How Anti-Public-Lands Money Enters Montana Politics

16 Jul

Montana congressional candidate Matt Rosendale earns income from two oil wells he leases to Dan and Farris Wilks. That should not only be of interest for voters because the Texan billionaires are pushing a radical anti-public-lands agenda across the Rocky Mountain West, but also because Rosendale voted for anti-public-access legislation backed by the Wilks brothers while being paid by them. 

That financial entanglement, along with Rosendale’s voting history, runs counter to his claim that he’ll work to protect public lands, a vow made when he announced his campaign in June. 

“Matt opposes a federal lands transfer and will continue to fight every day to protect our public access to public lands and will always keep them in public hands,” reads Rosendale’s campaign website

Rosendale, a former real estate developer from Maryland, first entered Montana politics in 2010, when he was elected to the state’s House of Representatives. He entered the state Senate in 2012, then was elected state auditor in 2016, a position he still holds after mounting an unsuccessful bid for the United States Senate last year. 

It was while serving in the state Senate in 2015 that Rosendale voted for Senate Bill 245, legislation which would have, in part, allowed the Wilks brothers to construct a high fence on their N Bar Ranch in north-central Montana; that fence could have contained local elk populations on private land, at the expense of hunting opportunities on nearby public lands. The Wilks brothers lobbied heavily for the bill, which went on to pass in the legislature but was vetoed by Governor Steve Bullock. 

In financial disclosures released as part of Rosendale’s 2018 Senate bid, it’s apparent that the politician became business partners with the Wilks brothers as early as 2013, which continues to this day. Rosendale leases oil wells on his ranch near Glendive, Montana, to the Wilks brothers.

Additionally, according to the Federal Election Commission, the Wilks family donated close to the maximum allowable amount to Rosendale’s campaign in 2014. 

Money reaches Rosendale through the companies. According to Montana property-tax records, the ranch near Glendive where Rosendale lives with his family is owned by MBA Consultants, Inc. Rosendale is the president of MBA Consultants, a company that he established in Maryland, owns 8,944 acres in Montana, and, according to campaign disclosures, generates between $100,000 and $1 million annually from a property located at 1954 Hwy. 16 in Glendive. According to records filed with the state, a company called Interstate Exploration operates oil wells at that property. Interstate Exploration is, according The Great Falls Tribune, owned by Dan Wilks

The Montana League of Conservation Voters calculated that Rosendale has earned approximately $28,000 from one of the two wells. Property records have been updated recently to show the property is owned directly by Rosendale.

A recent profile published by The New York Times details the troubling ways in which access to public lands in Idaho has been damaged by the real estate and political machinations of the Wilks family. There, the Wilks have shut down public rights of way through their land and in some instances have even hired armed guards to keep the public out. The piece by The Times questioned the legality of these moves but went on to note that local governments lack the ability to fight the billionaires in court. Beginning in 2011, the brothers began purchasing hundreds of thousands of acres in Montana, making them the second-largest land owners in the state. Since that time, they’ve also become the largest political donors to state politics, and, in a worrying repeat of their action in Idaho, have begun efforts to limit public access using their properties. 

The Wilks’s actions mesh with Rosendale’s own words and voting record. Despite recent efforts to cultivate a pro-public-lands image, Rosendale’s history with the issue is devoutly committed to their sale. In 2014, when asked to participate in a Q and A with the Billings Gazette on the topic, he stated, “I have long been on the record as an advocate for the transfer of federal public lands to the state.” In addition to S.B. 245, Rosendale also has a long history of voting against the interests of public access and public lands in Montana

“Matt Rosendale has proved time and again that he does not work in the interest of Montanans,” Aaron Murphy, executive director of the Montana League of Conservation Voters, told me over the phone. His group, which represents the state’s conservation and environmental communities, has opposed Rosendale’s campaigns in the past. “He’s a real estate developer who continues to represent the interests of land developers and polluters at the expense of public access to public lands for everyday people,” Murphy continued. 

Despite repeated attempts by phone, e-mail, and social media, neither Rosendale nor his campaign could be reached for comment.

The Everglades Are Burning. Thanks, Climate Change.

25 Jun

One topic is going to feel a little more urgent than usual at Wednesday’s Democratic primary debate in Miami: Climate change. That’s because there is a massive wildfire raging just a few miles away from the venue in the Florida Everglades. 

It’s believed that the Sawgrass Fire was started by a lightning strike around 6:30 P.M. on Sunday evening. As of Tuesday afternoon, it’s spread to more than 31,500 acres in a state conservation area north of I-75. While it doesn’t currently threaten any structures, smoke from the fire is beginning to envelop that highway, which could lead to dangerous driving conditions. Local residents are being warned of the risks of inhaling its smoke. 

