Do you have any thoughts on this post?
Hint: Consult your U.S. History books for the answer
Working with conservation policy sometimes makes clear how much you may have forgotten from grade school, like biomes, basic watershed ecology, government checks and balances, and “I’m just a bill and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill…” And in partnering with onX to identify landlocked public lands across the country, we’ve been reminded of a few U.S. history lessons.
Our country’s unique past has shaped land ownership today—from the creation of a much-celebrated national public lands system to the American Dream of individual home ownership to the boom and bust cycles across various industries. The resulting mosaic of county, state, and federal land holdings in the U.S. has also left a remnant patchwork of isolated public land parcels with untapped opportunity for hunters and anglers.
Westward expansion, homesteading, and the railroads would lead to checkerboarded federal and private lands in states like Wyoming, Montana, and Nevada. In the Upper Midwest, some land conveyances were made to either expand agriculture or retire marginal farmlands, and plenty of private lands went back to state or county and municipal ownership through tax forfeiture.
But in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region, there were different contributing factors.
Given their history as British colonies, the original thirteen U.S. states were not organized according to the gridded system of ranges, townships, and sections later used to parcel out land ownership in new states and territories as the country expanded westward. As such, property boundaries in states like New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were drawn around geographic features and other landmarks through an early survey system known as “Metes and Bounds.”
Nearly all land in these states became private property during the colonial period through charters granted by the British Crown to corporations or individuals, as well as through the sale of Crown lands. It was only much later that these states—faced with depleted soils, diminishing timber stands, and deteriorating water quality—began actively purchasing lands to address conservation, access, and resource management needs.
Though they are dwarfed by the sheer land mass of Western states, some Eastern states have accumulated rather large amounts of public land. In New Jersey, the state owns 21 percent of the land within its borders, the third-most of any state behind Alaska and Hawaii. In New York and Pennsylvania, those figures are similarly significant: 14 percent and 13.9 percent respectively, at fifth and sixth place in the nation.
Managed for varying purposes and according to a diverse set of frameworks, public lands in these three states have a rich tradition. New York established the first state park system in 1881 and created the Adirondack Preserve (later Adirondack Park) in subsequent years. New Jersey similarly has its own large, relatively undeveloped, and sparsely populated natural area in the state’s southern Pine Barrens.
Many of the state lands in the region, particularly in New York and Pennsylvania, were formerly abandoned farmlands or private timberlands on which the owners stopped paying property taxes after the parcels were cut over in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Other lands were acquired by the states to conserve wildlife habitat in the early 20th century. The Pennsylvania Game Commission, for example, manages nearly 1.5 million acres of State Game Lands for this purpose.
Accordingly, the bulk of the 80,000 acres of landlocked public lands we identified in the Mid-Atlantic are managed by the states, counties, and municipalities. Less than 5 percent of all the landlocked acres we found in this region are managed by federal agencies, compared to about 60 percent in the West.
Another important distinction between East and West, because land ownership boundaries in this part of the country are far less likely to align neatly at corners like a checkerboard, is that “corner-crossing” as a contested form of public access is a much less significant debate in the Mid-Atlantic states.
That doesn’t diminish the severity of having 80,000 acres of lost hunting and fishing opportunities across the region. There are solutions, but sportsmen and women must be vocal about the resources and legislative initiatives necessary to unlock our public lands.
Top photo courtesy of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation via flickr.
It may have been the summer of COVID, but a lot went down in the world of conservation, too—get caught up
If we were to put together a conservationist’s time capsule for the summer of 2020, it would be absolutely jam-packed with everything from state-level wins and place-based battles to habitat-wide threats and milestone achievements that will benefit future generations of hunters and anglers.
Here is what we’ll remember long after the sun has set on summer 2020.
After a decades-long fight to secure permanent authorization and full funding for our most powerful public land conservation tool, the Land and Water Conservation Fund became a household name. And perhaps the Great American Outdoors Act will be too—this legislation finally maxes out the program at $900 million annually to create outdoor recreation opportunities, unlock public land access, and conserve key habitats. It also invests $1.9 billion annually for the next five years to address the maintenance backlog on National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management lands.
Something else to celebrate is how this bill proves that conservation transcends partisanship. There were many issues vying for the attention of our lawmakers this summer, including an economic downturn and unprecedented health crisis, but the Great American Outdoors Act made it through the Senate, House, and a presidential signing ceremony in a matter of months. Your support helped to make this possible.
Just weeks after concluding in its final environmental impact statement that Pebble Mine would not have a measurable effect on fish numbers and signaling that an approved permit might be coming soon, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told developers that the mine could not proceed as proposed. The agency ultimately decided that the project “could have substantial environmental impacts within the unique Bristol Bay watershed.”
