Senate upholds protections for America’s backcountry lands

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Farm Forum

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Jan. 28, the U.S. Senate voted to reject an amendment to the Keystone XL Pipleline bill that would have removed protections from 15 million acres of backcountry lands in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuges and Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas. The Senate’s rejection of the amendment affirms the value that Americans—especially hunters and anglers—place on wild, backcountry lands.

“America’s wild, unroaded backcountry is perhaps our greatest natural asset,” said Steve Kandell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project. “These lands have been valued by sportsmen and women for generations as a lasting American frontier where fish and wildlife can thrive and hunters, anglers and other adventurous souls can experience the outdoors in a wild, natural state.”

Kandell also noted that public lands serve as the foundation for a burgeoning outdoor recreation economy, which is valued at $646 billion in annual economic activity and supports 6.1 million jobs.

Research has demonstrated a strong correlation between undisturbed backcountry areas and healthy trout and salmon habitat. For example, rivers like the Gunnison flowing through the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area (Colo.), and the Donner and Blitzen River in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area (Ore.) are strongholds for native and wild trout. In Colorado, 71 percent of Colorado River cutthroat trout waters flow through roadless areas.

The amendment would have given Congress one year to provide protections for 12.76 million acres of wilderness study areas managed by the BLM and 2.36 million acres of wilderness study areas managed by the USFWS in wildlife refuges, after which the existing protections would be removed. Prior to December 2014, Congress had gone five years without passing legislation to protect backcountry lands.

“Trout Unlimited believes that decisions about the future management of backcountry lands are best made through inclusive collaborative processes that involve a wide range of local stakeholders with intimate knowledge of the lands in question,” Kandell said. “These decisions should not be made through sweeping decisions that affect millions of acres of land belong to all Americans without regard for their value to fishing, hunting and other recreation opportunities.”

In December, Congress passed legislation to protect Nevada’s Pine Forest Range, an area with outstanding trout fishing and upland bird hunting in a beautiful, wild setting. The bill involved years of work by local stakeholders and resulted in the protection of important wilderness study areas, and the removal of protections for areas that all stakeholders agreed upon and land exchanges to improve public lands management and local ranching operations.

“The Pine Forest Range stakeholder process is a model for how these decisions should be made,” Kandell said. “When people get together and discuss the future of wild backcountry lands, they tend to agree that they should stay the way they are: natural, scenic and great places to fish and hunt.”