Opening America’s vast federal lands to outdoors recreational activity is the expressed goal of David Bernhardt, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, who visited Alabama’s Gulf Coast this week for a whirlwind tour.
Secretary Bernhardt heard a presentation about the mission and work of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) from Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship and followed with a tour of the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores. The Secretary then joined Alabama Congressman Bradley Byrne for a visit to the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.
During his time in Gulf Shores, Secretary Bernhardt met with the different ADCNR Division Directors and Joey Dobbs, Alabama Conservation Advisory Board Chairman.
“I was on the Virginia Board of Fish and Game and I loved that experience,” Secretary Bernhardt said. “It’s democracy. It was the most satisfying public service experience of my life because of what you (fish and wildlife officials) do and to be able to look for practical solutions in wildlife management. We feel so strongly that states are where the leadership in wildlife is, and we’re doing everything we can to protect that. We have spent a lot of time in the last four years trying to make sure that line is clear. I just want you to know I have a special place in my heart for every wildlife and fisheries manager in the states.”
Commissioner Blankenship applauded Secretary Bernhardt and the Trump administration for expanding hunting and fishing opportunities on federal lands.
“We have a proposal to expand those opportunities on 2.3 million acres this year,” Secretary Bernhardt said. “On one hand, we’ve tried to expand access opportunities. On the other hand, we’ve really worked hard to line up our regulations with yours (the states). That’s a big priority. I think we have made 5,000 reg changes to make that alignment work, because you shouldn’t need a lawyer to go fishing or hunting.”
One of the ways the Secretary started the quest to open new public lands to hunting and fishing was to utilize the hunt and fish chiefs in the 10 regions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which is a part of the Department of the Interior.
“We directed those chiefs to work within their region to identify opportunities to expand hunting and fishing or find new opportunities to allow hunting and fishing,” he said. “For example, you may have the opportunity to hunt only squirrels. I asked them to look at the possibility of deer hunting.”
Secretary Bernhardt, who served as Deputy Secretary before becoming Secretary in April 2019, sent those hunt and fish chiefs to the respective wildlife and fisheries commissions in each state to identify ideas on expanding opportunities.
“Two years ago, we put out a rule to do that,” he said. “Our first year, we proposed (expanded hunting and fishing) on 385,000 acres. Last year, we added 1.7 million acres. This year it was 2.3 million acres. That’s over 4 million acres of new or expanded opportunities. For example, all of the Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries had never been open to hunting. We had these vast spaces not open to hunting, but there was great wildlife there. We also asked each refuge manager to look at our rules and the states’ rules to see if we could line up seasons. As long as it made sense scientifically, facilitating access was really important.”
Secretary Bernhardt said hunters and anglers are the driving force behind conservation efforts through funding provided by hunting and fishing license sales and the excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, fishing tackle and other outdoor recreation items.
“The North American Wildlife Conservation Model, the most successful model on the planet, demands two things,” he said. “It requires that hunters and anglers are participating. Their activity is what really funds conservation. We want to do everything we can to make sure the future is bright for those resources to be there. We have very good science on managing our wildlife, but we have to have the participation of the people. So, we’ve tried to make things simpler. We’ve tried to make things more accessible. I’m a big believer that if people have access and opportunity, once you get them out there, you can never get them back. I take people out on my boat all the time. If I get them hooked, they’ll never tell me they don’t want to come next time. We do everything we can to get youth involved. At the end of the day, it’s going to take the collaboration of the state government and federal government to keep the public involved.”
Secretary Bernhardt said he expects Congress to pass the Great American Outdoors Act soon, which will have a huge impact on outdoors activity for the foreseeable future. The act, which passed the Senate Wednesday, would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and provide $9.5 billion in revenue for maintenance and upgrades at National Parks.
“I think what this whole experience we’ve had with this COVID-19 thing is that people really realize how great it is to be outside, whether it’s a bike path or a fishing hole,” he said. “This has never been done before. Congress is about to pass legislation that funds the restoration of our National Parks. Maintenance has been deferred on them. They’re crumbling down. Most of them were built from the ’30s to the ’60s. It also fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It’s been around since the ’60s, but it’s only been fully funded a couple of times.”
Bernhardt said the infusion of the money from the proposed act, coupled with the mandate from the John Dingell Recreation Act to maximize hunting and fishing opportunities, will be a boon for outdoors recreation.
“I think those two things together will be the most significant conservation management effort by a President and Congress in more than 50 years,” he said.
Secretary Bernhardt admitted he didn’t realize how extensive the Alabama Artificial Reef Program is until Commissioner Blankenship pointed out the more than 1,000 square miles of reef zones off the Alabama coast.
“We have everything from the New Venture, our large ship reef, to the concrete pyramids,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “We have decommissioned Abrams military tanks that were deployed in the ’90s.”
Commissioner Blankenship said ADCNR works with the Department of the Interior on the Rigs to Reefs program to convert derelict oil and gas rigs off Alabama into artificial reefs at their original locations. The oil and gas companies save money by not having to haul the structures back to shore, and those companies make donations to keep the Rigs to Reefs program funded.
“I’ve been a big believer in Rigs to Reefs for a long, long time,” Secretary Bernhardt said. “I didn’t realize the scope of your reef program until I saw it (in the presentation). Everybody who fishes knows that structure is critical. Providing that structure and creating that environment is good for all of us and for the fishery.”
During the visit, Commissioner Blankenship highlighted other ADCNR-related achievements, including the designation of Gulf State Park’s Eagle Cottages as one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World, and the fact that Alabama has 17 community archery parks, more than twice the number in any other state in the nation.
The Commissioner pointed out that Alabama’s biodiversity is ranked first east of the Mississippi River and fifth overall and that the Forever Wild Land Trust helps purchase and protect sensitive habitat throughout the state.
Commissioner Blankenship invited the Secretary for another visit this fall to see the habitat of the rare Red Hills salamander in Monroe County
“We appreciate the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Species Recovery Grants,” he said “We’re working cooperatively to delist a couple of species. For the Red Hills salamander, through Alabama’s Forever Wild program, we’ve acquired about 11,000 acres of its critical habitat. It’s the same thing with the pygmy sunfish. Forever Wild acquired a piece of critical habitat to protect it. The other pygmy sunfish habitat is inside the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. My hope is that, working with this administration, we’ll be able to delist these two species in the next couple of years.”
On a personal note, Secretary Bernhardt grew up fly fishing in the beautiful streams around his hometown of Rifle, Colorado. Now he spends most of his fishing time in the Chesapeake Bay area in his Parker 2520 boat.
“I’m out there on that boat every chance I can be, and I’m out there with my son or daughter,” he said. “Nothing beats that for me. I fly-fished all my life. But I love to catch rockfish (striped bass). I love eating them, and my wife loves cooking them. So, it all works out perfect.”
As for hunting, Secretary Bernhardt said a huge moose rack mounted in his office reminds him of a memorable hunt in Alaska, but he returns most often to his roots by hunting elk in western Colorado.
“And I love waterfowl hunting, too,” he said. “The Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake has been very, very good to me.”
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.