Contained within the 165,000-acre Water Conservation Area 3 by surrounding canals, Broward County officials are hoping the current mild wind conditions will remain stable and that the fire won’t jump I-75 into the bigger expanse of wetlands south of the highway. The fire does not currently threaten Everglades National Park. Forecasts predict a 40 to 60 percent chance of rain or thunderstorms in the region this evening, which could slow the fire’s spread or extinguish it altogether. 

Fires are a natural part of the Everglades ecosystem. The area that’s burning is essentially a low-lying sawgrass prairie, while other parts of the area include pine forest, swamp, and wetlands. But human activity has reduced water levels in the Everglades, even while climate change has created drier winters and hotter summers. All that combines to create more fire-prone conditions. The Sawgrass Fire has spread faster than usual and is already considered a large wildfire for the region.

Florida’s Everglades are particularly threatened by climate change. Even while fires grow more frequent and severe, sea level rise is already flooding the region with saltwater. And warming temperatures and saltwater are changing the kinds of plants and animals that are able to live there. While that’s going on, human development in the region has altered the way water flows into and through the Everglades. A huge hurricane, which could have been made worse or more likely by a warming climate, caused the accidental release of non-native pythons into the ecosystem, which are now wreaking havoc on local wildlife. These threats are so bad that it’s not even clear if the Everglades will live to see the end of this century.

If you are, for instance, a candidate for President hoping to put an exclamation point on the urgency of taking action to mitigate climate change, then this is the news event to talk about. 

The Lies in David Bernhardt’s New Hunting Rule

12 Jun

Last week the Department of the Interior issued a proposal to expand hunting and fishing opportunities across the National Wildlife Refuge System. It’s an unexpected increase in access to public lands, as it comes from the administration that has presided over the largest reduction of protections for those lands in history. But is this new proposal everything that interior secretary David Bernhardt claims it is? 

Let’s look at his statements and see how they compare with reality. 

The Numbers Don’t Add Up

The Claim:New or expanded hunting and fishing opportunities at 74 National Wildlife Refuges and 15 National Fish Hatcheries ... across more than 1.4 million acres.”

The Reality: According to the proposal’s text, the rule would only open up seven wildlife refuges and 15 fish hatcheries to new hunting and fishing opportunities, while amending rules on 67 additional wildlife refuges. So while rules are changing across the mentioned 1.4 million acres, they do not add up to anything close to 1.4 million acres of new places to hunt and fish.

In fact, you’ll find only two wildlife refuges that are going to open to both hunting and fishing under this proposal: the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, which spans 36,000 acres in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and the 330-acre Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. Not only are 36,330 acres a whole lot less than 1.4 million, but even on those acres only certain types of hunting are becoming available in select areas. Green Bay, for instance, is only opening up to sport fishing and whitetail-deer hunting, with the latter allowed in designated areas only. There are no details on how many designated acres there will be within that refuge. 

...Nor Do the Impacts

The Claim: Speaking to host Cam Edwards in an interview on NRA TV, Bernhardt claimed that the proposed regulations are “absolutely major” when it comes to recruiting new hunters. 

The Reality: The text of the proposed rule addresses the matter succinctly: “Because the participation trend is flat in these activities since 1991, this increase in supply will most likely be offset by other sites losing participants. Therefore, this is likely to be a substitute site for the activity and not necessarily an increase in participation rates for the activity.” The Department of the Interior itself does not anticipate that the proposed rule will create any new hunters. 


The Claim: Speaking to Edwards, Bernhardt applauds the economic contribution hunters and anglers make to conservation efforts through taxes on equipment purchases and license sales. He suggests that the proposed rule could substantially increase that contribution. The text of the rule suggests an estimate of $763,500 in increased recreation-related spending in local economies surrounding the wildlife refuges in question, and a total economic impact of $1.8 million for communities adjacent to them. 

The Reality: According to the proposed rule’s own findings, the majority of fishing and hunting happens within 100 miles of a participant’s home. The prediction? “It is unlikely that most of this spending would be ‘new’ money coming into a local economy; therefore, this spending would be offset with a decrease in some other sector of the local economy.” So read past the initial $1.8 million claim, and the proposed rule itself actually concludes that the real-world economic impact would be only $351,000 nationally. The proposed rule acknowledges how minuscule that number is. “The maximum increase would be less than three-tenths of 1 percent for local retail trade spending.” Assuming that only a portion of that total is spent on items taxed by Pittman-Robertson or Dingell-Johnson, and on licenses, tags, and duck stamps, the total additional benefit to conservation achieved by these new rules is effectively nothing. 

There’s Still Red Tape

The Claim: Speaking on NRA TV, Bernhardt says that he’s “getting rid of a ton of complexity between what state laws said and our laws said, all of which will make it much easier for hunting and fishing.”

The Reality: Hunting and fishing on wildlife refuges is governed by both state and federal laws, and while this new rule does attempt to streamline some language in specific regulations on specific wildlife refuges, it does not alter that arrangement or substantially change any regulations. 

