It’s Time for Eastern Hunters and Anglers to Join the Fight Against the Western Land Grab

Sportsmen across the West have been rallying hard against state takeover of America’s public lands—east coasters can’t just kick back and let them do the work of protecting our public lands legacy

The last time my D.C.-area friends and I wanted to unleash our crazy birddogs and hunt, the options were limited to hunting on preserves or driving three hours or more to a Wilderness Management Area that stocks the land with pheasants. Most days, my English setter, Belle, has to settle for sniffing out birds and squirrels in the bushes around my apartment complex. This is the reality in the eastern half of the U.S., where we’re surrounding by more major cities and more fragmentation, while the West enjoys 640 million acres of public lands with astounding fish and wildlife habitat. As east coasters, we can be jealous, or we can be proud—after all, those lands out West are ours, too.

Image courtesy of Mattia Panciroli.

That’s why hunters in our region need to be concerned about Western states gaining control of public lands. This fight isn’t a Western issue, it’s an access issue, one that impacts millions of acres that belong to all of us.

Still, the threat of public land transfer hasn’t lit a fire under Eastern sportsmen, and this makes it easier for our elected officials to support this dangerous idea. Did you know that last year the South Carolina General Assembly supported Utah’s resolution to transfer Western public lands to the state? The state legislature passed its own resolution that encourages Utah’s unprecedented steps in the wrong direction. Ten other states introduced similar measures, but Tennessee slammed the measure. With the most-visited national park in their backyard, these decision-makers understand the importance of public access to bountiful natural resources and outdoor recreation, like the Great Smoky Mountains’ unparalleled fishing. We need more states east of the Mississippi to take a stand, or Western states could seize millions of acres, bungle their management, fail to pay the bills, or worse, sell them off to private interests.

Julia’s bird dog Belle on the hunt for robins and other city dwellers—access to quality upland bird habitat is not as close to home for eastern state sportsmen. Image courtesy of Julia Peebles.

Imagine the Smokies being transferred to state agencies. Visitors from around the country and the world wouldn’t be able to access the park or the Appalachian Trail (AT) without paying an entrance fee. That’s just another barrier to entry for American families, who need the adventure and simplicity of the outdoors more than ever. During an interview with Woods and Water SC host Roger Metz, Steven Rinella recently made an appeal to east coast sportsmen to oppose public land transfer, if only because it’s bad business. He emphasized that under state ownership, everything would come second to generating revenue from these lands. That’s no benefit to the American public, who could get cut out of access they rely on for outdoor recreation.

Camping on the Appalachian Trail. Image courtesy of Julia Peebles.

Here in the East, it’s our time to step up and stand with Western sportsmen. We’re all Americans who care deeply about our outdoor traditions. And it’s easier than you think to take action. Educate yourself and sign the Sportsmen’s Access petition to let your lawmakers know that you own 640 million acres in the West, too. Whether we hunt public land in Montana or private land in Virginia, we can’t sit back and give up these wild places.

Celebrating Our National Parks: Students Trade Spring Break Beaches for Park Service Projects

This spring, our policy intern volunteered with a group of other college students to help tackle the NPS’s maintenance backlog across the country—here’s what she learned

For many college students, spring break means piling into a car, driving to Florida, and spending a week on the beach. But this spring, I spent a week with eight other students volunteering for the National Park Service (NPS) through my university’s Alternative Spring Break program. Organized by schools across the country, students get the chance to learn about issues impacting communities near and far from home through hands-on service opportunities. As a volunteer at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in Georgia, I saw firsthand just some of the issues that our National Park Service is facing as we celebrate the agency’s 100th anniversary.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

Fort Oglethorpe wasn’t the most glamorous destination, but it gave us an opportunity to work directly with park rangers at one of the 412 areas of the National Park System, which covers more than 84 million acres. They put us to work on Glen Falls Trail, one of the most popular places to hike in the park, and we spent our week removing invasive species that threaten native biodiversity, building rock stairs to make the trail more accessible, and pruning overgrown vegetation, like thornbushes that had the potential to injure hikers.