Sportsmen and women—not to mention some high-ranking Trump advisors—called directly on the president to intervene and stop Pebble Mine, which would destroy an estimated 185 miles of streams and 4,000 acres of wetlands in Bristol Bay, the most prolific sockeye salmon fishery on the planet. The Corps decision is good news, but there is still work to do to shut down the mining proposal for good.
In the first of three announcements, the TRCP and onX added to the tally of landlocked public lands we have already identified in the western U.S., this time looking at Minnesota and Wisconsin. Between federal, state, county, and municipal public lands, the two states share more than 300,000 acres with no permanent legal access around or through private lands.
This fall, we’ll announce the results of our research in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey and Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Sign up to be the first to hear about it.
After the first major spike in COVID-19 cases, as public lands and some hunting and fishing seasons began reopening, the TRCP joined respected conservation leaders at the National Wild Turkey Federation, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to launch the #ResponsibleRecreation pledge.
It remains important for Americans to take advantage of our country’s numerous opportunities to recreate on public lands and waters, while maintaining proper social distancing and adhering to other best practices in line with recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. You can take the pledge here.
In July, we flagged the EPA’s quiet change to a rule that gave states the right to look out for water quality on federal land within their borders at the permitting phase of new development projects. The agency’s new rule addressed an obscure but important function of the Clean Water Act, which was also rolled back when it comes to protections for headwater streams and wetlands.
Combined with a third threat to bedrock conservation law—proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act that would significantly inhibit the ability of federal agencies to measure the impacts of development on habitat—it’s clear that the administration’s newest policies would benefit developers while sportsmen and women lose out.
In a move supported by anglers, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted unanimously in August to improve its management strategy for Atlantic menhaden, the tiny baitfish that supports some of our most popular sportfish, by considering the species’ role in the broader ecosystem. The Commission worked for more than a decade to develop ecological reference points—indicators like the health of predator populations, including striped bass and bluefish, as well as the amount of alternative prey for these sportfish. Ultimately, these reference points can be used to set quotas that will help ensure enough menhaden are left in the water as forage.
A cross-section of the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy—from gear manufacturers and media companies to guides, outfitters, and retailers—sent a letter in July urging lawmakers to pass the Modernizing Access to Our Public Land, or MAPLand, Act. Business owners emphasized that their livelihoods depend on sportsmen and women having access to outdoor recreation opportunities on public lands, and the MAPLand Act would push federal agencies to digitize their paper maps and easement records so more people can find places to recreate.
For years, sportsmen and women have called on lawmakers to take meaningful federal action to control chronic wasting disease among our wild deer, elk, and moose populations. In 2020, Congress responded by appropriating $5 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to send directly to state wildlife and agricultural departments tasked with responding to the disease.
Instead, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is funneling $1.5 million of that funding to individual captive deer operations that have had to eliminate CWD-positive animals. These indemnification payments aid businesses that have already been part of the CWD problem and don’t address the continued strain placed on state agencies scrambling to manage the spread of the disease.
The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the subsequent oil spill in the spring and summer of 2010 was the worst environmental disaster in American history. But in the decade since this tragedy, oil spill penalties have been invested in projects that directly address the damage, improving the outlook for the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal communities and fish and wildlife habitat.
We took an in-depth look at four major projects built or planned using Deepwater Horizon penalties that have directly benefited anglers and hunters by improving coastal habitats.
Sportsmen and women in Montana and Alaska—and across the country—took a stand on the future of intact, undeveloped habitats that are important to fish and wildlife.
This summer, the Bureau of Land Management responded to hunter and angler support for these landscapes in Montana by including Backcountry Conservation Areas in two revised resource management plans for approximately 900,000 acres of public lands east of Missoula, surrounding Lewistown, and in and around the Missouri River Breaks.
Backcountry Conservation Areas allow the BLM to prioritize public access and habitat management actions, such as restoring riparian areas and streams, controlling invasive species, managing vegetation, improving fish passages, reducing the risk of wildfires, and increasing forage. There are BCAs proposed across the West.
Hunter and angler voices were also crucial in the fight to keep conservation safeguards for 9.2 million acres of intact and undeveloped habitat in the Tongass National Forest of Alaska. According to data released by the Forest Service this summer, 96 percent of comments from the public support keeping the nation’s Roadless Rule in place to conserve some of the world’s most productive salmon and Sitka blacktail deer habitat.
Top photo by Kyle Mlynar.
