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January 22, 2024

Jack by Gulf reef oil rig

Credit Brittanie Shey

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Alaska’s D-1 Lands: The Biggest Conservation Opportunity You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Life-long Alaskan Bjorn Dihle explains what’s at stake for hunters and anglers on 28 million acres of public lands currently under review in Alaska

My older brother whispered the yardage as a Dall sheep ram slowly climbed toward a bank of fog. 

“305. 310. 315,” he said, irritation growing in his voice. 

I watched the ram through my rifle scope, knowing it was a matter of seconds until I no longer had a shot. Our younger brother was doing his best not to explode.  

It was my first sheep hunt, and I was nervous about pulling the trigger on a sublegal animal. Our low-quality spotting scope was underpowered, but even to my untrained eye the ram looked more than full curl. The ram stepped into the first swirl of fog and stood broadside. A few moments after my shot echoed across the mountain, the sheep crashed into rocks. My brothers shook their heads in disbelief.  

“We really thought you were going to blow it,” they said.  

We were hunting the eastern Alaska Range, a mecca for outdoor adventure. Its mountains, tundra, and taiga offer everything from quests for Dall sheep and ATV moose hunts, to the annual fall Denali Highway caribou pilgrimage where families and friends enjoy time together trying to fill their freezers with the best meat out there. Much of the region is managed by the Bureau of Land Management as “D-1” lands. 

“D-1” sounds like technical jargon that doesn’t apply to the real world, but what it really means is “some of the best and wildest fishing and hunting grounds in Alaska.” These are places where visitors and locals have the opportunity to do things like hunt caribou and moose, and fish for all five species of salmon and a host of other freshwater fish. It’s big country where you can wander and do, more or less, what you please. This sort of freedom is increasingly rare in places outside of Alaska. For many outdoor folks, the vast solitude that D-1 lands afford is the most special part of a fishing or hunting trip. 

The D-1 lands currently under review by the BLM are concentrated in Western Alaska, including important winter range for the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, one of Alaska’s largest caribou herds. The planning area contains intact hunting and fishing habitat in other renowned areas across the state, including Bristol Bay—home to the world’s most prolific sockeye salmon fishery—and the headwaters of the Chilkat River in Southeast Alaska, famous for its salmon runs and for hosting the biggest congregation of bald eagles in the world.  

A Rare Opportunity to Maintain Quality Habitat and Public Access

Alaska’s D-1 lands were originally withdrawn from mineral extraction in the 1970s to ensure the uses of these lands were consistent with the public interest. These lands have been effectively safeguarded from privatization and large-scale industrial development for approximately 50 years, which has helped maintain intact habitat and public access for hunters and anglers. 

Now, the BLM is taking a fresh look at how 28 million acres of D-1 lands should be managed for future generations. Later this year, the agency plans to issue a decision to fully retain, partially retain, or revoke the withdrawals that have prevented mineral entry and conveyance to private interests for decades. If these conservation measures are revoked, it is reasonable to expect that hunting and fishing quality and opportunity would be diminished on some of Alaska’s most spectacular public lands.  

These lands are home to approximately 100 rural communities. Many villagers in the planning area live hundreds of miles from the nearest modern grocery store; they harvest wild foods like game, fish, and berries to feed their families and to continue their cultural traditions.  Nearly 80 Alaskan Tribes are calling on the BLM to maintain the existing D-1 safeguards that support salmon, caribou, moose, and other species on which they depend.  

Alaska’s unique state and federal laws protect the customary and traditional uses of fish and game above all other consumptive uses. In order to maintain harvest opportunities for all users, it is essential that we maintain healthy populations of game and fish. The conservation of Alaska’s D-1 lands is an important strategy, especially for species experiencing population declines, such as caribou and Dall sheep.

“The BLM’s review of these 28 million acres is one of the largest public lands conservation opportunities in America,” said Jen Leahy, the Alaska program manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Many hunting and fishing groups, including the TRCP, must often focus on restoring important habitat that was previously degraded, or developing new conservation programs to address an unmet need. This is a unique issue because we’re seeking to maintain a successful conservation tool that has worked well for hunters and anglers for decades.” 

A Map of the Future 

It triggers a lot of memories when I look at a map of the 28 million acres the BLM is reviewing. There on the lower Noatak River is where that brown bear sow and cubs visited camp. There in Bristol Bay, I took a break picking sockeye out of a net to study a volcano rising out of the tundra. There, in the upper Chilkat River Valley, I found a bitten off wolf paw on an otherwise completely white, snow-covered alpine expanse. There, in the eastern Alaska Range was where my family got that bull moose. There, on that mountain was where a wolverine ran past three unconcerned bull caribou I was glassing. There, at the edge of that glacier was where my buddy and I snuck by a caribou that had just been killed and cached by a grizzly. A few hours before that, we’d encountered a herd of more than 70 Dall sheep. 