We also focused on making the mile-long trail safer by widening it, removing hazards like fallen trees, and improving drainage, so the trail wasn’t as heavily impacted by storms. The staff at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park greatly appreciated our commitment to enhancing their park and working on projects they didn’t have the resources to complete on their own. By removing all the garbage on the trail, we even made a small contribution to the fish and wildlife in the area.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

These projects represent just a few drops in the bucket of deferred maintenance projects that are plaguing federal land management agencies, like the NPS, that don’t receive adequate funding. Earlier this year, the park service alone reported a $12 billion maintenance backlog. NPS seasonal and full-time staff was also cut from 21,897 people in 2010 to 17,967 employees this year, despite an annual increase in national park visitation. But the issue is a lot more complex than some would make it seem. The NPS has no way to track exactly how many visitors hike or walk their dogs down Glen Falls Trail, so it’s easier for Congress to underestimate how much money the rangers need to maintain these areas.

Knowing how strained the agency’s budget has become, I couldn’t help but feel disheartened that park staff spend any time removing the amount of trash we found that week. As the daughter of a sportsman, I learned at a young age to “leave no trace,” and I grew to understand why, after catching my fair share of flip flops and chip bags (a big disappointment when I thought I was reeling in a particularly shiny fish). It detracts from our outdoor experiences and, in some cases, keeps someone else from doing their job.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

So, I offer this advice as we celebrate the NPS Centennial this summer: Find your park and respect it. Teach kids and grandkids that America’s public lands are unique in all the world. Tell your lawmakers to fund conservation and support the agencies who care for our national parks and other public resources. You can also check out NPS Volunteer Days to help get the job done a little faster.

All month long, we’re celebrating the National Park Service centennial with a blog series about our most significant experiences in the parks. Check back here for new posts from the TRCP staff and special guests, and follow the hashtag #PublicLandsProud on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Shannon Fagan is the TRCP summer intern through the Demmer Scholar Program. She is going into her senior year at Michigan State University where she is majoring in Social Relations and Policy and minoring in Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy.

Meet Our Second #PublicLandsProud Contest Judges: Charity and Ian Rutter

Ian and Charity Rutter own and operate R&R Fly Fishing, a fly fishing guide service located in Townsend, Tenn. They have two children and are active members with Little River Chapter of Trout Unlimited, spending many of their off days volunteering with fisheries biologists in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains. Their professional lives are spent treating anglers to the wild trout streams of the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park and on East Tennessee’s tailwaters, rivers, and lakes. Charity and Ian have traveled across the country to share their knowledge and passion for fly fishing, and together, the Rutters have written and photographed multiple books on the subject. Their publications and presentations encourage people to get outside and enjoy the sport of fly fishing.

From now through August 31, Charity and Ian are guest judging your best “National parks, national treasures” photos for this round of the #PublicLandsProud photo contest. They’re looking for a winning photo that for photos that don’t necessarily highlight the best-known places but rather these equally impressive scenes that most people miss, so make sure your national parks moment beckons! And watch the TRCP Instagram account this week too, as Charity and Ian will be taking over our account the week of August 15 and giving us a glimpse into their lives on public lands.

TRCP: How do the Rutters like to spend time outside?

Charity & Ian: Public lands are more than just our livelihood, they are the source and reason for our outdoor lifestyle. We are “solar powered” people, so living a life outside is required for our good health and happiness. We spend time as a family camping, hiking, fishing, boating, swimming, backpacking, and exploring as many wild places as we can. We hunt, forage wild mushrooms, and teach our children how to recognize all the flora and fauna that surround us. We teach them how to live outside and have respect for our rivers and mountains. We volunteer for stream restoration projects, river cleanups and educating the children in our public schools on the importance of clean water and air through the Trout in the Classroom program.

TRCP: What makes a great photo of a summer day spent on public lands? What will you be looking for in the winning photo?

Charity: I love to see photos that highlight the little things that surround us every day in nature – the tiny wildflower or mushroom, a salamander on a rock, or the dew drops on a fern in the woods. I love the natural light that beams through the trees as if putting a spotlight on a mossy rock or creating a sparkle on the water.

Ian: Public lands are known for iconic scenes often seen on posters and calendars, but in my experience, it’s the places that are out of sight of a road or more than a few steps off a trail that catch my attention; I’m looking for photos that don’t necessarily highlight the best-known places but rather these equally impressive scenes that most people miss.

