What Are We Doing to Our Public Lands and Waters?
For hunters and anglers in the U.S., there is a lot at stake right now. And if we don’t fast, we risk losing an American legacy
This will be a more personal Conservationist post than usual. I’ve been covering conservation, guns, and hunting and fishing for exactly 20 years now, and one would think that I had learned something in all that time—in all those stories written, all the travels, all those wonderful people I’ve met and with whom I’ve caught fish and killed and eaten game, all the good guns fired, and boots worn flat-out.
But even after all of that, I am more baffled than ever.
I am just old enough to remember the conservation battles of the last half of the 20th century. I was a child when the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts were passed, but I was already hunting small game when we saw the very first whitetail deer return to north Alabama in huntable numbers (and we hunted bobwhites then, which have now disappeared). I was fishing the Tennessee River in the late 1970s when it was discovered that two of the tributaries I knew well—Indian Creek and Huntsville Spring Branch—were polluted with the pesticide DDT between 1947 and 1970, years in which we, as a nation, almost destroyed all of the major waterways and clogged the air with poisons. Indian Creek was just a microcosm—one of many, many such rich and beautiful creeks across the country, poisoned and lifeless.
But, by golly, we fixed a whole lot of those creeks and rivers, and made our air cleaner.
All of my adult life, even as our U.S. population doubled, we’ve witnessed our environment getting cleaner because of federal regulations like the Clean Water Act of 1972 and because of federal programs like the Wetlands Reserve Program or the Conservation Reserve Program (which are voluntary programs, offering landowners money to not drain wetlands or plow marginal croplands, reducing erosion and runoff into our watersheds, making waters cleaner and more productive—not to mention protecting against floods and saving valuable topsoil). We’ve stocked more fish in more rivers, seen more deer and turkeys and waterfowl on our lands, sold more guns and ammo (with Pittman-Robertson taxes pouring in to help create more wildlife habitat and public access to hunting and shooting), and enjoyed more healthy, happy weeks afield with friends and family. And all of that has contributed to the $887 billion dollar recreational economy in our country—an extraordinary economic engine that runs almost entirely on healthy waters, public lands, access to hunting and fishing, and other kinds of outdoor recreation.
Found and Lost
We’ve had it very good for a very long time—but none of it came for free. None of it was achieved without struggle and without hunters, fishermen, and other conservationists who were willing to do the hard, and often thankless, work of participating in our political process—of stepping up and being the actual people in “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
As my friend, and hunter-conservationist, Randy Newberg often says: “Conservation is not convenient.” Conservation is a choice—and sometimes a tough one—that often requires people who understand it to fight for what they love. For a long time, we Americans were the best in the world at making those choices and fighting for what we believed in—hunting, fishing, healthy lands and waters—and for simply making people accountable for the damage they would do to that which belongs to us all, and that which we cannot, and will not, live without.
One glance at Europe, Mexico, or China will show anybody that what we have here—that is, the opportunities for anyone to hunt, fish, shoot, wander, swim in lakes and creeks, explore public lands, hike in vast national parks—is utterly unique in the world. Those things did not just appear magically before us because we are Americans. The main idea behind American Exceptionalism is that we, almost uniquely on this planet, chose to make those and other freedoms a part of our national identity, and then we fought to make sure we created them, restored them, and kept them—even in times when they were attacked or put at risk by the very unexceptional human forces of greed, indifference, and scorn. We made exceptional choices, set exceptional goals, and we accomplished our goals with exceptional energy and tenacity.
Lately, though, I’ve been wondering: At what point did we American hunters and fishermen lose the stomach for this fight? At what point did we decide that being exceptional was simply took too much work?
Everywhere I go, I ask friends these questions (yes, it makes me an irritating person to drink a beer with, but sometimes what is most important to know is not the most comfortable to learn). The response? Most of my friends say they don’t think it is a big deal. They say they have other priorities. They say that we’ll always have plenty of fishing and hunting, or that nobody will ever sell off the public lands, or that nobody here in the U.S. would ever fill in all of the wetlands or dump their garbage and other effluents into creeks or rivers. They seem to believe that all we have we got by simply being born American, and that everything we have is magically protected by, well… Either it does not need protecting, or it is being protected vigorously by, well… Someone, somewhere.
This is not true.