This World Water Week, there seems to be even more at stake for clean water and fish habitat
Today marks the end of World Water Week, a global event created to raise the profile of water resource challenges in every corner of our planet. We’re also nearing the end of a summer that promises to be memorable, if not infamous, for years to come. It’s a good opportunity for all sportsmen and women to stand together on the shore, look toward the horizon, and take stock of where we are in our efforts to improve water resources and fish habitat for future generations.
Here are six water issues we’re watching as the next season unfolds.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced this week that it will not permit the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska as it is currently proposed. The Corps released its decision finding the project “could have substantial environmental impacts within the unique Bristol Bay watershed.” We’ll be watching to see if the EPA follows suit to stop the Pebble Mine once and for all. There is no safe way to advance this project and preserve the region’s clean water and outdoor recreation economy.
First, we fought tooth and nail to keep the EPA from eliminating Clean Water Act protections for 50 percent of the nation’s stream miles and 40 percent of wetlands, like the prairie potholes of the Upper Midwest. During that debate, proponents of the administration’s new rule governing which waters are covered by the Act argued that the states could use their authority to protect the headwaters and wetlands that the federal government would no longer regulate.
Now, the EPA has quietly changed another Clean Water Act rule that allows states to do just that. What is noteworthy from an administration that usually champions states’ rights is how this rule removes state power—not to mention the blow that it deals to fish and waterfowl habitat. We’ll be monitoring the legal challenges to this rulemaking and will continue to stand with partners to oppose the dismantling of bedrock conservation laws.
In a story that has echoes of the Pebble Mine saga, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been waffling on its commitment to a thorough environmental review of proposed copper-nickel mining upstream of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Last fall, we partnered with Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters in questioning whether Secretary Perdue would fulfill promises made at his Senate confirmation hearing and allow the science to show that this is no place for a mine. We’ll be closely tracking legislation that has been proposed to permanently protect the incredible habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities provided by these public lands.
The Conservation Reserve Program may be one of the Farm Bill’s most popular and well-known conservation initiatives, but troubling changes to how the program is administered has slowed or prevented enrollment—leaving would-be conservation acres on the table. One of the ways that CRP benefits fish and wildlife habitat is by incentivizing landowners to create stream buffers that help keep toxic runoff out of our waterways. The TRCP is actively engaged with the Farm Service Agency to push for updates that will help max out CRP acres and put more conservation on the ground.
Though Pennsylvanians may need to sit in their fair share of traffic to reach the striper blitzes of the Chesapeake Bay, they are critical to lessening the nutrient load that makes its way downstream, threatening fish, wildlife, and water quality in the Bay. The state is way behind on its goal of reducing the amount of nitrogen it releases into Chesapeake waters, and legislators have signaled that they may freeze or redirect conservation funding that is necessary to help make up the difference. We’ll be warning policymakers under mounting pressure to deal with COVID-19 impacts that this is not the time to cut job-creating investments in water quality projects.
The Forest Service is soon expected to issue a final decision on a proposal that would eliminate conservation safeguards for 9.2 million acres of roadless public lands in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest—the largest national forest in the U.S. and the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest. This rollback would negatively affect waterways that sustain salmon as well as Sitka black-tailed deer, black and brown bear, moose, and Roosevelt elk. We’ll be advocating for keeping the national Roadless Rule in place in Alaska to safeguard undeveloped and intact habitats.
Before smoke filled the sky this wildfire season, an unwanted invader was already crowding out wildlife food sources in sagebrush country—now, it’s burning
With more than 20 major fires and hundreds of smaller ones burning over a million and a half acres in California alone, it’s shaping up to be a long and expensive wildfire season—for people, wildlife, and habitat.
Fire can, of course, be good for forests, grasslands, and sagebrush when it keeps invading conifer trees at bay, adds nutrients to the soil, revitalizes forbs and bunchgrasses, and creates a mosaic of favorable habitat conditions. This assumes a normal ecological cycle of growth and renewal over many years.
But an invasive menace has changed much of the West’s fire cycle, especially across the sagebrush sea, damaging the very habitat that supports more than 350 species of plants and animals, including sage grouse.
That menace is cheatgrass, and it represents one of the greatest threats to this uniquely Western landscape. Here’s why.
While there are many non-native plants that have spread across the country, none rival the destructive impact of cheatgrass.
Though it’s an annual species—meaning that it lives for just one growing season and then dies—cheatgrass produces enormous amounts of seed that remain viable for many years and germinate quickly under the right conditions. Cheatgrass spreads easily by wind but is also carried by a wide range of mammals that get its barbed seeds stuck in their fur. This is also how the seeds travel on a hiker or hunter’s boots and socks!
