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Commonsense reforms would create efficiencies while benefitting fish and wildlife
Last week, the Department of the Interior released a report on its oil and gas leasing program in response to a February 2021 executive order aimed at addressing the challenges of climate change. The DOI report has been met with heated rhetoric from both sides of the political spectrum, but the TRCP believes that several commonsense recommendations in the report should be implemented to reduce the negative consequences of oil and gas development on public lands.
In light of the reality that Americans rely heavily on fossil fuels to drive our cars and heat our homes, combined with the value of public lands to hunters and anglers, we feel this is a topic we should share with our community. First, we’ll provide some background on why the TRCP has been working for years to help balance responsible energy development with the needs of fish, wildlife, and outdoor recreation. We’ll also explain everything you need to know about practices recommended in the report that would affect your hunting and fishing opportunities.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership first became involved in public lands energy leasing and development in 2006, as an overwhelming body of scientific knowledge demonstrated that an energy boom on Bureau of Land Management public lands was significantly affecting mule deer in many areas of the West. In places like the Pinedale Anticline in Wyoming, the severity of these impacts forced state agency officials to reduce hunter tag allocations and shorten season dates.
As a result, the TRCP began to engage with the policies and processes that govern how oil and gas resources are sold by federal agencies to private entities and then developed on public ground. TRCP’s approach has been to propose solutions that reduce the impacts of oil and gas development on fish and wildlife resources, while supporting responsible and necessary development of these resources. The TRCP additionally supports infrastructure investments that build a clean energy economy and transition to reliable renewable energy alternatives, while also ensuring a consistent and affordable supply of energy for all Americans.
The DOI report highlights some practices that align with what the TRCP has been calling for and can be implemented while still allowing responsible energy development to take place. Below are some of the recommendations we support and why.
Presently, the vast majority of BLM lands are open to oil and gas leasing. This includes areas that are identified as having low potential for development, because the mineral resources don’t exist. While it may not seem like a big deal to offer areas where the development expectation is low, energy companies often nominate and lease these lands, both because the leasing rates can be practically free at just $2 an acre and because this practice makes it appear as though companies own more resources than they do, thereby making them more attractive to outside investors. For example, 2.7 million acres were proposed for lease in Nevada between 2013 and 2020, and many of these areas have low potential for development.
Even though the bulk of these areas will not see on-the-ground development, their leasing by the agency still has real-world consequences. When important fish and wildlife habitat, like big game winter range or riparian zones, are leased for development, that use-right is often prioritized over other uses, like the conservation of an area deemed important for hunters and anglers. Therefore, the BLM may be reluctant to put in place measures that could benefit fish and wildlife or outdoor recreation once the lease is sold.
Further, while the agency does collect some revenue from the sale of low-potential lands, they are wasting millions of dollars processing lease nominations in places without development potential. Those scarce public resources could be better spent on other management needs, including leasing areas with actual development potential, particularly where impacts to fish and wildlife are fewer. To make efficient use of taxpayer resources and allow the agency to prioritize conservation and recreation in areas with little potential for development, the TRCP believes that such areas should not be available for lease at all.
“Bonus bids” refer to the $2-an-acre fee that the winning bidder pays for an oil and gas lease if the price is not increased through competitive bidding at auction. At this low minimum rate, energy companies are incentivized to buy up large swaths of minerals on public land, prioritizing lands for energy production over other uses, like wildlife and hunting, even when these companies are unable to or uninterested in developing these areas.
These low rates add to the problem of speculators nominating tens of thousands of acres of low potential lands for lease, as has occurred in Nevada and other Western states. Increasing the minimum bonus bid price would incentivize energy companies to only nominate and purchase lease parcels that are of actual interest for development and would ensure the American public receives a fair rate of return on the sale of minerals.
Energy companies often purchase large swaths of public minerals and then sit on them, without any short-term intention of developing those resources. While this practice of not using leases might help the company secure investors—by demonstrating a large portfolio of assets—it can also be used to essentially reserve lands for development over decades at a time.
