Conservation Digest: October 3, 2017

A recap of conservation news that's of interest to ACP this past week:

National Monument Downsizing Threatens Public Lands, American Economy

Business Wire 9.29.17

JACKSON, Wyo. Saturday’s Public Lands Day celebrates America’s crown jewel: more than 618 million acres set aside for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.

These lands are held in trust for the American people and managed by the federal government.

Following a leaked memo from the Department of the Interior, which recommends resizing as many as 10 national monuments or opening them up to mining, logging and industrial purposes, some are concerned that trust is in danger of being violated.

“We’ve been talking to business and civic leaders in communities adjacent to national monuments around the country,” said Christian Beckwith, founder and director of SHIFT, an annual conference held in Jackson Hole, Wyo., that convenes stakeholders in America’s public lands legacy. “Across the board, they fear changes in national monument boundaries could have a negative impact on their bottom lines.”

This year, as part of its focus on the business case for public lands, SHIFT is convening mayors, the heads of chambers of commerce, business leaders and outdoor recreationists to discuss how investments in outdoor recreation and public lands affect their communities. Keynote addresses, workshops and panel discussions will explore the impacts of public lands, including national monuments, on local economies.

Dave Conine, former Utah state director for USDA Rural Development and one of SHIFT’s featured panelists, has witnessed the significant benefits a national monument designation makes on local communities.

“Since President Clinton designated the Grand Staircase as a national monument, there has been a dramatic increase in new construction and local business development,” said Conine. “This is all related to the increase in tourism and the economic diversification that follows the visitor-based economy.”

Lucas St. Clair, president of Eliotsville Plantation, Inc. and founder of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, agrees. The region adjacent to the monument has experienced significant economic benefits in just the first year since designation.

“The monument has led to increased economic stability in the region,” said St. Clair. “To threaten the conservation and recreational resource with timber harvesting puts in jeopardy the very thing that is helping the region at such an important time.”

Research supports their concern. Headwaters Economics has studied the local economies surrounding 17 national monuments and found all showed continued or improved growth in key economic indicators.

Nationally, outdoor recreation generates $887 billion in consumer spending and 7.6 million jobs each year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

SHIFT invited Interior Secretary Zinke to open this year’s event and outline his vision for the public lands under his stewardship. His office acknowledged receipt of the invitation, but issued no further response.

This year’s SHIFT will convene business owners, outdoor and conservation advocates, tribal leaders and land managers to explore ways to steward those 618 million acres—the 129 national monuments, more than 400 national parks, 560 national wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, national marine monuments, national battlefields and wildernesses—set aside for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.

Review: Documentary "Trophy" probes blurred lines between big game hunting, conservation

CBS News 9.8.17

It is hard to picture yourself on the fence when it comes to issues of wildlife conservation and hunting for sport. The two seem mutually exclusive, and advocates for each could hardly be blamed for believing they could never see the other side's point of view. 

Which makes the heart-churning new documentary "Trophy" eye-opening, depressing and enlightening all at once. It shows how these issues are inextricably intertwined, because of both the costs of preserving species that face extinction, and the profit motives of the multi-billion-dollar global hunting industry whose clients will pay big bucks to bag a prized specimen of lion, elephant, rhino or other magnificent creature.

And yes, it forces the viewer to reflect on the desires of both sides: those for whom hunting is a God-given right and all God's creatures under Man's dominion to do with as we please; and those for whom the death of an animal is intolerable, and who will take to the streets or to social media to target hunters. (Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who hunted and killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in 2015, became an international pariah who received death threats.)

But there are people in the middle, trying to find a way to protect species in an imperfect, capitalist world where, for example, bans on the sale of rhino horn (enacted to protect rhinos from poachers) have actually increased poaching, decimating the species in just a few years.

