A national recreational fishing policy

Rod and reel courtesy NMFS/NOAA

Photo courtesy of NMFS/NOAA.gov.

Well, it looks like the recreational fishing industry got an April Fools present. No, really, we did. It’s not a joke.

NOAA Fisheries has committed to establishing a national recreational fishing policy. What does that mean? The real answer is in the future, but the door that some like to say was “rusted shut” has been opened.

During the first days of April and what finally felt like real spring, I attended the Recreational Fishing Summit organized by NOAA Fisheries in the Washington, D.C., area. This summit was the fourth time the recreational fishing industry has come together to try to influence federal policies on fishing in general and specifically the policies that directly impact the recreational fishing industry and the 11 million saltwater anglers.

The first summit was held on the West Coast. Then came St. Petersburg, Fla., in the early 2000s. The last was in the D.C. area four years ago and started the ball rolling to change how the recreational fishing industry has been and is viewed by federal policy makers. This summit produced a fairly long list of changes that attendees wanted implemented. To his credit, Eric Schwab, then head of NOAA Fisheries, committed to getting that list checked off as soon as possible. While 100 percent of the items were not completed, most of did get done. One of the outstanding and frankly most important items is to get the “new” Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP, completed and functional. Time after time, at the summits and just about everywhere else, the recreational industry has questioned the data being used to manage the recreational users. There are substantial fluctuations in some of the catch number that just do not make any sense. If bad data are being used to set seasons, bag limits or assess catch, then folks’ suspicion is warranted. MRIP needs to be fully functional and completely trusted.

Marine Visioning Report for America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries

Image courtesy of Trcp.org.

This year’s summit was a follow-up to the previous one. The output was a list of things to be addressed by NOAA Fisheries. The list was not as long, but it has some fairly complicated issues to address. To a great extent the list is directly reflective of the Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries and the report presented by the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, Recreational Working Group. The “vision report” had a short list of important items, but several rise to the top in my mind. They did also at the summit. First, establish a national recreational fishing policy. Next was allocating marine fisheries for the greatest economic benefit to the nation. Also managing for the forage base. All of these were high up on the short list from the summit. All of these would change management policy and finally recognize the value of the recreational fishing industry.

I am happy to report that Eileen Sobeck, the newly appointed head of NOAA Fisheries, concluded the summit with the commitment to move ahead with establishing the national recreational fishing policy. Great stuff! But from the recreational industry standpoint, the real work now begins. We need to make sure that what goes into this policy is the right stuff. John Brownlee, editorial director of Salt Water Sportsman, Sport Fishing and Marlin magazine and keynote summit speaker, put it correctly when he said that the real work begins after we get NOAA Fisheries to say yes!

Yes, I do think that we are making headway. Rather than looking back and saying, “It’s about time,” I look forward and say, “We need to make sure we get it right this time!”

Bigger than bighorns

Big horn sheep

If politics and special agendas trump science-based wildlife management we all lose. Photo by Neil Thagard.

Most sportsmen agree that although fish and wildlife biology is complex, the decision to use the best available science in the management of valuable natural resources should not be. Unfortunately, the management objectives developed by fish and wildlife professionals too often are trumped by policymakers who undermine the science with special interest agendas. When this happens hunters and anglers inevitably lose.

We do not have to look far for examples, including the politically charged legal challenge to a decision made for bighorn sheep in the Payette National Forest of Idaho, which recently was settled after a lengthy court battle.

At the time of European settlement in the West, bighorn sheep were one of the most prominent large mammals on the landscape. Paleontological data indicates that there may have been as many as 2 million of these regal animals in America. But by the mid-1950s bighorn sheep had plummeted to only about 10,000 individuals. This decline was primarily due to unregulated hunting, forage competition from livestock grazing and the introduction of diseases transmitted by domestic sheep and goats. Today, we have regulated hunting and livestock grazing, but the disease transmission from domestic sheep and goats still occurs and is considered the No. 1 limiting factor to bighorn sheep recovery in the West.

According to Dr. Subramaniam Srikumaran, D.V.M., chair of the wild sheep disease research facility at Washington State University, large scale pneumonic die-offs have “decimated bighorn sheep populations time and time again.” These die offs are “unequivocally” the result of wild sheep being forced to share their native range with domestic sheep and goats.

Over the last 30 years bighorn advocates have worked with the domestic sheep industry on the only viable course of action currently available: separation of the two species. Mutually beneficial solutions such as buying out public land domestic sheep grazing allotments, converting them to another livestock type (such as cattle) or moving domestic sheep to alternative allotments outside of suitable historic bighorn sheep habitat all have been proposed. In a number of cases progress was made, yet in others, agreements could not be reached.

