TRCP’s President and CEO Offers Senators Solutions for Improving Public Land Access
Whit Fosburgh testifies on Capitol Hill about opportunities to support the outdoor recreation economy.
Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, testified on Capitol Hill today to highlight the contributions that hunters and anglers make to the outdoor recreation economy and conservation.
Fosburgh appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to share the perspective of sportsmen and women on habitat and public access.
“The loss of access to the outdoors and public lands has happened over decades, and it won’t turn around without a concentrated effort by Congress and the administration,” said Fosburgh. “Nearby access opportunities disappear when fish and wildlife habitat is lost. But lost access doesn’t always mean a locked gate. When fields in northern Virginia are turned into subdivisions or shopping malls, habitat and access are lost. Access is lost when a South Dakota CRP field is converted to row crops. Access is lost when a waterfowl marsh in Louisiana disappears into the Gulf of Mexico because we’ve built levees along the Mississippi River that starve those wetlands of the sediments they need to survive. In Florida, boat launches sit empty in the face of algal blooms and red tides.”
Fosburgh also noted that demographic changes have had profound effects on access, especially in the West, where 72 percent of hunters depend on public lands for their hunting access.
“For much of the last century, a knock on the door and a friendly smile were often all it took to access or cross private lands in pursuit of fish and game,” said Fosburgh. “But in recent years, many working farms and ranches have changed hands. Some were subdivided, while others became second homes or recreational properties where ‘no trespassing’ signs and locked gates replaced de facto open access.”
Fosburgh called on Congress to take action by:
Fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Congress recently permanently authorized the LWCF, but for years the nation’s best conservation tool has been only funded at about 50 percent.
Directing the Forest Service and BLM to digitize all easements into electronic databases. Right now, neither the Forest Service nor the BLM are equipped to identify where they do or do not hold access across private lands, or where they should prioritize access acquisitions. This is because many of the agencies’ access easement records are still held on paper files at local offices and cannot be integrated into digital mapping systems that are foundational to public lands management in the twenty-first century.
Addressing the maintenance backlog on public lands. The maintenance backlogs are a staggering $11.6 billion for the National Park System; $2.2 billion for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management; and $5 billion for the Forest Service. The backlog manifests itself in degraded roads, trails, and campgrounds, all of which directly relate to quality access.
Including nature-based solutions in an infrastructure package. The upcoming Highway Bill is an opportunity to not only promote recreational access by investing in roads, trails, boat launches, and campgrounds but also by securing resources for migration crossings, aquatic connectivity, and barrier islands to protect coastal communities.
Taking recreational access into consideration in the BLM land disposal process. For the past year, 22 hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations have been encouraging the Department of the Interior to require that public access for outdoor recreation be considered when the BLM evaluates lands for disposal. We request that this change not only be administrative but also codified in statutory law.
Addressing climate change with smart public lands policies. The biggest threat to quality access and the outdoor economy is climate change. Hunters and anglers are on the front lines of our changing climate, with shifting migratory patterns, fishing closures due to heat, low flows, or algae blooms, invasive species, and longer wildfire seasons. Our nation’s public lands, if properly funded and managed, can serve as a bulwark against the worst impacts of climate.
With Cuts in Trump’s Budget, Congress Must Lead on Conservation
Administration’s budget request indicates a continued appetite for major cuts to conservation, but Congress can choose to ignore the president’s recommendations
President Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2020 includes deep cuts at the agencies that carry out conservation in America. Sportsmen and women are now looking to Congress to lead on the conservation of fish and wildlife habitat and investments in public lands access, water and soil quality, and the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy in the U.S.
“Even after conservation’s share of the federal budget has been slashed in half over the past 30 years, this proposal further handcuffs the agencies that are responsible for public land access, clean water, and healthy wildlife,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Congress has indicated that the health of our fish and wildlife populations, habitat, and outdoor recreation economy is a bipartisan issue and has reliable champions. We hope to see continued leadership in the House and Senate to ensure that investments in conservation are in keeping with the value of the American natural resources that are the envy of the world.”
The funding ask for the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund is down to a fraction of its $900-million potential, despite having bipartisan support in Congress, and many line item reductions are at odds with administration priorities, like conserving migration corridors and enhancing hunting and fishing access.
One bright spot is a $21.5-million boost for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Its total funding of $509.5 million is dedicated to supporting more hunting and fishing opportunities than in years past, after a series of orders from this administration. If appropriated, this would be the highest funding level ever for the Refuge System.
It is important to note that the president’s budget is only a set of recommendations, and Congress has largely ignored cuts suggested in the president’s past two proposals. Government funding is slated to run out September 30, and Congress must pass appropriations legislation by that time to avoid another costly government shutdown.