I ask my friends about the recent federal-government shutdown, and they say that we don’t need the federal government anyway, or that it is too “bloated” and too “bureaucratic” and that the shutdown served to stop the “federal overreach” that so many people I know so well seem to feel is the most pressing threat to our daily existence.
I will say here what I have been saying to friends across the country, mostly to no avail: Almost all of the conservation and environmental protection that has created and restored our best hunting and fishing relies on the federal government, and on federal programs. This maybe an unwelcome fact to many of us, but it is a fact nevertheless. And those of us who say we do not need the federal government and its protections and programs are getting exactly what they say they want.
Shut Down and Lost Ground
Has anybody noticed that the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the most important source of funds for acquiring and accessing critical public lands, creating parks and open spaces in cities, maintaining access to our waters, protecting watersheds and preserving local employment in forestry, has expired? There is no American living today who has not somehow benefitted from the LWCF, which was created in 1964 by taking a small portion of offshore oil and gas royalties to pay for selected public projects that have multiple benefits. Whether you are a high-country elk hunter, a cane-pole fishermen, or a single parent taking the kids for a hike on your day off, the LWCF has helped you. (Check out what LWCF has done in your state or town.)
Does it concern anyone who loves to fish or hunt waterfowl, or who gets drinking water from a river or lake, that the federal Wetlands Reserve Program has been killed off? This was one of the most effective tools for conserving the private-land wetlands that filter pollution from our drinking waters, recharge our aquifers, nourish our fisheries, and prevent devastating flooding.
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), established in 1985 and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan (a good breakdown on the program and how it works can be found here) drew on federal programs developed to restore farmlands devastated by the Dust Bowl years. It became one of the most successful conservation programs in U.S. history, offering landowners reasonable payments to leave “highly erodible” lands free of the plow. The result was less topsoil lost to wind and runoff; less sediment in rivers and streams; vegetative buffers along creeks that filtered agricultural chemicals and livestock waste; and, not least, a bit of a guard against the overproduction of commodities that resulted in the collapse of prices over and over in the past. CRP also provided a steady income—however small—with less risk for farmers than trying plant on marginal lands. A side effect of CRP was a tremendous boom in wildlife and gamebirds, from ducks to pheasants to sharptailed grouse, and all that goes along with them—bird dogs, guns, hunting licenses, and a boom for rural businesses.
But even CRP is a target. In 2014, Congress shrunk the number of acres that could be enrolled, from 37 million to 24 million. Pheasants Forever asked Congress to increase the number of CRP acres to 40 million, which would have been almost certainly economically efficient for U.S. taxpayers—less money paid out in federal crop insurance for failed crops, less costs for drinking water, better income and crop prices for farmers, and a boom in wildlife, fishing, and hunting—but Congress, apparently, was listening to other voices. In 2018, Pheasant Forever’s efforts, as well as those from other conservation groups, ended with Congress approving a maximum of 27 million acres of erodible and marginal lands enrolled in CRP.
My home state of Montana has seen the most extensive losses of CRP lands in the U.S.; over two million acres of marginal lands have been removed from the program, and most have been put back into production. Upland hunting, and other plains hunting, has tanked as a result, and taxpayers are, once again, paying for the whole cascade of other negative effects of planting lands that should never be farmed.
We have lost 10 million acres of conserved private lands, and with them our topsoil, clean water, waterfowl, wildlife and fish, and millions upon millions of dollars of taxpayer cash—an outpouring that will continue every year.
Why are we doing this? Does anybody know?
Navigating a Way Forward
For 40 years, we Americans watched our waters get cleaner and more productive. President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act in 1972, which addressed what is called “point-source pollution,” the practice of directly pouring effluents or waste into rivers and streams. Over the years, the success of the original Clean Water Act led to its expansion to protecting wetlands and tributary creeks and lakes. Pushback from land developers and other businesses led to two Supreme Court cases, in 2001 and 2006, that trimmed back the Clean Water Act to apply only to “navigable waters” of the U.S.