Then in March of 2005, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service announced a groundbreaking decision on an environmental impact study conducted in the Hells Canyon area of the Payette National Forest in Idaho. He determined that the forest had a responsibility to ensure there was habitat available to support a viable population of bighorn sheep and that allowing continued domestic sheep grazing in or near occupied bighorn sheep habitat would have adverse impacts on bighorn sheep populations. The final forest plan, completed in 2010, used the best available science to identify suitable rangelands for domestic sheep and goat grazing, while identifying other allotments on the Payette National Forest requiring closure.

This decision was a win for wildlife, wildlife managers, sportsmen and the economies that benefit from sustainable wildlife populations. However, it still came under fire as recently as this year when an appeal, challenging the science behind the transmission of disease from domestic sheep and goats to bighorns, was filed in federal court by the American Sheep Industry and several state woolgrower organizations. They asserted that the analysis performed by the U.S. Forest Service using best science was flawed. The federal judge in Boise, Idaho, denied their appeal and stood with the science and the analysis it supported, declaring that the victory for the bighorns decided in 2010 remained.

Big horn lambs

The successful recruitment of bighorn lambs is the future of any wild sheep population. Photo by Neil Thagard.

When you take a step back and look at all of the pressures our fish and wildlife face due to human induced factors, it is easy to see that this decision is not just a victory for the 500 or so bighorns that  now inhabit Hells Canyon or even for single species. From a conservation perspective, the case  is much bigger than bighorns.

This verdict set the precedent that science, not politics or special interests, should be the determining factor in wildlife management decisions. A different verdict would have opened the door to challenges of decisions that conserve everything from sage grouse to marine fisheries – and potentially by much more influential industries than the woolgrowers. This decision represents hope for the future of fish, wildlife and ultimately all life.

Neil Thagard is the Western outreach director for the TRCP and has been closely involved with wild sheep conservation throughout North America for the past 20 years, including his direct involvement with the Payette National Forest decision. He was the first U.S. citizen to receive the Lex Ross Wild Sheep Conservation Award presented by the conservation community in British Columbia, Canada, for his efforts.

As marine fisheries legislation heats up, it’s time to revamp the federal management system

Congress is moving forward quickly to revise the federal act that governs our nation’s marine resources. The sportfishing and boating industries, along with recreational saltwater anglers, are stepping up efforts to ensure that their economic, social and conservation priorities are well represented.

As the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act reauthorization advances on Capitol Hill, Bass Pro Shops Founder Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats President Scott Deal, leaders in the recreational angling industry and co-chairmen of the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, will present A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries at the National Press Club on March 26, 2014, from 9:30–10:30 a.m.

The report, introduced to fishing and boating industry stakeholders on Feb. 13, 2014, at the Progressive Miami International Boat Show, is receiving critical acclaim as an important step toward commonsense saltwater fisheries management. Now, with strong support from the boating and fishing community, the commission is taking the report to the Hill to work with Congress as the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization proceeds.

The Morris-Deal Commission assembled an expert panel of state and federal agency administrators, researchers, industry representatives and economists to promote a proactive vision for saltwater fisheries management. The current Magnuson-Stevens Act does not sufficiently address this important use of our nation’s public fishery resources. The commission’s report addresses recreational fishing specifically and differentiates the economic, social and conservation needs from those of commercial fishing.

According to NOAA Fisheries, 11 million Americans recreationally fish in saltwater each year. These sportsmen and -women contribute more than $70 billion to the nation’s economy and $1.5 billion for on-the-ground conservation of aquatic resources and habitats.

Who:     Johnny Morris, founder and CEO, Bass Pro Shops
Scott Deal, president, Maverick Boats

When:   Wednesday, March 26, 9:30–10:30 a.m. EDT

Where:  Fourth Estate Room, The National Press Club
529 14th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20045

RSVP to Lauren Dunn, National Marine Manufacturers Association, at ldunn@nmma.org; or Mary Jane Williamson, American Sportfishing Association, at mjwilliamson@asafishing.org.

Conservation leaders meet to learn about responsible energy development

TRCP High Lonesome Ranch Reception

Attendees at the 79th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference enjoyed food and beverages as they learned about the TRCP-High Lonesome Ranch model energy project at a TRCP-sponsored reception on March 13 in Denver, Colo. Photo by Ed Arnett.

