Friday, July 25, 2014

Happy Birthday, LWCF & Thanks for all the Fish!

By Nick Gevock

Think of Montana without many of our city parks, ball fields, swimming pools and playgrounds.

Imagine looking at thousands of acres of public land that teems with fish and wildlife, but being unable to get to it to hunt and fish.

And try this one – picture Montana without more than two-thirds of its fishing access sites on our world-class trout streams.

All of this would be reality today if Congress hadn’t had the foresight 50 years ago to create the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The program was based on a simply concept: a small portion of the royalties from offshore oil and gas leases would be set aside to fund important conservation projects. The program has been vital throughout the country, funding public land accesses, forest conservation projects and city parks, among others. There is hardly a county in the United States that hasn’t benefited from LWCF.

The breadth of LWCF projects is amazing. It has preserved not only special natural areas, but also key parts of our national history and culture, including historic battlefields and key other sites. On its 50th birthday, it’s important to look at all LWCF has done for our country. An excellent report is available here:

Montana has been among the bigger winners. Throughout the five decades the Treasure State has received more than $430 million in LWCF funds. It has helped preserve working forests that faced the threat of development, opened access to thousands of acres of public land that offers superb elk and deer hunting, and built numerous parks.

The statistic that’s most telling is LWCF’s role in developing our system of fishing access sites. A full 70 percent of the sites in Montana have been partially funded with LWCF dollars. These are key points that allow anglers, floaters and recreationists to get onto our rivers, streams and lakes. These are among Montana’s most special places and they’re important not just for sportsmen and sportswomen, but all Montanans. They’re places where people are just as likely to go for a picnic as a day of fishing or floating.

For all its success, LWCF has never fully lived up to its potential. That’s because the fund is authorized for up to $900 million per year, but in fact has only once in its 50 year history been fully funded. Congress has used the money for other purposes, and that’s a shame, because these places are important throughout the country for all Americans.

The current threat for LWCF is even worse. The program expires this year unless Congress renews it. And in this era of deficits, that’s possible unless conservation leaders speak out to members of Congress and urge them to keep this vital program alive.

Just think of Montana without these public resources. What would it be like to not spend spring days on a stream fly fishing, summer days floating and fall days pursuing Montana’s big game? How sad would it be to not have that neighborhood park down the street to take your children and grandchildren?

The next generation deserves the tools to make these investments in our communities, our state and our country, just as we have. It’s time to raise our voices and ensure that LWCF gets renewed. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Low-Down, Dirty Shame

In case you missed it, Congressman Steve Daines signed on to a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner asking him to stop any place-based legislation like the Forest Jobs & Recreation Act, Rocky Mountain Front Heritage, or even his own North Fork Protection Act, unless H.R. 1526 is passed by the Senate.

The letter states twice that no bill which offers local solutions to the issues surrounding forest management should pass. Here’s the actual language from the letter:

With all due respect to Congressman Daines, that’s a slap in the face to the organizations, volunteers and agencies that have worked together to find common ground in Montana and advance common sense conservation bills like the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, North Fork Protection Act and the Forest Jobs & Recreation Act. It ignores the vast majority of Montanans who support those bills and who support reasonable public land management based on local input from a variety of interests.

It’s a position that is flat-out wrong and we are extremely disappointed that Congressman Daines would rather continue the paralysis in Congress rather than work with Montanans to pass meaningful bills designed to ensure economic viability of our timber industry, our outdoor industry and our shared public land heritage. Furthermore, we are extremely disappointed that Congressman Daines would rather advance a DC lobbyist dream bill rather than work with those of us who live, work and play in Montana.

We’ve not written much about H.R. 1526 because its path to actually becoming a law is about as twisted as a jack pine on Ear Mountain. Given its radical provisions to gut the National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act in favor of logging practices that were abandoned decades ago, the bill faces significant opposition from just about every Democrat in the senate and a handful of moderate Republicans as well.

Doc Hastings’ bill, H.R. 1526, was written by D.C. Lobbyists and timber companies who view public lands as a commodity to be exploited rather than nurtured for future generations. These same companies, and apparently their congressional sponsors, have repeatedly discounted the millions of jobs and billions in economic revenue that are generated by public lands recreation.

In Montana alone, that equals 64,000 jobs and $6.8 Billion in economic activity. That’s an economic powerhouse that generates over $500 million in tax revenue for the state. In short – it ain’t chump change.
Congressman Daines has a genuine opportunity to  honor the hard work and sacrifices that Montanans have made in order to draft good bills that help ensure a future on public lands for everyone.  Congressman Daines should be standing up for Montana values and the reject party politics that would have him sacrifice his own bill to toe the party line.