The trouble with that, though, is that nobody really knew what that meant. Were wetlands still protected from being filled in or polluted? Not really, even though many “navigable waters” were made up of waters that came from wetlands. How about tributary creeks? Well, some were, and some were not—even though anybody who has ever seen a body of water knows that “navigable waters” and lakes do not exist without tributaries. (We’ve covered this ad nauseam here and here on the Conservationist.) The result of the confusion was the Waters of the U.S. Rule (note: it was not a law, and was never presented to Congress), written to clarify what was and was not covered under the Clean Water Act. It expanded the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act to some of the water sources it had covered before its haircut by the Supreme Court. The rule was widely supported by fishermen and conservation groups and by most Americans who understood what was at stake, which included a $115 billion-dollar recreational fishing industry.
But a barrage of propaganda and misinformation accompanied the release of the Waters of the U.S. Rule from its opponents in the agriculture and development industries. The campaign, called “Ditch the Rule!” and paid for in large part by the Farm Bureau, was impossible to miss, with claims that the rule would “regulate the puddles in your driveway” and predicting a massive federal assault on private property rights. The reality of it was that the Waters of the U.S. Rule would have clarified what was covered under the Clean Water Act and would have addressed, and helped provide incentives to address, the massive amounts of non-point-source pollution—agricultural fertilizers and other chemicals—that are destroying fisheries and drinking water across the U.S.
But the reality—even the obviously growing problems of water pollution, reversing the gains of the past decades—could not compete with claims like this: “Let’s cut straight to it. This rule is not about the environment. It’s about giving radical Green gadflies power to interfere with how other people responsibly use their land.”
The Waters of the U.S. Rule has been definitively rejected. An estimated 60 percent of U.S. waterways (all of which eventually make up “navigable waters”) have no legal protection from pollution or destruction by filling, dredging, or draining. Most isolated wetlands are no longer protected by any laws. Most tributary creeks have lost the protections they had under the earlier interpretations of the Clean Water Act. The prairie potholes that account for most of our waterfowl breeding grounds have lost protection, as pointed out by President Trump, who says that the Waters of the U.S. Rule was “a disaster…a total kill on farmers, on builders, on everybody… one of the most ridiculous regulations ever imposed on anybody in our nation.” The President also stated that he does not know what a prairie pothole is but that a North Dakota family referenced in his speech would have had to pay “tens of thousands of dollars in fines” for having them on their land. And while the campaign against the Waters of the U.S. rule was ostensibly conducted on behalf of America’s farmers, the main beneficiaries of the toss-out of the rule have been development interests.
None of the disinformation matters now. What does matter is that there is no way we will be able to maintain the health of America’s waterways under the current scale of the Clean Water Act. There are 117 million Americans who depend on these now-unprotected waterways for their drinking water. In Arizona, 96 percent of the state’s waters are now unprotected; in Montana, it’s 80 percent. One-fifth of the remaining wetlands in the U.S. are unprotected. Eventually, we will have to find a way forward to protect, yes, the waters of the U.S.
So, What Will It Be?
Will we wait until the losses are so devastating that federal and state governments will impose Draconian regulations on all of us? Or will we go the way of China and India, and just live in a fouled and fishless world, buying our drinking water, keeping our mouths tightly shut in the shower as one must do in Mexico City, reduced to life in a dystopian landscape where not being able to fish or go boating or swimming will be the very least of our concerns? What will it be?
This has gone on too long, I know. But I don’t want to end without pointing out one last troubling fact here while the recent end to the government shutdown is still in the news. A lot of us seemed unconcerned by the shutdown, because we were not much affected by it. But did anyone notice what was shut down, what had been relegated to the category of non-essential?
The Environmental Protection Agency, of course, was closed.
The National Parks were open, but mostly unstaffed, which was unfortunate as trash and waste piled up, and a lack of supervision encouraged the worst of us to destroy what had been left unprotected.
Our historical parks, such as Gettysburg National Military Park, were closed.
The U.S. Forest Service was shut down, as was the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), although BLM employees in charge of issuing oil and gas permits on public lands were working.
And in a bit of striking, in-your-face irony, the offices in the Department of Homeland Security that are responsible for administering the e-verify system, where employers are required to check the legal status of their workers, was shut down and could not be used.
Make no mistake, this is not a political post; the questions I’ve raised run far deeper than any politics. We are being asked what we want our America to be, what it should look like, what goals we should pursue. What is essential? What is worth fighting for? What do we want to keep for our children and grandchildren? What do we owe to our parents and grandparents—the Americans who cleaned up the air and waters for us, and restored the game and fish and the land?
Is anybody still interested in these questions?