Right now, companies pay a rental rate of just $1.50 per acre per year for the first five years of the lease and $2 per year thereafter until the lease expires or when royalty payments begin to exceed their price. The TRCP supports efforts by the BLM to encourage leaseholders to develop their oil and gas leases, versus sitting on them for as long as possible. We believe a rental rate increase could help address this problem.
It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of “orphaned” oil and gas wells across the nation, abandoned by energy developers without any cleanup, and the Government Accountability Office estimates that 84 percent of Bureau of Land Management bonds are inadequate to ensure proper remediation of a drilling site when a well has been abandoned. These wells often leak methane into the atmosphere and pollute fish and wildlife habitat. Disturbed sites further serve as a source of invasive noxious weeds, the spread of which greatly diminishes the habitat values of winter range and the sagebrush ecosystem in the West. The TRCP supports an increase in minimum bond amounts that take into account recent changes in technology, the complexity and depth of modern wells, inflation, and the risk of abandonment.
It doesn’t take a lot of attention to realize that debates over oil and gas development are heated and passionate in America. And while some people are calling for an end to fossil fuel production, that’s not what the DOI leasing report is proposing. The TRCP is hopeful that some of the report’s commonsense provisions are implemented by the BLM and DOI. Even better, we encourage Congress to adopt some of these measures through the Build Back Better legislation. These steps would help to provide more certainty for fish and wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation, while still allowing for responsible energy development on appropriate federal lands.
Pennsylvania’s 1.5 million acres of state game land, 86,000 miles of rivers and streams, and almost 2.5 million acres of state parks and forests have a lot to offer hunters, anglers, and public land users of all kinds. These natural treasures support our economy, create healthy communities, and provide recreation for our families.
To ensure this continued vitality, Governor Wolf and the General Assembly must provide adequate funding for a Growing Greener III program and a Clean Streams Fund using funding already granted to the state as part of national economic recovery efforts.
Here are two state bills that you can support to advance conservation in the Keystone State and what’s at stake where you hunt and fish.
Since its creation in 1999, the Growing Greener program has funded hundreds of parks and trail projects and has a long track record of proven success in conserving the state’s fish and wildlife habitat. Right now, new state legislation is being debated that would establish a framework, build on Pennsylvania’s conservation legacy and boosting the outdoor recreation economy by providing the necessary authority for administrative agencies in the Commonwealth to fund vital conservation projects identified since the last time Growing Greener was fully authorized. Approximately $500 million would come from the dollars given to the state from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Pre-pandemic numbers showed that the outdoor recreation industry helps to drive Pennsylvania’s economy. This was even more true as residents committed to social distancing and other forms of indoor entertainment were closed due to COVID-19.
State fishing license sales have increased by 20 percent, with boat registrations up 40 percent. One-time spikes in participation are impressive enough, but it is extremely important that we continue to support this growing sector of our state’s economy. And this can’t be done without dedicated investments.
Growing Greener III would provide the funding needed to give our economy this boost while conserving natural resources that will increase our quality of life for years to come.
A separate state bill would help to safeguard and restore Pennsylvania streams and rivers, while stimulating economic growth in our communities. Our great state is blessed with tens of thousands of miles of unmatched waters, but we are not without water quality challenges.
First, as use of our natural resources increases, so does the need to safeguard fish and wildlife habitat. Many state parks and forests saw 100- to 200-percent bumps in visitation, but parks with large water features saw as much as a 400-percent increase in foot traffic since the pandemic began.
At the same time, almost one-third of Pennsylvania’s surface water does not meet state water quality standards for either fish or humans, putting our health at risk and diminishing our economy. By investing $250 million of Pennsylvania’s share of American Rescue Plan funds, Senate Bill 832 would establish a new fund dedicated solely to water quality—specifically focused on “non-point” sources of pollution, such as agricultural runoff and acid mine drainage, that are spread throughout our state.
The bill—along with its House companion, H.B. 1901—would also create the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program to help farmers implement conservation practices that keep valuable topsoil in place and reduce potentially harmful material from reaching local waterways. This would have impacts from the Keystone State all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.
