Missouri River Breaks sunset. Photo by Charlie Bulla
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In Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico, careful planning seems to be the key to keeping productive hunting and fishing alongside thoughtful energy development
Energy development can coexist with healthy habitat and quality hunting and angling, but it doesn’t happen by chance. Responsible energy development requires careful planning and commitment from stakeholder groups, the public, and decision makers to get it right. Only through collaboration can we strike the appropriate balance. And it is critical that our public land management agencies—the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service—have the right policies and procedures in place to facilitate both energy development and the conservation of healthy fish and wildlife habitat.
A recent report led by the Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development coalition and supported by 16 other hunting and fishing groups points to examples on different types of landscapes: examples of responsible development, areas where energy development has not been balanced with fish and wildlife habitat, and places where the potential remains to do things right.
Energy development and fish and wildlife habitat need not be mutually exclusive, but it will take leadership and sound policy from our decision makers to strike the right balance. The approach to these three landscapes could be instructive.
The 585,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch in northern New Mexico spans from the Great Plains to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The ranch and its surrounding landscape are known for their natural beauty, high-quality wildlife habitat, and status as a model for responsible energy development. While privately owned by Turner Enterprises, there are many lessons that lawmakers, the Bureau of Land Management, industry, other stakeholders and the public can learn from Vermejo, especially when looking to develop our energy resources responsibly on America’s public lands.
Vermejo is situated in some of the finest elk country in North America, near the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountains, with the Carson National Forest to the west and private land to the east. Between 8,000 and 10,000 elk live on the ranch, as do mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and Rio Grande cutthroat trout. The property is primarily managed as a guest ranch where hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, Nordic skiing, horseback riding, and other activities are the primary uses. The ranch is known for trophy bulls and scenic vistas, and its business model depends on the area’s world-class natural amenities.
Vermejo is also rich with natural gas—972 producing coalbed methane wells are scattered across the ranch. To preserve the land’s character, wildlife habitat, and guest services, park managers and Atlas Resource Partners, LP, the energy company that owns the oil and gas rights, have established a Mineral Extraction Agreement.
“We have established a shared vision with an energy company that is focused on developing energy resources while protecting the world-class wildlife habitat and natural amenities of Vermejo,” says Gus Holm, Vermejo Park Ranch manager. “I hope that the lessons learned and examples set here can be applied to public lands where similar opportunities for responsible development exist.”
The goal is to develop and implement an approach for energy development on the ranch that both enables extraction and protects the ranch’s natural resources and amenities. This shared vision has shaped the model energy development project since 1998. Among the stipulations in the agreement and development plan between Atlas Resource Partners and Vermejo are:
Although privately-owned, lessons from this project can be applied across the West. Many areas of BLM land in states like Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah possess similarly important scenic and wildlife values, and they also hold rich reserves of oil and natural gas. If oil and gas development is proposed for landscapes where the wildlife and recreation values are high, sportsmen and women expect federal land management agencies to work closely with stakeholders to find a shared vision. For this to happen, the BLM must do thorough upfront planning that plots a clear path for development to be balanced with other resources that are equally important for the American public.
The 198,000-acre Pinedale Anticline in Wyoming has long been known by sportsmen as an area rich in wildlife values and sporting opportunities. It is also known as the quintessential example of how older drilling technology coupled with poor planning can adversely affect critically important habitats. The Anticline sits in the upper Green River valley area, adjacent to the Jonah Field and serves as crucial winter range for the migratory Sublette mule deer herd. It also intersects one of the longest migration paths for pronghorn antelope in North America.
In 17 years, the Pinedale Anticline has gone from largely undeveloped to a fully industrialized landscape. The original authorization of 750 wells increased later to 4,400 additional wells. Currently there are 3,049 wells in the Anticline and 2,037 wells to the south in the Jonah Field with additional wells authorized to be developed in the next 15 to 20 years.
Since 2001, mule deer populations have declined by 36 percent on the Anticline, forcing the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to shorten the hunting season by a week and reduce the number of deer tags available to sportsmen. Recent research on this area has demonstrated that mule deer go more than a half-mile out of their way to avoid well pads and that “behavioral effects of energy development on mule deer are long term.” The Wyoming and Salt River ranges are known to offer some of the best high-country mule deer hunting anywhere, but the long-term impacts of poorly planned energy development in mule deer winter range could be significant for animals, hunters and Wyoming’s outdoor recreation economy. We should learn from these lessons as we look to develop our energy resources elsewhere.
In the backyard of the Denver metro area lies a sportsmen’s paradise of Gold Medal trout waters and high-elevation “parks” that serve as a haven for wildlife. Nestled in the headwaters of the South Platte River basin, the area known as South Park attracts visitors from around the country to fish along the “Dream Stream,” known for its trophy trout and stunning Colorado scenery. Energy development has not made inroads into this corner of Colorado—yet.
