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October 5, 2017

Larry Lamsa

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An Underrated Bass Fishery United This Town on the Colorado River

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.

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October 4, 2017

Why the West Should Care as Much as Corn Country About Farm Bill Conservation Programs

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.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides assistance to landowners enabling them to replace antiquated and inefficient pivot systems, benefiting both domestic and and wild game species. Image courtesy of USDA/Flickr.

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.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) helps fund projects to improve everything from livestock fencing (on both public and private lands) and better irrigation systems, to upland bird habitat restoration and invasive species removal. Image courtesy of Larry Lamsa/Flickr. Cover image courtesy of Jim Hickcox.


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.

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September 28, 2017

Public Lands Move People

A new study looks at booming population growth around Montana’s public lands, which help drive commerce and community values—this could be an indication of the West’s changing economy

Missoula, Montana, home of the TRCP’s Western outpost—is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Folks from all over the country choose to live or vacation here because of the fishing, hiking, mountain biking, camping, rafting, and hunting that waits just a hop, skip, and a jump from your front door or hotel room.

When it came time to move from my previous home in Bend, Ore.—also an outdoorsman’s paradise—Missoula was on the short list of places my fiancée and I were willing to live next. Our criteria are simple: It can’t be too big or too small of a town, and there must be ample access to hunting, fishing, and recreation in the outdoors. In other words, access to public lands is a deal breaker for us.

And apparently, we’re not alone: According to a recent study from Montana nonprofit Headwaters Economics, public lands in Montana attract and move many. The results show that counties with a high percentage of national public lands have experienced a population increase of 2.87 percent, while counties with less than the median share of public lands have experienced a total population decline of 2.22 percent. The western half of Montana—the part with the most public land—is growing most rapidly.

This seems to be a trend across the West: The data show that counties with the most public land are outpacing the counties with the least public land in population, employment rate, and income growth.

With so many flocking to the “Last Best Place,” Montana’s economy is booming. From 2000 to 2015, the state has outpaced the rest of the U.S. in terms of employment and income growth. What sets Montana apart from most other states? Well, for one, 29 percent of the state is public land, creating quite a large hunting and fishing playground.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, more than four in five Montanans engage in outdoor recreation each year, and this booming sector supports 71,000 direct jobs. For comparison, that’s more jobs than construction and manufacturing in the state. The $7.1 billion netted annually from outdoor recreation spending is significantly more than the entire statewide value of agricultural crops, livestock, and poultry. And considering that our state has the second-lowest population density in the lower 48 and just over a million people, the $286 million in state and local tax revenue created by outdoor recreation means a whole heck of a lot to Montanans. Very little of it would exists without the state’s expansive public lands.

Public lands are the main attractant, and the service industries that cater to new residents and visitors are thriving. Everything from hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores to realtors and lawyers now account for 60 percent of total earnings in Montana. Things are changing.

And the outdoors don’t only nurture outdoor-related and service careers. Many businesses and individuals now have the luxury of setting up shop wherever they can get reliable Internet access. It’s no wonder that public-land-rich towns like Bend, Ore., Boulder, Colo., and Missoula, Mont., are seeing the tech industry settle in.

This is all to say that the P&L sheet for America’s public lands can’t be based solely on property taxes and extracted resources. To fairly value these public lands (something some lawmakers would prefer not to do) we need to take a step back and measure all the economic impacts—the service industry businesses that benefit when hunters come to town, the attraction for big employers, and maybe even the tech company CEO’s desire to live somewhere he can fish year-round.

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September 26, 2017

How to Help the Mississippi River Build Land in Louisiana

What started as a washed out gravel road has become a naturally occurring sediment diversion that is helping to balance salinity levels and improve fish habitat south of New Orleans—to keep wetlands from disappearing, experts should keep Mardi Gras Pass and take control of its freshwater flows

The primary reason that nearly 2,000 square miles of prime fish and wildlife habitat have vanished along Louisiana’s coast is not erosion or development. It’s just that the land is constantly sinking, a phenomenon known as subsidence. While gradual, sea-level rise is already affecting coastal areas all over the world, and Louisiana is contending with rising water and sinking land.

