Thursday, September 18, 2014


Do you recall the “Sagebrush Rebellion”?

It arose forty years ago, when ranchers, loggers and miners, who had happily overgrazed, clear-cut and strip-mined public lands for years, suddenly became indignant when the federal government finally woke up, realized that taxpayers expected them to take care of their lands, and began imposing basic conservation measures on what had been a privileged few.

The Sagebrush Rebels demanded that the federal government turn its lands over to the states, who were supposedly more familiar with the situation on the ground, and “knew” how to manage land the right way—using the tried-and-true tools of overgrazing, clear-cutting and strip mines...

Legal efforts to end federal ownership of western lands went nowhere, and the “rebellion” drifted off the front page for a while. 

Tensions, however, stayed high. 

Then, six months ago, the news was filled with stories of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who insisted on his “right” to run cattle on federal lands off-limits to livestock, and seemed ready to force a confrontation with federal officials planning to round up his herd.  Implied threats of violence from Bundy’s supporters, a number of whom were armed, eventually caused the feds to halt the roundup and seek a resolution in court.  It also catapulted Bundy to the top of the “rebellion’s” list of heroes.

In the meantime, the State of Utah had passed legislation ordering the federal government to turn all of its Utah lands (other than military bases, Indian reservations and national parks) over to the state by the end of this year.  Utah’s attorney general is threatening legal action if the feds don’t comply, but has yet to figure out how to win such a suit.

Once again, the theory behind the anti-fed feelings is that the states are closer to local issues, and know how to deal with them better than the federal government does.

It happens that my wife and I were out in Utah a few weeks ago.  As we drove from Green River to Jensen, and from Jensen to Salt Lake City, we heard regular “public service” advertisements on our car’s radio, that urged residents to protect the “Western way of life.”

One urged citizens to attend public hearings, and oppose new federal rules to regulate coal (and, by extension, Utah’s open-pit mines).

Another was deeply critical of efforts to protect the dwindling sage grouse population, claiming that the energy companies drilling and digging in the area, and not the Fish & Wildlife Service, were the true champions of conservation…

So what does all this have to do with fisheries?

Well, it appears that the spirit of the sagebrush has now infused the fishery management debate.

There are a lot of powerful folks out there—both politicians and big angling industry and angling rights groups—who are seeking legislation that would turn management authority for various fish species, currently managed by federal managers, over to the states.

Like the ranchers and the loggers and the strip-miners, they argue that the feds are out of touch with local realities, and that state managers, who are more familiar with key issues, are better able to care for the resource.

And like the ranchers and the loggers and the strip-miners, the folks arguing for state management of such fisheries know that if they can escape federal regulators and their troublesome rules, they can wring a lot more money out of the resource—for as long as the resource lasts.

The first shot of this new conflict—I’ll call it the “Seaweed Rebellion”—was probably fired by the State of Louisiana when it unilaterally, and contrary to the Supreme Court decision in a 1960 case, United States v. Louisiana, declared its jurisdiction over all waters extending out 10.357 miles from its shore (the court found that Louisiana state waters only extended out three miles). 

After that, the Seaweed Rebellion quickly began to spawn its own Cliven Bundys (but without the threat of violence), folks who are willing to support Louisiana’s actions by fishing in the disputed waters, paying federal fines and then going back into those same federally-closed waters again.

It has also been producing the same kind of rhetoric.

“There are many examples where a shift to state-based management of a given fishery resource has been called for, producing better results.”
Jeff Crane, President of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, alleged that

“…federal management of the Gulf of Mexico recreational red snapper fishery is fundamentally flawed, and it is negatively impacting anglers and the coastal economies that depend on access to that fishery.  State-based fishery management has proven to be far more effective…”
Chester Brewer, while serving as Chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association’s national Government Relations Committee, echoed those sentiments, and also provided a little insight into how “effective” management is defined by the Seaweed Rebels, saying

“Red snapper has been under federal management for decades and our season this year is 28 days…State-based fishery management has proven to be far more effective, and has engineered some of the greatest marine conservation victories in the country.  We have faith in the states to be philosophically capable of not only conserving and managing robust fisheries, but also providing greater access to those resources for their citizens.  [emphasis added]”
Brewer’s statement makes things pretty clear. 

While federal managers are legally bound to use the best available science, and must limit harvest in order to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, state managers know no such constraints.  So they are free to “[provide] better access”—that is, allow anglers to kill more fish.

Which is what the Seaweed Rebellion is all about—the desire to escape federal conservation measures and harvest more fish than either the science or prudence would allow.

When I hear the Seaweed Rebels talk about giving state managers control of the fish in federal waters, I hear echoes of those radio ads in Utah, telling me that the future of the sage grouse is far more secure in the hands of the energy companies…

For the fishermen of the Seaweed Rebellion sing their tune in harmony with the clearcutters and the open-pit miners, although the song seems far more dissonant when it comes from the lips of those who would call themselves sportsmen:

More for us, more for us, and the science, and the resource, be damned.”
Fortunately for the nation, the Sagebrush Rebellion hasn’t gained very much ground.  The Sagebrush Rebels have been soundly defeated both in courts of law and, ever more often, in the court of public opinion.  Even in states where legislatures have demanded that that the U.S. surrender its lands, no one in authority is trying very hard to force the issue.

Unfortunately, for the nation and its marine resources, the Seaweed Rebels still have a lot of energy.

They haven’t won any fights yet, but their Congressional allies are still fighting hard.  Earlier this summer they, along with others more interested in ideology than in getting things done, helped to kill the Bipartisan Sportsman’s Act of 2014 by attaching numerous riders to the bill, including one that would have taken authority to manage red snapper away from federal managers and hand it over to the states. 

But there are already reasons for hope.  

The website which, among other things, predicts the fate of federal legislation, gives the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act (a typically misnamed bill that does nothing to conserve red snapper, but would merely allow states to manage the fishery) only a 5% chance of making it out of committee, and a 1% chance of being signed into law.

That’s encouraging.

Hopefully, the Seaweed Rebellion’s other bills will meet similar fates.

For America’s living marine resources—whether we’re talking about New England cod, South Atlantic grouper, Gulf of Mexico snapper, Pacific rockfish or Alaska halibut—belong to all of America’s citizens, not just to the folks who happen to live and fish along one stretch of coast.

They are a national heritage, to be passed down, intact, to generations yet unborn.

They must be managed and conserved.

And saved from the Seaweed Rebels.

No comments:

Post a Comment