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The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was ten years ago, and Louisiana’s coastal habitat is being rebuilt to flourish even better than before. In fact, lands that experts predicted would have vanished by now are supporting fish, wildlife, and outdoor recreation spending.
A decade ago, bulldozers, excavators, and hard-hat-donning work crews were removing millions of pounds of sand and vegetation coated in thick, tarry oil from Louisiana’s beaches and barrier islands after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
The heavy equipment and hard hats have returned to our coast, but now it’s in an effort to restore damaged fish and wildlife habitat using fines paid by BP and others responsible for the spill. This year alone, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority—in conjunction with federal partners at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service—will begin, continue, or conclude restoration projects representing an investment of more than $250 million in Deepwater Horizon penalties.
Thirteen barrier islands and headland beaches line the Louisiana coast from Venice to the Barataria, Timbalier, and Terrebonne Basins. All of them have either been restored in the 10 years since the oil stopped spewing or will be restored in the next 10 years. In addition, some smaller islands beyond these areas—which are also critical habitat for fish, brown pelicans, and other coastal birds—have been restored.
Louisiana’s barrier islands and beaches are all remnant headlands of the ever-shifting Mississippi River Delta and the first line of defense against hurricanes and violent winter storms that batter the northern Gulf. Without barrier islands to break up the waves and dampen storm surges, the vulnerable wetlands and nursery grounds north of the islands would crumble and coastal communities would become even more exposed to the full fury of the Gulf of Mexico.
Of course, this is also extremely important habitat for the Gulf’s most popular sportfish, like speckled trout, redfish, and Spanish mackerel. If the surf is light, these beaches and islands are lined with boats and surf anglers tossing topwaters, live shrimp, and a variety of plastic plugs and swimbaits. On most summer days, the line of boats along popular Elmer’s Island and Timbalier Island stretches from horizon to horizon.
The dynamic nature of Louisiana’s coastline and the lack of sediment input from the Mississippi River has shortened the lifespan of many of these critical islands, especially since the river was extensively levied in the late 19th and early 20th century. Without investments of oil spill penalties and funds from state-federal partnership programs, some islands would be little more than subsurface sandbars today.
“In the early 80s, the islands in Terrebonne Parish were losing land at a tremendous rate and the prediction then was that all of those islands would be gone by 2015,” says Bren Haase, executive director of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “However, there have been a host of restoration efforts made throughout the area that have kept those islands largely intact and the land area has stayed roughly constant over the last 30 years.”
Three of the beach and island projects currently underway are designed to keep the Terrebonne Basin intact for the next 20 years or more and provide protection for infrastructure and the fishing camps, marinas, and bait shops in small but important towns like Port Fourchon, Leeville, Cocodrie, and Dulac.
Approximately 9.2 million cubic yards of sand will be dredged from a massive ancient Mississippi River delta in about 30 feet of water off Terrebonne Parish. The sand will be barged to the beaches and then shaped with earth-moving equipment before being planted with native grasses to help hold it in place.
In all, approximately $167 million in fines from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund is being spent to revive and extend the life of the West Belle Pass headland, Timbalier Island, and Trinity Island. The GEBF was the first fund established with oil spill penalties and dedicated $2.4 billion Gulf-wide to projects that restore fish and wildlife habitat damaged by Deepwater Horizon.
Haase, who has worked on coastal habitat restoration and hurricane protection efforts in Louisiana for more than 20 years, says the oil spill fines have allowed the CPRA and federal partners to expedite project construction, while dramatically increasing the size and scope of island and beach restoration projects.
Restoration efforts that once consisted of projects costing $15-million to $30-million and taken on piecemeal have grown into massive $100-million projects that can rebuild hundreds of miles of beach, dune, and tidal marsh all at once.
“Over the last decade we’ve taken a more system-wide approach to barrier island restoration,” says Haase. “Rather than build one project here and there, in our analysis, we saw that there were weaknesses in certain areas of islands and headlands that we could address that would prevent breaches and help provide more protection to the habitats inside the barrier islands.”
