A father and son overlook public lands in California

The Great American Outdoors Act and Upland Birds

From Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Ruffed Grouse Society, Pheasants Forever, and many conservation agencies are elated to see the passage of Great American Outdoors Acts

Grouse, quail and pheasants, oh my!

While all of these birds are connected as upland species, one major development in the U.S. Congress intertwines them even further: The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA).

The Great American Outdoors Act is the second piece of a highly-bipartisan, two-part legislative mission to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). In March 2019, the first piece of legislation – the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act – passed, permanently reauthorizing LWCF after the fund expired in September 2018. Now, President Donald Trump signs into law GAOA after the Senate passed it 73-25 in June and the House of Representatives passed it 310-107 on July 22.

The bill permanently allots $900 million to LWCF annually, as well as provides $9.5 billion for five years ($1.9 billion annually) to begin addressing a $20 billion deferred maintenance backlog on federal lands. The $9.5 billion was originally part of the Restore Our Parks Act, which focused solely on National Parks, but now funds will go toward maintenance on National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, Bureau of Land Management lands, and Bureau of Indian Education schools for infrastructure improvements. LWCF specific funds will directly go toward projects based around recreation and public access.

Improving access through infrastructure, roads and trails, as well as easements and acquisitions that could take place throughout the country around current complexes of federal lands is a distinct possibility,” said Public Relations Manager of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever Jared Wiklund. “National grasslands, national forests, and wildlife refuges in America will all benefit from this historic legislation. On the state level, dollars attributed to LWCF trickle down to all 50 states. Through a variety of programs, LWCF grants are administered through four land management agencies within the Departments of Interior and Agriculture. These grants support our nationwide legacy of high-quality recreation and conservation areas. Some of the funds are invested by agencies to protect federal lands for public outdoor recreation use and enjoyment. Likewise, funds are also distributed directly to states and local communities through grant programs. These grants enable state and local governments to purchase community green spaces, provide public access to rivers, lakes and other water resources, protect historic and cultural sites and, most important to upland hunters, conserve natural landscapes for public use and enjoyment. The outcome is a net gain in public lands conserved in perpetuity.

Where funds won’t go, however, are to non-profits like the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, or Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. Instead, according to Wiklund, non-profits will continue to be “additive to the stateside LWCF grants process as a contributor to matching funds.”

Brent Rudolph, Chief Conservation and Legislative Officer for the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society expanded on this in terms of how it directly pertains access in forests and the indirect benefits this new funding has for agencies like the U.S. Forest Service. He noted that maintenance funds won’t go toward setting up or conducting timber sales or non-commercial treatments, but that in some cases “infrastructure improvements will likely facilitate access for management.”

The main target is to improve [and] restore access for hunting and other recreation,” Rudolph said. “This component of GAOA is getting a little less public attention, but it was a big victory. We engage our members and partners in developing or responding to local project ideas and providing input on forest management and transportation planning, so we’ll be able to help direct attention to ways the added resources can contribute to addressing the maintenance backlog. There are also significant indirect benefits here, in terms of allowing the Forest Service and other agencies to focus their operational budgets on management programs – where declining funding and staffing over the years have decreased their capacity to deliver on their multiple-use mission – rather than on contending with crumbling infrastructure.”

Misconceptions, Forest Management and a History of Strife

While these are clear victories, it’s been long overdue, as the history of LWCF is that of struggles.

Led by John Dingell, the fund was established by Congress in 1965 and began dividing offshore oil and gas drilling royalties between federal agencies and state and local governments for projects focused on maintaining, acquiring, and restoring public land assets. While directed to provide $900 million annually through the appropriations process, Congress has failed to do so other than twice, giving LWCF, on average, half. The rest of the money, roughly $22 billion, was diverted to other purposes.

Now that GAOA has passed, the upland hunting community can sleep easy knowing conservation agencies and outdoor-friendly legislators in Congress don’t have to spend a ton of time fighting for funding in the appropriations process.

“With these victories, we can spend more time on implementation, and on other priorities,” Rudolph said. “As for ways that ruffed grouse, American woodcock, and RGS and AWS members will benefit from LWCF, through the legislative process of permanent authorization, we worked to see a provision included that requires that at least 3% of LWCF funds be used to expand opportunities for hunting, fishing and other sporting activities. LWCF covers a lot of bases – which is fine because it has benefited from a broad constituency to help with these latest achievements – but it’s nice to at least have a portion earmarked for the constituents that [finance] so much additional management through their hunting and angling expenditures.”

Forest Legacy Program (FLP) monies are also included in LWCF, which helps state agencies and private landowners maintain working forests through easements. In total, FLP has helped conserve more than 2.5 million acres.

“[Easements] allow private forest owners to financially sustain working forest lands, rather than developing or subdividing these areas and losing out on the habitat management benefits and economic contributions they provide,” Rudolph said. “Under our evolving mode of operations emphasizing working lands working for wildlife, we’ll be more seriously pursuing opportunities to acquire and conserve lands, and conservation easements through FLP would be a specific opportunity to pursue.”