The text of the proposed rule highlights, as its biggest regulatory change, the removal of same-day airborne hunting prohibitions on wildlife refuges in Alaska. The reason for that change? It duplicates Alaska state law and is therefore superfluous. You still can’t scout animals by airplane within 24 hours of hunting them, and now there’s just one regulation telling you that rather than two. 

Expanding public access to public lands and increasing participation in hunting and fishing are both worthy goals, even if they’re achieved incrementally. While these new regulations may not have a substantial impact when viewed nationally, they could make all the difference when it comes to giving a single person a better hunting season or a more enjoyable day fishing.

What concerns me here is the big picture. Bernhardt is disproportionally championing what’s ultimately an extremely small achievement, while continuing to put most of his department’s efforts behind programs that actually threaten wildlife populations and supporting Trump administration policies that are destroying both public access and the habitats wildlife depends on. And that’s part of a larger pattern of suppressing science, prioritizing extraction, and alleged corruption. Viewed like that, this proposal is nothing but a smoke screen. 

Oh, and the fact that NRA TV was a willing platform for Bernhardt to champion that smoke screen and was cheerleading his lies? That’s just one more reason why hunters should leave the NRA

The SOAR Act Could Be Great for the Outdoors

30 May

A bipartisan bill introduced to the Senate last week promises to bring substantial regulatory relief to an industry—and it's not oil and gas. No, the industry that’s going to benefit this time is outdoor recreation, specifically all the guides and outfitters operating on public land. 

Introduced by Senators Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act (SOAR) promises to do the following:

  • Improve the process for issuing recreation permits by directing the federal-land-management agencies to eliminate duplicative processes, reduce costs, shorten processing times and simplify environmental review; 
  • Increase flexibility for outfitters, guides and other outdoor leaders by allowing them to engage in activities that are substantially similar to the activity specified in their permit;
  • Make more recreation opportunities available by directing the agencies to offer more short-term permits and create a program for sharing unused permit service days between permit holders; 
  • Increase system transparency by directing agencies to notify the public when new recreation permits are available and requiring the agencies to provide timely responses to permit applicants; 
  • Simplify the permitting process for trips involving more than one land management agency by authorizing the agencies to issue a single joint permit covering the lands of multiple agencies; 
  • Reduce permit fees and cost recovery expenses for small businesses and organizations by excluding certain revenue from permit fee calculations and establishing a simple 50-hour cost recovery fee exemption for permit processing; 
  • Provide new protections for U.S. Forest Service permit holders by recognizing seasonal demand fluctuations and waiving permit use reviews in extraordinary circumstances beyond the control of the permit holder (wildfire, etc.); 
  • Help control liability insurance costs for permit holders by allowing them to use liability release forms with their clients; 
  • Reduce barriers to access for state universities, city recreation departments, and school districts by waiving the permit indemnification requirement for entities that are prohibited from providing indemnification under state law.  

Coming so soon after the successful passage of the Dingell Act and the introduction of the Outdoor Recreation Therapy for Veterans Act in the House of Representatives, SOAR is both a boon for the outdoor recreation industry and a further sign that its nascent political efforts are bearing fruit. And it sounds like the people running guiding businesses are excited. 

“Outdated regulations in the permitting system have made it time consuming, unpredictable, and in many cases-impossible-for outdoor organizations and businesses to provide outdoor experiences for the public on public lands,” said Alex Kosseff, executive director at the American Mountain Guides Association, in a statement. “The Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act removes old roadblocks to facilitated outdoor recreation and enables more Americans to get outside and enjoy public lands.”

“The outdoor provider community has consistently struggled with the complexity of the federal recreational permit system," stated Rebecca Bear, director of REI's Outdoor Programs and Experiences. “Streamlining the application process will help outdoor organizations more rapidly get people outside and promote an outdoor life.”

Should the bill pass, how will you, the average outdoor enthusiast, benefit? It should lead to more affordable and wider access to guiding services, but perhaps the most important benefactor will be future backpackers, mountain climbers, anglers, and hunters. Youth organizations like the YMCA, Boy Scouts, and even schools will either be able to access guide services for the first time or do so with less expense and red tape. 

“Easing the currently complicated and restrictive process will enable youth-serving organizations like the Y to share nature’s wonders with many more kids and families and instill in our youth a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors,” said Kevin Washington, the president and CEO of YMCA, in a statement.  

Want to Access Public Land? Get This App.

29 May

The biggest barrier preventing you and I from enjoying all the public land we own is knowing where to go and how to get there. That’s why I think the new Offroad app from OnX is so significant: it makes discovering remote destinations, then navigating to them, as easy as looking at your smartphone. 

Unless you hunt, you may not have heard of OnX. Six years ago, the Montana-based company compiled basic data on the boundaries between private and public land into a slick, easy, intuitive navigation app. That may not sound revolutionary, but by eliminating the potential for error, and allowing hunters to carry in-depth data into the field, it has utterly transformed the sport. OnX Hunt has enabled even first-time hunters to better access new areas they may not have known existed, then given them the tools they need to be successful. 