"Trophy" (which had its world premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival) follows several figures pursuing their personal goals involving animals, including: Philip Glass, a Texas rancher who is closing in on fulfilling a hunter's "Big Five," if the lion's recent addition to the endangered species list doesn't trip him up first; John Hume, a former property developer who has invested millions to raise rhinos and harvest their horns, to keep the animals from being slaughtered by poachers; Christo Gomes, who breeds exotic animals on his South African ranch, appealing to the tastes of his wealthy hunter clients; and Chris Moore, a Zimbabwean wildlife officer who must act like King Solomon among the local community whose livestock and family members are preyed upon by wild animals.

If you think you know these people by these brief descriptions, you are wrong. Moore uses harsh "scared straight" tactics against the children of suspected poachers in the dead of night; Gomes cries when thinking about the animals he raises, only to be killed by the clients who pay his bills; Hume goes to court, fighting to repeal South Africa's ban on rhino horn sales and avoid financial ruin; and Glass visibly mourns the passing of an elephant, which takes a long, long time to expire from the bullets he has fired into its body.

Director Shaul Schwarz and co-director Christina Clusiau do not pull their punches when showing the glee with which a beer-swigging hunter slaughters an alligator dragged out of its pond. "It's party time!" he says after firing his rifle at point-blank range. Nor with the Youtube commenter upset over Cecil's death, who happens to be wearing a leopard print scarf.

As each person rationalizes their thinking and behavior for the camera, we are left questioning our own moral compass, and where animals fall within it. 

One of the most moving sentiments is from a taxidermist, Travis Courtney, who rues that the destruction of habitat forces animals into contact with people. "They always come second," he says, putting the finishing touches on a stuffed lion.

"This might do justice to them," he says of his handiwork. "At least that is what I aim for. So if they do become extinct one day, it's something to show the world what they look like."

Exceptionally well-photographed, "Trophy" captures the haunting beauty of these threatened animals, whether roaming free in a park beset by poachers or behind chain-link fences, oblivious to the safari that awaits.  

The film, strangely, inspires something close to hope -- despite the poaching statistics and depressing bloodlust -- because, as evoked by the film's participants in so many different ways, the value of these animals is calculated far beyond mere currency, despite the monetary impulses on view. As anti-poaching activist John Hume observes about harvesting rhino horns rather than slaughtering the animals outright, "Who would kill the hen that lays the golden egg?"

Interior’s Zinke Tabs October As National Hunting And Fishing Month

NRA-ILA 9.25.17

We’ve told you before about new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s dedication to hunting, fishing and other recreation on public lands. Now Zinke has gone a step further and declared that the month of October will officially be recognized as National Hunting and Fishing month at the Department of Interior.

“ grew up in northwest Montana surrounded by public lands and waters. ome of my best memories are hunting and fishing with my dad and granddad, and then later teaching my own kids to hunt and fish. That's something I want more families to experience, which is exactly why increasing access to public lands is so important," Zinke said in a Department of Interior release. “Hunters and anglers are the backbone of wildlife and habitat conservation in America, nd they contribute billions of dollars to conservation. From my perspective, the more sportsmen we have in the woods and waters, the better our wildlife and land will be. Formally recognizing the contributions of hunters and anglers to wildlife and habitat conservation is long overdue."

It’s refreshing to have an Interior head who recognizes the importance of sportsmen and women to the nation’s conservation effort, as that hasn’t always been the case. NRA strongly supported Zinke’s nomination by President Donald Trump, and his actions since becoming secretary certainly haven’t dampened that enthusiasm.

“On behalf of the 5 million hunters, recreational shooters and members of the NRA, we commend Secretary Zinke for continuing to follow Teddy Roosevelt's sportsman legacy by opening more land and water to hunting and target shooting,” Chris W. Cox, executive director of NRA-ILA, said recently. “In the past, management plans for federal lands have been put in place to ban hunting and shooting. Sportsmen and women can now breathe a sigh of relief that those days are over. This administration values access to public lands for sportsmen and we commend them for it.”

The National Hunting and Fishing Month declaration was signed last Wednesday night at the grand opening of the Wonders of Wildlife Museum in Springfield, Mo. Event speakers included former Presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.

