Public Spotlight: Caddo-LBJ National Grasslands

Welcome to the Public Spotlight, a series of articles from Texas BHA highlighting public lands and waters throughout the Lone Star state. Join us as we talk public lands with the stewards responsible for managing these resources and explore a host of topics ranging from conservation issues to sportsman’s access and opportunity.

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By: Todd Basile, Public Policy and Newsletter Chair, Texas Chapter | May 25, 2018

Many folks in the Dallas-Fort Worth area do not realize that they have nearly 40,000 acres of highly accessible federal public land on their doorstep in the form of the Caddo-Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands (CLBJ). The LBJ National Grasslands, located northwest of Fort Worth, provides about half of this acreage and is spread across approximately 75 units interspersed with private land. The Caddo National Grasslands, located northeast of Dallas, is divided between the approximately 13,000-acre Bois d' Arc Creek Unit and the nearly 3,000-acre Ladonia Unit.

I have been recreating on the Caddo-LBJ National Grasslands for over ten years, whether it be hunting white-tail deer, ducks, and turkey, or fishing for bass and bluegill in the many ponds dotting the landscape. It has been a place of many firsts for me including my first archery deer, my first pintail and widgeon drakes, and (as an east coast transplant) my first time hunting amongst cacti, armadillos, and feral hogs. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to develop many of the hallmarks of the successful public land hunter – things like scouting effectively, using mobile setups to stay on fresh sign, and leveraging hunting pressure to my advantage. But, like many of you, I have also spent much of my time in the solace of these woods contemplating many of life’s trials and blessings. These lands have become dear to me and are the reason I became a public lands advocate.

 

Multiple-Use Management Goals

While the Caddo-LBJ National Grasslands is rife with hunting and fishing opportunities, it also hosts several other recreational activities such as horseback riding and birding, as well as agricultural and industrial uses like cattle grazing, timber harvest, and natural gas extraction. This multiple-use approach to management is common for U.S. Forest Service land, as I come to learn from Austin Sewell, a Rangeland Management Specialist with the Caddo-LBJ National Grasslands in North Texas.

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Austin Sewell, Rangeland Management Specialist, U.S. Forest Service

Balancing these uses makes Sewell’s job inherently challenging – he’s tasked with ensuring these lands and resources are sustainably managed, all while accommodating the interests and demands of such a diverse group of users. I learned that the U.S. Forest Service (FS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are two federal agencies charged with true multiple-use management guidelines, as opposed to other federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Park Service (NPS)  which operate under more focused mandates. “If a proposed use is compatible and sustainable, we generally must accommodate it,” Sewell informs me.

When you think about it that is a tall order. Where do you even start? How do you assess the impact of a given use on other uses, and on the land? Do any of these uses jeopardize or negatively impact sportsman’s access and quality opportunity? Are there opportunities for public input? What about funding and employee bandwidth?                                                   

Just as I settle in for a long discussion over lunch, Sewell had other thoughts. “How about we go for a hike and I’ll show you first-hand how we manage the grasslands,” prompts Sewell. Count me in.                                   

Prairie Management 101

As we drive down a rutted-out dirt road to the trailhead, Sewell directs my attention to a clearing off to our left. It looks unremarkable to the untrained eye – just more grass in, well, an area aptly named “grasslands.” Sensing my confusion, he points out that there are actually three distinct areas of grass running parallel to one another, one tall and thick, another short and sparse, and one in between. Sewell informs me that this stratification is the result of a carefully managed prescribed burn regimen.        

“What you are seeing here is the result of our prescribed burn plan. Before Europeans spread west and developed the land, there were frequent prairie fires. These fires were relatively small, and burned out when they reached a barrier like a previous fire scar, a creek, or other natural firebreak. This would happen naturally in a given area every three years or so. The areas over there were burned in different years, and reflect what the landscape may have looked like in the past,” explains Sewell.

“Bison would filter in soon after a fire to feed on the new growth. One of their favorite things to eat was young briars before they turned woody. As a result, there were not many thickets – instead, the prairie was dominated by grass and scattered oaks. Only 20% to 50% of the landscape would be covered by tree canopy.”

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Prescribed burn on the Grasslands. Fire is a critical tool for prairie restoration efforts.

Enter patch-burn grazing, a tool used by land managers to restore overgrown prairie to its natural state. The idea is to mimic these historical cycles of wildfires followed by bison grazing – only now with prescribed burns followed by cattle grazing.

