Sportsmen’s bill aims to open inaccessible public lands

The bill’s prospects appear bright despite congressional gridlock.


Senator Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, was hunting Barbary sheep in the southeastern part of his state a few weeks ago, and had a stark reminder of a problem he’s trying to fix with a bipartisan sportsmen’s bill.

He and his friends had finished hunting one swath of public land, and scanned a BLM map for the kind of terrain the sheep like—rough arid landscapes like that of their native North Africa, with lots of small canyons, nooks and crannies. The men found a place that looked to be accessible by road.

But when they arrived, there was a gate across the road and a “No Trespassing” sign.

“The landowner closed off what used to be public access and now you can’t get to the public land,” Heinrich told me in a recent interview in his office in the Hart Senate Office Building in D.C., where hunting trophies—including Barbary sheep skulls and hornsshare wall space with photos of gorgeous New Mexico scenery “That is not unusual. If you talk to sportsmen, particularly in the West, access is the number one issue: You hear it over and over again.”

A big source of those access issues, which HCN explored in a recent cover story, “This land is their land”, is the West’s patchwork of private and public lands. A 2013 by the Center for Western Priorities in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—were completely surrounded by private lands.

Senator Martin Heinrich and his son Carter, elk hunting on public land last fall. Photo courtesy of the senator's office.

Heinrich is one of the lead sponsors of a bill designed to improve access to federal land for hunting, fishing and other recreation. Similar packages failed in the last two sessions of Congress. Despite the partisan gridlock in Washington, Heinrich is optimistic about the legislation’s prospects this time. His co-sponsor, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and plans to use her significant influence to get the bill drafted and voted on early so it does not get mired in election-year politics like the last one did.

“I’m optimistic that the third time is going to be the charm,” Murkowski said during a Senate hearing on the bill Thursday.

“I am very, very serious that … we are going to deliver on this sportsmen’s bill. It is an issue we’ve been working on for far too long.”

The would:

  • Direct the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to identify federal lands where hunting, fishing and other kinds of recreation are permitted but access is nonexistent or significantly restricted, and then to develop plans to provide public access.
  • Dedicate $10 million or 1.5 percent of the annually to pay willing landowners for easements to access public land.
  • Reauthorize several conservation programs that have expired or are about to expire. The , which expired in 2011, lets the government sell BLM lands and use the revenue to buy higher-priority parcels such as inholdings in national parks and national forests. The provides funds to buy or enhance wetlands that are critical for migratory birds.

The BLM and Forest Service support the overarching goals of the legislation but have concerns about some provisions. For instance, the agencies testified that a measure designed to open access to film crews for a $200 fee doesn’t give them enough control over possible impacts the crews might have on federal lands. They also expressed concerns that provisions of the measure could consume too much of their already-stretched staffs’ time. For instance, federal land managers would have to report how much environmental groups’ lawyers are reimbursed after successfully suing the federal government. Steven Ellis, BLM’s deputy director, said that would take time away from those managers’ other responsibilities.

Hunting and fishing groups support the legislation. In general, conservation groups do too. But some of them oppose particular provisions, such as the one exempting lead ammunition and tackle from the Toxic Substances Control Act. “(That would) allow for something we know is harmful to the health of birds, wildlife and maybe in some cases people,” said Brian Moore, the National Audubon Society’s legislative director.

Nationwide, lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting in 1991, but lead ammunition for upland hunting and lead fishing tackle remain widespread. As HCN has reported, California condors can die from lead poisoning after feeding on carrion containing bullet fragments. suggest that other scavengers--vultures, hawks and eagles—also are susceptible. In 2013, California became the first state to all use of lead bullets, by 2019.

The House has yet to produce its own version of a sportsmen’s bill, but is expected to do so soon. Heinrich, who first worked on the legislation several years ago, when he was in the House, is hopeful. “I am optimistic that we’ll be able to navigate the pitfalls and be successful,” he said. And perhaps one day he – and other hunters and hikerswill be able to reach that chunk of New Mexico land.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. Follow her @ShogrenE. 

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • The West Region Wildfire Council ( is a regional wildfire organization that promotes wildfire adaptation, preparedness and mitigation education across Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, Ouray...
  • The Wallowa County Chieftain, has an opening for a reporter. Experience with and understanding of editorial photography also required. Journalism degree or equivalent, an understanding...
  • Seeking an energetic Organizer/Outreach Coordinator to help us conserve Arizona's public lands and shape the policies that affect them.
  • 15 hours on it, 3 years warranty, 22,5 HP, $1600 Sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • Join us in helping to match charitable interests and passions to the needs of The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy seeks a fast learner with...
  • The Yellowstone River Field Institute is an intensive week-long field course for multimedia storytellers, working journalists, and students of journalism, offered by the Montana-based Freeflow...
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • Baltimore Green Space (BGS) is Baltimore's environmental land trust. We promote vibrant neighborhoods and a healthy environment through land preservation, research, and community advocacy. We...
  • Northwest Natural Resource Group seeks forester based in Seattle or Olympia area to manage our ecological forestry harvest program. Full description at
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking an experienced Policy Analyst or Senior Analyst to develop and advocate for policies and mechanisms that promote the development...
  • from a beautiful log home. 20-acre private parcel in the sunny Okanogan of WA. Visit: Inquiries: [email protected]
  • Western Resource Advocates is looking for a VP of Programs and Strategy to bring a strategic focus to the development of multi-faceted advocacy plans that...
  • Hiring Part/Full time for Summer Season - entry level & experienced positions. Year round employment for optimal candidates. Pay DOE.
  • Located on top of Sugarloaf Mtn. 5 mi W of downtown Colorado Springs, CO. $80,000.
  • The Draper Natural History Museum (DNHM) at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY, invites applications for Curator of Natural Science. Seeking...
  • in Southwest Colorado. $60K plus costs.
  • Seeking full-time experienced farmer on 52-acre organic farm Union, OR. [email protected]
  • Metal roofing & siding, thru-fastened & seam profiles. Stronger, more attractive and longer lasting than any other panel on the market. 970-275-4070.
  • We are looking for an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry, specifically focused on fighting fossil fuel expansion...
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...