Every year, professionals from state wildlife agencies, federal agencies, NGOs, industry and elsewhere gather to attend the Wildlife Management Institute’s North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. These dedicated leaders come together to discuss policy, conservation and management of North America’s wildlife and other natural resources. The North American Conference hosts sessions on conservation topics, workshops and receptions enabling professionals to interact and learn.

As part of the event, the TRCP hosted its 3rd annual reception highlighting our energy work in western Colorado. In 2011, the TRCP and The High Lonesome Ranch, a working ranch that encompasses close to 400 square miles near the small town of DeBeque, launched a pilot project to demonstrate responsible energy development at the landscape scale. Paul Vahldiek, HLR president and CEO and a TRCP board member, generously offered the TRCP the opportunity to develop a project that focuses on partnerships, practices and policy. The project aims to demonstrate how a working landscape can be restored, conserved and managed for multiple-use values. By demonstrating energy development that is balanced with other resource values, we can help improve federal energy policy and establish a model for others to follow.

This demonstration energy project will implement the recommendations and principles that have been developed and championed by the TRCP and its conservation partners.  It will provide a real world example of how development can be done differently and therefore prevent the major loss of habitat and biodiversity and employing scientific approaches to wildlife management and mitigation.

Part of the TRCP mission focuses on developing partnerships for conservation success. To that end, the TRCP and HLR established a regional stakeholders group that includes sportsmen; local, state and federal government representatives; industry leaders; NGOs and local business owners to help guide the project. The group has met numerous times over the past year and a half to develop objectives and best practices and coordinate conservation activities for the project. This stakeholder process helps reduce conflict, increases investment in the project and builds local partnerships to help change policy and export our success.

The project was submitted to the Grand Junction Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management and is currently under review and consideration within the range of alternatives for the revision of its resource management plan, the final version of which is scheduled for release this fall. Field Manager Katie Stevens told attendees at the TRCP reception that “BLM is open to creative ideas that help the agency manage and balance multiple resource values.”

High Lonesome Ranch, undeveloped ridges, mule deer habitat.

Undeveloped ridges providing important habitat for mule deer, sage grouse and other wildlife would be protected as part of The High Lonesome Ranch project. Photo by Steve Belinda.

In his remarks at reception, Chad Bishop, assistant director, wildlife and natural resources, for Colorado Parks and Wildlife said, “The future of the West depends on finding ways to manage lands in economically viable ways while successfully conserving and enhancing our treasured wildlife resources. The multi-partner collaborative project on High Lonesome Ranch provides a model for the West and provides hope for the future. In that spirit, Colorado Parks and Wildlife considers The High Lonesome Ranch to be an exemplary private land partner.”

Scott Stewart, general manager of the HLR, said, “There’s something in this project for every stakeholder. This project has the opportunity to leave behind a legacy and a landscape that demonstrates how multiple uses can be managed and sustained for future generations.”

Energy development, fish and wildlife, and other resource values can co-exist. That’s the underlying philosophy of the HLR demonstration energy project.

Find out more about the project.

Read about the energy and stakeholder’s values of the project.

Read more about the project’s impact on sage grouse conservation.

Find out more about the TRCP-HLR demonstration energy project here or contact Ed Arnett, director of TRCP’s Center for Responsible Energy Development (earnett@trcp.org).

Washington, D.C., goes to the Bassmaster Classic

Arkansas bass.

An Arkansas bass. Photo by Geoff Mullins.

Every other year B.A.S.S., that’s the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, hosts a conservation summit in conjunction with the Bassmaster Classic. While the Classic is the nation’s premier bass fishing competition, the summit is the premier gathering of conservation leaders from the bass fishing community. This year was no exception.

Nearly 100 state fisheries chiefs and state-based volunteer B.A.S.S. Nation conservation directors convened in Birmingham, Ala., last month to discuss conservation topics including invasive species, state and federal legislation affecting fishery resources and grant opportunities for conservation projects.

The TRCP was there as well, sponsoring a special discussion during the summit on the importance of water quality to successful bass fishing. The topic was especially relevant because the federal government is poised to release an administrative rule any day now clarifying where the unique safeguards provided by the Clean Water Act apply to important bass fisheries.

B.A.S.S. has been a great champion of this issue, because without quality water supplies we can’t have successful bass fishing, and the Clean Water Act is the most successful and powerful tool we have to keep pollutants out of our water.

Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is one of the two agencies proposing the Clean Water Act rule (the other is the Army Corps of Engineers), delivered recorded remarks at the conservation summit.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy addresses the 2014 B.A.S.S. Conservation Summit at the Bassmaster Classic about the need to protect wetlands, streams and rivers so we can sustain our nation’s hunting and angling heritage.

