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March 21, 2019

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New Interior Order Supports Recreational Access to Public Lands

Modernized BLM priorities for land disposal and exchange will benefit hunting and fishing access

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt today directed the BLM to prioritize public access in decisions regarding the disposal and exchange of BLM public lands.

Bernhardt signed Secretarial Order 3373, Evaluating Public Access in Bureau of Land Management Land Disposals and Exchanges, to help ensure that BLM public lands, no matter how small, remain in public hands if they are highly valued for outdoor recreation access.

“Sportsmen and women across the West will benefit from this Interior Department action to sustain and enhance recreational access to BLM public lands,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “In some places, there are small parcels of BLM land that serve as the only means of nearby access to hunting and fishing or as the only access points to adjoining public lands managed by other agencies. The Secretarial Order will ensure that key parcels are valued for this recreational access and help keep these lands in the public’s hands.”

“We are glad to see that recreational public access was identified as a top priority for the BLM when they make land disposal and exchange decisions,” said Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “We believe this decision will bring great benefits for hunters by sustaining access and opportunity on federally owned lands. We thank the agency for their stakeholder outreach leading up to this announcement and for taking sportsmen and women’s interests to heart.”

For the past 40 years, the BLM has been required to identify small tracts of land available for sale or disposal. Until today, this frequently included public lands that offer important recreational access. As a result, the BLM has been identifying for disposal remote, yet high-value, public land parcels, including tracts in Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ famed big game hunting Region 7 and at the base of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming.

Today’s guidance means that the agency now must consider public access when determining the value of these isolated parcels of public lands. Further, in the event that a disposal or exchange might affect public access, the order provides additional direction to help retain that public access or makeup for any losses of access through an associated acquisition.

“We express our sincere thanks to the Department of Interior for unequivocally recognizing the value of hunting and other recreational access when making crucial decisions regarding ownership of our federal lands,” said Brent Rudolph, director of conservation policy for the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society. “The conservationists that make use of these lands benefit greatly, and their activities in turn support the management of our natural resources and financial health of many rural communities.”

A recent study led by the digital mapping company onX and TRCP found that 9.52 million acres of public lands in the West are inaccessible to the public without permission from private landowners. Small, isolated parcels of BLM land often provide the only means of access to larger parcels managed by states or other federal agencies that would otherwise be similarly “landlocked.” Because of today’s directive, the BLM must now weigh such potential implications in any decision regarding the disposal or exchange of these types of parcels.

“GPS technology has revolutionized the way that Americans use their public lands, making it easier than ever before for the average outdoor enthusiast to identify and access smaller, out-of-the-way parcels,” said onX founder Eric Siegfried. “As a result, there’s been a growing awareness in recent years that landlocked or inaccessible public lands represent lost hunting and fishing opportunities for the American people. We applaud the Department of the Interior for reaffirming the importance of public land access, and for taking this step to ensure that all Americans can take advantage of the incredible experiences offered by our nation’s public lands.”

“Access is one of the most significant priorities for hunters and anglers and a real concern for new sportsmen and women in particular,” said John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “Our public lands and waters provide access to all regardless of stature. We thank the administration for their leadership and foresight in elevating consideration for lands that not only support fish and wildlife habitat but provide access and opportunities to ensure that our outdoor traditions endure.”

See the TRCP’s fact sheet on BLM public lands identified for disposal.

 

Photo: Jeff Clark/BLM

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March 19, 2019

Savings from “Fire Fix” Should Go to Forest Health and Recreational Access

Dozens of sportsmen’s groups urge Congress to act swiftly so that dollars made available by last year’s wildfire funding solution are not diverted away from forest management

Following up on progress made during the 115th Congress, 34 prominent hunting, fishing, and wildlife conservation organizations are asking federal lawmakers to take the next step in solving the U.S. Forest Service’s budget problems by using newly available funds to invest in the agency’s mission.

In a letter to the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Appropriations Committees in both the House and Senate, these groups—whose members represent a sizeable segment of America’s 40 million hunters and anglers—urged lawmakers to ensure the U.S. Forest Service can allocate full funding to its other vital programs beginning in fiscal year 2020.

The groups emphasized that last year’s act to end the practice of fire-borrowing, which for years had depleted the Forest Service’s budget and staff, would not alone the problem. They noted the agency had a responsibility to direct those savings toward improving forest management.

“Congress has taken a huge step to ensure the Forest Service is no longer hamstrung by an outdated model of paying the massive costs for fighting wildfires,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Now Congress must guarantee that those new resources are invested in good forest management, including restoration and access. By making smart investments in forest health and access, our nation will see lasting benefits to our public lands and outdoor traditions.”

