Michael O'Casey

February 11, 2021

Defending Oregon’s Last Best Place

New coalition of sportsmen and women seeks to keep a landscape from being ‘”loved to death”

Oregon’s Owyhee Country is a paradise for those fond of adventure and solitude with a rod or rifle in hand. But what was once enjoyed mostly by locals is now in danger of being “loved to death” as the Pacific Northwest population booms and Instagram influencers crave never ending likes through adventure. Additional pressures such as a climate change, invasive annual grasses, and renewable energy pressures are mounting, which is why I’m representing the TRCP within a coalition of seven conservation groups proposing solutions that safeguard fish and wildlife habitat and the unique hunting and fishing opportunities the region is known for. Here’s what we stand to lose if hunters and anglers are not at the table when it comes to conserving the Owyhee. 

What’s at Stake?

Stretching across 4.6 million acres of public lands in the BLM’s Vale Districtthis landscape is among the most remote and unpopulated in the lower 48 states and can test the skills of even the most seasoned outdoorsperson. It encompasses more than 1.2 million acres of Wilderness Study Areas, made up of a rugged and remote sagebrush sea, broken only by narrow lava rock canyons that wind down to the banks of its namesake river.  

Far removed from the famed Douglas fir forests of Oregon’s west side, the outstanding hunting and fishing opportunities found in the Owyhee Country can sometimes be overlooked. These canyons provide vital habitat for mule deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and more than 200 other species of wildlife. Anglers catch native red-band trout in the beaver ponds of the West Little Owyhee, cast for 20-inch browns in the reach below the Owyhee dam, and introduce their kids to fishing on the abundant and easytofool smallmouth bass found throughout the river basin. Hunters in the area enjoy some of the best units within the state for mule deer, bighorns, antelope, and chukar.  

While its remote location has allowed the Owyhee Country to maintain its backcountry character, pressures from renewable energy, mining, oil and gas, and off-highway vehicles grow with each passing decade. The recent surge of outdoor recreation within the area from rafters, hunters, anglers, hot springs enthusiasts, and other recreation-seekers also presents difficult management challenges. The impacts of these increasing usescombined with invasive annual grasses, wildfire, and climate change-fueled drought, all threaten the unique fish and wildlife habitat within the region. Both the health of the landscape and the rural economies of the nearby communities need more resources to address these issues 

Working Towards a Collaborative Solution

Thankfully, Oregon’s congressional delegation is seeking pragmatic solutions after multiple requests from both the ranching and conservation communities. In 2019, Senator Ron Wyden spearheaded a series of stakeholder meetings to find common ground for a bill that would promote the long-term health of the landscape while providing for economic development and the continued traditional uses of public lands. The result was the introduction in November 2019 of S.2828, the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act (MCEOA). Notably, the bill would safeguard one million acres of undeveloped backcountry across Malheur County while releasing an equal amount of wildernessquality lands back to multiple use. Additionally, it would provide for important funding to restore the health of degraded sagebrush habitats and infuse economic development money into many surrounding rural communities.  

In order to ensure sportsmen and women have a strong voice in this decision-making process, the TRCP has partnered with the Oregon Hunters Association, Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Friends of the Owyhee, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Soul River Inc., and the Oregon Chapter of The Foundation for North American Wild Sheep to form, organize and engage a new coalition of hunting and fishingbased conservation organizations called the “Owyhee Sportsmen.”  Since August 2019, the coalition has worked closely with the Oregon congressional delegation—especially Senator Wyden’s office—to provide input and recommendations to the bill that would improve the conservation of the region’s fish and wildlife habitat. Our sportsmen and women’s coalition has strongly urged Senator WydenSenator Jeff Merkley, and Representative Cliff Bentz to work together to make a few changes and pass this bill, which we expect will see consideration from lawmakers this year 

Speaking Out for the Owyhee

The Sportsmen for the Owyhee campaign is currently working to educate the public, business owners, and decisionmakers on the need to protect Oregon’s Owyhee Canyons from development while highlighting the abundant opportunities the region provides for hunters, anglers, and outdoor recreators of all types.  