But the area sits atop the Niobrara oil and gas formation and oil and gas companies have eyed South Park in the past. So, a forward-thinking group of sportsmen and women joined local government officials, businesses, water providers, and federal agency officials to plan for the future. What began as dialogue initiated by those who care deeply for the region has morphed into a collaborative planning process, bringing together diverse stakeholders to ensure energy development is done right and does not adversely affect the water and wildlife resources of the area.
The end goal is to provide certainty for all, give industry a roadmap for responsible development, increase economic opportunity and keep South Park an amazing place to fish, hunt and live. The South Park process is shaping up as a win-win solution and could serve as a model for collaborative planning.
Want to learn more about the balance between energy development, habitat, and sportsmen’s access? Read about other lessons learned in Colorado’s Piceance Basin and the Greater Little Mountain Area of southwest Wyoming. Or download the full report here.
TRCP’s summer intern finds a personal connection to the issue of active forest management and its many benefits for wildlife and fire prevention
In my summer internship with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, I’ve learned about Senate and House floor procedures, the budget and appropriations process, and sportsmen’s policies on a federal level. All of this was enlightening, but I was perhaps most surprised by what I found I already knew. The value of actively managing forests—to reduce the risk of wildfires, improve fish and wildlife habitat, and allow for responsible timber harvest that supports local jobs—is something I’ve personally witnessed on my family’s property in Maine.
It may seem like the responsibility of managing forests lies only with the U.S. Forest Service or the states. But there is also support on the federal and local level for private landowners to responsibly manage forested areas they own, too.
One of those private landowners is my grandmother. On vacations when I was young, I was fortunate enough to hike and explore the 21 acres of forested land she owns on a hillside with a view of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Over time, the taxes on the land increased, and my grandmother found some relief by enrolling the land in a state program that had financial benefits for her and habitat benefits for the forest.
Proper forest management actually makes forests more productive for landowners and wildlife, which is why the TRCP advocates for active forest management on both public and private lands. For example, when an older tree is cut, the forest canopy opens up allowing light to penetrate to the lower levels of the forest, in turn, supporting new growth. With her land classified as a managed woodlot, my grandmother can still choose to selectively harvest timber, which helps put money in her pocket, employ local timber crews, and open up the forest canopy so that younger trees can grow.
This increased the diversity of wildlife we were seeing as birdwatchers and hunters, in fact there was a major bump in the number of turkeys and whitetail deer on the property after just a few years.
There’s also the benefit of prevention: Without active management, forests will see fewer young trees and more overcrowding of old growth and excess leaf debris, which makes the forest vulnerable to wildfires.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service offers a Forest Stewardship Program that is available in all 50 states as part of a partnership with state forestry agencies. It pushes for long-term stewardship of state as well as private forested lands. There is also a Forestry Incentives Program (FIP), which provides forest owners with financial assistance for managing their forests. In Maine, which has a Tree Growth Tax Law, we found the Department of Revenue was able to help identify options for my grandmother to enroll her forest in a program that had benefits all around.
If I learned anything this summer, it’s that conservation takes many forms, and the complex policies that govern how we take care of forests, prairies, wetlands, sagebrush, or any other landscape, are worth trying to understand and support. I’m heading into my professional career with a new appreciation for the privileges I’ve had to enjoy and actively engage in the conservation of our family’s forest land.
One example of how natural infrastructure—beyond the bridges and highways we tend to picture—helped improve public safety for future floods and give a boost to a legendary trout fishery
Situated along the Pennsylvania border in the western foothills of the Catskills, Sands Creek is one of the most critical trout spawning tributaries in the Upper Delaware River watershed. The creek feeds into the West Branch of the Upper Delaware in the village of Hancock, where the downtown overlooks the confluence of East and West branches. This is also one of the most frequently flooded counties in the nation. Anglers are drawn to the Upper Delaware because of its feisty population of wild brown and rainbow trout and legendary mayfly and caddis hatches.
This is a place where sportsmen and women have been a part of achieving a mindset shift around infrastructure: Beyond roads, bridges, and airports, natural infrastructure—as simple and cost-effective as strategically placed boulders—has re-shaped the Upper Delaware so that it’s safer and more flood-resilient, while enhancing fish habitat and sportsmen’s access.
Here’s how the community came together and why lawmakers should broaden the scope of what they consider to be critical infrastructure.
New York’s Delaware County, home to Sands Creek, is no stranger to rising waters: The county has had more federal flood emergency declarations than any other in the state, and it is among the most frequently flooded counties in the nation. A devastating flood in 2006, the third in as many years, actually washed away much of the basic infrastructure in the region. In 2011, the one-two punch of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee spurred conservation groups and local government officials into action, not just to rebuild washed out roads, but to revamp the river so that future floods wouldn’t have the same negative impacts.