In addition, Ken Kopocis, policy advisor in EPA’s Office of Water, spoke to the group about the importance of clean water and the need for a rule that makes the Clean Water Act work effectively.

Mr. Kopocis’s most important message to summit participants? The draft rule won’t be perfect when it is released for public input. Bass fishermen – and sportsmen of all stripes – will have valuable advice for how to improve the rule, and the EPA will want to hear it – and needs to hear it!

This is a once-in-a-generation chance to restore Clean Water Act protections to waters sportsmen care about the most. As such, the TRCP will be facilitating sportsmen comments on the rule after it is released.

In the meantime, sign up to receive important updates about the development of the rule and notices about how to participate in the public comment process.

A Louisiana duck hunt: How sportsmen and conservation have restored a tradition

Louisiana duck hunters

The author and his father duck hunting in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

I love to duck hunt. If I was forced to pick the things I enjoy most about being a sportsman in Sportsman’s Paradise, they would be catching speckled trout on topwater baits, battling big mangrove snapper on the reefs and rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, pitching jigs and soft plastics against the cypress trees in the Atchafalaya Basin for largemouths – and hunting ducks in the marshes and swamps across South Louisiana.

This past season, my dad and I were invited to join a group of longtime, passionate, Bayou State outdoorsmen in Pecan Island. The community, which is not really an island, consists of a handful  of mostly elevated homes, hunting camps and a few businesses stuck smack-dab between the seemingly endless expanse of rice and crawfish farms of Southwest Louisiana’s “Cajun Prairie” and the fresh and brackish marshes to the south that eventually give way to the Gulf.

Hunters venturing to Pecan Island enjoy the best of the habitat provided both by agriculture and Mother Nature, with ducks and geese by the hundreds of thousands piling into fields and marshes to feed on a variety of flora and fauna. While I had hunted many times in flooded fields to the north and west, it was my first venture to Pecan Island, one of North America’s true “duck meccas.”

My dad and I were assigned a marsh hunt for the morning. After a short and chilly pre-dawn boat ride, we arrived at the pit blind, camouflaged with native Roseau cane and wax myrtle on the northern edge of a shallow pond loaded with submerged aquatic vegetation and teeming with bird activity.

The sunrise was spectacular. The decoys soon were buzzing with bluewing and greenwing teal. Our guide’s dog worked without a hiccup, and we shot just badly enough to allow us to hunt past 7:30 when the mallards and gadwalls started to work. It’s a day that my dad and I will long remember. However, without the aggressive work to restore that marsh over the last decade-plus, that day never would have happened.

As is the case with most hunts or fishing trips, half the enjoyment comes from the story swapping and talk of the good ol’ days with fellow sportsmen, though my “good ol’ days” don’t stretch near as deep into the past as many. The night before our hunt, Pecan Island hunter-historians recounted the 1980s and ’90s when they wondered if they were going to lose their precious marsh forever.

Habitat changes precipitated by efforts to drain nearby wetlands for agriculture, construction of canals to facilitate oil and gas exploration, and saltwater intrusion were limiting sediment distribution, killing grasses and making marshes more vulnerable to subsidence and hurricane storm surges.

Open water led to increased wave action, causing more open water. Without grass to filter sediment and break up waves, the water became increasingly turbid, further inhibiting grass growth and creating an environment far less fecund and hospitable for both the migrating waterfowl and the fish and crustaceans seeking nursery grounds and protection.

The salvation for the marsh, the reason ducks descended into that shallow grassy pond all morning, came from a state and federal effort paid for by the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act to build coastal habitat projects across Louisiana’s coast over the last 25 years. Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as part of that larger effort, to build a series of marsh terraces and introduce more freshwater to keep the salt at bay, or more specifically, in the bay. The terraces, best described as a series of low, linear sediment piles, quickly reduced insidious wave action, helped sediments fall out of the water column and encouraged the return of native grasses. The project was a bargain as well, with more than 3,500 acres of terraces built with less than $3 million.

Marsh terraces certainly aren’t a wide-spread, long-term answer to the ever-present and drastic coastal land loss in Louisiana. A variety of projects and initiatives have been prescribed and must be utilized simply to sustain what remains of Louisiana’s coast, much less reverse the habitat loss and actually see new wetlands. But, in the case of Pecan Island, one project helped extend the life of a productive habitat for several decades in an area where few other options existed.