Recently, I joined several other members of the coalition to work on a hunting and fishing film with Alpenglow Press Productions to showcase just a few of the great adventures one can find in the Owyhee Country. I have spent hundreds of nights under the darkest skies in the nation exploring this vast area over the years, but it is hard to beat some of the experiences we enjoyed during the filming of this project. The Coalition is excited to share the film with the public and to work with members across our organizations to show support for this unique and stunning landscape that needs our attention. 

There are few large areas of land and water left in the U.S. where one can get truly lost, where skies at night are completely free of artificial light, and where sportsmen and women can chase such iconic game animals, upland birds, and trout. Oregon’s Owyhee Country is such a place, and we are committed to keeping it that way.  

If you want to get involved, please take action HERE to support protecting the Owyhee Country and to stay informed on future opportunities to weigh in. 

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Defending Oregon’s Last Best Place

New coalition of sportsmen and women seeks to keep a landscape from being ‘”loved to death”

Oregon’s Owyhee Country is a paradise for those fond of adventure and solitude with a rod or rifle in hand. But what was once enjoyed mostly by locals is now in danger of being “loved to death” as the Pacific Northwest population booms and Instagram influencers crave never ending likes through adventure. Additional pressures such as a climate change, invasive annual grasses, and renewable energy pressures are mounting, which is why I’m representing the TRCP within a coalition of seven conservation groups proposing solutions that safeguard fish and wildlife habitat and the unique hunting and fishing opportunities the region is known for. Here’s what we stand to lose if hunters and anglers are not at the table when it comes to conserving the Owyhee. 

What’s at Stake?

Stretching across 4.6 million acres of public lands in the BLM’s Vale Districtthis landscape is among the most remote and unpopulated in the lower 48 states and can test the skills of even the most seasoned outdoorsperson. It encompasses more than 1.2 million acres of Wilderness Study Areas, made up of a rugged and remote sagebrush sea, broken only by narrow lava rock canyons that wind down to the banks of its namesake river.  

Far removed from the famed Douglas fir forests of Oregon’s west side, the outstanding hunting and fishing opportunities found in the Owyhee Country can sometimes be overlooked. These canyons provide vital habitat for mule deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and more than 200 other species of wildlife. Anglers catch native red-band trout in the beaver ponds of the West Little Owyhee, cast for 20-inch browns in the reach below the Owyhee dam, and introduce their kids to fishing on the abundant and easytofool smallmouth bass found throughout the river basin. Hunters in the area enjoy some of the best units within the state for mule deer, bighorns, antelope, and chukar.  

While its remote location has allowed the Owyhee Country to maintain its backcountry character, pressures from renewable energy, mining, oil and gas, and off-highway vehicles grow with each passing decade. The recent surge of outdoor recreation within the area from rafters, hunters, anglers, hot springs enthusiasts, and other recreation-seekers also presents difficult management challenges. The impacts of these increasing usescombined with invasive annual grasses, wildfire, and climate change-fueled drought, all threaten the unique fish and wildlife habitat within the region. Both the health of the landscape and the rural economies of the nearby communities need more resources to address these issues 

Working Towards a Collaborative Solution

Thankfully, Oregon’s congressional delegation is seeking pragmatic solutions after multiple requests from both the ranching and conservation communities. In 2019, Senator Ron Wyden spearheaded a series of stakeholder meetings to find common ground for a bill that would promote the long-term health of the landscape while providing for economic development and the continued traditional uses of public lands. The result was the introduction in November 2019 of S.2828, the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act (MCEOA). Notably, the bill would safeguard one million acres of undeveloped backcountry across Malheur County while releasing an equal amount of wildernessquality lands back to multiple use. Additionally, it would provide for important funding to restore the health of degraded sagebrush habitats and infuse economic development money into many surrounding rural communities.  

