Randall Williams

May 12, 2021

House Lawmakers Reintroduce MAPLand Act to Improve Public Land Access

Legislation invests in digitized, integrated mapping resources for outdoor recreation

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership celebrated the reintroduction of a House bill that will enhance outdoor recreation on public lands by investing in modern technology that allows sportsmen and sportswomen to know exactly which lands and waters they can access.

U.S. Representatives Blake Moore (R-Utah), Kim Schrier (D-WA), Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho), and Joe Neguse (D-CO) introduced the bipartisan Modernizing Access to Our Public Land (MAPLand) Act to the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The MAPLand Act would digitize recreational access information and make those resources available to the public. The legislation would also provide federal land management agencies with funding and guidance to create comprehensive databases of available map-based agency records related to recreational access and use.

“Access is one of the most important issues facing hunters and anglers today, and the MAPLand Act is a commonsense investment to ensure all Americans can take full advantage of the recreational opportunities on our public lands,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “In addition to making it easier for public land users to stay safe and follow the rules while in the field or on the water, this bill would allow our agencies to manage and plan more effectively while also reducing the potential for access-related conflicts between recreators and private landowners. Simply put, this legislation promises to help more people get outdoors. We appreciate these representatives’ leadership to introduce this bill in the House and our community is eager to help move the MAPLand Act through Congress.”

The bill includes language to digitize information about:
• legal easements and rights-of-way across private land;
• year-round or seasonal closures of roads and trails, as well as restrictions on vehicle-type;
• boundaries of areas where special rules or prohibitions apply to hunting and shooting;
• and areas of public waters that are closed to watercraft or have horsepower restrictions.

Currently, many of the easement records that identify legal means of access into lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are stored at the local or regional level in paper files. This makes it difficult for hunters, anglers, and even the agencies themselves to identify public access opportunities. For example, of the 37,000 existing easements held by the U.S. Forest Service, the agency estimated in 2020 that only 5,000 had been converted into digital files.

In addition to improving the public’s ability to access public lands, the bill would help land management agencies — in cooperation with private landowners — prioritize projects to acquire new public land access or improve existing access. According to a report by the TRCP and onX, a digital-mapping company, more than 9.52 million acres of federally managed public lands in the West lack permanent legal public access because they are surrounded entirely by private lands. Digitizing easement records would be the first step towards addressing this challenge systematically.

Last year, more than 150 hunting- and fishing- related businesses signed a joint letter calling on congressional leadership to pass the MAPLand Act. From gear manufacturers and media companies to guides, outfitters, and retailers, the letter signers emphasized the importance of outdoor recreation opportunities on public lands to their bottom lines.
In addition, conservation groups across the country applauded the leadership shown by lawmakers to invest in the future of America’s public lands system.

The bill was also introduced in the Senate in March by U.S. Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Angus King (I-Maine) alongside Senators Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Susan Collins (R-Maine), John Barrasso (R-WY), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Steve Daines (R-Mont), and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz).

 

Photo: Maven/Craig Okraska

5 Responses to “House Lawmakers Reintroduce MAPLand Act to Improve Public Land Access”

  1. Timothy P Maher

    It’s high time that this information is made available to the public, we also need legislation that prohibits denying access to public land, by checkerboarding, or buying around parcels thereby removing access to public lands.

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Chris Macaluso

May 11, 2021

Sediment-Built Marshes Where Drag-Screaming Redfish Await

Why are some anglers writing off one of our best options for restoring these disappearing habitats?

Four League Bay might be the most remote destination on Louisiana’s coast. Even with a 300-horsepower outboard pushing a 24-foot bay boat, the ride from Terrebonne Parish’s Falgout Canal west to Four League takes nearly an hour of weaving through fresh and brackish marshes, bayous, lakes, and bays. Most of them are slalom courses of crab-trap floats. Alligators spring from the banks, and blue wing teal headed back to the Dakotas from their wintering grounds in Central and South America take flight.

My good fishing buddy Todd Masson and I had been trying to get on the boat with Capt. Lloyd Landry for nearly two months, cancelling and rescheduling throughout the early spring as strong thunderstorms and unseasonably cold fronts pushed through Louisiana. Had we known that tropical storm and hurricane-force winds would sweep across the area just a couple hours after we returned to the marina, we might have cancelled again.