Last month, Secretary Zinke signed a directive to support and expand hunting and fishing, enhance conservation stewardship, improve wildlife management, and increase outdoor recreation opportunities for all Americans. The order expanded hunting, fishing and shooting on public lands and sought innovative solutions to open private land. It also focused on wildlife and habitat conservation and restoration as well as better collaboration with states, tribes and territorial governments. The move was widely praised by sportsmen and wildlife conservation organizations.

In August, Zinke announced a proposal to expand hunting and fishing opportunities at 10 National Wildlife Refuges, and he announced the initial stages of a plan to acquire land to make the Bureau of Land Management Sabinoso Wilderness Area accessible for the first time ever to hunters, hikers, and wildlife watchers.

Zinke’s fire memo calls for aggressive forest thinning

High Country News 9.18.17

As the West contends with a big wildfire season, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urged his staff to take aggressive action to prevent wildfires. His memo calls on managers to “think differently” about reducing the accumulation of dense vegetation. He wants vegetation cleared if it encroaches on roads or buildings, and dead trees removed if they can spread fire to valuable property or beyond the boundaries of parks, refuges or other Interior Department lands.

Forest fire experts say Zinke gets some things right in his memo but caution that its goal— to stop and prevent forest fires — is unattainable and not even desirable. They say Zinke’s memo and accompanying press release perpetuate the public’s misperception about fire by suggesting that by thinning forests, forest managers can avoid or snuff out forest fires.

“We’ve been failing at that for 120 years,” says Andrew Larson, associate professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana. “Zinke is a smart guy; he picks battles he can win. It surprises me he’s making a promise I don’t think he can deliver on.”

Wildfires have burned more than 8 million acres this year, far exceeding the annual average over the last ten years. In Montana, Zinke’s home state, drought-fueled wildfires scorched nearly 1.3 million acres, about four times the average over the past decade. Fire severely damaged a historic dormitory in Glacier National Park’s Sperry Chalet. 

Zinke’s memo states: “It is well settled that the steady accumulation of vegetation in areas that have historically burned at frequent intervals exacerbates fuel conditions and often leads to larger and higher-intensity fires.”

That’s accurate, Larson says, but what’s missing is the reason that forests are choked with vegetation. “The problem with fuels is that we’ve suppressed fire,” Larson says. “It’s a problem we’ve created for ourselves.” Zinke’s memo advocates limiting fire in the future, which will continue this problem.

More aggressive thinning in low-elevation forests near communities could limit the damage to homes and other structures, Larson says. It also could minimize the severity of future fires in those areas, so that more trees survive those fires.

But the thinning can’t prevent fires in those areas. And the vast majority of the acreage burned in Montana this year is in higher elevations and wilderness areas, where thinning wouldn’t be practical or appropriate, experts say.

There are more omissions from Zinke’s memo. For example, the memo doesn’t mention the best tool forest managers have to minimize fuels and restore forests: prescribed burns. And the biggest factors fueling Western wildfires — weather and climate — were entirely absent: “The scientific community knows with such great certainty the overriding importance of weather and climate as the primary drivers of Western forest fire regimes,” says Larson. “Fuels are important too. But if we’re only focused on fuels we’re missing the big driver.”

Also absent from Zinke’s message is the major role climate change plays in Western forest fires. In a groundbreaking study published last October, scientists estimated that nearly half of the acreage burned in Western forests over the last three decades could be attributed to human-caused climate change. Under climate change, summers in the West are projected to become increasingly warmer and drier, increasing the frequency of severe wildfire years. Philip Higuera, an associate professor of fire ecology also at the University of Montana, says: “If our policies don’t acknowledge the role that climate plays in driving these large wildfires seasons like we’re seeing this year, the policies we develop are going to be misguided.”

The professors also take issue with Zinke’s characterization of fire in the West as “catastrophic.” Many Western species have life cycles that are dependent on fire. For example, at higher elevations, the cones from lodgepole pines don’t open without fire, meaning the trees can’t propagate themselves.

There’s no question that fires can be catastrophic when they’re close to communities and destroy homes or buildings. “But when they’re not doing that, they’re doing a really important service and playing an important function in ecosystems,” Higuera says. “If we value landscapes that include national processes, we have to learn how to live and work with having fire in the landscape.”

