September 20, 2019
On March 12, President Donald Trump signed into law a wide-ranging public lands package of considerable interest to fly fishers and all who value clean and sustainable watersheds. The success of the 600-plus-page S. 47—otherwise known as the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act—speaks to the political power of sportsmen and conservationists, as well as Congress’s capacity to work in a bipartisan effort to advance widely shared environmental values. In the U.S. Senate, it passed as part of omnibus legislation that included the permanent reauthorization of the fund in a 92-8 vote. In the House of Representatives it passed by a vote of 363-62.
In addition to permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund—whose fate lay uncertain after expiring in the fall of 2018—S. 47 also contains provisions to list hundreds of new miles under the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, create a steelhead sanctuary on a tributary of the North Umpqua, and ban mining near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River.
Wild & Scenic Rivers Gain 620 Miles
Originally signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act affirms America’s belief in the social, environmental, and spiritual significance of America’s waterways by protecting them from development in the form of new dams, channel modifications, floodplain mineral development, and other threats to wildlife habitat and water quality. The first eight rivers to meet the Act’s criteria of possessing “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values” were the Clearwater, Eleven Point, Feather, Rio Grande, Rogue, St. Croix, Salmon, and Wolf. Since then, over 12,000 miles of river have been granted National Wild & Scenic status in 40 states as well as Puerto Rico. 2018 marked the 50-year anniversary of the act, so it would only make sense to add a considerable new quantum of river miles to federal protection—and that’s just what lawmakers did. In fact, more new river miles were granted Wild & Scenic status than at any time over the last decade. The additions are as follows:
- 256 miles of new designations for tributaries of the Rogue, Molalla, and Elk rivers in Oregon;
- 110 miles of the Wood-Pawcatuck rivers in Rhode Island and Connecticut;
- 76 miles of Amargosa River, Deep Creek, Surprise Canyon, and other desert streams in California;
- 63 miles of the Green River in Utah;
- 62 miles of the Farmington River and Salmon Brook in Connecticut;
- 52.8 miles of the Nashua, Squannacook, and Nissitissit Rivers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Wild Steelhead Sanctuary
Another area to enjoy new protections is a 100,000-acre swath of federal land enveloping the Steamboat Creek watershed, a critical steelhead spawning tributary of the North Umpqua. The Frank and Jean Moore Wild Steelhead Sanctuary is named after Frank Moore and his wife, who for decades have advocated for the river’s native wild steelhead, drawing attention to how poor forestry management can negatively impact water quality and thus steelhead survival. During his long life, Frank Moore fought in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, served as commissioner of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and received the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservationist of the Year Award, among other honors. In 2010 he was inducted into the Fresh Water Fly Fishing Hall of Fame.
The significance of this management zone cannot be overstated. In addition to providing some of the best steelhead spawning water in the Pacific Northwest, Steamboat Creek also provides habitat for Chinook and coho salmon, rainbow trout, and other native fish species. Black bears, river otters, bald eagles, northern spotted owls, Roosevelt elk, and grouse make up a considerable part of the larger Steamboat Creek ecosystem. And the protected water—comprising over 50 miles of Steamboat Creek and its tributaries—also provides clean drinking water to downstream communities.
Protecting the Yellowstone
S. 47 also contained legislation banning mining on 30,00 acres of federal land in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. The ideas behind the Yellowstone Gateway Act, as the ban has come to be known, were originally introduced by Democratic Montana Senator John Tester in April 2017 in response to two gold mines proposed in the headwaters of the Yellowstone. The bill passed with the astonishing margin of 92-8 in the U.S. Senate, and also experienced strong bipartisan support in the House of Representatives.
The movement to save the headwaters of the Yellowstone was not partisan; nor was it fueled by niche and special interests. Over 400 businesses, both local and national, banded together to form the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition. In placing permanent physical protections on the headwaters of the Yellowstone, Congress is also permanently enshrining the mythical headwaters of America’s angling imagination.
While there are still many challenges on the horizon, these success stories represent positive momentum for our country’s public lands heritage. The next political hurdle will be for Congress to determine the funding level of the now-permanent LWCF, which on average operates at about 40 percent of its $900 million allotment. If Congress can break its habit of diverting a majority of the offshore drilling royalties that make up the program to other projects, the country could be looking at a second golden age of environmental stewardship. Perhaps it already is.