Image courtesy of Charity Rutter.

TRCP: What make the Rutters #PublicLandsProud?

Charity & Ian: Public lands provide a resource that can be used by everyone. We are proud to be involved in volunteer work that helps restore native brook trout in the Smokies. We take our ownership in public lands seriously and dedicate ourselves to educating others on the importance of public lands and clean water. We’re proud to live in a country that gives us and our children the freedom to explore so many wild places.

Show us your #PublicLandsProud moment and you could be featured on our blog and win a #PublicLandsProud prize package. It includes a new pair of Costa sunglasses, a copy of Steven Rinella’s new book, The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game, a Simms TRCP-branded hat, a First Lite merino wool neck gaiter, TRCP/Sitka-branded YETI rambler tumbler, Orvis fishing shirt, and Bantam buck knife. 

Is It Finally Time to Talk About What Sportsmen Need in this Election?

With the conventions over, the heat of campaign season is before us—and it’s not too late to voice your concern for conservation priorities

The confetti and balloons have been swept from the floors of both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, marking the traditional beginning of the general election season, a flurry of activity that will run through November 8. We all know what to expect: commercials, debates, door-knocking, bumper stickers, yard signs, and social media posts from our friends. Of course, in the midst of all this, the one thing that all Americans seem to agree on is that they have already grown weary of an election that has been going on for well over a year.

Image courtesy of Wikicommons

As a delegate myself, to the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, I can attest that the messages the parties and candidates seek to deliver, both to those in the room and those watching from their living rooms, are pretty similar and follow a predictable course. A heavy dose of keeping American families safe, growing the economy, and creating good-paying jobs, plus assurances of competence and clarity of vision. The formula was alive and well in Cleveland and Philadelphia. It is the tale as old as time.

But after listening to the convention speeches of both candidates, and many other speakers, any sportsman would feel overlooked. Both parties missed a golden opportunity to communicate with an essential constituency, one important to anyone who hopes to actually win a national election. Neither candidate made a direct pitch to the more than 40 million Americans who hunt and fish, and in the process, contribute nearly $100 billion to the national economy.

What would a real pitch to sportsmen look like? A commitment to renewing the investment in fish and wildlife habitat conservation programs that benefit all Americans. A pledge to defend the values of common opportunity implicit in our national public lands. A vow to support the conservation of our private working lands. Perhaps a promise to enhance recreational access to our nation’s woods, fields, and waters.

Many candidates for elected office at all levels have created, or will soon create, sportsmen’s coalitions to support their candidacy, an acknowledgement that hunters and anglers are an important constituency, one that turns out to vote in higher numbers than many other subsets of the population. But we often don’t demand enough from candidates in exchange for our votes. So, this campaign season, attend a candidate forum or town hall, and ask questions about sportsmen’s priorities. Utilize your Facebook and Twitter accounts to put issues important to hunters and anglers in front of the candidates. Email their campaigns, in a thoughtful way, to share the things sportsmen and women in your part of the world are thinking about.

Candidates often profess to champion what America’s sportsmen care about, but it is up to us to let them know.

Celebrating our National Parks: How One Visit to Yellowstone Shaped the Rest of My Life

Our senior scientist can trace his career aspirations back to a single moment involving a Yellowstone black bear, the back of his grandfather’s pickup, and a fresh view of the American West

I was 12 years old and mere feet away from the black bear standing on its hind legs, peering into the bed of our pickup truck. Safe in the truck cab with my grandparents, windows rolled up tight, I was transfixed as the bear crawled into the back and rooted around for a cooler to raid. He came up empty after a few minutes and moved on to the next vehicle in his search for a free meal. The pickup was left with some minor scratches, but the bear encounter left a major impression on me. That afternoon in 1975, I departed Yellowstone National Park thrilled, curious, and full of new experiences. Little did I know, I’d just been catapulted onto the path of my own professional destiny.

