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Decision to fully repeal the Roadless Rule on the Tongass National Forest opens 9.2 million acres of public lands to development
Today the U.S. Forest Service issued its final decision to eliminate conservation safeguards on 9.2 million acres of public land in the Tongass National Forest, a move that would allow logging and roadbuilding in areas of the forest that have never been developed. This dramatic policy shift poses a clear threat to the region’s world-class fisheries and vital big game habitat.
The Forest Service issued its proposed plan for the Tongass last fall, after the White House instructed the Secretary of Agriculture to fully exempt the forest from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a successful management plan that conserves national forest lands that have never been developed. This directive closely followed an off-the-record meeting between President Trump and Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy. By pursuing the most extreme option, the administration effectively foreclosed any opportunity for a compromise solution and forced a majority of stakeholders—locally and nationally—to oppose the agency’s proposal.
By some estimates, only 50 percent of the most mature, large-diameter trees in the Tongass remain standing. For two decades, the Roadless Rule has supported industries in Alaska that depend on conserving the remaining high-quality habitat, such as hunting, fishing, 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.
Here are three examples of how lifting the Roadless Rule might affect the fish, wildlife, and people who call the Tongass home.
According to the Forest Service, approximately 17,000 miles of pristine creeks, rivers and lakes in the Tongass provide optimal spawning and rearing conditions for all five species of wild Pacific salmon and several varieties of trout. The nutrient-rich waters of the Tongass produce approximately one-quarter of all commercially harvested salmon in Alaska and offer exciting sportfishing opportunities for anglers from around the world.
Critical to the health of this fishery are the intact stands of spruce and hemlock trees that anchor stream banks and help regulate water temperature by shading streams in the summer and insulating them in the winter. Because the Roadless Rule exemption results in a loss of protections for these key elements of salmon habitat, it could be a blow to the region’s commercial fishing and seafood processing industries.
Deer in Southeast Alaska are generally confined to old-growth forest winter ranges from December through March. According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, medium and large-tree hemlock and spruce forests provide the best winter habitat during deep snows. Larger trees offer more protection from the snow and provide greater access to winter food sources. Old forests also provide vital fawning habitat in the spring and foraging habitat in the fall.
Although deer populations tend to increase in the short-term (20 to 30 years) following timber harvest, populations tend to decline in the long run as the new canopy closes, resulting in lower habitat quality. In the agency’s cost-benefit analysis of Roadless Rule alternatives, the Forest Service determined that repealing the Roadless Rule “could lead to a decline in the deer population, particularly following severe winters.” Healthy populations of Sitka blacktail deer support recreational hunting opportunities and food security in rural communities.
The Forest Service projects that a full exemption of the Roadless Rule on the Tongass would result in $319,000 per year in lost revenue across Southeast Alaska’s recreation industry. That doesn’t account for the potential negative impacts of development to the entire tourism industry, which has contributed more than $700 million annually in visitor spending across Southeast Alaska in recent years.
While important for several reasons, Alaska’s timber industry supplies less than one percent of all jobs in Southeast Alaska. By the Forest Service’s own analysis, a full repeal of the Roadless Rule is expected to have only a “minimal beneficial effect” on the region’s forest products industry, and at a significant cost to taxpayers. Instead of focusing on cutting critically important undeveloped forests, we should be helping the timber industry transition to second growth forest restoration and management – an approach that would support both jobs and forest health.
Today’s final decision to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule is the unfortunate result of a politically driven process at the expense of irreplaceable fish and wildlife habitat. Six options were considered in the rulemaking process, ranging from “no action” to the full repeal of the Roadless Rule. Despite overwhelming public feedback to keep conservation safeguards in place, the administration chose the most extreme option and repealed the Roadless Rule.
Because the most unbalanced option was chosen, it will likely be challenged at every turn until a different outcome is reached. The TRCP is focused on achieving durable solutions, and we will continue to roll up our sleeves and find common ground in Alaska to safeguard roadless areas for the benefit of hunting, fishing, and recreation-based economies; encourage a transition away from logging intact forests that have never been developed and toward second-growth logging that benefits both mills and forest health; and support the needs of local communities to diversify their income sources and look long-term toward sustainable outdoor recreation industries.
