IN OCTOBER, the South Fork of the Snake is a theater for bipolar weather systems. Light fills the sky to the east; a menacing snowstorm creeps from the west. Skeletal cottonwoods on the banks pop against a backdrop of navy mountain like spindly props spotlighted on a blackened stage. The oars dip into the inkwell of water, shattering parchment reflections of naked trees, stirring together split halves of sky with each stroke.
Our guide hopes to put us on big browns. I shiver in the front of the boat, arthritically slinging line into a promising run. I'm not just here to recreate. I'm on a Trout Unlimited media tour with an all-female group of journalists. True to any legitimate ladies' outing, the Pendleton has been cracked and someone has already peed on their wader straps (me).
A final try before moving on--the indicator waivers. I set, strip, reel. The guide nets an eighteen-inch Yellowstone cutthroat. I pose for a grip-and-grin, place the kicking fish in the river, and release the tail as if sending off a message in a bottle. Because this is not just a native fish to write home about, but a petition fish to Capitol Hill: “Reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).” In spite of its impressive contributions around the South Fork and beyond, this fund is perhaps one of the most woefully overlooked assets in the nation.
In 1964, Congress authorized LWCF to be funded up to $900 million annually, primarily with royalties from offshore drilling companies. Each year, land management agencies generate lists of top-priority conservation projects. Then it is up to Congress to appropriate funds.
Over fifty years, LWCF has secured the protection of more than 6 million acres of public land and provided grants for projects on private and public lands, from creating parks to securing access for sportsmen to maintaining working ranchlands and forests. Every American can point to a nearby wildland that may be attributed to LWCF. The fund is particularly salient in southeast Idaho’s Swan Valley around the South Fork. The region provides a paradigm for LWCF project management.
Teaming up with non-profit groups--including the Teton Regional Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund--the local Bureau of Land Management applied for LWCF monies to acquire nearly 20,000 acres along the South Fork with 11,400 placed under easement. Today, you can float nearly 30 miles of the South Fork west of Swan Valley to Idaho Falls without seeing a single home. This recreational asset generates over $41 million and 1,200 jobs annually.
Protected from new roads, driveways, and other features that divert water, the creeks within easement properties also benefit. Trout Unlimited built upon the protections afforded by LWCF lands. Over the last 13 years, TU has worked with state and federal agencies and private landowners to restore spawning habitat for native Yellowstone cutthroat, reconnecting critical tributaries to the river channel while finding solutions for landowners to divert water for agricultural use. The species has decreased across its native range; the South Fork is one place where population numbers swing upward. With the removal of barriers and other efforts, cutthroat numbers jumped in places from zero to hundreds.
Contradictory to its reputation as “one of the best kept secrets in America,” there’s a lot of good news regarding LWCF. With so many glowing projects and a consistent source of funding, what’s to worry? The fund has an expiration date, right now. Congress has a responsibility to vote on reauthorization in coming months. Sportsmen are key in moving Congress to take action. Before the ash of a burned promise settles over the land, know this: If you hope to land a native Yellowstone cutthroat, or any trout, in untamed country, then equally hope that the Land and Water Conservation Fund is reauthorized and fully honored for the next 50 years.
To view Land and Water Conservation Fund projects by state and to contact members of Congress, visit www.lwcfcoalition.org.
(The full article version of this post appears in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of The Drake.)