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Facing a new normal, how should we adapt conservation and infrastructure policy to improve the health of the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast?
The Mississippi River finally fell below flood stage in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on August 4—a record 211 days after it reached this milestone in early January.
For those of us who live along the banks of the “Big Muddy” and its tributaries, 1927 and 1973 have been the high-water marks used to judge all other extraordinary floods. This year, the river stayed at or above flood stage in Mississippi and Louisiana as much as two months longer than in 1927.
Submerged city riverfronts and flooded towns and farmlands throughout the Mississippi River Basin dominated news reports the entire spring and early summer. The National Weather Service reported more rainfall in the Mississippi and Tennessee River systems in the winter and spring of 2019 than ever recorded.
It would be easy to attribute all the ills of the Mississippi River Basin this year to historic rainfall. Given the unprecedented amount of water spilling into and out of the Mississippi and tributaries, it’s likely that even a perfectly managed system of levees, floodgates, and spillways would have been overwhelmed.
However, this flood was like pneumonia for a system already fighting a pretty bad case of bronchitis. For some perspective, the Bonnet Carré Spillway—which was built about 20 miles upriver of New Orleans in the wake of the 1927 flood to divert enough water into Lake Pontchartrain and prevent levee overtopping—was opened twice this year and four other times in the last decade.
In the previous seven decades, it had been opened only eight times.
The flood changed fishing throughout the basin. Crappie, bluegill, and bass anglers itching to fish oxbow lakes and swamps still attached to the rivers had to wait until well into summer months before fish moved into predictable patterns. Extended high water along coastal Louisiana and water from the Bonnet Carré inundated coastal marshes and lakes, scattering some saltwater species and killing oyster reefs east of the river.
What’s more, excessive nutrients leeched from farms and failing sewage systems throughout the Midwest caused high bacteria levels that shut down beaches along Mississippi’s coast and contributed to widespread uncertainty about the health of fish and shellfish in the area.
There were some benefits, too. An enormous slug of sediment is building new wetlands along the Mississippi River’s east bank below New Orleans, along with an explosion in the crawfish and largemouth bass populations. The freshwater concentrated redfish and gave them a variety of fresh and saltwater forage to feast on. And, as fall has arrived, white shrimp, crab, mullet, and menhaden populations are exploding east of the river, thanks to the nutrients brought by the freshwater.
Many factors have contributed to increased flooding frequencies. Higher levees built throughout the basin in the last 40 years keep forcing the water higher and higher instead of allowing it to spill out into natural floodplains. Also, changes in climate and weather patterns can’t be ignored. It’s a fact that rainfall has become more intense and more frequent over that last two decades.
Extensive wetland and farmland draining has reduced water storage and increased nutrient levels in the river. Tile-drained lands for corn, wheat, and soybeans simply don’t store water. And mismanaged sediment throughout the Mississippi has decreased storage capacity in reservoirs from the Dakotas to Nebraska, as well as in the main river channel between Memphis and Baton Rouge. That sediment is desperately needed to sustain coastal wetlands, however much of it stops short of the river’s deltaic marshes.
Recognizing the importance of the river to fisheries, wildlife, and America’s economy and culture, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership has organized a campaign of hunting, angling, and conservation organizations to identify substantive changes in federal law and policy needed to make the Mississippi a much healthier system.
Those recommendations will include reconnecting historic floodplains, increasing the amount of wetland acreage throughout the basin, better sediment management and invasive species control, and a concerted effort to protect communities and economic assets with natural infrastructure as much as physical structures like levees and locks. It will certainly take an enormous amount of time and effort to enact changes, but their importance cannot be denied.
The result will hopefully be a river that is admired for its wild beauty and unparalleled hunting and fishing opportunities while supporting the transportation and communities that are vital to America’s economic health.
This story originally appeared on the Fishing Tackle Retailer website on September 26, 2019.
While the extent of the challenge is huge, we can’t tackle it unless we face it head-on
While passionate sportsmen and women have rallied around the issue of landlocked public lands since the release of our initial report last year, we’ve noticed that there have been some who wonder about the possibility of this work backfiring on our community.
