you’ve got the eye for majestic vistas and awesome landscapes? Read on to find out what he’ll be looking for in a winning photo and learn how you can enter the #PublicLandsProud photo challenge here. (Hint: It’s all about the hashtag.)
TRCP: Johnny, what makes you #PublicLandsProud?
Public lands increase our quality of life, and many of my employees have come to Colorado for a lifestyle that benefits from access to thousands of acres of public land. It powers a $14-billion economy in our state. And at Fishpond and Lilypond, we aren’t defined by the products we make, but by our ability to convey the value of our public lands and waters as an American ideal. That makes me very proud.
I love just being on the water, rafting or spending time with my two daughters, who are 19 and 21. Obviously, fishing is a huge part of my life—I remember the very first trout I caught when I was four years old, and I think every move I’ve made in my life ever since has been based on those early experiences of fishing with my father. I also love to take photos. I was a commercial photographer before I founded Fishpond, so I basically enjoy chasing light. You can capture something beautiful and see how people respond to it.
TRCP: So, you’re pretty well qualified to judge our #PublicLandsProud photo challenge, then! What will you be looking for in a winning photo?
I’m looking for landscape photos that tell a story and are aspirational. Great photos of outdoor scenery should really take your breath away and just arrest you. I should look at it and want to live vicariously through the photographer, just so I can be there in that moment. A winning photo should be inspiring!
Show us your #PublicLandsProud moment and you could be featured on our blog, or win a new pair of Costa sunglasses. BONUS: During this round, Johnny’s offering up an extra prize. Pretty soon, you could be stashing your camera or smartphone inside
some great Fishpond gear a new Fishpond Summit Sling Pack.
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