The challenge was always to use the unprecedented fines and penalties paid by those responsible for the economic and environmental destruction and loss of life to make sure the mistakes of the past weren’t repeated—to make the Gulf a better place post-spill. Louisiana’s investment and the innovation developed in restoring its critical barrier islands, beaches, and marshes shows that our state has wholeheartedly embraced that responsibility.
This story first appeared as a guest blog for Fishing Tackle Retailer in honor of World Oceans Day. Top photo by Tim Donovan.
Comments received by the Forest Service show a powerful public consensus in direct opposition to the proposal to roll back conservation measures in the Tongass
It just makes sense to most Americans that we should have a say in the management of the public lands that all of us own. And, in fact, that’s how things are supposed to work. Meetings in local communities, opportunities for individuals to comment, and pragmatic collaboration involving various stakeholders are critical to the planning processes that guide agencies like the U.S. Forest Service.
That’s why hunters and anglers should be seriously concerned by the administration’s proposed elimination of the Roadless Rule in Alaska.
At nearly 17 million acres—approximately the size of West Virginia—the Tongass National Forest in Alaska is the largest national forest in the U.S. and the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest. Vast swaths of undeveloped forests— some older than 500 years—are at the heart of a decades-old debate about how best to manage this unique forest that is home to approximately 70,000 Alaskans living in 32 mostly rural communities.
More than half of the Tongass – 9.2 million acres – is managed under the direction of the 2001 Roadless Rule. This management plan works to safeguard vital habitat for important fish and wildlife species, including Sitka black-tailed deer, black and brown bear, moose, and even Roosevelt elk. Outstanding opportunities for hunting draw visitors from around the world and fuel Southeast Alaska’s vibrant tourism industry.
The Tongass also features some of the nation’s most productive salmon watersheds, earning the distinction of “America’s salmon forest.” Salmon are a way of life and critical food source for rural Southeast Alaskans, who eat an average of 75 pounds of salmon per person each year. Healthy salmon habitat fuels the region’s economy and supplies a global food chain. More Southeast Alaskans are employed in commercial fishing than any other private sector.
By safeguarding undeveloped landscapes and watersheds in the Tongass, the Roadless Rule supports industries that depend on intact forests and high-quality habitat, such as hunting, fishing, and other forms of outdoor recreation, tourism, and commercial fishing. The rule also has built in flexibility and allows for community development projects when they serve the public interest. Since the Roadless Rule was implemented, all 57 requests for new projects in roadless areas of the Tongass—spanning mining, renewable energy development, and community access—have been granted by the Forest Service.
In January 2018, the State of Alaska petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow for the development of a state-specific roadless rule. Many hunting and fishing groups and businesses were willing to consider a compromise option, facilitated by a Citizen’s Advisory Committee, that balanced the need to conserve critical fish and wildlife habitat while allowing some new commercial logging in other areas of the forest.
The opportunity for a compromise solution was all but eliminated last summer when the White House intervened after an off-the-record meeting between President Trump and Governor Dunleavy. Following that meeting, the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service were directed to propose the most extreme option: a full exemption of the Roadless Rule in Alaska.
The agency’s proposal, as written, would open 9.2 million acres of public land—more than half of the forest—to industrial development, including 165,000 acres of irreplaceable old-growth forests.
Because of these extreme actions, those who support conservation and wildlife habitat are left with only one option: oppose the Forest Service’s recommendation to lift the Roadless Rule in Alaska.
According to data recently released by the Forest Service, 96 percent of “unique letters” commenting on the draft Tongass proposal support keeping the Roadless Rule in place. Fewer than 1 percent of the 250,000+ comments support the full exemption favored by the administration. Likewise, the Forest Service’s analysis of testimony from 18 subsistence hearings in Southeast Alaska determined that a “vast majority” of local residents support keeping the Roadless Rule and protecting vast swaths of old-growth temperate rainforest from clear-cut logging.
