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Explore some of the West’s most cherished backcountry landscapes through the lens of outdoor photographer Tony Bynum, and learn how you can take an active role in conserving these areas for future generations of hunters and anglers
In Idaho’s High Divide, there exists 7.4 million acres of wildlife habitat and largely untamed public land. Three times the size of nearby Yellowstone National Park, the High Divide sees just a fraction of the use that the famed park does. Beginning this year, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are undertaking expansive planning efforts to guide the future of these lands, which represent 20 percent of the public ground in Idaho. I recently explored the area with photographer Tony Bynum to document some of the stunning and valuable landscapes at stake in this process. Here’s what we saw.
The High Divide planning area—comprised of both BLM and Forest Service land—is home to mule deer, whitetail deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, moose, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep. It is where half of Idaho’s mountain goat hunters and 73 percent of the state’s Rocky Mountain bighorn hunters draw tags. In 2016, more than 18,500 hunters spent 88,842 days within the Salmon-Challis National Forest and public lands overseen by the BLM’s Salmon and Challis field offices.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has recently discovered that the High Divide is also home to vast amounts of pronghorn antelope winter range and migration routes that stretch up to 80 miles. It also features the Sand Creek Desert, which is the wintertime home of more than 10,000 big game animals—elk, deer, moose, and pronghorns.
The BLM is in the first stage of rewriting its Resource Management Plans for 3.14 million acres of this area. The plans will set the direction for ranching, mining, and recreation for decades to come, so this is a critical opportunity for sportsmen and women to rally around the need for these lands to be managed for the benefit of hunting and fishing and the $887-billion outdoor economy we support.
The Salmon-Challis National Forest is also planning for the future of 4.3 million acres of public forest. Over the past nine months, the agency has assessed the health of the forest and explored its issues and future challenges. Forest officials will present alternatives for management over the next 12 months.
This is an important public process, and as citizens of Sportsmen’s Country—the public lands where the majority of hunters and anglers have the unique privilege of pursuing our outdoor traditions—it is critical that we all speak up.
In addition to commenting on the individual plans (when available), there are a number of ways you can act now to influence the management of our national public lands:
Reopening conservation plans before they can be implemented is a premature step
Today, the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management announced that they will reopen the federal land-use plans for sage grouse conservation for amendments and published a 45-day comment period in the Federal Register. The action stems from a report generated by Secretarial Order 3353 and recommendations from a DOI-lead review team regarding several issues brought forth by the western states, local governments, and some stakeholder groups. While today’s notice opens the plans for additional comments, it does not necessarily mean they will be amended.
“We do not believe DOI and BLM fully exhausted all administrative options outlined in the report to the Secretary before deciding to pursue reopening the federal sage grouse conservation plans after just 2-years from their completion and with little implementation on the ground,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Some targeted amendments to the plans may be necessary and could be acceptable once all other options have been exhausted, but we do not support major changes from amendments to the federal plans.”
“The current federal plans already balanced the conservation and management of sage-grouse priority habitat with energy development and other multiple uses of public lands. Representatives from the oil and gas, wind, and grazing industries, among others, were deeply involved in developing the current sage-grouse plans. Expanding development within priority habitat would be ill-advised and invite further litigation. Any future changes to the conservation measures in the plans must be defensible and supported by past and current scientific information. The TRCP will continue to work with DOI and BLM, as well as the states, during this process to ensure issues are resolved and balanced without further compromise to the conservation of the sagebrush ecosystem.”
In a separate notice today, the BLM also canceled a proposed withdrawal of approximately 10 million acres in Sagebrush Focal Areas in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming from mineral development.
“Mining, while not as extensive as other development, still has impacts on the sagebrush ecosystem and must follow conservation rules for sage grouse priority and general habitat. With or without designated focal areas, we expect the BLM to continue to hold future development to these existing standards.”
Restoration work on waterfront habitat did almost as much to revive the community as it did to improve conditions for fishing
It was 107 degrees in the September sun in Yuma, Arizona, and yet people were out bass fishing.
Twenty years ago, this would not have been the case. But Yuma’s renewed focus on its river, the mighty Colorado, is an extraordinary story of diplomacy and determination that has resulted in benefits for the local economy, outdoor recreation, and Yuma’s people. I was able to witness this firsthand on a recent canoe trip through the Yuma Heritage Area’s wetlands restoration sites, through the downtown park—now vibrant after struggling in the late 20th century —to below the Ocean to Ocean (“peace”) bridge—rebuilt quite literally to bring together residents of Yuma on the river’s east bank with members of the Quechan Reservation on its west bank, with whom relations had been poor.
Yuma is best known as the nation’s winter lettuce capital. But an almost impassable thicket of non-native vegetation, including salt cedar (also known as tamarisk), had been growing along the Colorado River, masking temporary shelters for the homeless and entry points for drug smugglers coming from Mexico, less than ten miles south. Recognizing the potential for a vibrant waterfront, the city hired a community developer who started meeting with the Quechan tribe, and soon after the two governments enlisted the National Park Service and other federal and state agencies to help tackle community and river restoration.
By 2014, the communities had cleared and revegetated more than 400 acres of riverfront , built parks on both banks, and established a network of hiking and biking trails for enthusiastic use by visitors (including many snowbirds) and locals. The restoration effort has improved riparian and river habitat, including flows, and has made the river a safer destination for people, too. As a result, both fish (bass and flatheads) and anglers now thrive.