Image courtesy of Ed Arnett

I suspect few of us go on to actually become what we said we wanted to be in grade school, or even have the chance to do so. I, for one, have never deviated—I wanted to be a wildlife biologist, and I’ve never looked back. Even before that journey to visit several of our national parks, the skids were thoroughly greased from years of hunting, fishing, and being outdoors as much as possible. I spent hours watching many of Walt Disney’s documentary films on animals and every episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom—the Animal Planet or Crocodile Hunter of my youth. I was determined to follow New York Tribune editor Horace Greely’s advice from 1871 and “Go West” as a young man to pursue my dreams.

And indeed I did—right after high school, I headed first to the West Slope of Colorado for college in Glenwood Springs and then onto Montana State University to complete a Bachelor’s degree in wildlife management. Where could one possibly get a better wildlife education than a 90–minute drive away from the park’s northern entrance? On my way to Bozeman for the fall semester, I returned to Yellowstone for the first time in nearly a decade and retraced much of the route I’d traveled with my family years earlier. While attending the university, I took my time in Yellowstone for granted—I went to the park whenever I wanted, and it became a showcase for my friends and family when they came to visit me.

In my adult life, I’ve been back to Yellowstone umpteen times, seen hundreds of bears, and had many soul-stirring experiences. I’m sure I’m not alone. In the last 100 years, our National Park System has no doubt helped inspire many an imagination and spark a sense of adventure for children and adults alike.

TRCP’s senior scientist Ed Arnett with author/historian Dayton Duncan after his keynote speech celebrating our national parks at the Western Governors Association annual summer meeting in Jackson, Wyoming. Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

It turns out that another of those children was historian, author, and filmmaker Dayton Duncan, who conspired with Ken Burns to co-produce the fabulous documentary series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” He revealed his own youthful adventures, ones that were eerily similar to my own, as keynote speaker at this summer’s Western Governors’ Association Meeting in Jackson, Wyo. He held back tears as he described how his mother took the family on a journey to see the national parks, including Yellowstone, and as he spoke, all I could see were visions of my own family and me on our adventures in the park. I couldn’t resist going up to Dayton afterward to thank him for such a great tribute to the National Park System. I told him that he could have been describing my own experiences as a child.

Dayton Duncan and I were lucky—our families took the initiative to get us into the car and out to see the treasured gems of our public lands system. No parent should ever underestimate the power of these outdoor experiences for their children. There’s no better time to visit the national parks as America celebrates 100 years of their wild power and serenity. The next generation of biologists, authors, filmmakers, and other advocates of the great outdoors could be born on that next trip to your public lands.

Find your park here, and perhaps, like me, you’ll find your path out there.

All month long, we’re celebrating the National Park Service centennial with a blog series about our most significant experiences in the parks. Check back here for new posts from the TRCP staff and special guests, and follow the hashtag #PublicLandsProud on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Ankle-Deep and as Carefree as We Can Be on Montana’s Smith River

What does the future hold for this beloved waterway, built on a history of local collaboration and respect?

The crew is spread from here to hell and gone. Everybody is happy.

Dana, Allen, Kay, BJ, Margaret, and Cinclair are lounging in camp chairs they purposely planted in the rushing water. They are ankle-deep in the Smith River, one of Montana’s jewels and one of the West’s most famous floats. The temperatures are somewhere north of 90, and the parents and grandparents are cooling off after a round of chores that come with a five-day river trip.

The permitted section of the Smith runs for 58 miles and cuts through the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. Photo by Margaret Wimborne

Grace is trying to get Chandler and Jillian to don their lifejackets and float through a riffle. The excited squeals of a ten-year-old and a six-year-old bounce off the canyon’s walls. Sophie and Claire are hiking to a rock outcropping across the river. Their progress is monitored closely by the riverside cocktail drinkers, who worry about snakes and climbing injuries. Jake is snorkeling, trying to find the river’s famed rainbows and browns. Kendall is awaiting Jake’s report as he sorts his fly box.

Cellphones are useless and nobody is thinking about Trump or Clinton, police shootings or terrorism. Our world has been reduced to the river’s quiet rhythm, buzzing insects, and the occasional roar of upstream winds. Our cocoon is enclosed by the canyon’s alabaster cliffs, the green hues of the forest, and painfully blue sky.