That day, the forecast gave us about a 5-hour window before thunderstorms were due to arrive. So, we put a stiff southeast wind at our backs and headed to some of the most unmolested, beautifully intact marsh in all of Louisiana to catch some hard-pulling, drag-screaming redfish.

Many Louisiana anglers write off Western Terrebonne Parish, especially the marshes and shorelines of Four League Bay, during the spring because the area is inundated with freshwater pouring from the Atchafalaya River. The assumption is that the 240,000 cubic feet per second of fresh, sediment-rich water that is building new marsh annually in the Atchafalaya Delta chases away the redfish and speckled trout.

The annual floods that scare away some coastal anglers are the exact reason the area teems with fish and the marshes are so healthy and intact. The nutrient-rich freshwater from the river mixes with the Gulf’s saltwater, creating a diverse forage of shrimp, crabs, pogies, crawfish, bluegill, mullet, and an assortment of other prey. The suspended sediment in the river water feeds the marsh, giving it a more stable soil structure for plants to root and submerged grass beds to grow.

It’s the perfect environment for fat, healthy redfish.

We picked a protected shoreline about seven miles from the river’s mouth. A handful of casts and Masson connected with a thick 20-inch redfish. A minute later, a bruising 29-inch red crushed a soft-plastic grub at the end of my line.

 

 

That pattern continued throughout the morning as Landry guided us into protected pockets and shorelines, picking away at healthy, well-fed redfish and black drum until the thunderstorms pushed us east to the marina just after noon.

Had the winds not limited our search area, we were set to chase speckled trout as well. Landry had been catching them in open lakes and bays as they transitioned from wintering grounds in interior marshes into their spring and summer feeding and spawning areas in the Gulf of Mexico.

We had options. Despite the strong winds that kept most anglers off the water that day, the benefit of healthy marshes laden with submerged freshwater grasses is that there are ponds and protected shorelines to duck into and hide—this works well for both fish and fishermen.

 

 

In far too many places along Louisiana’s coast, the options are running out. Marshes that have been cut off from annual, life-giving Mississippi River sediment by levees are more vulnerable to erosion from hurricanes or any other high-wind events. They are sinking below the water line, too, as seas gradually rise while the marsh subsides.

Nearly 2,000 square miles of wetlands, some of the most productive fish and wildlife habitat in the world, have been lost in the Mississippi River Delta, especially the basins between the mouth of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers, in the last century. To stem that loss and build back some marsh, the state of Louisiana is moving toward construction of sediment diversions both east and west of the Mississippi River below New Orleans. These structures will help to mimic the annual flooding that is sustaining and growing the marshes near the Atchafalaya River’s mouth—the processes that originally built all the marshes, swamps, and barrier islands of South Louisiana.

Some anglers and commercial fishermen are objecting strongly to the projects, claiming the freshwater will eliminate fishing. But there are few options for fixing this broken system other than using every single available sediment resource, especially the suspended sediment that comes with annual floods along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. Without reconnecting the Mississippi River to its delta, another 500 square miles of wetlands could be lost in the next century.

Anglers and fish have had to adjust to losing habitat far too frequently over the last 50 years in coastal Louisiana. Making adjustments as we regain habitat is something that I, and many other anglers, welcome.

Anglers need options. Without sediment diversions and all other efforts to rebuild and sustain our coast, we just might run out.

 

May 5, 2021

Checking in on the Conservation To-Do List We Set for Biden’s First 100 Days

Here’s what got done and which issues still need urgent attention this year

In January, we outlined the TRCP’s top ten conservation priorities for the Biden Administration to influence in the first 100 days after inauguration. Here’s a status check on these top-tier issues and what we’ll be pushing for beyond this first critical and indicative period of the president’s term.

 

Priority: Put Americans Back to Work Through Conservation
Status: Some Success with More to Come

In the wake of COVID restrictions that drove unemployment rates up while also inspiring more Americans to get outdoors, we pushed the new administration to make smart and robust conservation investments that would put people back to work while improving habitat, combatting climate change, and supporting public lands at risk of being loved to death.

Biden’s $1.8-trillion American Jobs Plan, unveiled in March, has broad themes around creating jobs through investments in infrastructure and resilience. It specifically mentions restoring the Everglades and Great Lakes as a part of this push. It’s too early to take a few of our other suggestions, like doubling conservation funding in the 2023 Farm Bill, and many of our priorities related to funding hinge on the president’s budget request, which may not be ready until late May (though it was expected earlier this spring.)