“Those storms really changed the way people think about floods,” says Jeff Skelding, executive director of the Friends of the Upper Delaware River. “As a fisherman who grew up on the Delaware, I knew we had to get creative in preparing for floods if we wanted to preserve the river for future generations.”
Enter FUDR and a host of collaborative conservation partners and government officials.
Along with Trout Unlimited, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and officials from Hancock and Delaware County, as well as outdoor recreation businesses like Orvis and Patagonia, FUDR worked to set the Sands Creek restoration project in motion. Beginning in 2012 and completed last year, the project has returned roughly one-tenth of the creek to a near-natural state with the help of local engineers and contractors.
The crew installed several natural infrastructure components to restore flood plains, fortify stream banks, and enhance fish habitat.
Carefully placed boulder clusters now help prevent river-altering gravel and sediment erosion and boost water quality for downstream communities, while the rocky surfaces have become prime areas for trout to spawn. In a love story for the ages, these boulders were coupled with nearby clusters of logs that provided instream cover and organic material for spawning fish. Together, these log and boulder clusters dramatically improve river health and make for great fishing holes.
Another structure called a roughened log toe, formed by placing multiple logs with their roots intact in a bend in the creek, has helped protect the banks from high-speed floodwaters. By absorbing the impact of rushing high water, roughened log toes prevent mass erosion, which is critically important along roadsides. Over time, the water churning against the root wads will also create cool, shady areas for fish to congregate.
“These guys were used to taking logs out of the water, and here we are asking them to put these logs in the water,” Skelding laughs. “It really is a new way of thinking about mitigating flood damages and protecting fish habitat.”
The next time Delaware County has a flood emergency, residents along Sands Creek can rest assured that their community is more resilient than in previous years while local anglers might even be able to wet a line much sooner. Not bad for pushing some boulders and logs around. And with an all-in project cost of about $300,000, these benefits came at a steep discount compared to many traditional infrastructure options.
The success of the Sands Creek restoration project highlights the importance of collaboration in conservation, and sportsmen and women played a crucial role in this case. We think this is an important story because, as policymakers consider upgrading our nation’s infrastructure, it is imperative that natural infrastructure solutions, extending from erosion control to wildlife crossing structures, are part of the discussion.
Incorporating these ideas early on can help save money that would have been spent cleaning up a disastrous flood, plus the benefits to wildlife habitat and river access mean anglers can keep doing what we love – all of which boosts local economies.
When conservationists engage with government officials and local businesses to build better rivers, not just new bridges and roads, the benefits can flow far, far downstream.
Want to hear more about re-engineering a river? Click here to hear Jeff Skelding discuss FUDR’s work on the Orvis Fly Fishing Guide Podcast with Tom Rosenbauer.
Top photo by Garth Lenz.
A bill moving through the House could create a rare win-win scenario for energy and wildlife
The Trump administration and Republican leadership in Congress have an aggressive agenda for the next few years: To reform the tax code, balance a federal budget, increase funds to build a wall along the United States-Mexico border, and pass a one-trillion-dollar package that addresses America’s crumbling infrastructure while providing stability for rural communities. The infrastructure package is going to be decorated like a Christmas tree with bills and amendments, but some ornaments will light up more than others.
One of these may be the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act, which unanimously passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee last week. The bill, which was introduced by Congressman Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and co-sponsored by 38 representatives from both sides of the aisle, would promote economic growth in the energy development sector while providing for conservation from a portion of the leasing revenues.
The bill would achieve a win-win scenario by thoughtfully balancing renewable energy development and habitat needs through a robust permitting system and creating a consistent stream of revenue to fund essential fish and wildlife management projects in proximity to renewable energy projects.
PLREDA would boost the incentive for local stakeholders to support renewable energy projects, because 25 percent of the leasing revenues would go back to counties and states. Another 25 percent of leasing revenues would be dedicated to a fish and wildlife conservation fund, the Renewable Resource Conservation Fund. These funds could help open up access to public lands, enhance clean water resources, and improve habitat for elk, wild trout, mule deer, sage grouse, and other important game species.
TRCP strongly supports this bipartisan bill, which illustrates a balanced, common-sense approach to energy development on public lands. At a time when lawmakers have many legislative priorities, it’s heartening to see investments in America’s infrastructure and economic health that also create new revenue streams for conservation.
Want to hear the latest on PLREDA and other legislation that could affect the places where you hunt and fish? Become a TRCP member (it’s free) and we’ll keep you informed.
Top photo by BLM/Flickr.
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