House Committee Backs Public Land Access and Paying Down Maintenance Backlogs
Swift passage in the House and similar movement in the Senate would permanently secure the most critical tool for opening 9.52 million acres of landlocked public lands and address long-standing maintenance issues on public lands across the U.S.
Today, the House Natural Resources Committee took strongly bipartisan action to advance two pieces of critical public lands legislation: permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, a bill that would provide dedicated funding to address the maintenance backlogs in our national parks, Bureau of Land Management lands, and National Wildlife Refuge System.
“We want to thank Chairman Bishop and Ranking Member Grijalva for rolling up their sleeves and working together in bipartisan fashion for the benefit of American sportsmen and women,” says Whit Fosburgh, President and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the single most important federal program for conserving habitat on and expanding access to America’s 640 million acres of public lands; and the Restore our Parks and Public Lands Act provides the funding necessary to begin to ensure those public lands are being well-managed and maintained.”
The House bill would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million and dedicate 3 percent of LWCF dollars specifically to increasing public access on existing public lands. (Without further action, the program’s current authorization is set to expire on September 30.)
“Sportsmen are depending on Congress to act swiftly and see that the LWCF is permanently reauthorized with full, dedicated annual funding and that a comprehensive public lands maintenance backlog fund is established to benefit all of our land management agencies,” says Fosburgh. “We hope this commendable move by the House Natural Resources Committee is the first step toward getting these priorities passed into law.”.
“At 9.52 million acres, the massive scale of the landlocked problem represents a major impediment to public access and the growth of the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy,” says Joel Webster, Western lands director with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “These are lands that all Americans own, and yet public access is not readily available or guaranteed.”
Up until now, little has been done to make a comprehensive and detailed assessment of this frequently discussed issue. This new report breaks down the 9.52 million acres landlocked across the West into totals for each of the thirteen states, highlighting the largest landlocked parcel within each state and how many landlocked acres each federal land management agency oversees.
More than 93.2 percent of landlocked public lands in the West are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Wyoming holds the most inaccessible public lands with 3.05 million acres—or almost a third of the total landlocked acreage across the region.
“onX was founded on helping people access the outdoors and public lands, and our partnership in this project is an extension of that,” says onX founder Eric Siegfried. “In additions to creating technology that enables people to make memories in the field or on the water, we strongly support efforts that either improve current access points or open up new opportunities for our customers. Why not start with the public lands that we rightfully own?”
A Solution in Jeopardy
The report also highlights the most powerful tool for opening landlocked lands to the public—the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which, among other things, pays for voluntary easement and acquisition agreements with private landowners. This joint effort between onX and TRCP arrives at a critical time for the fund, which is set to expire on September 30, 2018, unless Congress acts to reauthorize the LWCF.
“Our report offers a clear and accurate picture of a major access obstacle facing public land users, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund is the single most important mechanism for addressing this challenge,” says TRCP’s Webster. “Many lawmakers talk about their commitment to public access, and the clearest way for them to demonstrate their support would be to reauthorize this critical program by September 30.”
“Many public land parcels without guaranteed public access range from five to 30 square miles in size—we aren’t just talking about postage stamp sections,” adds Siegfried. “Understanding this, lawmakers have a very real opportunity to make a positive difference by expanding public access for the American people, and we hope they do.”
Why the National Parks Are Great Neighbors to Public Land Hunters and Anglers
While not all national parks are open to hunting and fishing, these iconic landscapes are responsible for growing some of the critters that wind up in our favorite spots come opening day
On August 25, our country celebrates the anniversary of the National Park Service. And with stunning and iconic landscapes in places like Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yosemite, it’s easy to see why there is so much to commemorate. But as a sportsman who loves to hunt and fish, I celebrate the parks for a slightly different reason.
You see, most national parks provide safe harbor for deer and elk where they can grow into giants. Those animals become accessible to hunters when they leave park boundaries and wander onto multiple-use public lands, like BLM lands and national forests, for any number of reasons, including to reach their winter ranges. As a result, hunting units surrounding national parks often provide some of the best big game hunting available. Those are the kinds of places where I want to spend my time.
Most sportsmen are familiar with the famed elk migrations out of Yellowstone National Park but, while the total herd numbers aren’t what they used to be, the public lands adjacent to the park are still known as great places to hunt trophy bulls. Great Basin National Park in Nevada has a reputation for producing big mule deer that wander into neighboring multiple-use public lands during the hunting season, and quality mule deer depend on the habitat in and around Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Experienced sportsmen know that units located adjacent to many of the national parks are simply great places to find big bucks and bulls.
The same goes for great fishing. While national parks are generally open to fishing, the protected mountains within many parks provide cool, clean headwaters for many of the nation’s best trout streams flowing outside of the parks. The South Fork of the Snake River in Wyoming and eastern Idaho offers some of the best trout fishing anywhere, thanks to the abundant snowpack and pristine headwaters within Grand Teton National Park. The North Fork of the Flathead River in northwest Montana is an amazing place to catch a cutthroat on a dry fly, in part due to the protected landscapes of Glacier National Park. And let’s not forget the mighty Yellowstone and Madison Rivers, two great trout streams with seemingly endless miles of fishable water, both born within Yellowstone National Park.