In order to ensure sportsmen and women have a strong voice in this decision-making process, the TRCP has partnered with the Oregon Hunters Association, Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Friends of the Owyhee, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Soul River Inc., and the Oregon Chapter of The Foundation for North American Wild Sheep to form, organize and engage a new coalition of hunting and fishingbased conservation organizations called the “Owyhee Sportsmen.”  Since August 2019, the coalition has worked closely with the Oregon congressional delegation—especially Senator Wyden’s office—to provide input and recommendations to the bill that would improve the conservation of the region’s fish and wildlife habitat. Our sportsmen and women’s coalition has strongly urged Senator WydenSenator Jeff Merkley, and Representative Cliff Bentz to work together to make a few changes and pass this bill, which we expect will see consideration from lawmakers this year 

Speaking Out for the Owyhee

The Sportsmen for the Owyhee campaign is currently working to educate the public, business owners, and decisionmakers on the need to protect Oregon’s Owyhee Canyons from development while highlighting the abundant opportunities the region provides for hunters, anglers, and outdoor recreators of all types.  

Recently, I joined several other members of the coalition to work on a hunting and fishing film with Alpenglow Press Productions to showcase just a few of the great adventures one can find in the Owyhee Country. I have spent hundreds of nights under the darkest skies in the nation exploring this vast area over the years, but it is hard to beat some of the experiences we enjoyed during the filming of this project. The Coalition is excited to share the film with the public and to work with members across our organizations to show support for this unique and stunning landscape that needs our attention. 

There are few large areas of land and water left in the U.S. where one can get truly lost, where skies at night are completely free of artificial light, and where sportsmen and women can chase such iconic game animals, upland birds, and trout. Oregon’s Owyhee Country is such a place, and we are committed to keeping it that way.  

If you want to get involved, please take action HERE to support protecting the Owyhee Country and to stay informed on future opportunities to weigh in. 

Andrew Earl

February 5, 2021

U.S. Department of Agriculture Moves to Boost Private Lands Conservation

Farmers and ranchers have more time to enroll in the Conservation Reserve Program

Heeding calls from the hunting and fishing community, the U.S. Department of Agriculture today announced it’s extending enrollment for the Conservation Reserve Program—the nation’s most successful private lands conservation initiative.

Since 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program has offered incentives for American farmers, ranchers, and landowners to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and create wildlife habitat. The current enrollment period for general signup was set to expire on February 12, but the USDA has announced it will be extending that deadline to “evaluate and implement changes.”

“Getting more landowners signed up for the Conservation Reserve Program will improve soil, water, and habitat health,” said Andrew Earl, director of Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s private lands program. “Increased enrollment also benefits sportsmen and sportswomen who hunt and fish on private land, while providing economic support for farmers and ranchers. Further, the Conservation Reserve Program is an important tool in our toolbox of land- and water-based solutions to climate change.”

CRP has helped restore more than 2.3 million acres of wetlands and set aside land that has sequestered more than 12 million metric tons of carbon. Despite these notable successes, enrollment in the program has been dwindling.

The program is currently at a three-decade low of 20.7 million acres enrolled. Just two years ago, Congress increased the program’s acreage cap from 24 to 27 million acres in response to rampant landowner interest. However, in the time since, significant changes to rental rate formulas and incentive reductions have diminished the attractiveness of the program.

The TRCP has been raising alarms about the weakening of the CRP over the past few years and has laid out a plan to strengthen the program moving forward.

Visit the TRCP’s interactive model farm to see how the CRP and other Farm Bill conservation programs make an impact for wildlife habitat, soil and water quality, and sportsmen’s access.

 

Photo by Lance Cheung, USDA

Six Habitat Improvements That Are Also Climate Solutions

These types of conservation projects help to improve hunting and fishing opportunities and combat climate change in a win-win for fish and wildlife

From extreme droughts, flooding, and fires to altered migration patterns and “hoot owl” fishing restrictions, all of us have seen firsthand the impacts of a changing climate. If we are to protect and restore the habitats that support all the species we love to pursue, the hunting and fishing community must be part of climate change solutions.