Last year, as I worked with the Coastal Conservation Association, Center for Coastal Conservation and American Sportfishing Association to host workshops with fellow anglers, charter captains, scientists and researchers and other conservation groups across the five Gulf States to identify habitat restoration projects to restore, enhance and sustain Gulf fisheries, I quietly celebrated that many of the habitat projects discussed for fish, especially the effort to comprehensively restore the Mississippi River Delta, also benefit a host of other wildlife like ducks. After all, how could I go on a “cast and blast” trip to hunt ducks in the morning and fish for redfish and speckled trout in the afternoon in Buras if there isn’t quality habitat to do both?

The projects identified in the workshops are the basis for a report released by the TRCP last fall titled: “Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery and Sustainability.” Proudly, I can say that my fellow sportsmen used the workshops and the report to champion a host of efforts that should lead to better science, management and habitat for saltwater fish using oil spill recovery penalties. We are taking their recommendations back to federal and state decision makers who are determining how to spend the money.

Quality habitat is the tie that binds all sportsmen to each other and to the land, no matter where they fish or hunt. Without a concerted effort to conserve, protect, enhance and expand that habitat, like many of the projects recommended by Gulf anglers aim to do, the bind is certain to break.

Learn more about sportsmen’s recommendations for rehabilitating recreational fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.

President’s budget good for sportsmen’s water priorities

Hooked trout. Photo by Dusan Smetana.

Photo by Dusan Smetana.

President Obama’s budget request to Congress released on March 4 contains a number of spending priorities sportsmen should like. The budget proposes full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as strong funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and an increase in the price of the federal Duck Stamp. Important reforms to funding wildfire suppression also are proposed.

Of particular note for hunters and anglers who want to make sure we conserve water for access to quality aquatic habitat, the budget includes the strongest request to date for the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program. Among other things, WaterSMART supports cost-shared grants to develop local water solutions, and it funds, in partnership with the states, studies of how to reconcile the long-term water supply and demand needs in several river basins.

At a total of $52.1 million, the request maintains the strong investment Congress made in WaterSMART in its fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriations bill and adds two new programs focused on drought response and building resilient infrastructure. (The details of those two new programs are to be announced.)

Perhaps more importantly, I’m told the budget also includes a request for Congress to raise the legal spending cap on WaterSMART by $200 million. Without such a move by Congress, many of the most important WaterSMART services will come to an end this year. (Documentation for this request should be available around March 10. I’ll update this post when more information becomes available.)  * Update: The Bureau of Reclamation’s FY15 Budget Justification is available here. The request for authority to spend another $200 million on WaterSMART is on p. 5 of the Appropriations Language section.

This request represents an important commitment to a highly successful program that is conserving 616,000 acre-feet of water annually – enough water for 2.5 million people each year. Much of the water conserved through this program will remain instream to support species recovery, such as salmon or endangered steelhead, or in reservoirs, thereby improving waterfowl habitat.

Legislation from Sen. Brian Schatz and five other Western senators that would extend the WaterSMART program already is working its way through Congress, reflecting support from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, too. Companion legislation in the House is forthcoming.

The president’s proposal may not play a significant role in the final spending decisions made by Congress, because Congress already has passed a budget for fiscal year 2015, and most Republicans have already panned it as a Democratic “wish list” in an election year. This is unfortunate, in part because we have just begun to see a return to normalcy in the annual budget and spending battles.

Nevertheless, sportsmen should be pleased by the priority federal decision makers are placing on a program that will help us make the most out of every drop of water we have. If Congress acts to maintain WaterSMART, we will continue to see improvements in water management, leading to more high-quality aquatic habitat and better access to hunting and fishing opportunities.

SFRED winner Rebecca Brown: I love my home

A group of young outdoor enthusiasts traveled to Washington, D.C. from across the country after winning an essay contest sponsored by Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, a coalition of sportsmen and conservation groups led by the National Wildlife Federation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited. The contest’s theme was “The Importance of Public Lands to Me,” and the essays highlight the forests, mountains, sagebrush steppe and backcountry waters of our public lands.

Hailing from both the East and West, the winners are Jarred Kay, 17, Flagstaff, Ariz.; Haley Powell, 17, Rock Springs, Wyo.; Matthew Reilly, 18, Palmyra, Va.; Rebecca Brown, 17, Conrad, Mont.; and Noah Davis, 18, Greensburg, Pa.

Read the student’s essays below, and let us know what you think about their passion for public lands in the comments section:

I love my home – By Rebecca Brown

Rebecca Brown and friends at Glacier NP.

