Commentary: Partnerships key to protecting our best wild places

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Deer roam in the Willow Creek area of the Book Cliffs, a relatively remote part of Utah that faces increasing encroachments from oil, gas and tar sands developments. A new poll by the National Wildlife Federation indicates sportsmen want to protect public lands, even at the risk of limiting energy development.

It is already cooling off, as the late afternoon sun starts its descent into the western horizon. Hiking into the Book Cliffs to my tree stand, I notice my tracks from coming out in the dark the night before. I feel a prickling at the back of my neck as I stoop down and trace with my fingers the big bear tracks right on top of mine. The heft of my bow feels good as my grip tightens and I continue walking down the trail.

Arriving at the ancient, gnarly ponderosa pine, I carefully climb into the tree stand and settle in. It doesn’t take long for the golden-mantled squirrels to start their games of tag in the snag of deadfall off to my left. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” I think and smile, as a golden eagle silently plays on the updrafts from the canyon below.

Over the years, I’ve had many similar opportunities to experience this spectacular place and silently give thanks for the greatest land conservation project ever completed in Utah — the Book Cliffs Conservation Initiative (BCCI).

Today, with the Colorado River threatened by drought and changing climate, we need once again to think big and work together to protect our best wild places and outdoors heritage.

In 1991, the Bureau of Land Management and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources seized an opportunity to partner with conservation groups The Nature Conservancy, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and other stakeholders to restore and protect the Book Cliffs, a vast wild country that stretches from Green River, Utah, eastward to the Colorado state line and westward to the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation.

Why the Book Cliffs? Beloved by Utah’s hunters and anglers, the wildlife values of this area are unequaled. The Book Cliffs is known as Utah’s “Serengeti”: big game such as mule deer, elk, moose, black bear, cougar, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and numerous other species thrive in this amazing landscape. Working with the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, the BCCI partners restored and revegetated degraded stream banks and repopulated the waters with native Colorado River cutthroat trout. They restored flows and streams, improving water quality in the Colorado River drainage. They reintroduced bison and wild turkey and protected world-class elk hunting. The BLM also took the lead in purchasing four private ranches, ensuring public access to a 455,000 acres of public land.

It was a great feeling to be part of this pragmatic effort to protect this special place for Utahns.

Today, more than ever, we need this team model to solve the immense problems facing the Colorado River, which continues to be hammered by drought and depleted flows. Tackling this huge, complicated resource management challenge will require creative partnerships that bring an array of state, federal, private and nonprofit funds and expertise to the table.

That’s why Utahns who value our outdoor heritage—and that’s most of us—need to support federal programs, such as the Farm Bill conservation title and WaterSmart, that promote partnerships and provide vital funding and expertise to local and state conservation efforts. The recently passed and signed Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act will implement plans across seven states in the Colorado River Basin to conserve water and safeguard our hunting and fishing.

As groups like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited, and others work to ensure healthy flows for fish and wildlife habitat, we need Congress to support their efforts. Despite the rancor in D.C. these days, there actually is broad bipartisan agreement on the value of pragmatic, on-the-ground conservation. There’s also bipartisan recognition that the Colorado River is the lifeblood of the West—and the foundation of our region's ecosystems and economies.

Working together, we can sustain our rivers, lands and outdoor way of life for future generations.

Bill Christensen

Bill Christensen is a longtime Utah sportsman conservation leader who led the Utah office of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for almost 30 years.