The administration has supported recent congressional efforts to invest in clean water infrastructure. Just this week, in a nearly unanimous vote, the Senate passed a bill that would increase funding for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program, which has put Americans to work conserving habitat and protecting water quality for more than three decades. The House still needs to pass its version of the bill to take this first important step for infrastructure and jobs.

To read more about how investments in conservation can create jobs, rebuild our economy, and improve the health of our communities, click here.

 

Priority: Use Habitat Improvements to Address Climate Change
Status: Strong Momentum

The administration’s intense focus on climate is a bright spot for conservation, especially because many of the land- and water-based tools for combatting climate change are habitat improvements that hunters and anglers want anyway. The same week we outlined our priorities for the first 100 days, President Biden issued an Executive Order on climate change and later created a climate task force run out of the White House, which will consider input collected from across federal agencies. Those stakeholders were required to get their recommendations to the task force by April 28, and many of the agency staff who are responsible for conservation in America were willing to listen to sportsmen and sportswomen when it came to crafting those comments.

 

Priority: Invest in a Coordinated Response to Chronic Wasting Disease
Status: Nothing So Far

Unfortunately, as news has been coming out of the states about CWD test results from this past hunting season, the administration hasn’t done anything headline-worthy to stop the spread of the fatal deer disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture did gather stakeholders for input on how funding already appropriated for this fiscal year should be spent. States still need to make their requests for the portion of this funding that should go toward the local response where CWD needs careful management.

The TRCP continues to push for a study and overhaul of the USDA’s voluntary Herd Certification Program, which is supposed to keep captive deer herds at “low-risk” of contracting and spreading CWD, and a moratorium on the interstate movement of live deer until this program is updated. And Congress may still choose to act on its ability to fund or inquire into disease management.

 

Priority: Max Out Conservation Reserve Program Acres
Status: Important Changes Made

We’re happy to report a solid win in this category that will support the rural economy and our hunting and fishing opportunities. In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it would extend the ongoing Conservation Reserve Program sign-up period while it looked at ways to improve program administration. Thankfully, the department followed up with specific and much-needed changes to the incentives offered to boost CRP acreage. This is critical to digging out of a historic enrollment slump, and it is what sportsmen and sportswomen have been calling for since spring of 2020.

 

Priority: Restore Roadless Area Protections in the Tongass National Forest
Status: Backcountry Habitat Still at Risk

After roadless area safeguards were lifted in the Tongass in 2020, the TRCP urged the Biden Administration to halt any pending projects that could undermine the habitat value of 9.2 million acres of undeveloped forest, world-class fisheries, and vital habitat for Sitka blacktail deer, bears, moose, and Roosevelt elk. There have been no immediate steps taken to restore roadless area protections, and the threat still stands.

 

Priority: Ensure That Savings from the “Fire Fix” Go Toward Forest Health
Status: Hinges on Budget Talks

Now that we treat—and pay for—catastrophic wildfires the same way we do other natural disasters, the U.S. Forest Service should be able to spend more on forest health and maintenance, including $400 million that was promised but never made available in the fiscal year 2020 budget. Whether the Biden Administration will reinvest in the Forest Service in FY2022 hinges on official budget request, which should be delivered to Congress this month, and ultimately the congressional budget deal that must get done by the end of September.

 

Priority: Rebuild the Bedrock Conservation Law That Protects Our Streams and Wetlands
Status: It’s Complicated

While it seems that the administration would like to take on the job of clarifying which waters and wetlands can receive Clean Water Act protections—as the fourth administration to do so since a series of Supreme Court decisions created confusion in the early 2000s—it may not get the chance before the courts influence this debate yet again.

Further, the Trump Administration rulemaking can’t just be undone. A new rule would have to be substantially different than past iterations, including the one from 2015 that was widely celebrated by hunters and anglers. This process will be difficult to get it done in a four-year term. What may ultimately be needed is legislation to see that headwaters and wetlands are subject to Clean Water Act protection and for sportsmen and sportswomen to fend off legislation that codifies the current rule, which leaves important clean water resources at risk.

 

Priority: Commit to Modernizing Fisheries Management
Status: Agencies Need to Staff Up

On the administration side, there’s not much to report and likely won’t be until two key positions are filled: National Marine Fisheries Service Director and NOAA Assistant Administrator of Fisheries. However, legislation has been introduced in the Senate to update the management of forage fish species that our favorite sportfish rely on for food.