Rebecca Brown and friends at Glacier NP. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brown.

I love my home. I always have, and always will. I’m not talking about the house I live in, the street it’s located on, or even the town. I’m talking about the state of Montana. It’s such a magnificent place, with its diverse terrain and variety of weather. In a relatively short drive, you can go from flat plains to towering peaks; from grassland to forest; over rolling hills, across rushing rivers, alongside rocky mountain walls; it’s an ever-changing, dynamic landscape, begging to be traveled.

I’ve lived here all my life, and will cherish this, my home, in my heart always.

If it weren’t for the protection of public lands, my Montana might be a very different place. The vast majority of my memories and experiences have happened on public lands. I learned to hunt deer, migratory and upland birds on the grassy plains and foothills. I learned to fish in public reservoirs and lakes. I’ve spent my summers swimming and boating in public waters. My love for aquatic recreation inspired me to build my own cedar-strip canoe. I find tremendous enjoyment in hiking mountain trails, encountering the different foliage, watching animal life, listening to the trickle of small creeks running alongside, and finding beautiful waterfalls.

When I take time to slow down from my busy life and stop to look at the land around me, I’m filled with wonder, admiration, and peace. I feel a gratitude for all the experiences I’ve had, very few of which would’ve been possible without the abundance of public lands in Montana.

I know I am not the only person to have stories and memories like these. Many people from all over the United States use and enjoy public lands each day.

It is important to keep an abundance of public lands in this country. They provide places to learn, to explore, and to admire. People learn to truly appreciate nature and the many resources it offers.

The national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, monuments, and wilderness areas that make up the protected public lands of America must continue to be protected for future generations. They make up about 28 percent of United States land, and exemplify the true beauty of our nation.

Rebecca Brown with public lands buck

Rebecca Brown with public lands buck. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brown.

Even though most people may think of public lands as recreational locations, they also offer valuable natural resources. These include fresh water, fish and game, and other wildlife. Many sportsmen view these lands as simply that – sporting venues. People like my family, however, rely on these lands as a source of food – they are home to the fish and game we hunt for meat. We depend on the hunting season to provide us with meat for the rest of the year. If it weren’t for the ability to harvest game on public lands, we would have to pay outrageous fees to access private lands, and we couldn’t afford to hunt.

Public lands are key in helping with the conservation of our environment. In these areas, fresh water and clean air are abundant, and the plant life that thrives in them refreshes the earth’s biosphere.

It is critical for these lands to be protected and conserved for generations to come. The future inhabitants of this nation deserve to have the same positive experiences I’ve had, to drink the fresh water, breathe the clean air, and take full advantage of the opportunities to use public lands without the huge personal investment into private ownership that so many of us cannot afford.

Packing back into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Packing back into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brown.

As I said before, I love my home. I love the fresh air and the wide open spaces. I’ve enjoyed learning tohunt, to fish, to swim, to canoe, to snowboard and waterski. I’ve had so very many amazing experiences and lessons, and they’ve all combined to give me a strong foundation for the rest of my life. I’ve learned skills and behaviors that will assist me in nearly anything I choose to do. The public lands of the United States need to be protected so other members of future generations can learn the same things I have, can have similar experiences and cherished memories. If these lands go unprotected, they could be bought up, locked up, and held ransom by corporations and the elite few that can afford private landholdings, and soon, citizens will have nowhere to go to hunt or to camp without having to spend large sums to do it.

If we don’t take action to protect the public use and conservation of our lands and the natural resources they contain, the future will be a very different place from the home that has made me who I am.

Rebecca Brown, 17, of Conrad, Mont., is a high school senior and the oldest of three sisters. Her father is a schoolteacher and her mother drives the school bus. She is working to obtain her pilot’s license. Rebecca enjoys hunting, fishing, boating, all types of water sports, snowboarding and hiking. She plans to study mechanical engineering at college in the fall. 

SFRED winner Noah Davis: A Day on Bell’s Gap Run in State Game Lands 158

A group of young outdoor enthusiasts traveled to Washington, D.C. from across the country after winning an essay contest sponsored by Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, a coalition of sportsmen and conservation groups led by the National Wildlife Federation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited. The contest’s theme was “The Importance of Public Lands to Me,” and the essays highlight the forests, mountains, sagebrush steppe and backcountry waters of our public lands.

Hailing from both the East and West, the winners are Jarred Kay, 17, Flagstaff, Ariz.; Haley Powell, 17, Rock Springs, Wyo.; Matthew Reilly, 18, Palmyra, Va.; Rebecca Brown, 17, Conrad, Mont.; and Noah Davis, 18, Greensburg, Pa.