There is no one silver bullet or single set of actions that will turn the tides entirely—climate change can only be addressed with a comprehensive strategy that involves all of us and all the tools we have. Thankfully, this includes habitat conservation measures already supported by sportsmen and women.

Here are six habitat improvement strategies that provide this win-win proposition: better hunting and fishing opportunities and fewer climate-change-driven impacts to fish and wildlife.

Photo by Randy Tate/Longleaf Alliance.
Improve Forest Management

The nation’s forests provide habitat for wildlife, shade to cool trout streams, and many convenient places to hang a tree stand, but they also store carbon—keeping carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere and warming the globe. In fact, across the world, forests store as much as one-third of all emissions from burning fossil fuels or about 2.6 billion tons of carbon each year.

Forests also draw additional carbon out of the atmosphere. Young, healthy growing forests mostly sequester carbon while older forests store it, which is why it helps to have diverse, well-managed forests. Unfortunately, decades of fire suppression and past management practices have left many public forests in poor health and vulnerable to uncharacteristically large wildfires. Poorly managed forests can alter the carbon storage and sequestration balance.

Hunters and anglers are already advocating for reforestation, active management of young stands, and conservation of late-successional forests, because these measures promote diverse habitat conditions, reduce fire risk, and filter polluted runoff that would otherwise harm trout and salmon streams. But these are also natural climate solutions. One of the TRCP’s top priorities this year is pushing decision-makers to ensure that savings from the recent wildfire funding fix will go toward forest health and management. This is just one step toward securing more of the habitat and climate benefits of our national forests.

Photo by Jeff Flinn via flickr.
Reverse Grasslands Loss

Native grasslands are being lost at an alarming rate due to agricultural conversion, development, and other factors. Just like forests, degraded western rangelands and grasslands are less resilient to temperature and weather changes, and their carbon storage and sequestering benefits are altered as more habitat damage is done. Invasive species like cheatgrass now dominate many sagebrush landscapes and have dramatically altered this ecosystem’s productivity, stability, and fire regime.

But grasslands and shrub communities also absorb huge amounts of carbon.

Restoration and conservation of rangelands and grasslands will be an important component of a broad-scale, comprehensive habitat and climate resilience strategy. We need to stop converting these habitats and focus on restoring grasslands to increase their resilience and productivity.

Photo by America’s Wetland Foundation.
Conserve and Restore Wetlands

Inland and coastal wetlands, marshes, estuaries, swamps, deltas, and floodplains are among nature’s most productive ecosystems—providing vital habitat for migratory waterfowl and both fresh and saltwater species of gamefish—that also store carbon.

Wetlands across the country already provide critical habitat, reduce erosion, improve water quality, and filter flood waters to protect our communities. But they are also being lost—drained, developed, converted to crops, or damaged beyond repair.

We are still fighting the rollback of Clean Water Act protections that has stripped wetlands and headwater streams of the safeguards that could prevent further wetlands loss.

Globally, wetlands may presently sequester as much as 700 billion tons of carbon each year. Once drained or partially dried, these areas may become a net source of methane and carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. They are also particularly vulnerable to climate change. Rising temperatures and increased drought can convert permanent wetlands to semi-permanent or seasonal ones.

We need to protect our remaining wetlands and reverse the loss while restoring those that have been altered to help meet the nation’s goals for flood control, clean water, habitat, and carbon reduction.

Photo by Jim Hickcox.
Boost Farm Bill Conservation Programs

Roughly 40 percent of the United States is in agricultural production. This sector represents about 9 percent of all carbon emissions, but farmers and ranchers also contribute significantly to carbon storage and sequestration when they manage and preserve grasslands, wetlands, and forests.

Our community is already preparing to work with Congress on a 2023 Farm Bill with strong conservation funding, and this would give landowners more of a chance to contribute to climate change solutions, as well. Increasing Conservation Reserve Program acreage to 50 million acres, for example, would enhance the habitat benefits for whitetail and mule deer, prairie chickens, pheasants, quail, wild turkeys, waterfowl, and countless other species—not to mention provide better hunting and fishing experiences for the sportsmen and women who rely on CRP lands for access.