OnX Hunt is so easy to use and so powerful that it’s become my go-to navigation app for all my outdoor pursuits. I use it to find new trails to hike with the dogs and scope out potential backpacking destinations, then plan and share routes to these sites. And I use it to navigate off-road. I forget why I went to the company’s website last week, but when I did, I noticed a new tab labeled OnX Offroad. It nearly ruined my weekend. 

Let’s work through the steps it would take to plan a camping trip on OnX. Here I am in Bozeman, and I can select what kind of vehicle I have so the app shows the appropriate trails. (Wes Siler)

What OnX Offroad does is simple. The Forest Service and other land-management agencies open and close roads for different reasons throughout the year, and the app shows you which dirt roads and trails on state and federal land are currently open or when they’re scheduled to open. The app also shows you which roads and trails are accessible to different types of vehicles: overland (read: simple dirt roads), high-clearance 4x4, side-by-sides and ATVs, and dirt bikes. 

Here’s the general area I’d like to go. The trails that are currently open are green, and the closed ones are orange. To see when those open, I just have to click on them. (Wes Siler)

That might sound rudimentary, but by displaying all that information on top of normal map layers (road, topographic, satellite imagery, etc.), and doing that nationwide, all in one place, OnX Offroad is incredibly empowering. Here in Montana, for instance, many routes on public land close for the winter due to snowpack, then open on May 16, June 16, or July 16. In the past, I’ve had to figure out which roads were open or closed by setting out on them and hoping the gates weren’t locked. That obviously made it near impossible to plan trips in remote areas—there was no way to know if I could even get to the trailhead for a backpacking trip in a new place. 

Exploring digitally, I can see this high-elevation lake. That looks like a cool place to check out! (Wes Siler)

So, armed with OnX Offroad last weekend, I figured I’d go and see how far I could get into a mountain range that I hadn’t visited yet. At home I filtered trails for overland and high clearance 4x4, then scrolled around to see which open routes might lead to neat spots. In satellite view, I found an open trail leading a remote, high-elevation lake. It looked like it might prove to be a neat spot to go camping this summer, so I threw the dogs in my new truck and hit the road. 

The trail started about ten miles up a dirt road that led away from a highway, out through farm country. Without OnX Offroad, I’d never have even known there was a trail system up there without extensive exploring. As the app promised, the gates were open and the trail was wide enough for my Ford Ranger. I was rewarded with epic views, but after half an hour or soI found snow blocking the trail at about 7,500 feet. I hopped out of the truck with the intention of walking ahead to see if I could make it through, but was immediately greeted by a loud whooshing sound as air escaped from one of my rear tires—guess I sliced it open on a sharp rock I should’ve taken the time to move from the path. The hill I’d driven up was way too steep to attempt jacking the truck, so I had to carefully reverse down the narrow trail for about a mile, in the pouring rain, with unexercised dogs going bonkers in the back seat. Later that week, I became $200 poorer when I had to buy a new tire. A good reminder that off-road driving necessitates good equipment and a careful approach, no matter how slick the app. 

Clicking the trail I’d need to use to get to that lake brings up all its usage data. Here I can see that I’ll need to use a dirt bike or ATV to get there (or hike, but it’s a long way) and that the trail opens on June 16. (Wes Siler)

Back home, I called Rory Edwards, the app’s developer. He explained that Offroad was quietly released last month for the purpose of gathering user feedback and iterating development. Currently his team is able to take advantage of data on trail locations and openings provided by the various land-management agencies. They’re adding the ability for users to report current conditions later in May. So as the user base increases, live conditions like that deep snow I encountered, or a wash out, or a fallen tree, will become available, too. Once that’s done, Edwards says he’s going to work on the ability for users to add geotagged photos to the maps, then start developing turn-by-turn navigation. 

I wonder what the weather will be like? OnX downloads the seven-day forecast from the nearest weather station, so it’s available offline. Over a large area, I could use this to make plans around bad weather even if I didn’t have cell reception. (Wes Siler)

For this initial release, OnX Offroad is currently only available for Android. The company says an iOS app will release late this summer.

One of the best things about OnX Hunt is how much data is cached when you save a map for offline use. You may not think that you’ll want to be able to see a seven-day weather forecast once you’re deep in the mountains and out of cellular reception, but the fact that it’s available (along with other data like the names of landowners, historic wildfire burn areas, animal population distribution, and more) all combines to make the app way more useful—and again, empowering—than I’d expect. The same holds true of OnX Offroad. It includes the locations of 54,000 public campgrounds and cabins, and soon you’ll be able to click those in the app to pull up the relevant reservation website. That weather data is there, updated until the moment you leave data behind. And unlike the hunting app, OnX Offroad provides a nationwide subscription (rather than state) for $3.99 per month. 