Here’s how the president’s budget would affect fish, wildlife, sportsmen’s access, and the outdoor recreation economy.
Public Lands in Sportsmen’s Country
The Department of the Interior would see proposed cuts of $2 billion, or 14 percent, from the FY19 appropriated funding levels. Though the president’s budget acknowledges the need to allocate $300 million in additional wildfire suppression funds, severe cuts to critical fish and wildlife programs are a no-go for sportsmen and women.
The Bureau of Land Management is charged with managing 245 million acres—more than any other federal agency—and yet it is slated for an 11-percent cut, which would only make it more difficult for the BLM to do its job.
Sportsmen and women are among the first to be affected by a growing maintenance backlog on our public lands and infrastructure in dire need of repair. The budget’s proposed creation of a Public Lands Infrastructure fund using offshore and onshore energy revenues is a compelling solution to this problem, however the funds being put into this new maintenance account have been stripped away from the Land and Water Conservation Fund in this proposal.
Though conservationists support whittling down the maintenance backlog to accomplish better proactive conservation, it cannot be at the expense of this critically important program—the promise of LWCF must be fulfilled as well.
Hunting and Fishing Access
The TRCP has encouraged Congress to appropriate $900 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was permanently reauthorized in the recent public lands package without any guarantee for funding. This total includes 40 percent or $360 million for federal agencies, $27 million of which should be made available for establishing recreational access, in particular.
But the president’s budget includes just $7.5 million for land acquisition, and not a single penny of that would go to the Forest Service. Elimination of land-acquisition funds at the Forest Service would hamper the administration’s ability to open and expand access to public lands, including the nearly 400K acres of landlocked public lands that the Forest Service oversees.
Given that 93 percent of the West’s 9.52 million acres of landlocked public lands are administered by the BLM, the agency carries some of the greatest land acquisition needs. But not only is there no budget for the BLM to strategically acquire lands, the Trump proposal would rescind $10 million from funds already appropriated for FY19. See TRCP’s report with onX that outlines total landlocked acres by agency.
The president’s budget also seeks to cut $9 billion from the USDA’s voluntary conservation programs for private lands, just months after Congress passed a 2018 Farm Bill that strongly supported investments in habitat and walk-in access.
The TRCP opposes these proposed cuts and urges Congress to provide full funding for these important programs during the appropriations process.
Not Even a Wash for Wetlands
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that manages national wildlife refuges, protects endangered species, manages waterfowl and other migratory birds, and enforces federal wildlife laws, would see a $267-million overall budget cut—that’s 16 percent less than FY19 funding levels. However, a $21.5-million increase for the National Wildlife Refuge System could help address ongoing maintenance shortfalls as refuges expand hunting and fishing opportunities.
There was also a suggested 7-percent cut to North American Wetlands Conservation Act funds, which go toward wetland restoration projects around the nation. Because every federal dollar is matched as many as three times over by non-federal dollars, cuts to grant programs like NAWCA have an outsized negative impact on the ground.
The president’s budget proposes a 31-percent overall cut for the EPA, with deep slices into restoration programs in the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes. Both regional programs would be knocked down to just 10 percent of what they received in FY19, further jeopardizing clean water and fish habitat in watersheds that already face steep challenges. Every other geographic program at EPA—including one in the Puget Sound that helps build fish passages, increase salmon habitat, and protect shorelines—would be eliminated under this budget proposal.
The proposal zeroes out a grant program the states administer to control runoff carrying pollutants like fertilizer, sediment, and chemicals to our rivers and streams. This means that while the EPA is rolling back Clean Water Act protections for wetlands and streams that are being polluted directly, it would be providing states with fewer resources to address pollution from nonpoint sources, as well. The narrative for this section of the budget proposal explicitly touts how the rollback of Clean Water Act protections will streamline permitting, since fewer polluting activities will need permits.
Trump’s proposal also includes a 70-percent cut to WaterSMART Grants, the Bureau of Reclamation’s premier program for funding activities that conserve and recycle water in the West while also benefiting fish and wildlife habitat.
And from too little water to too much: There would be a 31-percent cut to Army Corps of Engineers funding, which is disappointing at a time when flooding has begun earlier than expected throughout the Mississippi River Basin, Tennessee River Valley, and in other major watersheds. Waterway management, natural infrastructure, and coastal habitat restoration couldn’t be more critical.
However, there is a positive provision for water management and wetland restoration projects that could benefit recreational fishing and habitat. Trump’s proposal would allow local sponsors to use federal dollars to build water management projects and rebuild wetlands without being mired in bureaucracy at the Army Corps of Engineers.