One important role that fire plays might resonate with Zinke, a hunter who is determined to make public lands more hospitable for sportsmen. Hunters often complain when smoke and flames keep them from their favorite hunting areas. But Larson takes the longer view. His favorite elk hunting spot in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness is within the area burned by the Rice Ridge Fire, and Larson won’t be able to hunt there this fall. But in coming years, as the forest regenerates, elk will be lured to that very place because tasty forbs that elk love will flourish in the bright sunlight. “After a few years, fires give us great big game habitat,” he says.

RV industry lobbies to privatize services on public lands

HCN 9.29.17

Afamily heading to Yellowstone National Park this summer to sleep amid the geysers and grizzlies had lots of choice in accommodations. They could throw up a tent on a simple campsite without flush toilets for less than $20 a night. Campgrounds with full RV hookups, showers and bathrooms would cost $24 to $47. Cabins and rooms around Old Faithful, while much pricier, offer easy access to restaurants, stores, cell service and Wi-Fi.

Beyond the upgraded amenities, a difference the park-visiting family might not have noticed is who was running those campsites and cabins. The National Park Service manages the basic campgrounds, while Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a private concessionaire, operates the more developed campgrounds and lodges, food services, gift shops and guide outfits — all the services, in other words, that are well positioned to turn a profit.

Turning over campgrounds and other services to private companies is a common — and somewhat controversial — practice in popular national parks, and even many well trafficked national forests. And it may soon become even more ubiquitous, bringing changes that could alter the natural settings of campgrounds and public lands.

As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has begun steering the department that oversees our national parks, the RV and parks-hospitality industries appear to have their hands on the wheel. This July, Zinke announced the creation of the Made in America Recreation Advisory Committee. The group, made up primarily of representatives from the concession and RV industries, will advise Zinke and Interior staff on the expansion of public-private partnerships in national parks and recreation areas. Its members are already pushing for more privately run lodges and campgrounds, as well as additional internet and cellphone coverage.

“We have been knocking on (Zinke’s) door and saying, ‘We have some great ideas, will you listen, please?’” says Derrick Crandall, a leader of the group who also heads the National Parks Hospitality Association, the industry lobbying group for park concessionaires, and the American Recreation Coalition, which advocates for public-private partnerships. “We are excited.”

But parks advocacy groups are concerned about the potential for widespread privatization of public lands and resources. They warn that would lead to higher access fees, and development that could make public lands feel more like commercial resorts. “What do we want our national park experience to be like?” asks Mark Butler, who worked 34 years at Yosemite National Park, and now represents the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. “Do you want visitors to connect with a Park Service ranger and the resource or to have a more commercialized experience?”

National parks relied on private operators to run lodges, general stores and hospitality services even before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. Railroads built the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone and the Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park.

Today, the Park Service has more than 500 concession contracts. The contractors — from small guide businesses to huge service companies like Aramark and Xanterra — serve meals, make beds and run campgrounds, groceries and marinas. They pay $150 million in fees annually to the Park Service, and earn more than $1 billion in sales.

Crandall says that private operators specializing in campground management and hospitality services are better suited to respond to the demands of visitors, who increasingly want access to Wi-Fi and cell service, cabins, and toilets and showers at campgrounds. Crandall and his allies are also eager to cater to the country’s growing number of RV travelers. Americans bought a record-setting 430,000 RVs in 2016, he says, but the parks don’t really serve them well. While overall visitation keeps increasing, overnight RV stays in national parks have declined since the late 1980s, which Crandall says is due to the lack of upgrades, such as space and electric hookups for large RVs.

These aren’t new priorities for the industry, but Crandall’s groups and others are being heard clearly and often by Zinke and other Trump administration officials. This January, the RV industry and other manufacturers and retailers of boats, off-road vehicles, motorcycles and outdoor gear and apparel officially formed the Outdoor Recreation Industry Roundtable to promote private business on public lands. The members of Zinke’s new advisory committee are all part of the group.