“Our goal was to improve public-land access for everyone,” Edwards says. Because every outdoor enthusiast drives off-road at some point to pursue their various hobbies, his app is going to benefit every single one of us. Whether you’re looking for trails to challenge your lifted Jeep, seeking birdwatching spots to access via your Subaru, or planning your first or your hundredth camping trip, OnX Offroad is going to help you figure out where to go how you can get there. 

Try It Now

Your Guide to America’s Public Lands

22 May

America’s public lands are owned by the people and managed on our behalf by federal and state governments. That means you get to use them for all sorts of fun things for little to no charge. Here’s how to do that. 

A very high-resolution shaded relief map of the entire National Park Service system. (NPS)

National Parks

What are they? The crown jewels of our public-lands system, national parks protect our country’s most beautiful places while making it as easy as possible for large numbers of people to visit. 

Why should you go there? Sightseeing. From Yosemite’s towering granite walls to Yellowstone’s wildlife and thermal features, national parks contain the most iconic natural attractions. 

What’s better elsewhere? Camping. Not only are national parks crowded, meaning that permits and reservations are often necessary for even remote backcountry sites, but the pressure those crowds bring to these unspoiled landscapes means that you’ll necessarily be subject to lots of strictly enforced rules. Fishing may be allowed by special permit, but hunting is mostly forbidden, as are activities like mountain biking. 

What do they cost? Of the 417 national-park sites, only 118 of the most popular charge entry fees, which are typically $30 for a passenger vehicle. And even that fee can be waved or reduced depending on your age, military service, or even on certain holidays

Every National Forest. As you can see, there's a lot more area here than there is in the National Park Service. (USFS)

National Forests

What are they? Managed for multiple use, our 154 national forests provide resource extraction as well as wildlife conservation and recreation opportunities. 

Why should you go there? For fishing, hunting, cycling, camping, and other outdoor pursuits. Forests are way less crowded than parks and typically allow virtually any activity. 

What’s better elsewhere? Accessibility. Forests are basically just undeveloped tracts of land. Travel through them takes preparation and capability, and you’ll need to find the good stuff yourself. 

What do they cost? Resource extraction pays for the rest of us to use them mostly for free, but there are specific recreation passes required at certain popular sites. 

Look at all that desert! BLM lands are some of my favorite places to go camping, for the simple reason that they're vast, you'll have them to yourself, and there's little to no rules or authority on them. (BLM)

Bureau of Land Management Lands

What are they? The federal government originally tried to give all this land away to homesteaders during the westward expansion. But a lot was left over, and someone needed to manage it, so today the BLM does that for one-tenth of our landmass, on lands located primarily in the western states. Governed by the principle of multiple use, the BLM must balance the needs of resource extraction with conservation and recreation, while maintaining this land for the enjoyment of future generations. 

Why should you go there? Don’t like rules? Well, there’s not many on BLM land. You can camp, you can shoot guns, you can ride or drive off-road, you can have a campfire. Within basic reason, anything goes so long as you leave only footprints and don’t drive off designated routes.

What’s better elsewhere? We’re talking about vast empty swaths of what is typically desert, so you’re on your own out there. Get into trouble and help is likely a long way away, if available at all. 

What do they cost? BLM land is typically free to use, but some permits are required for special uses or in designated sites. 

Can you believe waterfowl hunters pay for all this? (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

National Wildlife Refuges

What are they? Originally created and still funded by waterfowl hunters, wildlife refuges exist to provide habitat and migration corridors for birds and other wildlife. 

Why should you go there? Hunting, fishing, paddling, and wildlife viewing. 

What’s better elsewhere? Camping and hiking. Wildlife refuges are typically composed of wetlands or contain lots of them. 

What do they cost? Hunters fund the wildlife-refuge system by buying a federal migratory bird-hunting permit, commonly referred to as the duck stamp. While you can visit a wildlife refuge for free if you’re not hunting, you can also chose to contribute to the system by buying a $25 stamp of your own. As a bonus, they’re collectible. 

Conservation areas are shaded green. There aren't many of them, but they're important. (BLM)

National Conservation Areas

What are they? Areas of particular natural beauty or biological diversity managed by the BLM but given greater levels of protection. No resource extraction is permitted in conservation areas. 

Why should you go there? Backpacking. Motorized travel is typically restricted in conservation areas, leaving you free to explore these exceptionally stunning (but uncrowded) places on foot. 

What’s better elsewhere? Accessibility and recreation. With access being limited, and only foot travel permitted, these can be difficult places to visit. Most activities, like mountain biking, are also banned. Each one has different rules, so familiarize yourself with them before planning a trip. 

What do they cost? Some areas may require entry by special permit only. The fees are nominal—typically $10—and are mostly a way to limit human presence. 

National Monuments

What are they? The Antiquities Act authorizes presidents to create these in order to protect areas of particular historic, natural, or scientific interest that are being threatened. There’s been a lot of political rhetoric around monuments recently, which is a shame. Each is unique and typically makes an allowance for historic uses, so really they just add protection to areas we were about to lose the ability to enjoy. 