Clearly, the plan to rollback conservation safeguards for millions of acres of some of the world’s most productive salmon and Sitka black-tailed deer habitat does not reflect the priorities and values of Alaskans and disregards feedback from nearly a quarter-million public land owners across the country who took time to participate in this process.
Unless the Forest Service rethinks its proposal for the Tongass, the result will be an unsustainable management framework likely to face legal and long-term political challenges. The uncertainty being created through this effort hurts all stakeholders: rural residents who practice a subsistence lifestyle, small businesses that earn a living from the land, land managers trying to balance the needs of all user groups, and hunters and anglers who dream of visiting Southeast Alaska.
The Forest Service is expected to issue a final decision on the proposed Roadless Rule exemption this summer. Interested in the Tongass National Forest and other Alaska issues affecting hunters and anglers?
Sign up with the TRCP here to receive updates on how you can get involved and make your voice heard.
Top photo: Joseph via Flickr
Upgrading wire fences with help from landowners and volunteers aids animal movement across the West
A video we posted on Instagram recently showed that just a single strand of barbed wire on a dilapidated fence was enough to stymie a six-point bull elk as it attempted to pass through. The bull hit the wire with his right front hoof, pulled his leg back, and got slightly startled at being tangled, but it managed to step away from the fence.
I’m pretty sure that old fence didn’t harm the bull or ultimately impede him getting to wherever he was going, but this is not always the case. Many of us have witnessed deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope nervously walking up and down a fence line or, worse yet, tangled up in a fence either dead or left to die. This also is a habitat connectivity issue—one that can create additional challenges for big game in areas where their migration routes are already fragmented by roads and other obstacles.
Wild critters frustrate many landowners by damaging fences, creating the extra work of mending them so that livestock does not escape. But there are alternatives for making fences more friendly to wildlife.
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Barbed wire fencing is cost-effective for containing cattle herds, but some dilapidated or unused fences bisect big game migration corridors, posing a threat to elk, mule deer, and pronghorns. Now, many ranchers are replacing old fences with wildlife-friendly alternatives. . . . . . . . 📽️: @goodbulloutdoors #BigGame #Elk #Migration #Habitat #Connectivity #MigrationCorridors
When asked about innovations of the 19th century, few people would likely name barbed wire, but its invention changed the American West almost overnight—and it has had consequences for wildlife ever since.
After the Civil War, Western rangelands were homesteaded and settled, but landowners needed a way to keep livestock within their property boundaries. This technology essentially ended the “open range” grazing era and changed the West forever.
Barbed wire is perhaps the most pervasive option in big game country, but of course it’s not the only style of fence with impacts for migrating animals. Woven wire fences are almost impossible for wildlife to pass through. When these are combined with a barbed top wire, it is a lethal and impenetrable combination considered the most detrimental to wildlife.
There are several rather obvious impacts of fencing on wildlife worth mentioning. First, our big game animals—like mule deer, pronghorns, and elk—did not evolve with fences across once open spaces, so traditional migration corridors of these animals have been interrupted and altered.
But animals can just jump over fences, right? Well, yes, or go under them. And most critters can clear a fence without issue. But many animals become entangled and die from either starvation, dehydration, hypothermia, or predation. Juveniles are especially vulnerable and make up a large percentage of big game animals killed by fences. Animals with horns or antlers sometimes get their headgear tangled up in fencing, and their fate may be the same as if they’d attempted to jump a fence.
It’s not just existing fencing that can cause trouble—dilapidated fences that are no longer being monitored, used, or maintained can be a real danger to critters, too.