This legislation would go a long way toward helping us protect Pennsylvania’s water resources and expand access to outdoor recreation, while shoring up the health of vital industries like tourism and agriculture.
If you value our state’s coldwater fisheries, big game and bird habitat, and widespread public access to outdoor recreation that supports local jobs, do NOT wait. Act now and urge decision-makers to support S.B. 525 and S.B. 832 today.
Top photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission via Flickr.
With the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law in November, a significant commitment was made to our nation’s land, water, and wildlife.
The bill’s $8-billion investment in our forests, in particular, will support federal, state, Tribal, and private forest restoration efforts, while making these landscapes more resilient to wildfire, drought, pests, and diseases—the spread of which is now fueled by climate change.
New data confirm that climate-driven events are a part of our daily lives and threaten our hunting and fishing opportunities, but there are solutions all around us in the land, coasts, and trees that also support fish and wildlife. In fact, U.S. forests and forest products currently capture and store nearly 15 percent of our annual carbon emissions.
With the right policies, our nation’s forests can do even more. Here are three forestry bills we’re following closely that you should know about.
America’s Revegetation and Carbon Sequestration Act would establish a national revegetation program to weave together fragmented landscapes and improve habitat connectivity. The legislation would prioritize ecological- and landscape-appropriate revegetation, incentivize forest management for enhanced carbon sequestration, and support targeted research to better connect between forest and rangeland planning and carbon storage. Additional provisions would create improvements in the entire forestry pipeline, from nursery inventory and capacity to market creation for low-value forest products.
We’re particularly interested in the abandoned mine land revegetation pilot program created in the bill, which offers a unique opportunity to rehabilitate regional landscapes and economies by creating new jobs. The program would provide financial assistance to establish native trees, shrubs, or grasses on federal, state, Tribal, and privately mined lands. These lands are often overrun with non-native, invasive vegetation and shrubs that have little benefit to wildlife and fail to add capacity in terms of carbon storage.
Expert forestry witnesses recently testified in support of the act during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing. The bill will need a committee markup before moving to the floor for passage.
We believe the science-backed approach of active forest management—including prescribed fire, paired with mechanical treatments—is crucial to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfire and restore ecosystems. Forest systems that are not actively managed are at greater risk for not only wildfire but also pests and disease.
But forest management is needed at a greater pace and scale than agencies can handle right now. The National Prescribed Fire Act would provide dedicated funding for prescribed fire projects and establish a workforce-development program and prescribed fire training center to help agency staff get equipped. The bill also recognizes the science and wisdom of long-standing practices by indigenous communities to yield balanced, diverse landscapes and improved native wildlife habitat.
Expert forestry witnesses recently testified in support of the act during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing. The bill will need a committee markup before moving to the floor for passage.
Introduced earlier this year in both chambers, the Rural Forest Markets Act recognizes our farmers and foresters as important land stewards by providing them with loan guarantees and incentivizing climate-smart practices. Access to funding will remove barriers for rural farmers and foresters to participate in carbon markets, providing new income sources and related forestry jobs. The sustainable forest management that this bill promotes will give a boost to the timber market while providing habitat and climate solutions. The next step for this bill is a hearing and mark-up in either the Senate or House agriculture committees.
To be the first to hear about opportunities to support legislation that improves habitat while strengthening our country’s climate resilience, sign up for our emails.
Top photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.
“The whole face of the country was covered with herds of buffalo, elk and antelopes; deer are also abundant . . . the buffalo, elk and antelope are so gentle that we pass near them while feeding without appearing to excite or alarm them, and when we attract their attention they frequently approach us more nearly to discover what we are . . . in these delightful tracts of country.” — Meriwether Lewis, 1804
With images of prairies teeming with wildlife dancing around my cranium, I turned to gaze out of the airplane’s window. Stretched out below as far as I could see was an endless array of irrigated crop circles, crowded together in that extra efficient way that makes America the most productive agricultural power in the world.