The proposal also suggests reforms to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to help invest in improvements. In places like the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and other man-made canals, the inability of the Corps to properly maintain the canal banks or dredge has led to wetland destruction, saltwater intrusion, and loss of recreational access. Receiving additional funding would help better maintain these waterways.
Because Congress still holds the power of the pursestrings, the TRCP will continue to send the message to lawmakers that we will not stand for an endless chipping away at conservation funding. If you want to get involved, sign up for our updates here.
Third-Party Certification Puts a Blue Ribbon on Depletion of Critical Striped Bass Food Source
It is negligent to certify Omega Protein’s menhaden purse-seining operation as sustainable when striped bass populations are in decline
The Marine Stewardship Council, a private international institution, has determined it will grant a certification of sustainability to Omega Protein Corporation for its U.S. Atlantic menhaden purse-seining operations, despite the fact that the industrial harvest of these important forage fish depletes the east coast’s striped bass population.
Menhaden are small, oily baitfish that form the base of the Atlantic food chain, supporting every marine sportfish from stripers and bluefish to tarpon and sharks. As filter feeders, they also benefit water quality in places like the Chesapeake Bay.
Reduction fishing—where menhaden are caught in giant nets and then “reduced” for meal, fish food, and other products—was once common on the east coast, but it is now banned in every state except Virginia because of the destructive nature of the fishery. Today, a single company, Omega Protein, accounts for 80 percent of the coastwide catch of menhaden, and this level of harvest could be responsible for as much as a 30-percent reduction in striped bass, the nation’s largest marine recreational fishery.
“This week’s announcement from MSC puts a blue ribbon on the last holdout of an antiquated and harmful reduction fishing industry,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This certification ignores what’s really happening to east coast sportfish, which rely on menhaden for survival and support a thriving recreational fishing economy. You cannot mine the base of the food chain and not expect it to affect every species that depend on those fish.”
MSC’s published assessment makes it clear that the certification is conditional, meaning that Omega has to meet certain milestones over the next four years—they have not met these milestones yet. Omega Protein has strongly opposed conservation measures, including current catch limits in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the federal and state governing body charged with managing menhaden, is developing a management model where it considers the fish’s role in the entire ecosystem and the impact of menhaden harvest on other species. Until these updates are complete, it is too soon to make a ruling on the sustainability of commercial menhaden harvest.
“It is negligent to call Omega’s operations sustainable now on the condition that the company meets certain milestones in the future, especially considering the important changes that fisheries managers are committed to making,” says Fosburgh. “This is actually about the foreign-owned company’s willingness to pay for a certification as a PR boost. It won’t fool America’s anglers, and we plan to formally object through the appropriate channels.”
Hunting and Fishing Groups Ask PA Lawmakers Not to Divert Conservation Funding
Benefits to water quality, sportsmen’s access, and abandoned mine reclamation would be lost if funds were redirected to government operations
This week, leading local and national sportsmen’s groups shared major concerns about the proposed budget for the Environmental Stewardship Fund and Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund.
In a letter to state lawmakers, 11 organizations from across the hunting and fishing community wrote: “We value the projects funded by these programs that restore fish and wildlife habitat, improve sportsmen’s access to streams and forests, and enhance the conservation efforts of the Commonwealth’s independent fish and game agencies. We are dismayed that the Governor’s budget proposal would redirect much-needed resources from the ESF and the Keystone Fund in order to pay for state government operations in the coming fiscal year.”
Q&A: Meet a Texan Who Is Helping to Open New Public Lands on the Gulf Coast
Callie Easterly’s work at The Conservation Fund is helping to expand hunting and fishing access on a national wildlife refuge by more than 12,000 acres—read the latest Q&A in our Women Conservationist Wednesday series
We love talking to women in the conservation workforce who are very clearly forces of nature themselves. Callie Easterly, a native Texan and the senior major gifts officer at The Conservation Fund, is no exception.
Forget for just a moment that she runs an incredible hunting lodge for the organization, hosting small parties of waterfowl hunters to showcase the benefits of wetland restoration projects. Now consider that in the span of eight years she went from receptionist to executive director of a nonprofit focused on getting inner city kids outdoors and in touch with their food. That’s before she helped build a sustainable grazing program on conserved lands in the unique Gulf coastal grasslands of Texas.
But back to that hunting lodge. It’s on the 12,376-acre Sabine Ranch, which will soon be added to McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge as public land open to hunting, fishing, hiking and birdwatching. And Callie helped raise the more than $30 million needed to piece the original ranch back together and convey the land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Her story is so compelling, it’s no wonder she can convince people to open their wallets for conservation. She shares a little bit of that story with us here.
