Hunters disagree over hunting bill’s intent
LAURA LUNDQUIST, Chronicle Staff Writer | Posted: Friday, June 14, 2013 12:15 am
A bill aimed at providing opportunities for sportsmen and women has some hunters up in arms.
On Wednesday, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee voted 28-15 to pass the Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage and Opportunities Act, H.R. 1825, a bill that directs land management officials to ensure access to federal lands for fishing, hunting, shooting and other purposes.
The bill’s primary sponsor is Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich. Republican Montana Rep. Steve Daines is one of the nine other cosponsors.
Several sportsmen’s groups have wholeheartedly supported the bill because it states that hunting and fishing have as much validity on public lands as other uses, including resource extraction and livestock grazing. Under the law, land management plans, such as forest plans, would have to include consideration for hunting and fishing opportunities.
This is particularly popular in Montana, which has a healthy population of sportsmen and women. But nationwide, only 6 percent of the population hunts and just 14 percent wets a line now and then, according to U.S. Census numbers released in September.
The bill would also prohibit legal and administrative efforts to block hunting and fishing on public land.
As a result, 20 of the country’s biggest hunting organizations support the bill, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Boone & Crockett Club and the National Rifle Association.
But provisions in the bill dealing with wilderness have other groups balking.
The bill deals with all public land agencies, with emphasis on the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. But wilderness areas are also public land, and some of the bill’s language doesn’t differentiate between land types.
Groups, including the Montana Wildlife Federation, the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and wilderness organizations such as the Wilderness Society, object to some sections dealing with wilderness.
One paragraph says the bill would not authorize uses not covered by the Wilderness Act “or permanent road construction or maintenance within designated wilderness areas.”
Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock said the Wilderness Act already authorizes managers to build temporary roads for clearly defined purposes. Plus, wilderness study areas are not designated wilderness, yet they are supposed to remain roadless.
By including that specific clause instead of reinforcing the tenets of the Wilderness Act, a law that requires certain areas to remain wild, groups worry Rep. Benishek is creating a loophole.
“We see this as an open door to create more temporary roads, and once they’re there, people will want to continue using them,” Gevock said. “We support 90 percent of this bill. But then they had to go and insert this Trojan horse, which is now dividing the hunting community.”
Smoke Elser of the Wilderness Outfitter Consulting Group said his group depends on roadless wildlands, such the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Additional roads would degrade the area and the small businesses it supports, Elser said.
A similar bill was introduced in 2012 as the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act. It passed the House but failed in the Senate.
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation spokesman Mark Holyoak said his organization supports the bill and that it doesn’t usurp the Wilderness Act.
“Some may be reading between the lines,” Holyoak said. “The bill supports hunting, but this does not mean that if you hunt with an ATV that you can take your ATV into the wilderness.”
Daines spokeswoman Alee Lockman said people opposed the earlier bill because of concerns that it would open wilderness to motorized use.
So the paragraph in question was added to address those concerns, Lockman said.
“This legislation is not amending the Wilderness Act, merely aligning the bill language to it,” Lockman said. “The main driver of this bill is the threat that arbitrary action by federal agencies and frivolous litigation holds to federal lands. It makes the ‘open until closed’ policy clear.”
Opponents encourage support for the Senate version, sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., which offers the similar protections without appearing to encroach on wilderness protections.