The risk, so the thinking goes, is that land transfer advocates could characterize our data as evidence in support of the idea that there is already too much public land in the West. Or, it could be argued, that these landlocked lands aren’t doing much good currently and that the public would be better served by the revenue they could generate if they were sold to private interests. Here’s why these concerns—although well-intentioned—shouldn’t keep hunters and anglers up at night.
Q: Will identifying landlocked lands help politicians justify disposing of them?
A: Although some might misrepresent the take-away of our findings, there are programs and policies currently in place to ensure that this information is put to the right use by decision makers.
For one thing, recent mandates from federal agency leads and Congress alike direct our public land management agencies to focus their efforts on creating new access to landlocked public lands.
In 2017, then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed S.O. 3356, which—among other things—directed the BLM to identify inaccessible or difficult–to-access public lands as well as opportunities to make them accessible to the public.
The TRCP and onX are actually working to help the BLM with this effort right now.
Also, Section 4105 in the John Dingell Act (S. 47), which was signed into law in March 2019, requires the federal land management agencies to identify landlocked lands and opportunities to make them accessible. Specifically, the law requires that the government evaluate the potential for recreational use, the likelihood of resolving the existing obstacles to public access, and whether access could be created through an easement, right-of-way, or land acquisition. Priority opportunities must be submitted for the consideration of Congress, along with a report on the options available to secure access.
Meanwhile, at the state level, the information from our report is helping to drive proactive work like Montana’s Public Access to Lands Act, MT Plan, and Unlocking Public Lands. Idaho’s “Access Yes” and New Mexico’s “Open Gate” programs are also great examples of this work. Not only does the data allow agency personnel to identify access opportunities more effectively, the overall findings make clear the importance of this work—further strengthening public and institutional support for it.
Given all we’ve heard from the land transfer crowd in the past, it’d be no surprise if they tried to spin the landlocked issue into an attack on our public lands. Thankfully, however, sportsmen and women have not only public opinion, but also public policy on our side.
And the fact of the matter is that we can’t begin to solve this issue unless we shine a light on it, even if that means we hear some bad-faith arguments from the anti-public lands crowd. They’re not going away any time soon, so we can’t be afraid to take up this issue if we hope to expand public land access in a meaningful way.
Photo: Bob Wick/BLM via Flickr
Unique conservation partnerships have helped to restore habitat and provide new public hunting and fishing access on nearly 4,000 acres in south-central Florida
Sportsmen and women love a great access success story, but when newly opened hunting and fishing lands also provide a win-win for habitat conservation, that should be breaking news across everyone’s social feeds.
This is one of those stories. It has the grit and tenacity of passionate volunteers and tireless collaborators. And their years of effort are already making a big difference for fish and wildlife in the Everglades, where water mismanagement has created a conservation and infrastructure crisis.
Here’s what you need to know about a project that will establish the first state Wildlife Management Area in Okeechobee County and provide hunting opportunities and recreational access on almost 4,000 acres of formerly private land.
In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Everglades Headwaters Conservation Partnership Area, a relatively new model of land conservation where the objective was to conserve 150,000 acres of fish and wildlife habitat in the headwaters of the Everglades ecosystem.
Conservation in an area of this size could never be accomplished by one organization alone. Just look at the scope of the project: The partnership area extends from just north of Lake Okeechobee to the outskirts of Kissimmee just outside Orlando. This kind of conservation requires partnerships on a scale that is rarely encountered, but a unique coalition can already count one big win in the partnership area.
We’re talking about acquisition and restoration of the Triple Diamond Ranch, which lies adjacent to the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park and east of the Kissimmee River. This well-managed private ranch supports wet and dry prairie, which is otherwise globally imperiled. In addition to protecting this rare habitat, planned conservation work on the ranch will provide hydrological benefits as water flows south through the Everglades, restoring wetlands that can hold water and naturally filter out nutrients as flows are gradually released.
The ecological benefits of this project are clear. However, just as significant was the formation of unique alliances, which have paved the way for the property to be purchased, managed well, and eventually opened to the public for outdoor recreation. No single governmental entity was able to purchase the property on its own, so this had to be a team effort. Two nonprofit organizations, the Open Space Institute and the Wyss Foundation, made the initial purchase of the property, and it is now owned and managed collaboratively between the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In the end, almost 4,000 acres are now in permanent conservation status, with major assists from TRCP partners like the National Wildlife Refuge Association and Ducks Unlimited, as well as local advocates at Audubon of Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Division of State Lands, and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
And collaboration continues—these lands will be co-managed by the Florida Forest Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Eventually, the property will be managed as the first state Wildlife Management Area in Okeechobee County, providing hunting opportunities and recreational access on almost 4,000 acres of formerly private land.