Jake Thornberry looks for rising trout during a gray drake hatch. Photo by Margaret Wimborne

The Smith’s Ancestry: Cooperation
Each year, more than 5,000 people experience this public treasure slicing between the Big Belt and Little Belt Mountains in central Montana. With a permit, you can fish 59 miles of the Smith, productive trout habitat stretching through the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, even though 80 percent of the river’s banks are privately owned.

Use of this beloved river is the result of cooperation, ingenuity, and patience. The Smith is an economic driver today because of the foresight of Montanans, who started lobbying for its public use nearly 75 years ago.

“The cooperation that has led to the Smith’s success as an economic driver has also created a group of people who are invested in the river,” said Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “We are all tied by the fact that we love the Smith and we don’t want it to change.”
People, including state officials, first floated the idea of a state park in 1953, but it failed due to fears that a park designation would draw crowds who would trample the special area and impinge on private landowner rights. Undaunted, a small group of Montana officials kept working to find a way to keep the river bottoms from being lost forever to private interests.

Mergansers are one of the many wildlife species that are found on the Smith River. Other species include Canada geese, deer, elk, beavers, and a variety of raptors. Photo by Margaret Wimborne

In 1970, public use of the river corridor got a boost from the Governor’s Council on Natural Resources and Development, which recommended that the Smith River not be developed as a state park but as the Smith State Recreational Waterway. This would permit the exchange of state lands for private lands and help set aside funding for acquiring easements.

Through a series of meetings between Smith River landowners and FWP starting that same year, a collaborative was formed to manage the river’s ever-growing use. In 1989, the Montana Legislature passed the Smith River Management Act, and in 1993, FWP instituted a permit system with daily launch limits. The state also negotiated leases of private property to create camping areas.

Regulations have evolved over the years and the river’s management is now a sterling example of how disparate interests—the Forest Service, counties, private landowners, business owners, state officials, and the recreating public—can partner to use public water that is largely surrounded by private property.

Wildflowers are a bonus on the picturesque float. Photo by Margaret Wimborne

A New Challenge
But the Smith River and its legion of fans face a new challenge: The Black Butte Copper Project. Tintina Resources, a Canadian subsidiary of an Australian mining corporation, is proposing a $218-million copper mine around Sheep Creek, which provides roughly half of the Smith’s headwaters. Mine-backers tout the company’s strong environmental record, plus the possibility of job creation and tax revenue. They say $2 billion in high-grade ore is ready to be mined by more than 200 people.

Conservation groups, such as Trout Unlimited, are concerned, arguing that Montana’s long list of hard-rock mining issues—the state has 17 Superfund sites—show an industry unfit to make claims that they will be good neighbors. The “good neighbor” argument isn’t gaining traction with locals either, according to rancher Willie Rahr. “Mining companies have been saying, ‘We have the best, newest technology’ for generations,” Rahr told the New York Times in 2015, “but something always happens.”

Early efforts to slow Tintina’s progress have been mixed. The mining company is currently awaiting state approval, and if all goes according to plan, the mine could be functional as early as 2020. Montana TU’s Farling said that timeline is unrealistic, but he is keeping a close eye on the slow-moving permit process. All the while, he continues to make the argument that the Smith is a sustainable economic driver—fishing alone generates $8 million annually—while the mine is unsustainable, shortsighted, and risky.

The very handsome author of this article smiles despite a daylong rainstorm on our fourth day. Photo by Margaret Wimborne

Looking Downstream
Back on the river, our camp chairs have been fished from the water and now ring the fire pit. Stars start to pop from the darkening skies. Fly rods and snorkeling gear have been stowed and three generations of two families discuss the river’s future. As carefree as we are out here, there’s room for concern.

Naturally, our crew decides the mine is too risky, but we have faith that the people who enjoy the famed river will unite, like they have in the past, to make a case for protecting this river and its headwaters. We don’t need to mine for riches—the real treasure was realized 75 years ago.

A Two-Week Adventure in the Backcountry Reveals a Lesson About Fire and Family

Our Montana field representative sits down for a Q&A with his daughter after her unique experience in wildfire country. Here’s what she learned about forestry and conservation

I remember a whitetail deer hunt where I was lying in the prone position, ready to shoot, with my young daughter Ali lying on my back. She was so excited when the deer went down! Ali is 22 years old now, and she still loves the outdoors. She graduated from Villanova University this past May and couldn’t wait to get back to Montana, where she was hired to work on a forestry crew with the University of Montana.