According to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department’s “Fencing with Wildlife in Mind” brochure, fences incompatible with wildlife are those that:
On the other hand, strategically placed fencing can sometimes be a good thing for big game animals, because it funnels them to safety. One of the three most critical factors involved with placing an effective wildlife crossing over or under a roadway is to ensure that fencing guides the animals to the structure.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department found this out firsthand by retrofitting the fencing at an older and ineffective crossing structure on Interstate 17. Prior to the retrofit fencing project, an average of 20 elk per year collided with vehicles. After adequate fencing was installed, there was a whopping 97-percent reduction in vehicle collisions with elk.
Often, game-proof fencing, which is typically 8 feet or taller and made of woven wire, is needed to reduce damage to certain crops or other property. Such exclusion fences reduce unnecessary conflicts with humans and the need for damage control of problem animals or populations.
Most state and federal agencies have guidelines for wildlife-compatible fencing, and there is certainly no shortage of recommendations available. Wildlife-friendly options should have:
Many landowners have stepped up to help solve fencing problems for wildlife. Ruben Vasquez, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Wyoming, wrote about ranchers who realized that existing five- or six-wire barbed and woven wire fences prevented pronghorns, elk, and deer from moving freely across their lands. It was also expensive to continually repair fences damaged by wildlife attempting to cross.
With help from the Farm Bill’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, many landowners have been able to replace their existing fences with more wildlife-friendly versions, and this is a win-win. In 2017, Vasquez reported that 29,000 feet, or roughly five and a half miles, of problem fences were replaced with wildlife-friendly fence on just one Wyoming ranch.
Landowners can also leave certain gates open or sections of fence where wildlife readily cross during their seasonal migrations. The key, of course, is knowing precisely when and where animals move and encounter the fences. But this is a good tactic to help facilitate seasonal movements across private lands during predictable time periods.
Of course, there can never be too much of a good thing, and thousands of miles of dangerous fencing remains across our landscapes. Federal land management agencies need to prioritize retrofitting incompatible fences that threaten wildlife across our public lands. Landowners are doing great work to help make fences wildlife-friendly, but more resources and technical support would help expand these efforts.
Adequate, long-term funding for Farm Bill conservation programs like EQIP and other resources will be needed to help retrofit unsafe fences across the West. But volunteers can help too. Old fences need to be pulled off the land either simply to remove the hazard or before new, safer fences can be installed.
In many areas, fence removal and replacement projects can be easily tackled by conservation volunteers in an afternoon or two. Others may take more time, resources, and skilled labor to complete, but projects like this help sportsmen and women get more involved in conservation and thinking about how game species use habitat on a landscape scale. Where migration corridors are fragmented and interrupted by development and other threats, installing the right fence can be a small price to pay to help knit together these important travel routes.
Top photo by Idaho Game and Fish Department.
Bipartisan public lands legislation introduced in the House
U.S. Representatives Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Joe Cunningham (D-SC) introduced bipartisan legislation in the House of Representatives to permanently and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and address the crippling maintenance backlog on federal public lands.
The Great American Outdoors Act fully funds LWCF at $900 million annually and addresses crumbling roads, trails, buildings, and water systems on National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Wildlife Refuge lands. The Congressional Research Service calculates that these four agencies have a combined deferred maintenance backlog totaling more than $19 billion.
“The Great American Outdoors Act is smart conservation that is long overdue,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This bipartisan bill will improve our trails and recreation sites making it easier for hunters and anglers to access natural resources. It also makes lasting investments in our outdoor recreation economy at a time when we need to get Americans back to work. We want to thank Representatives Simpson and Cunningham and all the co-sponsors for working across the aisle and introducing this legislation.”
The bill is also co-sponsored by Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), Congressman John Katko (R-NY), Congressman T.J. Cox (D-CA), Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY), Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM), Congressman Steve Stivers (R-OH), Congresswoman Kendra Horn (D-OK), Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), and Congressman Jared Golden (D-ME).
The Senate is expected to vote on the Great American Outdoors Act the week of June 8. Sportsmen and women can take action to support the legislation here.
Photo Credit: US Forest Service
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