And Zinke appears willing — even eager — to turn over the keys to them. “I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds,” Zinke said during a June meeting with RV industry reps. “My folks will never be as good as you are.” Since January, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Assocation (RVIA) has met at least three times with Zinke or senior Interior staff. Zinke also spent April 24 with Crandall, according to Interior calendars obtained by the Washington Post. RVIA, meanwhile, has proclaimed Zinke to be a “long-time friend of the RV industry (who) owns a 38’ Newmar Class A motorhome.”

Roundtable leaders have also met with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who is overseeing a financial analysis of the outdoor recreation industry’s overall contributions to the U.S. economy. The group hopes the government will measure outdoor recreation activities based on spending and tax revenue, which would bolster the case for directing taxpayer dollars into larger campgrounds, wider, paved roads, and marinas, which are often operated by concessionaires.

Not everyone believes privatization is positive for parks, however. “The solution is not to privatize, but to adequately fund the National Park Service so it can meet the demands that our current record setting levels of visitation are causing,” says Mark Butler, a retired Park Service official.

Besides, the benefits private contractors bring to the table aren’t as clearcut as Zinke and the industry make them out to be. For instance, federal agencies are required to use taxpayer dollars to pay for major improvements, even at privately run campgrounds. According to the Center for American Progress, $389 million of the Park Service’s maintenance backlog represents repairs needed at privately run facilities. And after those improvements are completed with public dollars, contractors still raise visitors’ fees.

Meanwhile, when the company Delaware North lost its hospitality contract in Yosemite in 2016, it sued the government, claiming it owned the trademarks to lodge names and even “Yosemite National Park” and a logo of Half Dome used on t-shirts and merchandise. The Park Service ended up spending $1.7 million to update signs with new names and logos around the park.

“If the National Park Service is appropriately funded it can provide extremely high-quality, unparalleled services,” Butler argues. He adds that, “it’s really important for visitors to national parks to have their experiences connected with the public land managers,” through interacting with public servants like rangers at campgrounds and other facilities.

Zinke, with the RV and concessionaires on his side, clearly disagrees. In addition to courting the industry, he has aggressively reassigned dozens of senior officials at Interior, a maneuver many see as a shakeup targeting agency staff who share Butler’s views about public service and resources.

That kind of culture change — rooting out staff who support limited privatization and see things like campground management as part of the Park Service’s mission — is as crucial as any forthcoming policies to expand private contracts, says Warren Meyer, president of Recreation Resource Management, a campground concessionaire. Meyer is dubious the Trump administration has the influence with career staff — or the attention span — to achieve such change. But if they do, the industry is ready to help. “There is an enormous opportunity to have private companies come in and manage the things they can manage without changing the character of these parks,” Meyer says.

By the numbers: Paying for parks

COSTS AND CONTRIBUTIONS FOR PARKS MANAGEMENT AND MAINTENANCE

$78,333: First-quarter salary of President Donald Trump, which he donated to the National Park Service

$1,500,000,000: Approximate proposed budget cuts to Department of Interior, which includes Park Service, by Trump

1,242: Full-time Park Service jobs that would be eliminated under Trump’s proposed Interior budget

25,000+: Park hospitality jobs through private concessionaires during peak season

$11,300,000,000: Park Service deferred maintenance backlog

$53,000,000: Funds made available this July for parks infrastructure improvements

$33,000,000: Amount of the $53 million that actually comes from private and nonprofit partners, not the federal government

$51,200,000: Claimed value of trademarked names and logos in Yosemite National Park, according to lawsuit by concessionaire Delaware North

$49,700,000: Annual economic contributions of RV industry to U.S. economy

$117-$293: Costs for cabin or room at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Snow Lodge, operated by concessionaire Xanterra

$11.75: Cost per day of internet service at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Snow Lodge, operated by concessionaire Xanterra

 

As sportsmen watch Zinke, disillusionment replaces hope

HCN 9.7.17

At the beginning of Ryan Zinke’s tenure as Interior Secretary, the sporting community was hopeful: He’s from Montana. He’s a sportsman himself. And his first public meeting was with hook-and-bullet groups.