Why should you go there? By their very nature, monuments are remarkable. Some, like Mount Rushmore, are simply tourist attractions. Others, like Bears Ears, offer some of the best backcountry camping in the world. 

What’s better elsewhere? I suppose if you’re an energy company looking to rape the environment you might look elsewhere. 

What do they cost? Depends on the monument. Most are free. 

Wilderness areas can be managed by one of several agencies, but all ban wheeled travel, and are some of the absolute best places to participate in intact ecosystems. (USGS)

Wilderness Areas

What are they? Places where nature hasn’t been spoiled by humans. Wilderness areas are designated by Congress, can exist within other types of lands, like national forests, and specifically ban any form of motorized or wheeled travel. 

Why should you go there? To see and participate in truly wild landscapes. They’re great places to go backpacking, hunting, and fishing. 

What’s better elsewhere? Wildernesses are, by definition, difficult to access. That’s what makes them fun—but only for the prepared. 

What do they cost? They’re typically free, but parking at the trailhead may come with a fee depending on location. 

National Recreation Areas

What are they? Typically located near major urban areas, and are designed to provide outdoor recreation opportunities for large numbers of people. Many are on a dammed river, and are places to go boating

Why should you go there? They’re easy to get to. They have lots of water or trails. Go have fun. 

What’s better elsewhere? Visiting during spring break probably isn’t for shy and retiring types. 

What do they cost? Typically $25 per passenger vehicle, and there may be additional slip and moorage fees.

Rivers are small and thin, zoom in. (USGS)

Wild and Scenic Rivers

What are they? Created as a mechanism for preserving natural (read: without dams) waterways in their original state, the National Wild and Scenic River System is basically a wilderness designation for water. 

Why should you go there? Floating and fishing. If you want to experience a river as nature intended, this is where you do that. 

What’s better elsewhere? Motorized boating is prohibited on many wild and scenic rivers; each has its own management plan. 

What do they cost? They’re free to use, but you may encounter parking or put-in/take-out fees in some areas, and you’ll need a state license to fish. 

National Seashores and Lakeshores (CalTopo)

National Seashores and Lakeshores

What are they? Established to preserve coastlines in their natural state, you’ll find these along the coasts of both oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes. 

Why should you go there? Like beaches? Want to see what those looked like before people built hotels and expensive houses on them? Well, these are the most beautiful, unspoiled beaches in the country. 

What’s better elsewhere? You’re not going to find services like beach bars and banana stands here. 

What do they cost? Fees vary from $3 to $20 per day. 

Turns out you don't have to hike just the PCT or ACT to check a long-distance thru-hike off your list. (NPS)

National Trails

What are they? Paths along which you can hike. Access and management are provided by the federal government along routes that may cross state, federal, and private land. There are three types of national trails: scenic, historic, and recreation. Scenic trails, likely the type you’re most familiar with, are at least 100 miles in length and compose our nation’s most famous thru-hiking routes, like the Appalachian Trail. Historic trails retrace famous trips, like the 4,900-mile Lewis and Clark Trail, the path of the well-known mapping expedition. Recreation trails are just that and vary in length. 

Why should you go there? Backpacking trips. If you’ve got something to prove, and that something is the ability to march along a trail for several weeks or months, then this is where you’d do that. 

What’s better elsewhere? I’d say solitude, as the most famous trails are pretty darn popular these days, but there are so many trails in this system, and some are so remote, that you can definitely find that here, too.

What do they cost? National trails are typically free, but you may need to pay fees if you pass through certain national parks, use some campgrounds, or take advantage of other services. 

All public lands in the United States, by management. (USGS)

Don’t Forget the Rest

Even with all the 640 million acres mentioned above, we’re only scratching the surface of places you can go play outdoors in the United States. Those states also own land, and while they aren’t required to protect it to the same degree as the feds, state-trust lands and state parks still offer amazing recreational opportunities. So in addition to the enormous amount of land managed by the federal government, Americans have access to 135 million acres of state-trust lands, nearly 19 million acres of state parks, and numerous smaller city parks. No matter where you are in the country, there’s probably some of that public land right outside your front door. Here's a map of all of it

A Climber Scaled the Eiffel Tower

20 May

The Eiffel Tower was closed Monday after a man with no ropes, dressed only in casual clothing, attempted to climb it. It took the man (whose name still has not been released) approximately seven hours to climb from the 377-foot second platform to the base of the 905-foot third—a free ascent of 528 feet. 

According to French authorities, the climber was threatening suicide before they managed to safely bring him inside, just as he reached the tower’s highest level. With the man in custody, officials announced that the tower will open as usual Tuesday morning.  

“The man entered the tower normally, and started to climb once he was on the second floor,” a spokesperson for the tower’s operator told Reuters. The 1,063-foot wrought-iron tower is split into three main levels, with restaurants on the first two floors, and an observation deck on the third. Tourists typically take elevators up and down, but there are also stairs for those looking for a challenge. 

