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Our public lands aren’t just for hunting. They’re for hiking, catching frogs and watching birds…and shooting.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees lots of these places, the ultimate multi-use properties. They have names like Coal Creek Road. Or 17 Mile, which is north of Billings, Montana and is one of the most popular places in the state for shooters to unleash a few rounds. These pieces of public land aren’t all tailor-made shooting ranges, but a lot of them are. They usually have a few refrigerators, a junked out 1978 Datsun and enough shell casings to refinance a 2500 square foot Colonial with the price of recycled brass.

These are the places where we take our kids out to learn basic firearms safety and accuracy. It’s where we make sure that our hunting rifles haven’t shifted zero. The ability to drive out to a chunk of vacant public land, drop the tailgate, and shoot clay pigeons or centerfire rifles is a large part of our heritage as freeholding American sportsmen, strange as that may seem to a non-shooter.

But part of that legacy, and the growing number of people using these free ranges, is the classic degradation of the commons. Take 17 Mile for example. In 2006, the BLM started closing down the range for two weeks so that volunteers could clean up the old Maytag washers, coffee cans, and bleach jugs.

That’s good land management, but if we were better stewards, too, we wouldn’t need to rely on the paid staff to do our dirty work. Because sometimes, land that has been abused is closed to us. In many areas of the West, public areas once open to recreational shooting have been shut down and sold off so that the managing agency could avoid the hassle. On top of this, growing numbers of subdivisions and second homes close to public lands have helped shut down public lands that up until a few years ago were good spots to try out the new Smith & Wesson.

We’ve blogged about what’s problematic with HR 4089, but there’s a lot of very good stuff in there. Like Title II, which protects our right to recreationally shoot on certain public lands, and parts of Title I, which would establish hunting, fishing and recreational shooting as legitimate uses on public land, and would give the managing agencies the ability to factor in those precious pastimes into their decision making process.

I grew up shooting on public lands, and I’ve shot my share of junked out cars, but now I shoot at an established range on public lands. How we take care of those places like 17 Mile are important, just as important as making sure our right to use those lands is protected.

HR 4089 might have some problems, but there’s a lot of good in this bill when it comes to protecting our access to public lands. When the Senate picks this up, it will be important for folks to watch the process and ensure that our right to access our public lands remains strong.

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