The benefits of a strong agricultural sector are obvious, but as our footprint on the landscape grows and grows, and land ownership trends are shifting, where do wildlife and hunters fit in? Agriculture producers and other private landowners are, in fact, an essential part of the collaborative work of conservation, particularly since fish and wildlife do not recognize property boundaries or jurisdictions drawn on a map. And some landowners do more for hunters than improve habitat, though gaining access to private land may look different than in years past, when a knock on the front door and a handshake was the norm.
In Montana, a constellation of successful access programming, private landowner support, and a unique conservation project has given hunters, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts some extraordinary opportunities to enjoy the very same landscapes that westward explorers like Lewis and Clark experienced.
The purpose of my trip was to travel far off the beaten path across some of these lands and see firsthand a private-land conservation project called the American Prairie Reserve.
One of the best things about the APR is that it’s opening gates to both people and animals. Wildlife corridors are being extended and expanded. People are invited to visit and enjoy it through hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, birding, biking and more. Even better, many of the properties acquired by the APR provide new or improved access to tracts of public lands previously cut off by fences and no trespassing signs.
This is because many APR properties are enrolled in Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Block Management system, a cooperative, voluntary program that helps private landowners offer free hunting access on their land, which is sometimes adjacent to isolated public lands.
That said, it certainly takes time and commitment to get here. We arrived at last, having overnighted in Billings and driven for several hours to the edge of the American Prairie Reserve’s 14,000-acre Blue Ridge property south of Malta, Montana. Our plan was to identify an end-of-the-road jumping-off point for a four-night backpacking trip to explore this new property and the adjacent public lands, which includes portions of the Burnt Lodge Wilderness Study Area and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
The Blue Ridge is the most recent addition to the APR, resembling in some ways a puzzle piece of essential habitat plugged into the expansive surrounding ecosystem, which stretches some 160 miles on either side of the Missouri River from roughly the Fort Peck dam in the east to Coal Banks Landing in the west. This region is comprised of vast tracts of public lands, including the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. While not all of it is easily accessible, the vast majority of both the public lands and the APR additions are open to a wide range of recreational pursuits, including hunting and fishing.
Joining me were two adventurous friends: Luther Propst and Randy Luskey, both wilderness aficionados with extensive outdoor resumes. Luther brought along his dog, Sofie, a rescue Blue Heeler who turned out to be the perfect trail companion.
We were attracted to the Blue Ridge because of its remoteness and its function as a wildlife corridor and home to a resident elk herd, bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and other interesting flora and fauna. But our departure point required navigating a matrix of unpaved back roads that are not always well-marked.
In this wide-open country, the farms and ranches are widely spaced, and we passed only a handful of vehicles after leaving the blacktop, seeing more bison and antelope than people. In fact, besides our party, the APR staff knew of only one other group that had ventured into the Blue Ridge over the past two years.
Ultimately, a combination of maps, Randy’s acumen with the GPS, and deductive reasoning got us to our destination with only a few wrong turns. At last, we pulled off the dirt road at a fenceline and parked on a rise circled by a grove of pine trees, anxious to shoulder our packs and head out. A coyote picked its way across the landscape only 100 yards ahead of us.
Across the rolling prairie we could see the Missouri River to the south and east. In both directions were broad ravines—“coulees” in the local vernacular—cutting down to the river every half mile or so. We picked an interesting-looking one to the southeast and began our descent, easing ourselves into a world of fresh air, welcomed by the scents of pine and sage blended with scattered wildflowers. There was beautiful bird song everywhere.
Initially, it was easy walking through scattered cedars and juniper, and we kicked up mule deer in ones and twos. Soon, however, deep cuts and smaller side ravines hidden by slight folds of terrain and screens of trees blocked our path. What had looked like a nice level track across the bench was, in fact, bisected by narrow, steep-sided, and deep gouges running at right angles to the main coulee. The long prairie grasses hid the terrain’s edges from view until we were almost on top of them, facing a classic dilemma in wilderness navigation: Either we could take things head-on by scrambling down one side and up the other, head uphill and hope the terrain leveled out, or seek level passage closer to the valley bottom.
After some experimentation, we did some combo of trekking along the high ground and wending along the bottoms. Still, the challenge made things fun and interesting. We charted solo routes, claiming small, unspoken victories over each other when our path proved the most efficient.