As a bass boat passed us, both motoring up and floating back down river, I paddled through many of the restoration sites with Ken Conway, the recreation coordinator for Yuma’s Parks and Wildlife Department and a former Trout Unlimited chapter chair back East. Each year, he and his crew take 40 school and civic groups down the river to see how the habitat has changed and to continue testing the water quality as restoration continues and the vegetation matures. The department also offers fishing classes and holds an annual children’s fishing tournament.
The takeaway is simple: River restoration takes time, money, and lots of negotiation, but it has the potential to refresh the surrounding community as well as the habitat. At Yuma’s Gateway Park, where half a dozen anglers had lines in the water on a weekday morning, long after the thermometer had passed 100 degrees, it would have been hard to feel anything but positive about the transformation.
First photo courtesy of J. Jakobson.
Second photo courtesy of senkodontlie.
Third photo courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation.
You might be surprised just how much impact private land conservation programs and incentives have in a state like New Mexico
We already know that hunters and anglers, regardless of political party, support conservation on private lands: 75 percent agree we should provide financial incentives to farmers and ranchers to implement habitat conservation, and 87 percent do not want to see cuts to conservation programs, in the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill or anywhere else. But it may be surprising to sportsmen and women, even those who support private land conservation generally, just how much of an impact these programs have outside the Corn Belt.
New Mexico, for example, isn’t a state that comes to mind as much as Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, or even the Dakotas, when it comes to on-farm conservation needs. You might picture my home state, instead, as a mosaic of different kinds of public lands, but I’m learning that we have plenty at stake in the 2018 Farm Bill debate.
I recently attended a listening session on Farm Bill topics with staffers from the office of New Mexico Representative Lujan Grisham, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee. In that meeting, on behalf of TRCP and the partners in our Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group, I shared some of the recommendations we’ve arrived at as a community and highlighted three ways the next Farm Bill can be beneficial to New Mexico’s agricultural producers, sportsmen, and overall economy.
Access and Habitat
Nothing will serve sportsmen’s access needs better than boosting the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which provides competitive block grants to state agencies and tribal governments to fund recreational access and habitat improvement programs on private lands. State and tribal agencies then use this funding to compensate and provide technical and conservation services to landowners who voluntarily open their land to the public for hunting and fishing.
By offering grants to states to create or improve walk-in access programs, VPA-HIP is the only federal program that incentivizes public hunting and fishing access on—or right-of-way access through—private lands. The program has been reauthorized twice now, yet New Mexico—despite having an excellent Open Gate Program—has never received a grant. VPA first needs to be reauthorized and then we’d like to see $150 million allocated to conservation and access programs over the next five years of the Farm Bill, compared to just $40 million in the current Farm Bill.
CRP Works Here, Too
The Conservation Reserve Program has helped restore wildlife habitat and improve thousands of waterways nationwide since the program’s inception. CRP acres in the Northern Plains make up a vital share of nesting habitat for more than half of North America’s waterfowl, and CRP is helping landowners to voluntarily restore and supplement sage-grouse habitat across the West, providing much needed aid to a species in decline. Whitetail deer, black bears, pheasants, quail, wild turkeys, and countless other game species have also rebounded thanks to the conservation of millions of acres of grasslands and buffers through CRP.
The impact CRP has on water is especially notable, particularly in parched states like New Mexico. Through smart land-management decisions—like the installation of waterway buffers in riparian areas—CRP protects more than 170,000 stream miles with naturally filtering trees and grasses. These improvements mean cleaner drinking water, more effective groundwater recharge, and better fish habitat in areas where a little water has to go a long way.
In addition, many farmers, ranchers, and forest owners also open CRP acres to hunters and anglers in their communities. There are nearly 450,000 acres of CRP currently enrolled across 1,300 individual New Mexico farms and ranches. CRP enrollment is a win-win for farmers, ranchers, wildlife, clean water, and sportsmen—that’s why we are committed to telling lawmakers that CRP works. However, there is a nationwide cap of 24 million acres for CRP, which is far below the demand and the need, and we’d like to see that increased to 35 million acres enrolled nationwide.
An increase across the country can only help our numbers here in New Mexico.
New Mexico’s Favorite
Used for everything from livestock fencing and better irrigation systems to upland bird habitat restoration and invasive species removal, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program is the Farm Bill tool that gets New Mexicans most excited. While at least five percent of overall EQIP spending has to be used on wildlife practices, we’d like to see that requirement doubled to ten percent. Based on current spending, that modification would boost annual nationwide spending for wildlife practices on private lands from around $70 million to $140 million.
And here’s the kicker: New Mexico received $33 million in EQIP funds in fiscal year 2016, which was almost half of the total funds allocated through the Farm Bill. EQIP encourages farmers and ranchers to promote agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible goals, and it helps landowners meet state and federal environmental regulations.
EQIP’s high funding levels have made the program one of the most important tools for wildlife habitat and water quality, and through special initiatives it has helped keep wildlife—such as the iconic greater sage grouse—from being listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Farm Bill at Home on the Range
As you can see, even in a state not known for its agricultural dominance, strong conservation funding in the Farm Bill is vital for the future of New Mexico’s sporting access and wildlife habitat. To see the conservation impact of the Farm Bill where you live, check out these ten maps that show these programs at work across the country.
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