Take the time to let Congressman Daines know sportsmen feel about holding the North Fork, the Front and FJRA hostage for a timber industry bill. You can contact his office here:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

License Revamp Proposal a Fair Deal for Hunters, Anglers

By Nick Gevock

Over the past year and a half, an ad hoc committee has taken a thorough look at the structure of Montana’s hunting and fishing license fees. It was a diverse group of people, including hunters, an outfitter, state lawmakers, a Fish and Wildlife commissioner and others. The group, appointed by the governor, had a huge charge of looking over everything in relation to the structure of our state’s hunting and fishing licenses for both residents and non-residents.

The group had a big task,. It was charged with looking at ways to stabilize FWP’s funding, looking at the array of free and reduced price licenses, simplifying licenses, evaluating the earmarked funds, recommending license prices and looking at other sources of funding for FWP. 

At the end of the day, however, the group came up with some relatively modest fee hikes and simple proposals. Here’s what that means for the average Montana hunter and angler:

That’s not a typo. The increase comes in the form of a new $10 base hunting license – which includes the already existing $2 hunter enhancement fee – and a $6 hike in the annual fishing license. There will be no increase in the specific species tags for residents.

Admittedly some of the people who have received free and reduced price licenses will see an increase. But the council standardized all discounted licenses at half the regular price – and most would agree that’s a good deal. It raised the age to qualify for a discount as a senior from age 62 to 67.

There are a handful of other changes. Special moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goat and bison licenses for non-residents will increase from $750 to $1,250. This is in line with other states that have these opportunities. Fishing licenses for residents will increase from $18 to $24. Non-residents will feel a larger impact, going for a season long from $60 to $86. Again, these rates are on par with similar states that offer cold-water fisheries, and in most cases lower.

Finally, the cycle at which the state will review license fees will go from 10 years to four years. That will allow smaller increases, when needed, to keep up with inflation. Moving to a four year cycle is important both from the stand point of sensible management of the agency and for those of us who like to budget our hunting expenses. It helps create a more stable, common sense funding mechanism that should be able to help avoid the politics of the Legislature, which has recently been brutal to our game and fish agency. 

FWP budgets much differently than other state agencies or businesses. They have to plan out and plot a funding curve that accounts for years of increased revenue that must be held in reserve in order to make up for the shortfall of funds when inflation over-takes the generally small increase on hunting and fishing license fees. Montana is the cheapest state in the west when it comes to resident opportunities. While we all appreciate that, we should also understand that the cost of doing business for FWP has risen dramatically since the last license fee increase, over 10 years ago. Gasoline costs more for trucks, the cost of heating and cooling office space has risen just like everyone else and our dedicated game wardens, biologists, state parks employees and many other public servants at FWP haven't had a decent pay raise in years. 

When I think of the recreational opportunities in Montana, the analogy of going skiing comes to mind. Every year when I show up at the lift ticket window, prices have gone up a little bit. And wildlife management, like running a ski hill, has costs. It takes money to pay biologists, conduct game flights to count populations, and shock fish on rivers, for example. That science is needed to set seasons, determine bag limits and manage rivers and streams.

Our forefathers understood that funding for wildlife management should be both stable and as non-political as possible. Unfortunately, because of politics, this funding model that has worked so well for over 100 years is now neither stable or non-political.

It’s time to honor the hard work done by this committee and endorse the proposal. The Environmental Quality Council is asking for comments on this proposal. Please take a moment and tell them to support reasonable increases to our hunting & fishing licenses and to continue a century old conservation success story without the partisan politics that paralyze our legislature today.

Deadline for submitting comments is August 16th, so don’t dally! 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Sleeping Giant Awakens

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” – Admiral Yamamoto, December, 1941

Those were the ominous words supposedly uttered by Admiral Yamamoto after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Curiously, some politicians are expressing a similar sentiment  since the Montana GOP adopted a resolution calling for the elimination of Federal Public Lands.

Montanans value public land immensely. The state’s economy thrives because of it. Our children grow up, not only in the shadows of the Mountains, but on their peaks as well. Our freezers are full of elk, deer, pronghorn, bear and birds that we harvest from federal public lands, and our driveways  are are overflowing with boats, campers and rafts.