Image courtesy of Ali Laird.

One of her assignments recently took her on a two-week pack trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex to collect data on fire ecology. This area in northwest Montana—named for the legendary forester and conservationist Bob Marshall—was designated by Congress as part of the Wilderness Act of 1964. It spans over one million acres along the continental divide and is the fifth-largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states, attracting fishermen, hunters, and recreationists from around the world. As in other parts of the country, fires are unfortunately becoming more common in the Bob, and Ali’s crew was sent to help study how this ecosystem rebounds differently based on whether burn areas were managed or unmanaged forests before the fire.

Image courtesy of Ali Laird.

I thought this was an amazing opportunity for Ali—and I was pretty jealous that I couldn’t go along. So, when she returned from the trip, I asked her to share her experience.

Scott: Ali, I can’t wait to hear all about the trip. What was the makeup of the crew and where exactly did you go?

Ali: There were ten of us on the crew. We hiked in 40 miles and set up camp at the confluence of Gordon Creek and the South Fork of the Flathead River. We had our food packed in by a team of mules and spent two weeks hiking to our burn sites, moving camp downriver every few days. At the end of the trip, we tied our gear to the front of our pack rafts and floated down the river to the south end of Hungry Horse Reservoir.

Scott: What is the purpose of the research project that you were working on? How will this research on fire affect our public lands, and why do you think sportsmen should care about it?

Ali: Fire is playing an increasingly dominant role on our public lands, particularly as fire seasons are getting longer and hotter. We were there to learn more about the effects of fires in unmanaged lands versus fires in areas previously logged, thinned, or previously introduced to fire through a prescribed burn. With healthy forests come healthy wildlife populations for all of us to enjoy, including sportsmen.

Scott: What was your typical day like?

Ali: The daily hikes to the burn sites were long, three to six miles. We climbed our way through lodge pole stands and up steep ridges. We saw wildlife every day and heard wolves at night. One day a small herd of elk walked right by us in the early morning frost. Yes, frost, in June! We were there to conduct research, but we also got to enjoy the land and gain appreciation for this wonderful place that belongs to all of us. It was clear that the other people we ran into were enjoying the Bob as well. We saw groups floating down the river, spoke with fly fishing guides taking their guests on spectacular trips, and we met a couple scouting for their fall elk hunt.

We spent our free time reading by the river, watching waterfowl bathe and deer tug at bites of grass in stands of old-growth Ponderosa. In the cool evenings at the end of the day we were able to forget the clattering notions of work and worry that shadow us in our everyday lives, and finally enjoy a piece of land full of both loveliness and majesty—an object of awe and love, requiring attention but not toil. It was a treat being surrounded by millions of acres of wild land, knowing that this place is open to all of us. It’s a treasure to spend a quiet hour fly fishing and pull a cutthroat out of the river for dinner, while watching an osprey slope down the side of the valley towards the water, looking for that same meal. I can’t wait to get back up there.

Image courtesy of Ali Laird.

I get goosebumps hearing my daughter describe her attraction and admiration for the natural beauty of our public lands that she, like the rest of us, is so fortunate to have. Seeing this trip through her eyes makes me feel validated for my own effort in TRCP’s mission to protect and improve these resources for future generations. Our forefathers established a system of wildlife management and natural resources held in the public domain, a system that is the envy of the world. These public lands are for all of us to enjoy, use wisely, and pass on to the next generation of outdoorsmen and women.

I’m certainly glad I have a daughter who appreciates that.

Teton County Opposes Transfer of America’s Public Lands to the State

County commissioners pass resolution supporting sportsmen’s access and outdoor recreation spending

After hearing support for continued federal management of public lands from a dozen residents yesterday, the Teton County Board of Commissioners voted to formally oppose efforts to transfer America’s public lands to the state of Idaho or local governments. A growing number of counties in Colorado, Wyoming, and Arizona have recently done the same.