This is not just a win for fish and wildlife habitat, sportsmen’s access, and clean water. It’s a model for using conservation partnerships to make measurable progress on Everglades restoration. After all, we’re better together.
Jon Andrew is the Florida outreach coordinator for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He is recently retired from a 35-year career as a biologist and refuge manager with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, where he eventually became responsible for management of all refuge lands in the southeastern U.S. and Caribbean. In his spare time, he enjoys saltwater flyfishing and poling his skiff in the shallow waters along the southwest Florida coast in search of snook.
Top photo by Andy Wraithmell/Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
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
Hometown: Bozeman, Montana
Occupation: Public relations consultant
Conservation credentials: A lifelong sportswoman and advocate.Worked for senators Max Baucus and John Walsh to advance conservation initiatives in Montana and nationally. Currently champions the protection of public lands in Alaska.
Favorite conservation quote: “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.”
For Brianne Rogers, hunting is about experiences shared in the field and around the campfire. Her commitment to conservation has taken her all the way from small meeting rooms in Montana to Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, where she advocates against the seizure of public lands by private interests.
Here is her story.
I was first introduced to hunting by my dad, Brian Rogers. He was raised hunting ducks with his father and still recounts the childhood excitement of bringing birds home to pluck and roast whole.
After college, I moved back to my home state of Montana, got a Labrador retriever, and learned to train her with my dad. We’ve since had endless fun upland bird hunting in Montana and waterfowling across Montana, Canada, and Alaska.
I’ve had so many memorable times hunting, but nothing will match the intensity of hunting for king eiders—a large sea duck—off the coast of St. Paul Island, Alaska. We boarded a 20-foot inflatable boat and struck out into the Bering Sea to navigate eight-to-ten-foot swells.
In conditions like that there’s no staying dry. Instead, you’re being hit with freezing walls of briny water as your captain scans the waves for a line of calm water indicating the edge of the reef. The birds fly this stretch as they’re moving from roosting to feeding areas, and a good captain will position their hunter along this edge to set up for the hunt.
Ours was one such captain.
Eider ducks can fly at speeds of 45 to 65 miles per hour, so once you spot one, you need to mount your gun and lead the bird 10 to 20 feet before firing. Taking one down was so satisfying, because there were no second chances. Anything but a clean hit meant this tough sea bird would dive behind a wave, never to be seen again.
When hunting, location has always mattered less to me than the people I am with. The repartee and storytelling that comes at the end of a long day is hands down my favorite part of a hunting trip.
Hearing others share their favorite tales or having an older, more experienced hunter or colleague remind us of the “good ole days” always bring me back to something my dad shared with me decades ago: “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.” The quote is from Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, and I think he captured the vital importance of hunter’s camaraderie perfectly. The shared experience that hunting engenders is so unique, it cannot be built in any other way.
I’ve focused my conservation advocacy on the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Alaska. This 315,000-acre wilderness-and-wetland complex has remarkable expanses of eel grass and is vital to the survival of the world’s population of Pacific black brant and emperor geese. It’s an irreplaceable ecosystem that is facing a lot of challenges.
Designated as a Wetland of International Importance in 1986, this refuge has been beset with attempts by a foreign-owned company to de-list it from protected status in order to build a road that would bisect this wilderness. This seizure of public land has been prevented thanks to the work of many partners, thus avoiding setting a dangerous precedent for the opening of all wildlife refuges, national monuments, wilderness areas, and other public lands to economic development. However, if corporate interests remain, I fear that the threat will persist.
I spent my high school years helping my dad put his Townsend, Montana, ranch into a conservation easement. Every weekend, we planted shelter belts, cleared brush piles, reduced noxious weeds, and eventually watched the wetlands we constructed mature and flourish as a result of more balanced management.
Watching change like this firsthand has showed me what is possible if we bring folks of diverse backgrounds and upbringings together to be good stewards of our private and public lands.
Do you know someone “In the Arena” who should be featured here? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a questionnaire.
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More