Boosting the CRP would also give landowners the option to conserve grasslands and wetlands that combat climate change. Expanding this and other conservation programs would be a great starting point for strengthening the role that private landowners play in the climate fight.

Photo by Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
Continue the Gulf Coast Comeback

Rising seas have already destroyed thousands of miles of coastline and hundreds of thousands of acres of coastal salt marshes and seagrass beds that are vital to many sportfish and waterfowl. Louisiana’s more seasoned duck hunters can likely point to actual ground they once hunted that has now been lost.

The good news is that building coastal infrastructure is a viable solution to fight these catastrophic losses.

Reparation funds from the BP oil spill have already helped to rebuild habitat health beyond what was damaged in the environmental disaster and recover some of what has been lost to subsidence, erosion, and sea-level rise.

The continued conservation and restoration of these habitats can help save lives and protect coastal communities, while providing healthier fisheries, cleaner water, and enhancing resilience to climate change. We need to ensure federal programs and funding are available to identify areas for protection, restoration, or management and to develop effective strategies to sustain the natural benefits of coastal habitats.

Photo by Derek Eberly.
Shore Up Streambanks

One of the most obvious impacts of climate change for America’s anglers is rising water temperatures that threaten coldwater trout species. This is compounded in places where streams have been degraded by major floods, wildfires, dam construction and land-use changes. Many conservation volunteers cut their teeth on projects aimed at restoring healthy stream flows, reducing streambank erosion, and ultimately lowering water temperatures, but they may not realize riparian areas have an underappreciated ability to store carbon, both in vegetation and the soil itself.

At the federal level, we will need to invest in numerous solutions to build resilient river systems and ensure our lakes, rivers, and streams are able to function as productive carbon sinks while also supporting the fish and wildlife we love to pursue. Programs and policies emphasizing water conservation, water efficiency, nutrient reductions, and riparian zone protection and restoration will be critical.

Photo by Brent Lawrence/USFWS.
Let Habitat Work

Any national climate strategy must include land- and water-based solutions that harness the power of our natural systems. But, as you can see, these habitat improvements are already on our wish list as a conservation community.

It’s important to note that these actions will not only benefit fish and wildlife, enhance soil quality, and create cleaner water—they will also create jobs and strengthen rural economies. But there is no time to waste, whether we’re talking about implementing natural climate solutions, reversing habitat loss and wildlife species declines, or putting Americans back to work through conservation. We have to stop debating about resolving climate change and get to work on implementing these straightforward natural solutions. Let’s allow habitat contribute all it can to the climate fight.

 

Top photo by USFWS/Katrina Mueller.

February 4, 2021

Building on Our Conservation Successes

We can’t move conservation forward if there’s a strict policy of “out with the old, in with the new”

It has become a political ritual for an incoming administration to undo actions from the previous administration. Some of this is natural and appropriate, but if the goal of the Biden Administration is to advance conservation that withstands political whirlwinds, then prudence dictates that we look at every action on its own merits—not simply assume that everything done under the previous administration has to go. It’s worth remembering that the Great American Outdoors Act, the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act, and the Modern Fish Act were all signed into law by President Trump and the permit for the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay was ultimately denied during his time in office.

Here’s a list of actions that the Trump Administration took that we think should be embraced and expanded moving forward.

Migration Corridors

One of the best ways to help big game adapt to a changing climate is to ensure they can move freely across the landscape. So conservationists cheered when the Department of Interior issued Secretarial Order 3362, prioritizing the conservation of big game winter ranges and migration corridors. Since that time, the states and federal government have partnered to research big game movements and improve habitat for mule deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope. In addition, the Department and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided more than $15 million to implement the order, funds that were matched by about $30 million in state and private funds. This resulted in on-the-ground projects that range from restoring habitat to improving fencing.