 

Priority: Restore Strong Conservation Plans for the Greater Sage Grouse
Status: No Change for Conservation, More Grouse Habitat Lost

The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service have not opened their plans for yet another round of changes, but a court injunction issued in October 2109 still stands and requires implementation of the original 2015 conservation plans—for now. Meanwhile, we know that the long-term decline in grouse populations has deepened slightly. Learn why the loss of habitat is directly tied to fewer male grouse being counted on mating grounds, or take a deep dive on the history of sage grouse conservation since the first seasons and bag limits were set for hunters.

 

Priority: Reverse Mining Decision in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters
Status: Not Addressed

The TRCP and partners urged the Biden Administration to not only withdraw mining leases reinstated on the merits of a cursory environmental study but to quickly develop and implement a strategy to permanently protect the Boundary Waters from a massive copper mine. The Forest Service has yet to act on this in the first 100 days. Meanwhile, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act was reintroduced in the House last month.

 

Top Photo: Maven/Craig Okraska

Randall Williams

May 4, 2021

The Case for Better Access Data

When it comes to public lands mapping data, sportsmen and sportswomen deserve a higher standard

Most recreational access opportunities on public lands are identified in agency management plans and may appear on agency-produced paper maps that show, for instance, roads and trails open to different types of motorized and non-motorized vehicles. Sometimes alongside a national forest road you’ll see a sign marking a zone where hunting or shooting is restricted, such as near a campground or forest service ranger station. Other times you’ll pull up to a mountain lake parking lot and a sign is posted that specifies horsepower restrictions for boats.

While some of this information might, in certain places, be available in a GPS-compatible format, in many places it is not. As a result, it is difficult for the public to find specific information about available recreation opportunities on public lands or even follow the rules that the agencies have spent millions of dollars creating. Sometimes, a person might avoid hunting in an area altogether simply because they can’t tell by looking at a sign where the no-shooting boundary starts and ends. Many members of the public might also avoid driving on an open road because the existing sign long ago went missing and they don’t want to inadvertently break the rules.

Where geospatial data layers have been made available by the agencies, they are not all designed to benefit recreational access to the extent that they could and should. For example, in 2015 the BLM created a national transportation layer called the Ground Transportation Linear Feature data standard, or GTLF, which is a digital mapping layer that delineates BLM-administered travel routes. The GTLF, however, doesn’t provide enough information for the public to understand access opportunities and restrictions because it does not require attributes for allowed vehicle type and seasonal restrictions. As a result, the investment that went into this dataset is ultimately lost on hunters, anglers, and most other recreationists.

A case in point can be found in the BLM Butte Field Office in southwest Montana where the agency completed a travel management plan (TMP) for the Upper Big Hole area in 2009, which established comprehensive rules for vehicle travel on specific routes and during specific times of the year. In this place, the local BLM field office did a good job with their travel plan in that it provides adequate public access while conserving important deer and elk habitat. However, because the national GTLF is lacking in important attributes, detailed transportation information for the Upper Big Hole area can only be found by those with the skills to locate and review an environmental impact statement. Under these circumstances, an elk hunter in the area wanting to understand and follow agency transportation rules must rely on good signage on the ground—a difficult thing for the BLM to maintain with limited budgets and considerable miles of roads and trails.

This challenge is not limited to Montana. The BLM has completed travel management planning on approximately 20 percent of the 245 million acres administered by the agency, yet useful geospatial transportation data is not publicly available for most areas. In fact, the only places where helpful geospatial transportation information has been made available is where local BLM offices have taken it upon themselves to develop more thorough transportation layers than required by the agency.

The MAPLand Act would fix this information shortfall by requiring the BLM to add access specific attributes to the GTLF and make them publicly available within three years. GPS mapping companies could then add these data to their smart phone applications and make detailed access information available to the public in real time.

While each agency can point to some accomplishment of the mapping requirements proposed in the MAPLand Act, their data are generally inconsistent from one agency to the next and none of the agencies have completed all of these proposed requirements. For example, the USFS has done a really good job with its transportation layers, while other agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation have considerable work left to do. Without consistent and comprehensive data provided by each agency, hunters and anglers can’t be confident that GPS mapping devices will provide them with the information they need to stay safe and legal while recreating on public lands.

There are also useful data layers that MAPLand would require the agencies to produce that are currently not being pursued. For instance, there is no comprehensive digital information being developed for areas with shooting restrictions, nor is there standardized digital information on watercraft rules. While management decisions regarding these recreational opportunities have been made in agency land use plans, the creation of digital resources for the public has been overlooked.