But those early hopes have waned as many sportsmen have begun to feel that the Interior Department is giving short shrift to conservation. Chief among sportsmen’s concerns are the Trump administration’s push for energy development on public lands, the loosening of sage grouse protections and other regulatory rollbacks, and Zinke’s recommendations to shrink national monuments. “We’re concerned that there’s this aura of downgrading a lot of the gains that have been made in conservation over the past handful of years,” says Aaron Kindle, senior manager of Western sporting campaigns for the National Wildlife Federation.

Meanwhile, sportsmen and women have cautiously applauded a few of Zinke’s actions over the last few months, such as expanding hunting and fishing opportunities in ten wildlife refuges. “So far it’s been a mixed bag,” says Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a sportsmen group with a public lands focus.

Hunters and anglers will continue to closely watch decisions by Zinke that could impact fish and wildlife as well as recreation on public lands. A new report on responsible energy development by 19 sportsmen’s groups and businesses speaks to their priorities: keeping public lands public, giving sportsmen a voice in energy development decisions on public lands, and protecting essential water sources. “The report derived from things we’re seeing coming down the pipes that look like they could roll back a lot of progress,” says Kindle.

In recent months, Zinke has signed orders to advance energy independence, including one that overturned a 2016 moratorium on new coal leases. He also signed an order to open up an area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

One of the developments most concerning to the sporting community is Zinke’s review of 27 national monuments, which includes recommendations to reduce the size of multiple monuments including Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The lack of transparency in the review process left many sportsmen frustrated, with the Interior Department doling out bits of information over the course of the review but withholding the official report on Zinke’s recommended changes. “It doesn’t make sense to have a secret report about the public’s property,” says Joel Webster, director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Center for Western Lands.

Sportsmen value national monuments not only because they provide hunting and fishing opportunities by protecting fish and wildlife habitat, but also because of a fundamental appreciation for public lands. “All sportsmen just naturally have a reverence for wild, pretty, pristine landscapes,” says Kindle, “even if they don’t hunt them.”

The monument review marked a turning point for groups like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers that had been willing to give Zinke the benefit of the doubt. In response to the review, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers launched an advertising campaign entitled “What Happened to Ryan Zinke?” in early August. “He said he’d fight to protect public lands, he wanted to be like Theodore Roosevelt,” says Montana chapter chair John Sullivan in the first TV spot, “but since his Washington promotion, he’s put our public lands at risk.” The campaign is meant to ramp up accountability to try to influence Zinke’s future decisions, says Tawney.

Another point of frustration and concern among sportsmen is the sage grouse report Zinke recently released. The report recommends giving states more freedom to manage sage grouse as they choose. This raises concerns that more of the sage grouse ecosystem—which is also crucial habitat for big game like mule deer, elk and pronghorn—could be opened to energy development. “We don’t want to see the federal plans undermined,” Webster says. Both Kindle and Tawney expressed frustration that the report seemed to undercut collaborative efforts that have gone on across the West. “Republican governors are pushing back, and he’s not listening,” notes Tawney. “That’s a troublesome thing.” 

Zinke has earned some praise from sportsmen. Most fundamentally, Zinke has stood by his word that he has no intention of attempting to privatize federal lands. “He’s been good on keeping public lands public,” says Chris Wood, CEO and president of Trout Unlimited. He has also expanded hunting and fishing access, which he has identified as one of his top priorities. For example, he has proposed opening sport fishing for the first time in Oregon’s Siletz Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The Interior Department is also currently working to open access to New Mexico’s landlocked Sabinoso Wilderness.

But for many sportsmen, these gestures mean little in the face of the Trump administration’s broader threats to fish and wildlife habitat. “In short, we’re disappointed,” says Wood. Though leaders like Wood and Tawney remain hopeful, they stress that it’s the responsibility of sportsmen and women to continue to hold Zinke accountable. “We still want him to do the right thing and think he can,” Tawney says, “but the troops are amassing, and we’re paying attention.”