Read the student’s essays below, and let us know what you think about their passion for public lands in the comments section:

A Day on Bell’s Gap Run in State Game Lands 158 – By Noah Davis

The trees still cling to the morning fog as I drive out of the valley into the mountains along the Allegheny Front, toward a lake of clouds nestled in the ridges. The early summer foliage acts as translucent glass, sending patterns of light down upon the hood of my truck. The pull-offs in the game lands are used mostly as snowplow turnarounds and are seldom occupied, except for the two weeks of rifle season when most Pennsylvanians head out with hopes for a deer.

I park next to a section of flowering raspberry and mind my step over the last remaining colt’s foot whose yellow blossom will turn to seed within the next couple of days. The 2wt. in my right hand was built by my barber this past winter, his name engraved above mine on the handle, a Royal Wulff imprinted above both.

My wading boots are treated more like hiking shoes that are always wet. With 23,000 acres of public land, I need to be able to move freely in order to explore this fine seam through the hollow, the miles of water that crease it. My goal today is to reach the waterfall before drifting my fly a couple of miles downstream.

The narrow gauge railroad that was used to pull timber from this far wilderness during the late 19th century can still be found in the occasional rusted rail. Two miles in, under the cover of ostrich ferns, I find a lamp knocked from an engine. On most of myjourneys here, I discover some artifact, an emblem of our past being reclaimed by the green world.

The farther I walk the older the trees become. Remnant stands of old growth hemlock shade the pools; rhododendrons as large as houses force me to crawl on all fours. Deer and porcupine scat make me wary of where I place my hand, and every grouse or woodcock that bursts into flight leaves my senses buzzing.

The sun has risen to a point in the sky that the dew on the backs of rhododendron leaves warms and begins to evaporate. At a crossing just below the first pool, I see the tracks of a fisher. Crouching behind a boulder, I string my olive line through the guides of my rod, inspect the quality of the tippet, and tie a Royal Wulff to complete the outfit.

I then stand, so my eyes can catch the light reflecting from the water, and wait for a signal near the small waterfall. It doesn’t take long this time of year. Bugs are always on the water: terrestrials all day, caddis at noon, and mayflies as I make my way down the mountain. This time it’s an ant that’s fallen in the water that causes the trout to rise at the tail of the pool. I raise my rod and flip my fly up into the current. Characteristic of brook trout, it doesn’t take long for my fly to be sipped below the foamy film.

The most beautiful aspect of small, remote, trout streams, like this one, is the variegation of colors. Every season possesses a certain brilliance. The spring with its thick-green bleeding into summer. Fall with maple-gold and oak-orange. The gray of late season, when I take to the woods a final time for deer. And the white that winter brings to the deep woods, its silence and space, a place to reconsider and think about what is still to come.

The eight inches of brook trout I hold in my left hand reflect all of these seasons and add still to their splendor. The white of winter confined to anal fins, the fires of autumn caught on the underside, and the dappled back which forces me to look up and see its mirror, light cascading through the canopy of summer in this present tense.

When the fish is again under its sunken log, I gaze up the hollow. Another piece of flat water is twenty yards up and a deep pool ten beyond that. I dip my face into the cool, and let it fall down my front as I stand.

In a world where the façade of ownership blinds and corrupts, public lands are the jewels that keep wildness a part of our lives. When people experience the natural world— where human intervention is minimal at best—there’s the chance to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. Public lands allow for the experience of hunting, fishing, hiking, berry-picking, bird-counting, and simply listening and watching.

It’s these last two acts that will save our forests and rivers: the ability to listen to and watch the earth, to join with its waters and trees and the lives that depend upon them.

Noah Davis, 18, of Tipton, Pa., is a first-year student at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa., where he studies English and plays for the basketball team. He enjoys hunting and fishing, especially fly fishing for native brook trout on small streams. His own writing has been influenced by some of his favorite authors, including Rick Bass, David James Duncan and Aldo Leopold. 

SFRED winner Matthew Reilly: A spiritual tradition: The importance of public lands to me

A group of young outdoor enthusiasts traveled to Washington, D.C. from across the country after winning an essay contest sponsored by Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, a coalition of sportsmen and conservation groups led by the National Wildlife Federation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited. The contest’s theme was “The Importance of Public Lands to Me,” and the essays highlight the forests, mountains, sagebrush steppe and backcountry waters of our public lands.