From 2001-2015, the Forest Service saw dramatic declines in its budget for programs related to forest health, recreation, and access, as the costs of wildfire suppression and recovery escalated out of control. Until the passage of the 2018 government funding bill, the Forest Service was forced to use money from other accounts to pay for catastrophic fire seasons.

“We are grateful for the bipartisan support Congress demonstrated when implementing a partial fire-borrowing fix in early 2018,” noted Brent Rudolph, director of conservation policy with the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society. “We’re confident Congress will now provide the budgetary investment to truly reverse the long-term decline in forest management capacity that became entrenched through years of past practice.”

The 34 groups expressed concern that the continued underfunding of the Forest Service mission could have a negative impact on the nation’s $887 billion outdoor recreation industry.

“Last year members of Congress from both sides of the aisle came together to pass a solution to the problem of fire borrowing. This year it’s imperative to implement the fire borrowing fix responsibly by directing funding to Forest Service programs that support conservation and recreation,” said Corey Fisher, public lands policy director for Trout Unlimited. “Anything less leaves hunters, anglers, and recreationists with the short end of the stick.”

You can read the letter here.

 

Photo: U.S.F.S./Kari Greer

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March 15, 2019

Sportsmen and District Court Judge Challenge Final Sage Grouse Conservation Plans

The BLM’s final revised sage grouse conservation plans will play a major role in determining the future of the sagebrush ecosystem, which supports more than 350 species

UPDATE: On October 16, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that the Bureau of Land Management failed to fully analyze how sage grouse would be affected by changes in the land-use plan amendments finalized in March 2019. The TRCP and several partner organizations supported some targeted changes when the administration announced re-opening the plans, but cautioned against a major overhaul.

The preliminary injunction blocks the BLM from implementing the 2019 amended plans and reverts management actions back to the 2015 conservation plans that convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird for Endangered Species Act protections. Activities like oil and gas development can proceed while this injunction is in place, but projects must comply with all directives of the 2015 BLM plans, including prioritizing areas outside sage-grouse habitat for development.

Since the Trump Administration decided to revamp conservation plans in 2016, leasing in sage grouse priority habitat has increased tenfold. Although the injunction does not invalidate lease sales made during this period, it certainly opens them to legal challenges.

Read on for the original post on the revised BLM plans.

Sage grouse in the company of other sagebrush species.

The Bureau of Land Management has finalized its revised plans to conserve greater sage grouse populations across millions of acres of public land in several Western states. The administration’s approach replaces previous BLM plans, which helped to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confidence that the species did not warrant listing as threatened or endangered in 2015.

While the state-specific plans maintain the basic framework of the originals, which were created through years of collaborative effort, the new plans do not provide the same safeguards for certain sagebrush habitats. There is more potential for development and mineral extraction within sage grouse habitat in the new plans. Combined with the Department of Interior’s policy shift on mitigation, this could be cause for concern.

“The finalized plans are a mixed bag, with some changes addressing legitimate requests from the states to help align with their conservation approaches and other changes stripping back protections for core sage grouse habitat and creating more uncertainty for the West,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Success will ultimately come down to implementing these new plans and never wavering from an approach that produces positive results for sage grouse habitat and populations. We will continue working with the BLM, Western states, industry, and local partners to ensure that happens.”

The final plans eliminate focal areas, a subset of about 11 million acres of priority habitat on BLM land that would have been permanently withdrawn from any potential mineral extraction in the 2015 plans. The original no-surface occupancy policy remains—meaning infrastructure for development cannot be built on priority habitat—but the revised plans also give the BLM more flexibility to waive these protections in certain cases.

The previous plans also more clearly steered oil and gas leasing away from the best sage grouse habitat, but now the BLM is offering extensive tracts of priority habitat to willing buyers at a rapid pace rather than favoring non-habitat areas.

“We’ve seen a dramatic shift away from prioritizing energy leasing away from the best habitat and are now witnessing leasing of some of the very best remaining tracks of unfragmented land,” says Dr. Ed Arnett, chief scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We realize that leasing does not equate to development, and operators still must abide by stipulations for priority habitat, but it just makes good sense to steer disturbance toward non-habitat or stagger the timing of development in and around grouse habitat.”