But that doesn’t settle well with folks who want to control every tree, rock or river. Some of our elected officials, in their zeal to create short-term economic gain, are pushing for the elimination of Federal Public Land and the unconstitutional effort to force the Fed to give the State that land.They tell us that the same laws that protect our hunting and fishing are killing our economy despite evidence to the contrary.

This Land Grab is a smokescreen though. The same people telling us that they’ll keep these lands are the ones who repeatedly tell  us that the state can’t manage what we have now, so new bills are introduced to eliminate conservation funding, wildlife management areas and to eliminate your ability to  step foot on state land. So why, after a decade of assault on our ability to hunt and fish, would we ever believe what these people have to say?

Clearly, Montanans don’t. A poll was released yesterday that showed the vast majority of Montanans do not support selling off public land. Montanans believe that responsible development trumps elimination of programs designed to ensure actual multiple use. The poll isn’t ground-breaking or even that much different than many polls before it. But this time, there’s a sense of validation for the public land advocates who are outnumbered in the committee hearings and halls of the capitol.

Not dissuaded by public opinion, these legislators, lobbyists and their mega-rich patrons have stepped up the game. They bring in out-of-state “consultants” to whisper that everything will work it self out if we only rewrite every land management law in the state and change the State and U.S. Constitutions.  The swill they peddle now comes with a stamp of approval from the Utah state legislature.

Yep. Utah; where it takes 20 years to draw a limited entry bull tag for residents and non-residents alike. Utah, where wildlife is sold to the highest bidder and landowners control hunting more than their own game agency. Utah, where giving millions to a shady and unethical lobbyist is just common practice.
Do we really want the state of Utah deciding what Montana should do with its public lands?

Recently, Senator Tester and Governor Bullock have teamed up to fight back against these attempts to lessen our public wealth. They’re introduced a new hashtag that people  should take up (We know we are):

Public land belongs in public hands. It might seem flashy and cool to say that Montana can best manage these lands, but the truth is these same people espousing this line of PR gobbldy gook are the ones who have been trying to take your public land birthright away.

We’re not falling for it and we are filled with a terrible resolve. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Taxpayers Win in Sheep Station Closure

By Nick Gevock

How often do we get the chance to save taxpayer dollars and benefit taxpayers at the same time? When it comes to wildlife management, turns out at least sometimes that’s possible.

As hunter-conservationists, we had one of those instances this week. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced late last month to Congress that he was closing the Agricultural Research Service’s Sheep Experiment Station in the Centennial Mountains. Vilsack said years of declining or flat budgets had made it impossible for the station, which had been there since 1915, to do the research it was intended to do.

The station’s loss of 21 federal jobs was decried by Idaho politicians, who vowed to fight the closure. But they failed to mention that 17 of those employees would be reassigned to jobs in other places. The other four would retire. The sheep station was costing the federal treasury $1.5 million per year.

But behind that, the closure speaks to the need for wildlife conservationists to look at what the federal government is spending money on. The research station, which straddles the Montana-Idaho border in the Centennial Mountains west of Yellowstone National Park, sits in some of the best wildlife habitat in the country. The area is home to numerous wildlife species, including elk, mule deer, antelope, and grizzly and black bears. Putting domestic sheep in such a wildlife rich area is rife for problems.

And it has been. Several grizzly and black bears have had to be killed on the station because of conflicts with the domestic sheep grazed there. In addition, the area is prime habitat for native bighorn sheep, but because of the presence of the domestic sheep there are no bighorns there – nor is any consideration of transplanting this native wildlife species to these public lands. And that’s unfortunate, because bighorns are struggling, and the Centennials are excellent wild sheep habitat.

That is not to say that there isn’t room for domestic sheep in Montana. Agriculture is an important part of Montana’s economy, and the woolgrowers are part of that industry. But so, too, is wildlife, hunting and outdoor recreation, which pumps $5.8 billion into our state. Everybody in Montana benefits from wildlife. And that’s dependent on healthy habitat that supports the wildlife – both game and non-game species – that thrive in this incredible state.

The fact that taxpayers were subsidizing a research station that wasn’t really conducting meaningful research and yet was a major impediment to native wildlife was troubling. The fact that politicians would defend it in a time of federal budget deficits is baffling.

It’s time that wildlife conservationists stand up and speak out for federal policies that benefit wildlife. In this case, they could do it by proposing that government simply not do something. In this era of federal budget deficits and anti-government rhetoric, that’s a pretty easy argument to make.