Sediment delivered by annual flooding on the Mississippi River used to be the key to keeping coastal wetlands above the water line. But, when that sediment flow was cut off by flood-protection and navigation levees a century ago, wetlands started disappearing.

That’s why Louisiana’s coastal master plan calls for the construction of two major diversions, one east and one west of the river below New Orleans. Two control structures and canals will be built through the levees to deliver the sediment needed to help wetlands stay above the water line, serving as critical fish and wildlife habitat and better protecting coastal communities from storm surges.

Sediment delivery brings with it freshwater inundation, which will certainly change the makeup of the fisheries in the outfall areas. To minimize impacts to fisheries, the plan is to move water and sediment only when sediment loads are at their peak and cut back, or shut off, the diversions when river flows aren’t carrying as much sediment.

Extensive modeling has been conducted to try and predict the effects of the freshwater, but biologists have been careful to point out that there’s a degree of uncertainty considering river conditions, including sediment loads, water temperatures, and weather, in any given year.

However, east of the river, near the small fishing community of Point a la Hache, hypotheticals can be replaced by a discussion of what is currently happening in the marshes, canals, bays, and lakes being inundated with freshwater and sediment from a break in the Mississippi River bank that has become known as Mardi Gras Pass.

Mardi Gras Pass earned its name because the first time it was observed flowing freely from the river and down an existing canal was on Mardi Gras in 2012, a year after record flooding reshaped many areas along the east side of the Mississippi below New Orleans. The force of the flood washed away a gravel road and cut the bank around an old control structure that once allowed a limited amount of river water to spill into the area, controlling salinity and improving oyster habitat. What started as a tree-snagged trickle of less than 5,000 cubic feet per second has turned into an uncontrolled diversion that is estimated to be moving about 35,000 cubic feet per second—coincidentally, the same rate of water flow is prescribed for the diversion Louisiana has planned.

John Lopez, director of the Coastal Sustainability Program at the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, is the one who gave the new cut its name and has been studying the impacts of the natural diversion very closely. Early on, he saw schools of shad bunched up in the flowing water and has since documented a drastic increase in sediment pouring into adjacent marshes and bays. Submerged vegetation aided by the fresh water now fills ponds and bays from near the mouth of the pass out to the edges of Black Bay.

Waterfowl habitat has also improved. Bass populations have exploded in the area, and it has also become popular among tournament anglers who are finding redfish feasting on bluegills, crabs, shrimp, mullet, and crawfish. White shrimp are also more plentiful. Speckled trout, Louisiana’s most popular saltwater sportfish, have reacted to the seasonal changes in salinity by moving away from Mardi Gras Pass when the Mississippi River is high, but returning to the area when the river drops.

As is the case with any discussion of diversions, either existing or planned, not everyone is happy with the changes in the area. Oyster harvests on public oyster beds near Mardi Gras pass are down about 85 percent over the last decade, though it has been noted by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists that this decline began before the cut opened. The state’s Oyster Task Force recently voted to commit $200,000 to examine closing Mardi Gras Pass.

While the indication of negative impacts to oysters in public harvest areas and shifts in fisheries to more freshwater and freshwater-tolerant species is undeniable, closing Mardi Gras Pass would be a mistake. Controlling it with gates to maximize sediment delivery and force freshwater into adjacent marshes would be an optimal solution, especially since that’s what is recommended by those examining diversions in the Master Plan.

Simply plugging the hole and not allowing the river to flow at all is short-sighted. The Mississippi River is supposed to be connected to its adjacent wetlands. Any connection provides benefits to a sediment-starved system.

Coastal estuaries should be managed for a diverse array of fish and wildlife, not just oysters and popular sportfish species like speckled trout. If one of the primary solutions for trying to fix Louisiana’s ailing coastal wetlands is to reconnect them to the river that once built them it sure doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to completely sever one of the few existing connections between river and marsh.

 

First image courtesy of LPBF.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

CHEERS TO CONSERVATION

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.

$4 from each bag is donated to the TRCP, to help continue their efforts of safeguarding critical habitats, productive hunting grounds, and favorite fishing holes for future generations.

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