The Order also inspired Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming to adopt their own migration corridor conservation programs, with additional states working to join them.

The Biden Administration should build off the Trump Administration’s efforts by ensuring that Bureau of Land Management and national forest management plans prioritize migratory habitats. Agency-wide conservation policies should also be expanded to include wild sheep and moose, as well as summer range for all big game species. Finally, the administration and Congress should team up to direct funding toward migration research and construction of wildlife crossings, including $500 million as part of a new Highway Bill, which Congress is expected to pass in 2021.

Access

In 2019, Congress passed the John Dingell Conservation Act, which, among other things, made it clear that hunting and fishing is allowed on federal lands unless specifically closed through a transparent public process. A separate provision in the Dingell Act directed the federal land management agencies to identify lands within their holdings that were inaccessible or had restricted access and to develop priority lists for making those lands accessible to the public.

Expanding hunting and fishing access on our public lands is not a new idea. During the last two administrations, access was expanded on national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, a recognition that hunting and fishing are, and always have been, important drivers of local economies.

In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Trump worked to, where appropriate, conform access regulations to those of the state. As any hunter and angler knows, rules and regulations can be confusing at the best of times, so when it is possible to keep the rules the same across jurisdictions, it makes the user experience far more enjoyable.

The Biden Administration, too, can be a leader in expanding and enhancing public access for outdoor recreation. Like hunting and fishing, public lands should be open and available to all Americans, regardless of their background or economic status. Hunting and fishing participation numbers have exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic as people head outdoors for recreation and relief. This trend calls for more access and opportunities, be it for hunting, fishing, hiking, paddling, or the myriad other uses that make up the outdoor recreation economy. Access to our public lands is the base of this economy.

In addition to looking at hunting and fishing opportunities on our accessible public lands, the Biden Administration should aggressively pursue projects that open access to the more than 16 million acres of public lands that are landlocked by private lands.

Land Disposal

In 2019, then-Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed Secretarial Order 3373, which directed the agency to prioritize public access when considering the disposal and exchange of public lands. For the past 40 years, the BLM has been required to identify small tracts of land available for sale or disposal, and prior to the Trump Administration this frequently included public lands that offer important recreational access. The Order changed that, ensuring that small but important tracts would remain in public hands.

This approach to land disposal should be maintained and further implemented by the Biden Administration.

Backcountry Conservation Areas

Bureau of Land Management public lands contain some of the best hunting and fishing in the country, so in 2011, the TRCP—in coordination with other hunting and fishing groups and businesses—proposed a new management tool called Backcountry Conservation Areas (BCAs). We like to think of it is a “keep special places like they are AND make them better” option for land management. For areas with exceptional wildlife habitat, major development would be prohibited, but traditional uses, such as grazing, wouldn’t be affected. And the areas could be improved through habitat-focused restoration and enhancement—a critically important approach for establishing climate resilience and controlling invasive species.

Because of their unique bipartisan appeal—with supporters ranging from state wildlife agencies, county commissioners, and BLM retirees to a tribal council—the Obama Administration adopted the concept of BCAs, and then the management tool was implemented by the Trump Administration.

BCAs should now be embraced by the Biden Administration and included in BLM resource management plans as they are updated. This provides a golden opportunity to protect biodiversity, while simultaneously supporting access to outdoor recreation.

Everglades

The Trump Administration made Everglades restoration a priority, including projects along the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida. It is imperative that this work continues. A functioning Everglades is a giant sponge, slowing and cleaning water as it makes its way south. Not only is Everglades restoration critical for water quality and hunting and fishing, it’s important in addressing the impacts of climate change on South Florida.

 

In the TRCP’s nearly 20 years of working on conservation issues, we have seen administrations come and go, and we have watched as the political makeup of Congress has shifted. Despite those changes, we have found conservation to be a unifier—bringing people together, providing a place for consensus, and bridging divides.

We know that the voices of sportsmen and sportswomen are integral in making that happen, so we urge this next administration to keep an open mind. We stand ready to help.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA

As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.

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