But why try to restore the grasslands to their previous state? Sewell explains: “Human settlement disrupted these natural cycles and the plants and wildlife have not adapted to these changes. For example, species like quail need a heterogeneous landscape – that is, one with a mosaic of different types of habitat in close proximity. For example, chicks need bare ground in order to move around, but they also need shrubs to hide in from predators. Quail also need a source of forbs for food, and tall grass for nesting. Unfortunately for the quail, development reduced the occurrence of fire and grazing, and thus the land became more homogeneous with thick grass and thickets.”

Weather permitting, the practice of patch-burn grazing is heavily used at the LBJ Grasslands, with over 7,000 acres already treated this fiscal year alone. Each burn is meticulously planned and executed by experienced professionals. Typical precautions include clearing firebreaks around the target area, staging firefighting equipment near the site, careful post-burn monitoring for flare-ups, and avoiding burns during particularly dry and windy conditions. Nearby landowners are also notified in advance and given the opportunity to ask questions and weigh-in. Still further, District Ranger Jeff Stoney plays a very active role in administering an
excellent Facebook page for the Grasslands, including notifying hunters and other recreators of upcoming burns and other projects.                     

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Jeff Stoney, District Ranger, U.S. Forest Service 

“Some areas have taken better than others, but what we are noticing is that some areas have thinned out, resetting succession. This has increased the prevalence of plants that have been pushed out to some extent by thickets and tall bluegrass. For example, we are seeing an increased prevalence of western ragweed, a very important grocery for quail.” Sewell points out loads of the stuff along the underground pipeline easement we are hiking.

“Our hope is that others see the benefits of what we are doing here, and adopt similar practices on their lands,” Sewell comments.

 

Funding and Partnerships

Prairie restoration efforts are only a small part of the job description for the Forest Service team in charge of the Grasslands. Day-to-day responsibilities include maintaining infrastructure (e.g., trailheads, fences, gates, roads, firebreaks), coordinating special uses (e.g., large group events), interfacing with leaseholders (e.g., ranchmen and resource extraction companies), and educating the public. Long-term studies and other projects fill in any spare time.

The Forest Service is allotted an annual spending budget, but recent cuts have rendered this inadequate to cover most needs, especially when it comes to funding long-term projects like prairie restoration efforts. For example, Sewell estimates that it costs about $8-$10 per acre annually to simply maintain the Grasslands, but the annual budget allocated to the Grasslands generally provides only about $1 per acre. Add in prairie restoration efforts and Sewell estimates the cost increases to about $20 per acre. These are of course rough estimates, but they do illustrate a pretty significant funding gap.

Funding issues have been exacerbated in recent years, due in part to more frequent and costly wildfires out West. For example, as recently as 1995 the Forest Service only spent about 16% of its annual budget on fire, but in 2017 it spent over 50% (over $2 billion) on fire suppression. Federal agencies like the Forest Service and BLM have been forced to divert increasing portions of their overall budgets to “fire borrowing” to fight these fires. Unfortunately, fire borrowing generally comes at the expense of other activities like habitat restoration projects, invasive species programs, and initiatives for reducing fire risk in the first place.

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A Rio Grande turkey nest discovered while hunting on the Caddo-LBJ Grasslands.

Despite these challenges, the CLBJ team has engineered some very creative approaches for securing additional resources. In keeping with Sewell and Stoney’s penchants for getting things done, the CLBJ team has become adept at navigating red tape to secure various government grants. They have further pioneered a number of public and private partnerships as well.

For example, the CLBJ team recently partnered with another US Department of Agriculture agency, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), to trap feral hogs on the Caddo-LBJ National Grasslands. Feral swine are considered an invasive species, causing much destruction to the land and native species including raiding turkey and quail nests.                                                  

As another example, the CLBJ team has partnered with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) on a number of habitat restoration projects. Sewell informs me that the NWTF often acts as a sort of private contractor that helps provide much-needed logistical planning, manpower, and equipment on a regular basis.  

Of course, local volunteers contribute their fair share too, with Boy Scout Troops 362 and 592 troops recently cleaning up trashed areas and the Texas Conservation Corp (TXCC) helping to trim vegetation near TADRA point, a popular trailhead for horseback riders accessing the nearly 75 miles of multipurpose trails in the Cottonwood Lake vicinity.