I have only experienced a portion of D-1 lands, but what I’ve seen has been more than enough to make me know what’s at stake. Allowing all 28 million acres to be opened to industrialization and privatization would deprive future generations of our outdoor heritage.  

Hunters and anglers have an opportunity to help protect some of the best and wildest fishing and hunting grounds in Alaska. The BLM comment period on the D-1 draft environmental impact statement is open through February 14, 2024. If you believe like I do that hunting, fishing, and clean water are our highest priorities for managing these public lands, please take one minute to submit a comment to the BLM in support of retaining the D-1 withdrawals. The public may also submit comments directly through the BLM’s site.

Bjorn Dihle is a lifelong Alaskan, who’s been hunting, fishing and exploring his state since he was a kid. He lives with his wife and two young boys in Southeast Alaska, where he does a variety of wildlife and conservation work. 

Photo credits: Bjorn Dihle

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January 18, 2024

The TRCP applauds BLM Eastern Colorado Resource Management Plan for Establishing Backcountry Conservation Areas

Within BCAs, the BLM will prioritize conservation, restoration, and hunting and angling access

Today, the Bureau of Land Management’s Royal Gorge Field Office published their Record of Decision revising the Eastern Colorado Resource Management Plan after more than eight years of planning and public engagement. Hunters, anglers, and conservationists applaud the addition of 87,400 acres of Backcountry Conservation Areas in the Arkansas River Valley and Rural Foothills landscapes within the field office.

“The Eastern Colorado RMP will improve how high-value fish and wildlife habitat is conserved and managed across these BLM lands,” praised Liz Rose, Colorado field representative for the TRCP. “The BLM is wisely directing development away from key wildlife habitats by excluding BCAs from future utility and non-utility scale renewable energy and oil and gas development, while prioritizing conservation measures that benefit wildlife, hunters, and anglers long-term.”

This final RMP will provide management direction for 658,200 surface acres and nearly 3.3 million acres of BLM-administered mineral estate across eastern Colorado for decades to come. These BLM lands are home to elk, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and wild and native trout, and encompass 487 miles of streams and rivers and popular destination lakes and reservoirs valued by anglers. The TRCP thanks all the BLM, Department of Natural Resources, and Colorado Parks & Wildlife staff, county officials, and TRCP members, supporters, and partners who have provided invaluable feedback, guidance, and expertise since this plan revision process began in 2015.

The final BLM plan commits to managing about 13% of the field office as BCAs. Protecting these extraordinary fish and wildlife habitats from incompatible development and habitat fragmentation, while providing high-quality access for hunting, fishing, and trapping is a win-win for TRCP members. 

In these BCAs, the BLM will focus management activities on the conservation and restoration of key habitats, which can include wildfire mitigation work and habitat improvement projects.

Before the formal planning process began, Park County, Colorado Wildlife Federation, TRCP, several other conservation organizations, and water providers came together as the South Park Coalition and began identifying areas suitable for development and areas key to conserve.

“I think the work we did well before the formal process made a big difference to enable the really good outcome for the unique resources of the South Park area,” said Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation. “We applaud BLM’s recognition throughout the process of this iconic basin’s distinctive and largely unfragmented wildlife habitats, prized trout streams, water quality, and spectacular vistas. In addition, the plan’s treatment of the areas managed by BLM in eastern Colorado outside of South Park has been much improved.”

The now cohesive, established framework for guiding management on eastern Colorado’s public lands will mean the BLM will be able to adapt management to best address shifting conditions and priorities.

Photo Credit: Larry Lamsa

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January 17, 2024

TRCP Responds to BLM Western Solar Development Proposal

Organization encourages BLM to conserve big game habitats & hunting and fishing areas as it advances solar development on public lands

Today, the Bureau of Land Management released a draft plan that—when completed—will guide utility-scale solar development on federal public lands across 11 western states. The draft is a proposed update of BLM’s 2012 Western Solar Plan, which identified areas in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah with high solar potential and low resource conflicts to streamline solar development. The update expands application of the Western Solar Plan to include potential solar development on public lands in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.

“We recognize that public lands in the west provide important options to help meet the nation’s renewable energy needs,” said Jon Holst, wildlife & energy senior advisor for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Our public lands also contain critical unfragmented habitats for fish and wildlife populations that offer world class hunting and angling opportunities. We will be looking at the details of this draft plan to make sure that the interests of hunters and anglers are incorporated.”

The TRCP and partners have been involved in BLM’s efforts to update the Western Solar Plan since scoping began in late 2022. The updated plan is an important step toward meeting the Administration’s goals of deploying 25 GW of renewable energy on public lands by 2025 and to have a 100 percent clean electricity grid by 2035. The BLM and Department of Energy estimate that approximately 700,000 acres of public lands will be needed to meet the Administration’s goals for solar deployment. The TRCP is committed to working with our membership, partners, state and local governments, and other key stakeholders to facilitate a successful outcome for the Western Solar Plan that advances the development of solar energy in a manner that also conserves our natural resources and sporting heritage.