TRCP: How were you introduced to the outdoors?
CALLIE EASTERLY: I grew up in a small town outside Houston with a lot of rice farms, and I started hunting deer with my dad on the Thanksgiving holidays. Our local grocery store offered these individual meat lockers to store your venison, and we basically lived off what we harvested. I shot my first deer when I was 9 years old and totally got the bug.
For a while, I lived in Seattle and did more fishing, but when I came back to Texas and met my husband—he’s an avid outdoorsman—I really got back into hunting. And I was able to marry it with my lifelong interest in gardening and knowing exactly where my food comes from.
TRCP: And what led you to work in conservation?
EASTERLY: It started out as kind of a fluke. I was working with adults with disabilities and interpreting sign language, and I loved being able to help people communicate, but I really felt like I was missing out on sharing this growing passion I had for gardening and food security. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to do it, but I quit my job and ended up working as a receptionist for a Houston nonprofit called Urban Harvest, which builds gardens at inner city schools and takes kids into the outdoor classroom to learn about nutrition.
After only a few weeks, their fundraising person quit and they needed someone to write a grant application—so I tried it. We got the grant and things just took off from there. By the end of my eight years there, I had become executive director and was meeting a lot of inspiring people in the food movement.
Eventually, I wanted to do more with sustainable agriculture, and I got the opportunity to go back to my roots—literally my hometown of Katy, Texas—and work for the Katy Prairie Conservancy. One of the preserves is a working cattle ranch, where I was able to build a program that uses cattle as a land management tool for the benefit of other wildlife and water quality. And when I got the call from The Conservation Fund, I’d been consulting for a number of organizations on how to harness those Gulf oil spill recovery dollars to improve wildlife habitat and shellfish populations. So, it’s been a slow growth into my role at Sabine Ranch today.
TRCP: So, why take people hunting to get them support the project?
EASTERLY: I think it helps to highlight hunting and conservation as a nice marriage of ideals. Actually bringing guests out into this fantastic waterfowl habitat to do something they enjoy helps them understand what we’re doing and why expanding the refuge is such a big win for Texas.
The habitat is unbelievable. The ranch is a key part of the largest contiguous marsh system in Texas, which buffers inland communities from saltwater intrusion and sends freshwater flows to the rest of the refuge. When The Conservation Fund purchased the land, it had been managed to almost pristine condition by the previous owner, and here’s how we could tell: Just three weeks after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, this land was bone dry. The wetlands were working exactly like they are supposed to, filtering stormwater and pushing it out to the Gulf cleaner than it was before.
I believe every problem in the world can be solved with education, and taking people on an epic hunt rarely fails to make people feel like we’re all in this together. The hunt itself is really fun, but it’s also a palatable introduction to conservation for many people.
TRCP: How do you think we can do a better job, as conservationists?
EASTERLY: We need to tell better stories. We need to broaden our target audience and, as nonprofits, be more accepting of smaller gifts—we’ll meet more potential champions in the process. I talk to young people and see what resonates with them. I might practice a pitch with a friend who doesn’t hunt and just watch for the moment they raise their eyebrows.
For a long time, the environmental movement has meant “no, no, no.” That “no” has alienated a lot of folks. We have to say “yes” sometimes. Cities have to grow, so we explain why some places should be conserved. You illustrate how the health of habitat and wildlife is connected to the health of cities. We paved over some prairies and now there are no geese; there’s no hunting. Houston didn’t grow up, it grew out—we paved over wetlands and now we’re flooding. You explain that it’s hard to go back.
TRCP: So many women are taking up hunting in adulthood because of their interest in knowing where their food comes from. How can a beginner find the confidence to get outside on her own and just go for it?
EASTERLY: I’ve felt that lack of confidence, too—you have to give yourself over to it and allow yourself to make mistakes. You’ll miss. You’ll use the wrong fly. It’s trial and error. The moments you improvise because you forgot some gear or fall in and get soaking wet are going to be the most memorable anyway.
I don’t know how we tell ourselves it’s OK to fail. All I know is that sometimes you’re in the marsh getting eaten alive by bugs, and you’re calling and calling and nothing comes in. It’s not your spread, there’s just no ducks. It won’t be the most epic experience every time.
So, focus on the camaraderie of being up before dawn, passing a thermos of coffee around, being cold and sleepy together, telling stories, and watching the sun rise with friends. You can’t force the perfect hunt. In the morning, when you’re excited about the mere possibility of what the day may hold—make that feeling endless.
Photos by Shannon Tompkins
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CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA
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.