So, if you’re a sportsman who appreciates quality habitat and public hunting and fishing, give thanks for America’s national parks this weekend or the next time you shoulder your rifle or tie on a fly. These lands make great neighbors by supporting our sporting heritage in a unique way.
And that’s worth celebrating.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally posted August 23, 2016 and has been updated.
This Policy Change Means Habitat Lost to Development Stays Lost
With public-land agencies weakening their stance on habitat mitigation, sportsmen and women may see unnecessary loss of habitat and opportunity
We accept that energy development is a necessary activity that, quite literally, powers our lives. But the conversation about where it should occur becomes more complicated when there could be a risk to fish and wildlife resources that power our hunting and fishing opportunities.
For years, there has been a kind of regulatory backstop to ensure that unnecessary impacts to habitat are avoided or compensated for. This is called mitigation, and the Department of the Interior just made changes that would weaken this foundational conservation tool.
Here’s what we mean: Imagine I spill half your beer. Would you feel better about this loss if I bought you half a drink? How about if I soaked up your spilled beer with a napkin and squeezed it back into your glass? Truly mitigating the impact I had on your evening would, at the very least, mean buying you a new drink and possibly even the next round.
Now, imagine that the precious resource lost was not your favorite IPA, but fish and wildlife habitat. Mitigation calls for a hierarchy of steps to avoid, minimize, or compensate for habitat damage by providing for conservation on site or elsewhere.
But in recent weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rescinded its compensatory and Service-wide mitigation policies, and the Bureau of Land Management issued instructions to its offices that essentially halt the agency’s use of compensatory mitigation on BLM public lands.
What Does This Mean for Habitat?
Quite simply, from this point forward, if a development project can’t avoid damage to habitat on public land through early planning, or minimize its impacts during construction, then there will be no requirement to compensate for those damages. On the ground, this means loss of habitat or its quality—plain and simple.
Spilled beer can’t be un-spilled, just like some habitat can’t be unspoiled. But, now, the BLM won’t hold developers accountable to even try to make up for the hunting and fishing opportunities they may have cost you on your public lands. We can never hope for a net positive, or net zero, for fish and wildlife if this is the way that DOI does its math. We will always be losing ground where impacts occur and are not mitigated.
Greater Threat to Some Species
Conservationists have long viewed compensatory mitigation as a common sense approach to balancing development with fish, wildlife, and habitat values. It is a fundamental component of land-use management, habitat conservation, and recovery of endangered or threatened populations.
These decisions to scale back on mitigation are not only harmful for listed species, but also for species that are most at risk of being listed in the future.
In states like Colorado and Nevada, which rely heavily on mitigation for impacts to the sagebrush ecosystem for their conservation strategies, these policy changes also undermine collaborative work to restore sage grouse populations and habitat across the West.
Chipping Away at Conservation Bedrock
At the center of DOI’s argument for these changes is that the department and its agencies have no legal authority to require mitigation. That may be true in a purely legal context, but the BLM most certainly has the authority and ample discretion to require developers to avoid, minimize, and even compensate for habitat impacts under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Environmental Protection Act (better known as NEPA), and other statutes governing federal land management and development on these lands.
Application of the full mitigation hierarchy is critical for the BLM to achieve its multiple-use and land health standards mandated by federal policy and statute. And if the agency would like to avoid pushing developers for compensation after damage occurs, there’s a real incentive to do better up-front planning to avoid impacts in the first place—which is what we all want.
Taking away the last line of defense for fish and wildlife only creates a wildly uneven playing field: Inevitably there will still be developers who want to do the right thing and mitigate for damages, but the door will be open for bad actors to simply ignore the costs of doing business on our public lands.
The DOI has stated that the policy changes won’t affect state mitigation policies, but most states do not require mitigation. Perhaps it’s time for state legislatures and Congress to consider codifying legal requirements for mitigation, as political swings and varying interpretations of policy and law have clearly taken us many steps backward in balancing our management of public lands and energy development.
What Sportsmen Can Do
Ultimately, we are disappointed to see DOI take steps to weaken a fundamental management tool and potentially create huge setbacks for conservation of a species like sage grouse and the quality of our public land experiences as hunters and anglers. These decisions do not reflect balance nor adherence to bedrock conservation laws, like NEPA and FLPMA, which protect habitat and guide us toward a careful balance.
The TRCP will continue working with our partners and a wide range of stakeholders—including conservation and sportsmen’s groups but also landowners and businesses—to speak up for habitat mitigation, especially in this new era of expanded development on public lands.
And you can help. Visit sportsmenscountry.org to send a message to lawmakers that they need to do more than keep our public lands public—they need to support policies that keep our public lands well-managed for all the ways we use them. Show them we are paying attention.
Featured Podcast: Shortlisting the Most Critical Conservation Issues We Face Today
No matter where you call home, these are the conservation issues you need to know about right now—get caught up in less than 60 minutes
TRCP’s visionary founder Jim Range recognized that conservation won’t work well if we only fight for what we see outside our own windows every day. It can’t be about Western lands and Eastern lands when it comes to America’s public lands. We can’t afford to stand on opposite sides of a dividing line between saltwater and freshwater fishing or big game and small game hunting.
In short, we can’t win on generation-defining conservation battles if we’re not working together.
As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.