Listen to: Conservation and Bird Dogs with Brent Rudolph of the Ruffed Grouse Society

While some may think this bill will lead to the federal government buying more land and thus expanding what some see as overreach, this isn’t entirely true. For example, in certain places, state or federal agencies could buy land to help with connectivity issues or provide access in places otherwise unreachable. One such project is the Hooke Brothers project in the Monongahela National Forest in Pocahontas County, West Virginia – one of the last bastions for ruffed grouse in the Mountain State. Ranked as the 14th-highest priority land acquisition project according to a release by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, it will add a 367-acre parcel owned by a timber company to the forest. Further, according to the release, adding the parcel, “will expand the opportunities for connecting trails systems in the area,” which will benefit a wide swath of recreation enthusiasts.

In the Grasslands, the Rooster Crows

Leaving the grouse forests and looking at grassland habitat, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever were quite vocal concerning the Great American Outdoors Act.

While pheasants aren’t native to the United States, the wild population has grown since their introduction in the late 1800s in Oregon. Native or not, they’re worth protecting, and Wiklund outlines exactly how GAOA will help conservation efforts surrounding pheasant and other upland birds.

“Land around a current refuge or grassland that might be considered a priority acquisition for partners is something we can contribute to,” Wiklund said. “We’re hopeful that the funding is now available to do it. The new funding structure in place will help public lands serve as a hub of quality habitat that interacts with private lands. Undisturbed public lands in western states will be critical in the continued battle for restoring sage grouse and lesser prairie-chicken populations, among other wildlife.”

He also noted that a backlog of projects with dedicated partners will be quickly examined now that extra funding will be provided to the appropriate agencies. And while there aren’t any specific projects outside of the organization that Wiklund can recall, they are working with the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and OnX Maps to identify landlocked public parcels. This, Wiklund said, would open millions of acres for Americans.

Pubic Lands and the Leadership of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

Another conservation group happy with the bill’s passage is Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and its fearless leader Land Tawney. This excitement will drive Tawney and the 48 U.S. chapters of BHA to work alongside specific agencies and other leaders to identify high-priority projects that LWCF monies can go toward.

“Our chapters across the country will work to identify priority LWCF projects that not only provide conservation delivery but also hunting opportunity,” Tawney said. “Upland hunting opportunities abound across our diverse American landscapes and will definitely be something that we work to advance going forward.

“The checkerboard of intertwined public and private lands creates a quagmire for the upland hunter who likes to roam across the landscape following a willing dog. LWCF will be an essential tool to create more uniformity so you don’t have to constantly be checking your OnX to make sure you are legal. “

Although one may immediately think of Steven Rinella chasing ungulates in the western backcountry or guides leading groups through the Alaskan wilderness searching for brown bears when the words “backcountry hunting” are spoken, upland birds are pivotal for the backcountry experience. Tawney expresses this better than anyone.

“Implementation of the GAOA will be absolutely huge for upland birds and upland bird hunters alike,” Tawney said. “Conservation purchases through LWCF will help in protecting riparian zones, prairie, sagebrush sea and other priority upland habitats creating more landscape-level conservation opportunities – think additions to National Wildlife Refuges and wildlife management areas in particular.”

But while excited, Tawney is quick to speak on the history of American conservation. We have a $20 billion deferred maintenance backlog to begin working toward.

“We look forward to seeing the [$1.9] billion a year for five years put to use to fix roads, culverts and facilities so that all can enjoy our public lands, especially as we pursue solace in these challenging times. We hope that this is a signal that overall funding for agency budget requests gets more attention going forward. We have been starving our public lands management agencies instead of investing in them,” he said.

Closing arguments

It should be noted that these funds don’t just go toward conservation and opening up public land access in remote areas of the nation. LWCF funds also provide money for public parks, swimming pools and other urban and rural community recreation needs. Moreover, LWCF monies have been implemented in every county in America to some extent.

“Funding from GAOA, specifically as it relates to the LWCF, benefits communities broadly,” Wiklund said. “Public pools, parks, fishing access sites and new public lands in general [benefit]. The funds can be used a lot of ways to best suit local communities, and now, they are protected forever.”

While many are excited that this bill finally brings stabilization to conservation efforts and community needs, it’s also a story of bipartisan progress. During a time when it’s hard to even find common ground for pandemic relief, Congress came together to pass the greatest piece of conservation legislation we’ve seen since the days of John Dingell Jr., and even further back to the time when Theodore Roosevelt sat in the Oval Office. We should be proud of those politicians who passed the Great American Outdoors Act, and ourselves for fighting to continue the legacy of protecting the lands and animals we hold so dear.

When asked about what he would want an upland hunter who may see this story decades from now to take away from this time in U.S. history, Tawney’s message is simple.

“Carry on our rich conservation tradition,” he said. “Know where your current opportunities came from and work like hell to not only protect them but to expand on that legacy. Nothing that you have today happened by accident and nothing will be carried forward by accident either. Use your damn voice!”

Last modified: August 4, 2020

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