Top photo by Ben Matthews (bentmatthews.com)
There’s no downside to sending reef fish safely back to their depths
Few things frustrate conservation-conscious anglers more than releasing a fish only to watch it flounder along the surface, unable to return to the depths from which it was caught. But no matter the steps you take to care for a fish that should live to fight another day, sometimes the trauma of the fight is too much to overcome.
Reef fish, like snapper and grouper, caught from depths of 50 feet or more are especially vulnerable because of barotrauma, a phenomenon which causes the swim bladder and eye sockets to expand after a rapid rise to the surface. When this happens, the fish’s stomach can protrude from its mouth and acts as a balloon, making the fish float.
Unless that pressure is relieved, the fish cannot return to the reef. Anglers can prevent this by using a venting tool to puncture the air bladder or a descending device—a weighted hook, lip clamp, or box that will hold the fish while it is lowered to a sufficient depth to recover from the effects of barotrauma. This device can be anything as simple as a weighted milk crate on a rope to something more sophisticated, like the SeaQualizer, which has pressure-release clips that allow fish to swim away upon reaching the desired depth.
Angling advocacy and conservation groups have been working with regional fishery managers, the National Marine Fisheries Service, Congress, and many others to promote and require the use of venting tools and descending devices in the Gulf of Mexico. And there is legislation pending in the Senate right now that could make this #ResponsibleRecreation practice more widespread.
The Direct Enhancement of Snapper Conservation and the Economy through Novel Devices Act is a mouthful, for sure, but all you need to remember is DESCEND—the Act passed the House on October 1, 2020, and anglers need to call on the Senate to take up this priority before the end of the 116th Congress.
Introduced by Representatives Garret Graves (R-La.) and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) in the House and Senators Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), and John Cornyn (R-Texas) in the Senate, the bill requires possession of a descending device or venting tool that is rigged and ready to be used on any recreational or commercial fishing boat targeting reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
The bill also requires the Department of Commerce to work with the National Academy of Sciences to study the effectiveness of these devices, determine the shortcomings of our current data collection on release mortality, and propose how to achieve improved rates of catch-and-release survival to increase fishing opportunities.
This is important because there is such a wide range of estimates from fisheries researchers on how many Gulf red snapper and other reef fish die after being released. In 2016, NOAA estimated that nearly 3.7 million recreational and commercially caught snapper perished after being released—an astounding number already, and one that has grown exponentially as the snapper population has swelled to unprecedented size in the last decade.
There are a lot of snapper in the Gulf. It’s difficult to fish reefs in 50-plus feet of water and not catch red snapper. However, seasons remain relatively short—in some states less than 50 days—so keeping these fish is not a year-round option.
A 2014-2015 study conducted by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi determined red snapper that had been vented and rapidly recompressed in a way that’s similar to using a SeaQualizer or other descending device had a 100-percent survival rate in water depths of 100 feet or less. Those just recompressed survived 92 percent of the time. Survival rates dropped for fish caught in deeper water, but still exceeded those of fish released with no effort to recompress or vent.
The DESCEND Act becoming law would ensure that recompression devices and venting tools are on vessels. And with some effort to educate anglers on how to properly use these devices, it could dramatically increase the number of snapper, grouper, and other reef fish that are successfully caught and released.
The bill’s passage can also work in concert with a recently approved effort by the Gulf oil spill trustee group. It would allow NOAA to use $30 million in Deepwater Horizon disaster penalties over the next eight years to increase the use of barotrauma reduction devices among Gulf anglers and monitor the impacts to reef fish.
There is no downside to the DESCEND Act becoming law. The research supports barotrauma reduction device use as good for conservation. Many anglers are already effectively using the devices and the bill’s passage will make sure more anglers have and learn to use them.
The Senate has every reason to pass this bill and send it to the president’s desk this year. Make sure your lawmakers hear from you in support of the DESCEND Act.
Top photo courtesy of Adrian Gray at IGFA.