Once the man climbed onto the tower’s exterior, authorities evacuated both the tower and the esplanade below. The man’s intentions were not immediately clear, prompting speculation that it could be related to the yellow-vest protests that have rocked France over the last several months. Tower operators offered refunds to disappointed tourists, many of whom stood outside police barricades to watch the man climb. 

Constructed between 1887 and 1889, the latticework tower is equivalent in height to an 81-story building and remains the tallest building in Paris. Originally created to serve as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, the tower is named after its designer, Gustave Eiffel. It's the most popular paid tourist attraction in the world, with approximately 7 million vistors each year. 

Several people have attempted to climb the ladder-like structure in the last 130 years. It’s believed that the only person to have successfully done so is British daredevil James Kingston, who filmed his 2015 feat. 

Throughout Monday’s climb, French rescue workers attempted to reach the man. They can be seen in photos trying to talk him into surrendering.

PG&E Caused California’s Deadliest Wildfire

16 May

An investigation by state fire officials has concluded that the electrical utility PG&E is responsible for causing the Camp Fire, which burned Paradise, California, basically to the ground last November. The 153,336-acre fire is the deadliest in state history, killing 85 people and destroying 18,804 structures. It's estimated to have caused $16.5 billion in damage

The report reads: 

After a very meticulous and thorough investigation, CAL FIRE has determined that the Camp Fire was caused by electrical transmission lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) located in the Pulga area. The fire started in the early morning hours near the community of Pulga in Butte County. The tinder dry vegetation and Red Flag conditions consisting of strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures promoted this fire and caused extreme rates of spread, rapidly burning into Pulga to the east and west into Concow, Paradise, Magalia and the outskirts of east Chico. The investigation identified a second ignition sight near the intersection of Concow Rd. and Rim Rd. The cause of the second fire was determined to be vegetation into electrical distribution lines owned and operated by PG&E. This fire was consumed by the original fire which started earlier near Pulga.

Facing multiple lawsuits related to the fire, PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in January. The most destructive fire in state history, the Camp Fire also caused Merced Property & Casualty Co, a local insurer, to go out of business last year

Home and business owners have been waiting on the results of the investigation, which may help them seek damages from PG&E. According to officials, the investigation was slowed by the sheer size of the blaze, along with the challenging terrain it burned through. 

PG&E provides electricity for 5.4 million customers in California. To avoid future disasters, it’s working with the state to develop plans to cut power across much of its network on windy days during the upcoming fire season, which begins next month. Communities have struggled in the past during a handful of power cuts that lasted only a matter of hours. The utility has warned consumers in Calistoga, just one of the areas it serves, that they could face as many as 15 power cuts this year, some lasting for several days.

“If this is the new normal, we have to accommodate for it,” Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning told The Mercury News. Calistoga and other communities are planningto build emergency shelters and take other measures to help residents through the coming blackouts. The home solar and battery industries are predicting a huge spike in demand as homeowners adapt to the regular power outages. 

Six of the 10 most destructive fires in California history have occurred in the last 18 months, killing 123 people and burning close to 1.9 million acres of the state. 

For Veterans, Outdoor Therapy Could Become Law

1 May

Earlier today, representative Chris Smith of New Jersey introduced the Outdoor Recreation Therapy for Veterans Act. The bill, HR 2435, directs the secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a task force to study the implementation of a mental-health program on public lands for veterans. This group, which would be composed of five cabinet secretaries (from the VA, Interior, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and Defense), plus the chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, would be charged with finding ways to better use public land in treatment and therapy for vets—and coming up with the policy recommendations to make it all happen.  

"Studies have shown—and veterans organizations strongly concur—that outdoor recreational activities can provide powerful therapeutic and healing benefits as well as camaraderie for veterans struggling with combat-related injuries or post-traumatic stress," said Smith in a statement. "We should be thinking outside-the-box to discover as many ways as possible to help veterans, and opening up federal lands and removing barriers to access for remedial outdoor recreation is a no-brainer. My legislation would help increase access to this treatment option."

When you drill down to the human level, you can see how this initiative might lay the groundwork for one of the most promising mental-health laws in U.S. history. Take my friend Matthew Griffin, a retired Army Ranger who runs his own shoe company. When he left the Army after four tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, he seemed OK on the outside, but inside he was suffering. Civilian life, especially his relationships with friends and family, couldn’t be approached with the same high-speed problem-solving skills he’d learned in Special Operations. He’d planned to start his new job in construction just three days after arriving home, with only a weekend off after nearly a decade of service. He couldn’t conceive of a life that didn’t involve working as hard as possible, at the expense of his family and his mental health. “My problem was that I didn’t realize I had a problem,” Griffin says. Then his father-in-law insisted that he take a few days off to join a salmon-fishing and camping trip on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. “When I got home from the Middle East, I swore I’d never sleep on the ground again,” Griffin says. “But on that trip, I learned to appreciate the outdoors in a new way.”