This release kicks off a 90-day comment period where the public will have an opportunity to provide input on the alternatives and other management options presented by the BLM in the draft plan. Public input will inform a Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision. The public can submit written comments through April 18, 2024. More details are available on BLM’s Solar Program website.

Find the BLM press release here.

Find TRCP’s scoping comments here.

Find TRCP’s public land solar blog here.

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Reflections from an Owyhee Canyons’ Chukar Camp

TRCP’s new Oregon Field Representative, Tristan Henry, looks back on a recent chukar hunt and forward to the work that must be done to safeguard this iconic landscape

While reminiscing about a recent chukar hunt in the Owyhee Canyons and my new role as the Oregon field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, I was reminded of a quote penned by Walt Whitman almost 150 years ago:

“As to scenery, while I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the Upper Yellowstone, and the like afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.”

I’d have to agree with old Walt. I’ve been lucky to spend many days in the field chasing chukar, hunting mule deer, and throwing dry flies and streamers across the vast expanse of public lands that constitute southeast Oregon’s Owyhee country. It’s a rare treat to sip coffee with a bird dog by your side around a morning fire as you watch the first burst of sunlight rise above the Owyhee plateau. Out there, in sagebrush-covered solitude, it can be tempting to want to save the last best places for ourselves, but sharing it is something far more powerful.

A Community Camp

In late October of last year, I joined a group of hunters and photographers for a few days to camp, hunt, and capture images and stories about this remote and beautiful canyon country. A few in our group were lucky enough to experience the Owyhee for the first time: Sav Sankaran of the Orvis company and Durell Smith of the Sporting Life Notebook had loaded their truck more than 2000 miles away and drove 31 hours for their first shots at wild chukar with renowned outdoors photographer Brian Grossenbacher there to capture the moment. Conservation staff and local members of the Owyhee Sportsmen and their families rounded out our camp, and I can say with a great deal of confidence I would share a fire with all of them any day.

We camped in as stunning a desert campsite as I have ever seen. At the confluence of several streams, mallards circled, redband trout finned, and after a frigid night, we woke to cowboy coffee and the sound of chukar greeting the sun from the rimrocks. We discussed our strategy for the morning hunt with scalding bacon that hardened quickly in the morning cold. After the dogs were collared, we drove out of the canyon in the direction of those distant “chucking” partridge. Shutting the tailgate, I heeled my dog, beeped his collar, and began walking westward through sage and rimrock.

“It’s a rare treat to sip coffee with a bird dog by your side around a morning fire as you watch the first burst of sunlight rise above the Owyhee plateau.”

Sturgil, my 4-year-old wirehair, and I had shared some incredible days in the early weeks of Oregon’s upland season, and though this one started out a mess, we ended on a string of high notes. Birds were plentiful and I walked back to the truck with a heavy vest and one sequence etched proudly in my mind: A productive point, the approach, and a cloud of sixes finding a bird.

After a particularly wet spring brought much needed moisture to the thirsty high desert of the northern great basin, it was easy to see glimmers of that once-healthy rangeland. The weight in my vest was tangible proof of the productivity of the place, but thousands of acres of cheatgrass, medusahead, Russian thistle, and knapweed remind us just how much more needs to be done to protect the Owyhee.

Back at camp, we exchanged stories of the day over bourbon and under a star-filled sky. With a shared love for birds, bird dogs, and a thirst for community in wild places, we traversed our memories, each ridge and valley telling a story of survival and adaptation. As hunters, I suppose we’re used to navigating the thin margin between abundance and austerity, and we may be uniquely experienced in finding hope where others see desolation. There’s proof enough of that in the photos. These moments captured the stark magic of the Owyhee just about perfectly.

So few places in the U.S. offer such a complete escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life that one can truly lose oneself in nature. Fewer still offer all this splendor while also supporting grazing, hunting, fishing, and a myriad of other multiple-use purposes, but the Owyhee does. As a lifelong Oregonian and hunter, I’ve come to understand that safeguarding such places is not just an environmental imperative: it’s a moral one. It is our duty to ensure that future generations can experience the same sense of connection and awe that we find while walking in on a point.

Learn more about the Owyhee Sportsmen and how you can help protect the Owyhee Country HERE

And learn more about TRCP’s work in the Pacific Northwest HERE.

Photo credit: Brian Grossenbacher

HOW YOU CAN HELP

CHEERS TO CONSERVATION

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.

$4 from each bag is donated to the TRCP, to help continue their efforts of safeguarding critical habitats, productive hunting grounds, and favorite fishing holes for future generations.

Learn More

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