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
  • 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...
  • We are hiring a Wyoming Conservation Associate Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Cody, WY (preferred), Jackson, WY, or Lander, WY Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for...
  • The National Parks Conservation Association, the nations leading national park advocacy organization, seeks a Regional Director to lead and manage staff for the Southwest Regional...
  • This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • 2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...