That one experience led Griffin to find a daily outlet for his stress and energy—mountain biking—and inspired a new mission for his life: trying to bring peace to war-torn areas of the world through his shoe company. It’s as good an outcome for a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder as you can imagine, and thanks to HR 2435, it’s one that could become available to all of our nation’s 20 million veterans.

This year the VA will spend $8.6 billion on mental-health services for its seven million patients. Studies show that outdoor-recreation therapy is effective at decreasing the symptoms of PTSD and helping veterans reintegrate with civilian life. For veterans, outdoor recreation can also carry less stigma than other types of therapy and is therefore more likely to attract participants. On top of all that, outdoor recreation may prove less expensive than medication-based treatment.

“Access to the outdoors is proven to have a positive impact on mental health and physical well-being,” says Washington State representative Adam Smith, who is cosponsoring the bill. “For our veterans, the healing effects of nature can be especially powerful.”

The bill already enjoys strong support, not only from both parties but from a number of veterans groups and outdoor-recreation industry players as well. “It’s only right that we make it as easy as possible for our veterans to rejuvenate among the country’s natural wonders,” REI wrote in a statement supporting the bill.

The hope is that HR 2435 will be a first big step toward formalizing the inclusion of outdoor-recreation therapy within the VA’s mental-health program. Doing so would fund outdoor trips and experiences for millions of veterans. And in addition to those veterans receiving effective mental-health treatment, the VA would also be creating huge numbers of new outdoor enthusiasts.

The bill acknowledges the important role public lands and unspoiled wilderness play in American society. It could also direct one of the largest budgets in the world—that of the U.S. military—toward protecting public lands and funding the guides and gear necessary to recreate on them, all the while educating millions of veterans about the importance of conserving our wild places.

“My father-in-law gave me the gift of showing me what the rest of my life could look like,” says Griffin. “My hope is that every veteran can have the chance to do the same thing.”

Elizabeth Warren Could Be the Public Lands President

15 Apr

Elizabeth Warren just released an ambitious policy proposal detailing what she would do to protect public lands and improve public access to them if she’s elected president. 

“America’s public lands are one of our greatest treasures,” the Senator from Massachusetts begins. “They provide us with clean air and water, sustain our fish and wildlife, and offer a place where millions of Americans go every year to experience the beauty of our natural environment.”

Warren goes on to promise that, on her first day as president, she'll sign an executive order immediately halting all new fossil fuel leases on both public lands and offshore. She says she’d also reinstate a rule that limited the methane emissions created by oil and gas production, as well as the Obama-era clean water rules that the Trump administration is in the midst of tearing apart. 

The candidate says she’ll increase the amount of renewable energy produced offshore and on public lands to 10 times its current amount—bringing it up to 10 percent of our nation’s total electricity needs. She also promises to use the Antiquities Act to restore the Bears Ears and Grand Straircase-Escalante national monuments to their former sizes. 

Warren intends to address the funding shortfall on public lands by making Land and Water Conservation Fund spending “mandatory,” but gives no specifics on what amount of money that might entail. (There’s a bill in front of Congress right now that proposes restoring LWCF funding to the $900 million it was authorized in 1978. That bill does not correct the amount for inflation, which would be $3.6 billion in today’s money.)  

Warren also identifies the $11.6 billion (pre-shutdown) maintenance backlog in national parks and says she’ll “eliminate the infrastructure and maintenance backlog on our public lands in my first term.” To achieve that, she proposes a revival of Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, that would be filled with “10,000 young people and veterans” tasked with rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure in parks and on public lands. 

In a proposal that will prove controversial in conservation circles, Warren proposes eliminating entrance fees at national parks. “There’s no better illustration of how backwards our public lands strategy is than the fact that today, we hand over drilling rights to fossil fuel companies for practically no money at all — and then turn around and charge families who make the minimum wage more than a day’s pay to access our parks,” she writes. 

Warren also tackles a previously little-known issue that could reap massive benefits, saying she’ll improve access to often inaccessible public lands in the West. “I commit to unlocking 50 percent of these inaccessible acres, to grow our outdoor economy, help ease the burden on our most popular lands, and to provide a financial boost across rural America,” she states. In so doing, she acknowledges the economic importance of the outdoor recreation industry and reaches out to hunters and anglers, who have been on the forefront of advocacy on this issue. “Outdoor recreation accounts for $887 billion in consumer spending each year and creates 7.6 million sustainable jobs that can’t be exported overseas,” she writes. 

“We must not allow corporations to pillage our public lands and leave taxpayers to clean up the mess,” writes Warren. “All of us — local communities and tribes, hunters and anglers, ranchers and weekend backpackers — must work together to manage and protect our shared heritage.”

“America’s public lands belong to all of us,” she concludes. “We should start acting like it.”