Agency personnel and a variety of stakeholders invest considerable time in the public processes used to create these management decisions and frameworks, which ultimately aim to conserve the values and resources held in trust for all public landowners. But unless the resulting plans are easily accessible to everyone—which in the twenty-first century means available with a glance at a smartphone—we aren’t seeing the full benefits of the hard work and collaboration that went into creating them.

It’s time that our federal land management agencies have the guidance and funding to bring public land mapping systems into the modern era. Public land users of all types should be able to use digital mapping systems and smartphone applications to identify new opportunities for access and recreation, and to better understand the rules to help reduce conflicts with private landowners and prevent inadvertent violations of agency regulations.

Take action today for improved public land mapping systems designed to help hunters and anglers enjoy better days in the field and on the water.

 

Top Photo: Maven/Craig Okraska

April 21, 2021

19 Groups Push for $100M to Improve Forest Service Roads, Trails, and Habitat Connectivity

Often an overlooked and underfunded tool, the Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation program is uniquely poised to improve hunting and fishing access, habitat, and water quality—all while addressing the agency’s deferred maintenance backlog and creating conservation jobs

When it comes to sizeable federal resources dedicated to improving our hunting and fishing access, there are a few standouts that you probably already know. Of course, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has created outdoor recreation opportunities in every county in the nation and on many kinds of public land, from wildlife refuges to urban parks. And you’ve likely heard us talk about the farm bill program that funds walk-in access programs across the country to help open private lands to public hunting and fishing.

But there’s an often overlooked and underfunded program that could have a direct impact on your access and opportunities if the public lands you hunt and fish are managed by the U.S. Forest Service. It’s the only program in federal government that funds road improvements on public lands based purely on environmental conditions, like where sediment from failing roads is degrading our trout streams.

It’s called the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation program, and this month we gathered 18 partners to help us push congressional appropriators to give it a boost. Here’s why our coalition requested that $100 million be dedicated to Legacy Roads and Trails projects.

More Reliable Access, Better Habitat

The Forest Service manages more than 191 million acres of public land that provide essential habitat for a wide range of North American fish and game species. Across the country, from the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia to the Colville National Forest in Washington, projects funded by the Legacy Roads and Trails program have made major improvements to water quality and aquatic habitat while making Forest Service roads and trails more durable.

The program’s targeted activities create outdoor recreation and conservation jobs across the nation and save American taxpayers millions in road maintenance costs. These activities include:

Maintaining and/or storm-proofing thousands of miles of roads to protect habitat, water quality, and downstream communities. These investments on our public lands have helped to improve drinking water and increase flood resiliency in the face of increasingly unpredictable and intense weather events.

Reclaiming thousands of miles of unneeded roads to prevent erosion from damaging streams and reconnecting fragmented habitat. Research has consistently shown that big game species need big, wild country, uninterrupted by motorized disturbance. The LRT program helps address this wildlife need by removing and restoring unused tertiary motorized routes. These efforts help provide secure habitat for sensitive species like elk and mule deer, while also providing hunters opportunities to experience the solitude, challenge, and reward that hunting wild public land provides.

Replacing more than 1,000 culverts to restore fish passage, aiding the recovery of fish species important to restoration goals, tribal communities, and sportfishing enthusiasts. Over half of the money used for fish passage and culvert projects came from external partners, amplifying the effect of Legacy Roads and Trails seed funds.

Improving more than 5,000 miles of trails, driving the $778-billion outdoor recreation economy.

If those results aren’t convincing enough, here’s what else we told lawmakers: The Legacy Roads and Trails program works because it is targeted and results oriented. Collaborative stewardship of the program has made fishing and hunting better, while providing high-paying jobs that help support families in rural communities.

The program is also uniquely positioned to help the Forest Service address its historic maintenance backlog. The Service has identified a backlog of over $3.5 billion in deferred maintenance for roads, close to 400 high-priority culvert projects requiring nearly $110 million, and $675 million for priority watershed restoration projects in just a portion of the watersheds nationwide.

With its proven track record and broad bipartisan support, the LRT program is ideally shaped to begin addressing these needs once again.

If you’d like to be notified about opportunities to directly engage with lawmakers about important conservation funding issues like this, sign up for our newsletter.

 

Image courtesy of Kyle Mlynar

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