Hailing from both the East and West, the winners are Jarred Kay, 17, Flagstaff, Ariz.; Haley Powell, 17, Rock Springs, Wyo.; Matthew Reilly, 18, Palmyra, Va.; Rebecca Brown, 17, Conrad, Mont.; and Noah Davis, 18, Greensburg, Pa.

Read the student’s essays below, and let us know what you think about their passion for public lands in the comments section:

A Spiritual Tradition: The Importance of Public Lands to Me – By Matthew Reilly

Matthew Reilly, 18, Palmyra, Va.

Matthew Reilly, 18, Palmyra, Va. Photo courtesy of SFRED.org.

Modern society has convinced the outdoorsman in me that I was born too late. The rivers that I frequent are suppressed in spirit, their wonder restrained to their actual dimensions by urban sprawl, highways, and water treatment plants. When I take to the field, I thirst for the refreshing experience of new waters; but I lust for those places tucked away, out of sight, lost in nature—where their essence extends for miles through some black hole of the mind, never threatened by development or the idea that they might, in some dimension, end.

Development. My parents know what it means. Their age is told in their memories. There was a time when Charlottesville, Virginia, was not a city, but a town. Before Walmart and Sam’s Club took their anarchical perch above Route 29, farmer Matheny tended to his cows on the grassy pasture behind a blackboard fence and an illusion that things might never change. The Rivanna River, in the gulley behind Walton’s culturally obese babies, coursed higher and stronger through the rolling hills of the Piedmont, its lifeblood not yet stolen by the host of housing developments to come, its finned inhabitants still unrestrained by dams.

I hear these memories as a young child. Fear briefly enters and exits my mind. What will the world look like when I am grown? But at 8 years old, as far as I know, things don’t change.

I eventually learned my lesson.

The woodlot that was destined to be subdivided behind our newly furnished house was just large enough to be reminiscent of Maine’s “Big Woods” that I had learned of in Field & Stream. If I walked along the length of the creek bottom, in the shadows of towering ridges, I could escape with the perception of total isolation.

One spring, I happened upon a stream of moderate girth. I returned countless times in following seasons, slinging spinners and flies to feisty panfish and pickerel.

One day I was startled by the sight of two houses. Both were under construction; and their backyards had torn into the woodland veil protecting my secret gem, revealing it for all to see, eroding the banks, and slowing the current.

Sour and cynical over the soiling of my stream, I retreated into my mind to a place where rivers run free and woods seem endless, where constant human activity does not hamper the wildlife activity, and the flora is ornamental by God’s design, rather than that of a landscaper. It was from this experience that I began to crave wild lands removed from human occupation.By the time I earned my driver’s license I was a passionate fly fisherman, completely lost in the sport; and my search for new water took me to where my childhood fantasies existed in actuality—the Shenandoah National Park, where my dad had taken me to grouse hunt and trout fish at a very young age. Now, with the means to transport myself, I set off into the Blue Ridge when I yearn for the tug of a sprightly brook trout.

I drive west; and as the roads turn from pavement to gravel to dirt to nothing, and the hardwoods close in above my head as I’m intertwined into the deep, meandering hollows where the freestones run, the shackles of society and modern, complicated life disintegrate into the air.

I can fish my way through the gorge that the Rapidan River flows through in consensual ignorance. In my mind, the park does not end, but extends forever in every direction, as does the river; and the fish in its watery depths are virgin natives—refugees, like me.

When a brook trout comes to hand, my suspicion is upheld. The fiery brilliance that adorns its belly and pectorals, the olive river rock along its back, accented by strong blue and red bull’s eyes make me believe that they are a purity in nature, a stronghold of all that has been lost in the world, safeguarded, hidden in the bottom of a mountain stream.

But alas, I know this illusion is false. The trout in my hand is a species endangered by a host of manmade threats; and its range retreats into the mountaintops yearly. However, unlike the Piedmont stream of my childhood, this one is protected, forever sealed from peripheral development by 197,000 acres of federally protected land. To the brook trout, and to me, that thought is full of hope, as it is a symbol of like-minded individuals concerned with the state of the environment doing their best to secure recreational areas and wildlife havens for future generations, to preserve our spiritual haunts. In a word, it is a promise: For as long as I, and my children, live, places like Shenandoah will be protected and cherished by sportsmen.

 

Matthew Reilly, 18, Palmyra, Va. He is a senior at Fluvanna County High School. His father introduced him early to outdoors activities, which he says “shaped my character and ambitions.” Fly fishing is one of his passions. Matthew is an outdoor writer and photographer who produces a weekly column, http://adventuresafield.blogspot.com