Mitigation also remains a sticking point, now that the Department of the Interior maintains that it lacks legal authority to require developers to pay for any negative impacts to habitat. (Quick tip: Here’s a metaphor that helps explain mitigation using beer!) This shifts the onus of regulation to the individual states, each of which has different mitigation standards and legal requirements. The states now must ensure their mitigation approaches are not only effective at curbing habitat loss, but also at holding all developers accountable on a level playing field.

“Mitigation was a fundamental component of the 2015 plans that helped reach the not warranted decision,” says Steve Belinda, executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership. “Without offsetting unforeseen or unavoidable impacts – it’s loss of habitat over time, plain and simple.”

It will be important to move forward swiftly with implementation of these new plans to conserve sagebrush habitat and begin tracking the effectiveness of conservation measures.

“Whatever approach we take, the outcome for sage grouse and sagebrush habitat will need to be legally defensible,” says Dr. Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If there is not enough regulatory certainty, if there is too much flexibility leading to negative impacts on habitat, and it is determined that our actions were not effective, we may end up facing a legal challenge deeper than the one we started from years ago. At that point, it’s difficult to see a future where sage grouse aren’t reconsidered for listing.”

The U.S. Forest Service continues to finalize its own amendments to eight forest plans dealing with sage grouse conservation in the West. The public comment period for proposed amendments closed on January 3, 2019, and the final revisions will be out in the coming months.

 

Photo by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS
This blog was originally posted on March 15, 2019, and was updated on October 23, 2019.

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March 14, 2019

In the Arena: Jackie Holbrook

TRCP’s “In the Arena” series highlights the individual voices of hunters and anglers who, as Theodore Roosevelt so famously said, strive valiantly in the worthy cause of conservation

Jackie Holbrook

Hometown: Cascade, Montana
Occupation:  Freelance writer
Conservation credentials: Educated audiences on conservation issues as a TV news reporter; champions showcasing better hunting and fishing ethics on social media

Jackie Holbrook is the kind of outdoorswoman we want to be—whether she’s hiking, scouting, and fishing with her young daughter strapped to her back or reaching out to a new generation of bowhunters. Holbrook was raised in Helena, Mont., spent ten years challenging herself in the last frontier of Alaska, and has dedicated much of her career to sharing important conservation stories through her journalism. Here is her story.

My dad took me on fishing and hunting adventures from the time I was toddler, and I completed my hunter’s safety course at 15 years old—I was the only girl in the class. I will never forget the experience of shooting my first deer with my dad that year.

I got hooked on fly-fishing in college and met my husband after I moved to Alaska, which opened up an amazing new world of hunting and fishing opportunities.

I have fantastic memories of landing a 30-inch rainbow trout on the fly, shooting a moose with my bow, and coming face-to-face with bugling bulls, but getting engaged on a three-week hunting trip is probably my most memorable adventure in the outdoors. During the trip, we bowhunted caribou and brown bears and watched a wolverine race up the side of a mountain. My husband harvested two wolves, and I shot my first moose on the final morning of our trip. It was an amazing Alaska adventure.

None of these adventures would be possible without conservation.

Conservation is also a big part of my life and career. My “beat” as a former TV reporter was hunting and fishing. Most of my coworkers thought those issues were boring, but to me there was nothing more important than informing people about conservation issues. Now, as a freelance writer, a lot of my work is focused on recruiting bowhunters and giving them the tools to succeed.

I’m shocked by how many people are opposed to hunting without having a basic understanding of the facts. I think social media has made this attitude worse. Hunters are getting bullied online, especially young women, and I’m afraid this will deter younger generations from taking up the tradition.

Hunters are essential to conservation and that message often gets misrepresented. I think widespread misinformation can cause a lot of damage to the public perception of hunters. I also think this anti-hunting movement is dangerous to conservation when public opinion begins to overturn sound science in wildlife management decisions.

After a decade in Alaska, I moved back to Montana because I missed the hunting and fishing here. There is nowhere I would rather be in September than in elk country chasing bugling bulls. Now, we live along the Missouri River, and I love being able to walk out the front door and throw a fly at hungry trout with my toddler on my back.

Motherhood reaffirmed my commitment to conservation. Watching the world through the eyes of my daughter reminds me of its magic. My 20-month-old laughs and yells “fish” when my husband I are fighting fish. She also makes a pretty perfect elk bugle. Hunting, fishing, and the outdoors aren’t hobbies—they’re a way of life for people. At such a young age she’s already enjoying the gifts of conservation, and I want her to grow up with the same clean water, public lands, and healthy wildlife populations that I had.

 

Do you know someone “In the Arena” who should be featured here? Email info@trcp.org for a questionnaire.

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.

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