April 26, 2012
A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Sportsmen's Heritage Act - 2
by Tony Hansen
I’m not a fan of politics. Democracy, on the other hand, is something I value. The recent passage of H.R. 4089, the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act, is a bit of both. At its core, the legislative package is designed to ensure that hunting and fishing are protected uses of public land.
But, as always seems to happen in Washington, the full scope of the bills has been complicated thanks in part to politics. Some of the add-ons (like preventing greenie-weenie lawyers from continuing to push for lead bans in ammunition and fishing tackle) are certainly interesting and needed but do complicate things. In a previous Open Country post, Ben Lamb did an excellent job of breaking down some of the areas of concern and I won’t rehash those here.
What I can offer, however, is a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at the events that led up to the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act finding its way through the U.S. House of Representatives and illustrate just a bit about how great democracy can be – and hopefully illustrate just how important your voice is along the way.
In 2007, a southeast Michigan attorney named Kurt Meister filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alleging that the management plan for the Huron-Manistee National Forest, located in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula, displayed too much favoritism towards hunters and snowmobile riders and didn’t allow enough opportunity for “quiet” recreation.
Michigan is my home state and I happen to work for Michigan United Conservation Clubs, a non-profit conservation group that serves as a watchdog for hunting and fishing rights in the state. Obviously, such a lawsuit quickly became a point of attention and hundreds of hours of staff time were devoted to the battle.
The suit was originally tossed out but Meister appealed that ruling to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court where he found sympathetic ears. The Court of Appeals found that the Forest Service had failed to coordinate its planning with the state of Michigan and didn’t consider closing 14 semi-primitive, non-motorized areas to gun hunting and snowmobile use in favor of “alternative” uses when establishing its management plans for the forest.
As a result, Huron-Manistee National Forest managers were forced to amend the management plan and they offered four alternatives. The options ranged from maintaining the existing regulations to eliminating gun hunting and snowmobile use in some 60,000-plus acres of the forest. It was clear what the intent of offering the range of choices was: Did people really value hunting and fishing as a protected use of the Huron-Manistee National Forest? Or was Meister right? Did the majority of forest users truly view gun hunting and snowmobile use as an unnecessary and obtrusive activity?
If there ever was a time for the hunting community to speak up, it was then. And speak up they did.
News of the ruling spread quickly and sportsmen’s organizations rallied the troops. MUCC, one of the nation’s largest and longest-running groups of its kind, used the instant reach of e-mail to rally its 40,000-plus members. Thousands of comments were submitted to the U.S. Forest Service, the vast majority of which supported firearms hunting. Nationally, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, NRA and others weighed in and helped deliver much-needed media exposure to the issue.
Hunters were no longer the silent majority. They spoke and spoke loudly.
As a result, the Forest Service opted to reclassify 13 of the 14 areas to management designations that very clearly allow for gun hunting and maintained snowmobile access on designated trails.
While the Huron-Manistee case was a victory for hunting and fishing, it also revealed a very real threat to the future of hunting on National Forest lands and it was clear that legislative action was needed to prevent further frivolous lawsuits. Because the issue received such wide-spread support from hunters, anglers and conservation organizations, politicians – the original self-preservationists -- were willing to take up the cause and, of course, earn a few votes come November. As I said, I’m not much for politics. But I have learned that without ample public support, legislators will not take a stand no matter the issue. By standing up and making our desires known, we not only won the battle for our hunting heritage in the Huron-Manistee National Forest, we also made it easy for legislation to take shape.
And in today’s political climate, that’s saying something.