If you’ve looked at the state of our country lately and thought, ‘What would Theodore Roosevelt do?’ this might be your answer
Hunting and the American outdoors were fundamental to who Theodore Roosevelt was—without them, he would be unrecognizable. There have been other sportsmen in the White House (Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight Eisenhower were all passionate flyfishermen), but T.R.’s greatness cannot be separated from his passion for the outdoors, which is what makes him the patron saint of conservation in America.
So, it’s no wonder we’re thinking of him today, as his 162nd birthday coincides with a pivotal time for our nation and the conservation priorities he helped to set in motion.
Theodore Roosevelt led with a clarity of purpose, and he would have seen clearly the task facing modern-day hunters and anglers—it is no less than the survival of our outdoor traditions. The future of hunting and fishing, not to mention our fish and wildlife resources, is in the hands of decision-makers who are often uninformed or downright hostile. But it is also in our hands. We must move fish and wildlife conservation up the hierarchy of our own political decision-making and vote accordingly.
If, like Roosevelt, hunting and angling are foundational to your very being, something you want to pass down to your children, then you can’t afford to be passive about policies that will affect your access or the responsible management of fish and wildlife habitat.
A generation ago, many elected leaders learned the language of the land as kids, knew the culture of opening day, and shared stories of blaze orange and bird dogs at the Formica counters of small town diners. But today, the lawmakers who understand our culture beyond its value at the voting booth are few and far between. This reality reflects broader trends: an increasingly urban population that’s more and more profoundly disconnected from wildlife and wild places.
Still there is no more important issue in this country than conservation, and to celebrate T.R. is to celebrate his famous maxim.
Subsequently we must hold our elected officials accountable when they make decisions that threaten habitat and access. We must inform others, and be informed ourselves, on the importance of the North American model of wildlife management, and explain how hunters and anglers play an absolutely essential role in the funding of conservation work. After all, following in T.R.’s footsteps, we are the prime authors of some of the greatest fish and wildlife conservation success stories in the history of the world.
To be a hunter or an angler in 2020 is to be a steward for the future. It is no less an essential call than the one that motivated Theodore Roosevelt and a generation of American conservationists, to whom we owe a profound debt of gratitude. The hunters of the next century need us to carry that mantle forward with our words and actions.
Get started right now by urging lawmakers to include investments in conservation in any economic recovery legislation. Congress can put Americans back to work during the COVID crisis by supporting conservation programs that restore habitat, fix trails and access sites, make highways safer for people and wildlife, and build more resilient water systems. Click here to take action.
This post was originally published on October 27, 2016 and has been updated.
#OurLandWaterWildlife campaign outlines seven key areas of focus for policymakers
A diverse coalition of 41 groups from across the hunting, fishing, landowner, and conservation communities launched a new website to highlight the impacts of climate change on fish, wildlife, and habitat and promote policy solutions in seven key areas.
Ourlandwaterwildlife.org will be a hub of educational resources, storytelling, and advocacy dedicated to natural solutions that sequester carbon and build habitat resiliency to combat climate change. Many of the coalition’s recommendations are proven strategies for safeguarding the fish and wildlife habitat that supports outdoor recreation opportunities in the United States.
“Our organizations already advocate for and implement land-and water-based solutions to make our rivers, lakes, streams, forests, grasslands, wetlands, and coastal systems more resilient to the impacts of climate change,” the coalition writes in a formal joint statement, which is being used in communications with key lawmakers. “Conservation organizations and state and federal land and wildlife management agencies have been on the cutting edge of ecosystem-based solutions. Together we can expand these programs to have a much greater impact far more quickly.”
The recommendations included in the statement and at ourlandwaterwildlife.org are intended for Congress, the executive branch, agency leadership, states, and other decision-makers developing a national-level approach to addressing climate change.
The seven key areas of focus for the coalition include: Agriculture; Forests, Rangelands, and Grasslands; Oceans; Rivers, Lakes, and Streams; Wetlands; Coastal Resilience; and Adaptation.
Learn more at ourlandwaterwildlife.org.
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