Fortunately, the FY 2018 omnibus appropriations bill included bipartisan overhauls to how the U.S. government spends money to fight wildfires, including allowing federal agencies to access disaster funds for particularly expensive fires. In particular, under the bill, the Forest Service will be able to access over $2 billion per year outside of its regular fire suppression budget starting in 2020. These overhauls will hopefully reduce the prevalence of fire borrowing and increase the availability of funds for fire prevention, infrastructure maintenance, and habitat restoration efforts on our public lands. 

 

Being a Steward of Your Texas Public Lands
While Texas is not exactly known for its public lands, places like the Caddo-LBJ National Grasslands provide incredible opportunities for Texans to enjoy the outdoors and support our nation’s unique approach to wildlife conservation. We are exceedingly lucky to have excellent stewards like the CLBJ team watching over our public lands, but sportsmen and women have a pivotal role to play too. 

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A mixed-bag of widgeon and mallards taken on the Grasslands.

Of particular importance on multiple-use properties like the Caddo-LBJ Grasslands is the ability to develop and maintain positive relationships with other types of users. Aside from the obvious benefits of making friends with other outdoors-oriented people, these relationships can carry a lot of practical value as well. In one aspect, they can provide a solid foundation for building coalitions to promote good policy and overcome potential threats to our public lands. After all, it never hurts to have more voices and oftentimes those voices can be just as influential, if not more so, than our own. For example, horseback riding is very popular on the Grasslands and its riders account for much of the volunteer work around LBJ. As such, the riding community is likely an influential demographic, and should be viewed as partners in helping ensure Caddo-LBJ continues to offer quality hunting opportunities and riding experiences.                        

In another aspect, when responsible hunters and anglers develop positive relationships with other users, it is less likely that the actions of a few bad apples will be projected onto the sporting community as a whole. The resulting good-will can help reduce the chances of us all losing access to the relative few public lands and waters that are available in the Lone Star state. This is especially important on state lands and special-purpose federal lands like NWRs, as there are typically fewer regulations requiring the associated agencies to allow hunting and fishing. Folks like you understand the importance of being ambassadors for the hunting and fishing community, so please encourage yourselves and others to be good public land citizens when afield.

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The author harvested this white-tail buck on the Caddo-LBJ Grasslands.

Sportsmen and women can also help by getting involved in the policymaking process for their local public lands. This may seem overwhelming at first, but nearly all agencies provide opportunities to weigh in, such as comment periods and public hearings. Depending on the agency, you can often register for mailing lists and newsletters that will advertise these opportunities, and many like the Caddo-LBJ National Grasslands maintain active social media accounts. Of course, there is no substitute for calling the local office or dropping by to learn about upcoming initiatives and ways you can help.

In addition to getting involved at the local level, sportsmen and women can also help by encouraging their elected officials to support federal conservation programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This historically bipartisan program has enabled conservation and enhanced public access to millions of acres in the United States, all without using taxpayer dollars since the funds come from royalties on offshore energy extraction.

Texas sportsmen and women could benefit, for example, through conservation easements and land purchases that help tie together existing public land parcels, thereby providing the opportunity to manage larger areas of contiguous habitat needed by species like quail and mule deer. For example, Sewell mentioned that there are studies showing quail need about 2,000 contiguous acres of heterogeneous habitat to thrive – perhaps LWCF funds could be used to connect various CLBJ units via conservation easements on adjoining land in an effort to bring back quail populations. Unfortunately, the administration’s proposed FY 2019 budget would all but devastate the LWCF. Please consider contacting your elected officials to voice your support for the LWCF before Congress finalizes the budget.                                                                                   

We hope you have enjoyed this first article of the Public Spotlight series!

Backcountry Hunters & Anglers would like to thank the entire Caddo-LBJ Grasslands team for its dedicated and passionate stewardship of our public lands. We also owe special thanks to District Ranger Jeff Stoney and Rangeland Management Specialist Austin Sewell for taking the time to share their extensive knowledge of public lands management with us. Learn more about the Caddo-LBJ National Grasslands here.

If you would like to contribute to a future Public Spotlight article, or would like to see a particular public land or water featured, please contact texas@backcountryhunters.org.

© 2018 Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, all rights reserved.

 

 

About Katie DeLorenzo

As the Southwest BHA Coordinator Katie supports Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. When she's not working for BHA she is shooting her bow, roaming the wide open spaces of the west and experimenting with wild game recipes.

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