Teton County Commission Chairman Bill Leake said yesterday’s resolution highlights the value of public lands to county residents. “The Board of County Commissioners strongly supports federal ownership and management of public lands in Teton County and the incredible value federal lands bring to our county’s economy, recreation, heritage, and quality of life,” Leake said, reading from the resolution.

Image courtesy of Jen Vuorikari/Flickr.

County Commissioner Cindy Riegel added that public lands are “a huge part of our lives, our economic health.” And that theme was reinforced by Teton County residents who spoke about the state’s inability to pay the bills for the federal public lands we all love.

“We are all supported in some way by our public lands,” said fly fishing industry leader Robert Parkins, who has lived in the valley for more than a decade and is a board member with the American Fly Fishing Trade Association.

“Public lands are a key driver to our local economy,” said Jeff Klausmann, who owns Intermountain Aquatics, an environmental consulting business based in Driggs. “Hunting, fishing, bird watching, hiking, and biking attracts locals and tourists alike. The benefits to service-oriented businesses are obvious, but these lands also help anchor natural-resource-based businesses like ours through subcontracts for land management services and supplies.”

“Public lands are our economic future,” said conservationist Shawn Hill, executive of Valley Advocates for Responsible Development. “Teton County is part of a growing network of counties in the West that are pushing to protect public lands. We applaud that.”

The county’s resolution recognizes the importance of public lands for:

  • Providing fish and wildlife with habitat, while offering opportunities for outdoor recreation—including hunting, fishing, hiking, wildlife-watching, horseback riding, and bicycling—that is essential to residents’ quality of life.
  • Attracting outdoor recreation tourism that drives local spending and employs hundreds of county residents.
  • Preserving historically significant and irreplaceable cultural sites and landscapes.

Public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service comprise 62 percent of Idaho and 33 percent of Teton County. These areas are cherished for their top-notch fisheries, beautiful open landscapes, and exceptional wildlife habitat, says Joel Webster, Western lands director at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We applaud Teton County for taking this stand,” says Webster. “We also look forward to working with county leadership across the West to continue building a strong base of support for America’s public lands and our access to hunting and fishing.”

To learn more about county opposition to the sale or seizure of America’s public lands, or to take action, visit sportsmensaccess.org.

Farmers Might Be Breaking a Conservation Compact, But We Wouldn’t Actually Know

Turns out that botched implementation of the USDA’s conservation compliance program goes deeper than we thought, says internal watchdog report

Earlier this spring, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General—an internal watchdog for the agency that oversees the conservation programs funded through the Farm Bill—quietly issued an interim report that indicated USDA isn’t doing enough to guarantee that, in exchange for federal support payments, farmers are meeting a minimal threshold for avoiding environmental harm. The report isn’t exactly a page-turner (we broke it down for you here in May), but there could be serious consequences for wildlife habitat and water quality as a result of the USDA dropping the ball.

Now, the OIG has come out with a sequel to their initial report and, like so many summer blockbusters, it’s even worse than the original.

On a very basic level, here’s what you need to know: Compliance creates a conservation compact between taxpayers and agricultural producers. Farmers who use government programs to help manage risk and grow their operations must also affirm that they have not planted crops in wetlands or on highly erodible land.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

The OIG’s interim report in March outlined a serious problem with compliance enforcement between 2012 and 2015. The data the agency was supposed to be using to conduct random compliance checks on farmers was incomplete, and many thousands of farmers who had received payments weren’t considered for review during those four years. In fact, in 2015, not a single farmer from ten major agricultural states was on the list to be checked for compliance. So, the areas in greatest need of monitoring for wetland drainage and soil erosion managed to receive the least attention.

This is an inexcusable lapse in enforcement by a federal agency, and thankfully the USDA has begun to take steps to correct the problem. Sources there have told us that they have followed the recommendations of the OIG, and revised procedures are now in place which guarantee that more than two million records, across all states, will be subject to on-site agency reviews. This is great news, but the story doesn’t end here.

