How to Fix the Sportsmen's Heritage Act

It seems so clear: a law that guarantees us the right to hunt and fish on public land is the combination of grand slam, touchdown, hat trick – or whatever other sports analogy you want to apply to it.

Or is it? I’d make the case that the bill in question, HR4089 (better known as the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act) has more baggage than Madonna on tour. The intent of this bill is essential for America’s public-land hunters and anglers. But lost in the euphoria about this bill, which passed the House and now goes to the Senate for passage, is a lot of election-year nonsense. In the attempt to protect hunting and fishing on public lands, the language of the bill suffers from politics.

The genesis for H.R. 4089 started with a smolt. A sockeye salmon smolt to be exact. In 2006, The Wilderness Society filed a lawsuit claiming that a sockeye enhancement project approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a joint Wilderness Area/Wildlife Refuge on Tustemena Lake was a violation of the 1964 Wilderness Act. A lower court agreed with the Service that the project had no “significant impact” under the National Environmental Policy Act. Unfortunately, the 9th Circuit court disagreed.

The next year, in 2007, a gaggle of environmental groups filed suit against the Kofa Wildlife Refuge, which has 80 percent of its borders included in wilderness. The suit claimed that the construction of water guzzlers for bighorn sheep were in violation of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Again, the 9th Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs. The court didn’t say that you can’t develop new water sources in wilderness areas, but it did say that you have to reasonably explore other alternatives to those developments.

I could cite other technicalities and legal interpretation that are being used as the primary examples of why HR4089 is needed. The legal problems stem from a part of the 1964 Wilderness Act, section 4(a) which states:

The purposes of this Act are hereby declared to be within and supplemental to the purposes for which National Forests and units of the national park and national wildlife refuge systems are established and administered.

All good political battles eventually come down to a couple of things: who’s reading the case law, and whose ox is getting gored.

Bill Horn, of the Untied States Sportsmen’s Alliance was clear that intent is to protect hunting and fishing on public lands. I think that’s something that we all stand firmly behind. Whether it’s loss of access to public hunting and shooting grounds to close proximity of subdivisions , or loss of wildlife to poorly planned energy development or constant litigation over land use planning the sporting life is slowly becoming endangered on Theodore Roosevelt’s greatest legacy: Our public lands.

So what’s the problem? Why isn’t this bill sure to pass the Senate? Opponents contend the bill language is too vague, and needs to be tightened up. Supporters claim that the substitute language doesn’t get us where we need to go. Politically, the bill got hijacked by silly politics on the House side (like the National Monument amendment that guts the 1906 Antiquities Act).

Everyone agrees the language could use some work. Great, let’s do that. If I were king for a day, here’s how the bill would look:

1.) Exclude the National Parks system from this bill. While hunting is appropriate in some parks, it’s clearly not in others. Let the Park Service and congress decide that on a case by case basis.

2.) Eliminate title 4 of H.R. 4089. That section of the bill guts Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy of landscape conservation by gutting the 1906 Antiquities Act. It’s ridiculous to continue a 100-year-old war on TR and his vision.

3.) Title 2, the “guts of the bill,” needs to be reworked so that the intent—elevating hunting, fishing and habitat management on public lands—is actually what occurs. Currently, it’s vague in it’s language and clarifying that hunting, fishing and wildlife conservation are activities that land managers must pay heed to in all land management decisions is what Western sportsmen have been advocating for over a decade.

4.) Keep the provisions about eliminating the EPA’s authority (an authority, according the EPA, that they do not have) to ban lead bullets and fishing tackle. That regulatory authority rightly belongs to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state game management agencies.

5.) Let the guys who legally harvested polar bears bring them back into the United States. It’s ridiculous to punish lawful, ethical hunters.

There. Problem solved. Of course it’s never that simple. When I was in the nation’s capital last week a someone very eloquently stated, “Washington D.C. is 100 squares miles surrounded by reality.” I saw a lot of evidence of that D.C. disconnect last week. Everybody says they’re willing to negotiate, so let’s do it and quit playing political games with our hunting and angling heritage.