Well-used game trails both illustrated the health of the local big game herds and also demarcated the most efficient routes across the landscape. While the trails tended to disperse and fade out on more level ground, the resident wildlife seemed to agree on the best ways to traverse the most challenging sections of the terrain, and we followed their lead.
We regularly came across the bones of elk and deer, oddly without the teeth marks of predators, and even more oddly without the gnawing toothmarks of porcupines. Elk and deer scat was abundant, and we speculated that an unidentified pile was a sign of the bighorn sheep we were told spend time here.
Randy, a serious mountaineer, tended to range a bit ahead and christened it “mud-a-neering” as we scrambled up and down the tight spots, kicking footholds in the soft soil typical of the badlands and the breaks. This stuff becomes paradoxically slippery and sticky when wet—the famous gumbo. Luckily, the skies were blue and the rain was a few days away.
A few hours in, we stopped for lunch next to a grove of small junipers. Relaxing in the shade, we noticed that we’d rarely heard or seen any jet planes overhead, adding to the sense of untouched grandeur and isolation that the Lewis and Clark expedition must have encountered when they passed through this area.
Looking at the terrain ahead, we decided to navigate along the valley bottom, which worked out well until it didn’t. We headed for some higher ground, each of us charting our own course and calling out to our comrades to guide us away from the bad terrain and to the good. What appeared to be a straight, relatively flat section of ground turned out to be just that, only cleaved by several deep and steep ravines which were not fun to clamber over. We kicked up more mule deer and then a small group of large, healthy-looking elk with beautiful dark, red-brown coats.
As the afternoon faded, we spotted a spacious level area with a scattering of trees and a nice view of the distant Missouri river. Even better, it had a flat, waist-high boulder that made an ideal kitchen table and bar.
I waited as Randy and Luther threw down their packs and put up their tents. I’ve adventured with these guys before, and one is a world-class snorer. I knew I needed to be at least 50 yards away and upwind. On the plus side, the cacophony kept away curious predators.
The next day, we headed out on a loop hike down to the Missouri River to explore along the shores, water up, and circle back up to the other side of our coulee. I knew from reading the Lewis and Clark accounts of their passage through this immediate area that they passed by here in May of 1805. I’m no longer astounded by the sheer volume of wildlife they encountered.
Deer and elk scat was everywhere. Other than a single spent shotgun shell and a well-weathered .30-30 casing, we saw no other signs of humans until we approached the river. There, dozens of geese and ducks took to the sky, making as much noise as possible. Several hundred yards out on the water we spotted three fishing boats working the bays and inlets.
With honking waterfowl swirling overhead, we finally reached the top of the narrow, barren ridge to an expansive, 360-degree view. The perfect lunch stop quickly lost its appeal as the wind kicked up and the skies started to spit cold rain while lightning flashed to the west.
Later on, our path hooked south and west, paralleling the shoreline before heading up one of the adjacent coulees. Navigating up a steep ridge line, we entered a patch of ponderosas that offered three level spots for our three tents, with a nearby clearing that boasted a fantastic view of the Missouri and wild country in every direction.
Even after the sun went down and the world went dark, we couldn’t see a single artificial light on the horizon.
After hot coffee and a robust breakfast the next morning, we packed up to head up valley and top out. This valley was a little rougher than the one we took coming in, complicated by the fact that we were moving and looking uphill, always a suboptimal perspective for reading the terrain. Randy took the lead and Luther and I trailed behind him.
As we approached the head of the drainage, we hit a pronounced game trail, which led us steeply uphill and then across a bare rock face for about 200 feet. The trail was about 10 inches wide with the rock face to our left and a sheer drop to our right. It was exhilarating to cross. A bit further on, the terrain opened up and we finally hit the rolling prairie where we’d started four days earlier. The several miles back to our starting point went by quickly.
Back at the truck, Luther pulled a cooler from the back. Tucked inside were three cold beers, which we raised in a toast to future adventures in the vastness of the APR and public lands beyond.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More