From there, cheatgrass can quickly and efficiently dominate disturbed areas of bare ground.
Native to parts of Europe, southwestern Asia, and northern Africa, cheatgrass was first discovered here in New York and Pennsylvania in 1861. By the late 1920s, it had spread across the country, finding especially favorable conditions in the fragile, dry shrublands of the Great Basin, Columbia River Basin, and across the Intermountain West.
This is where it has put a stranglehold on native plants important to at-risk sagebrush species, altering ecological processes and changing the way wildlife use their environment.
Cheatgrass can easily overtake a landscape and outcompete native plants, often creating vast monocultures. The grass itself has little to no value as forage or cover for wildlife, but it decimates the forage available to both wildlife and livestock, which can have serious consequences for ranching operations. And without diverse perennial forbs and bunchgrasses—those that live for more than one growing season—there is little to hold the soils together and retain moisture.
But perhaps the most pervasive impact of cheatgrass domination has been its influence on the size, intensity, and natural cycles of wildfire, especially in the sagebrush sea.
While large and sometimes severe wildfires historically burned in sagebrush, they were infrequent and returned only every 60 to 100 years, depending on elevation, soil moisture, and other conditions. Native forbs, grasses, and sagebrush evolved with fire and adapted to this interval between blazes. Up until just a few decades ago, wildfires usually burned less intensively and more sporadically across the landscape, thereby creating more diversity in the age and structure of sagebrush plants while maintaining the bunchgrasses and forbs that are so valuable as cover and forage for wildlife.
But that has largely changed in areas plagued by cheatgrass invasion. Cheatgrass dies just in time for a typical fire season to start and is an extremely flashy fuel—one that can turn a simple lightning strike or discarded cigarette butt into a raging inferno in minutes.
When cheatgrass dominates an area and a fire gets started, it is almost equivalent to spreading gasoline across the surrounding vegetation.
Today’s fires are becoming hotter and more frequent in part because of the dominance of cheatgrass. Hotter fires mean that more sagebrush and other native plants that are not adapted to frequent high-intensity fires will certainly be lost. The soil is damaged, which weakens the system’s ability to regenerate sagebrush and perennial forbs and bunchgrasses.
Worse yet, after a hot fire, the disturbed soils are ripe for re-invasion by—you guessed it—cheatgrass.
Scientists now estimate that fire in cheatgrass-dominated areas can return every five years or less as a result of this broad ecological change. These areas may never return to their native condition and can essentially become biological deserts. And each year, the vicious cycle continues and results in more and more sagebrush and other habitats being dominated by this invasive species.
A bird hunter is never going to pull up to a huge burned area of sagebrush and unload the dogs, but many Western big game hunters know that a few years after a fire sweeps through a landscape, these areas can become prime habitat for elk and mule deer. This is especially true for forests with so much canopy coverage that sunlight couldn’t reach the ground and regenerate vegetation that big game like to eat.
In a normal cycle of fire and regrowth, yes, this balance is restorative. But the new normal of catastrophic blazes and cheatgrass-driven fires can severely alter winter range and other big game habitats.
There is major concern about the impact of fire on the survival of sage grouse, in particular. According to the Bureau of Land Management, more than 15 million acres of sagebrush burned across the West from 2000 to 2018.
While some of those acres may have been restored naturally or with human intervention, many are now part of the perpetual and unrelenting cheatgrass-fire cycle, which does not bode well for deer, pronghorns, elk, or sage grouse.
In our own lives, we know it’s cheaper and easier to take care of ourselves—eat right, stay active, and get preventative screenings—than to wait for a crisis to send us to the emergency room. The same is true of maintaining rangeland health.
Once cheatgrass takes hold of a landscape, it is extremely difficult and expensive to eradicate. The problem may be widespread at this point, but it hasn’t completely taken over all habitats in all places. Reactive measures in these areas should continue, but proactive measures to conserve and restore the resilience of native vegetation are more likely to succeed.
Fortunately, projects to prevent and remove cheatgrass invasion can create jobs at a time when many Americans are out of work. But decision-makers need to invest in these efforts to make a difference.
The cheatgrass-fire cycle is daunting, but cannot be ignored. We need more attention given to this crisis and state and federal resources to combat it. Failure to address this clear and present danger will have consequences for fish and wildlife habitat, soil health, forage diversity, and our Western economies that depend on healthy sagebrush ecosystems.
Failure to act may also mean watching our hunting and fishing opportunities go up in smoke.
Top photo by Nolan E. Preece/USFWS via flickr
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