Part two of the OIG’s report now reveals that the USDA’s mismanagement of compliance goes beyond a botched data pull. Here’s what else has been going wrong:

The USDA does not have consistent national standards for compliance checks. Farmers in different states—sometimes in different counties in the same state—have been subject to varying levels of scrutiny, and it’s not even clear which field conditions are considered compliance issues. Further, the national quality control processes set up to check the accuracy of the compliance reviews are also applied with varying degrees of consistency across states.

The compliance checks that did get done were incomplete or improper. OIG found that agency staff sometimes stopped their field reviews after identifying a single violation, potentially missing other violations elsewhere on the property. The agency even failed to properly conduct site visits for its own employees who receive farm payments. The watchdog report notes that the agency needs to clarify the rules specific to USDA employees to ensure fair and consistent treatment of all producers.

Field staff don’t know how to proceed when maps and field conditions are inconsistent. Staff who conduct compliance checks rely heavily on wetland inventory maps, which are over 25 years old, despite knowing that these maps often don’t reflect the current size or location of wetlands. You know, as of 2016. As a result, staff frequently check only the previously-identified wetlands for compliance, ignoring national guidance to survey entire tracts for violations. Moreover, national and state officials have incompatible ideas about whether and when staff should offer updates to the maps to reflect actual conditions in the field.

 

Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

Oh, and more data is missing than they thought. In addition to the data issues noted in the interim report, OIG found that the agency missed 325,000 additional records when it compiled its data for 2015 compliance reviews, because of an error tracking county codes. The agency also incorrectly exempted tens of thousands of acres from review, in cases where individual producers farm in multiple areas.

The agency has agreed with OIG’s recommendations, and has committed to corrective action by the end of 2016. But the fact remains that conservation compliance, as currently executed, may not be able to guarantee equal treatment of the farmers who are required to follow the wetland and highly erodible land provisions. It doesn’t seem to guarantee a successful compliance program to the American taxpayer, either.

USDA pays producers about $14 billion per year through farm programs that are subject to compliance, but those payments may go to agricultural producers who have—knowingly or not—violated their end of the bargain. This is a bad deal for farmers, taxpayers, and sportsmen-conservationists who have invested in working lands conservation and deserve plentiful habitat and clean water in return.

A Tour of Grey Towers and the Two Men Who Became Icons of Modern-Day Forestry

On a recent trip to the home of Gifford Pinchot, our conservation policy intern was surprised to learn an intriguing lesson about another conservation visionary—Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was a champion of fish and wildlife conservation because he was a champion of public lands. While TR might be most famous for adding five national parks and a big chunk of Yosemite to our public lands system, more than half of the 230 million acres that he conserved during his presidency was given to the U.S. Forest Service, an agency he created in 1905. He entrusted this land to Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service and a member of TR’s Boone and Crockett Club.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Pinchot’s home in Milford, Pennsylvania, and learn a little bit more about him, the Forest Service, and TRCP’s namesake. It turns out that the two founding fathers of conservation were close friends. Roosevelt even introduced Pinchot to his wife Cornelia.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

Considering the role that Pinchot wound up playing in the conservation of U.S. forests, it’s ironic that his family fortune was made in the logging business. His grandfather profited from a time when it was common to purchase and clear-cut forests with no regard for the long-term health of the land. In his career as a forester, Gifford Pinchot felt a deep responsibility for correcting this misuse.

Like many of us, he grew up with an affinity for the outdoors, and his father encouraged him to turn that passion into a career. The Pinchot family even created an endowment at the Yale School of Forestry—which held summer field classes at Grey Towers, the family estate—to help future generations discover the values of the outdoor lifestyle.

Grey Towers was built in the 1880s and donated to the Forest Service in 1963. The partnership between Roosevelt and Pinchot created an agency that now manages 193 million acres of public land. Their understandings of conservation lead the Service to view forest management as “protecting lands against overgrazing, controlling and combating fire, protecting fish and game, and providing public recreation.” Proper natural resource management has kept our national forests open for public enjoyment for more than a hundred years.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

I couldn’t help but think about all the recreational opportunities we are privileged to access because of the foresight of these two men. And what they might say about the current conversation around giving up our public lands.

I think it might go a little something like this: “Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Shannon Fagan is the TRCP summer intern through the Demmer Scholar Program. She is going into her senior year at Michigan State University where she is majoring in Social Relations and Policy and minoring in Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy.