Congress Has Chance To Pass Critical Conservation Package, Again

Big legislative changes don’t often come along but, 50 years ago, two of them came along at the same time.

In 2014, we celebrate the 50th anniversaries of the Wilderness Act as well as the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Both of these landmark legislative efforts have had a tremendous impact on conservation and the public lands where we hunt and fish. And both play a pivotal role in the Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act of 2014.

The Sportsmen's Act has a lot of moving parts which, when considered individually, may seem inconsequential. The sum of all parts, however, is a powerful package that will ensure future generations can enjoy Open Country and public wildlife. So check out the details of the bill below and then contact your senator to help get this thing passed, finally.

Here’s a few highlights of the bill:{C}

- Making Public Lands Publicly Accessible
This provision directs that 1.5 percent ($10 million) of the Land & Water Conservation Fund goes towards unlocking public land that is currently inaccessible. More than 15 million acres of publicly-owned land is currently off-limits to hunters and anglers because of locked gates and, in some cases, a few feet of private land.

- Lead Bullets and Fishing Gear
Environmentalists want to eliminate the use of lead in fishing and hunting gear. They have tried several times to use the Toxic Substances Control Act (TOSCA) to do so. However, the Bush administration and the Obama administration, as well as the courts, agree that TOSCA and the Environmental Protection Agency have no jurisdiction over the regulation of hunting and fishing gear. That domain falls squarely on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The bill would ensure that future discussions about eliminating lead from our hunting ammo & tackle boxes are through the proper agency.

- Reauthorization of critical conservation programs
The bill also reauthorizes three vital conservation programs: The North American Wetlands Conservation Act, Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act & the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation Establishment Act. Together, these three programs help ensure that there is plentiful habitat (NAWCA), consolidate public land holdings to eliminate problematic checker-boarded public lands or isolated tracks of land that serve little purpose for hunting or fishing.

- Recreational Fishing, Hunting & Shooting on Public Land
This section of the bill is pretty simple. It expressly allows hunting, fishing and shooting on all public lands except for National Parks, or certain areas administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. It also clearly indicates that private lands under conservation easement are not open for hunting unless specified by the landowner. This provision goes farther than simply allowing hunting, fishing and shooting. It forces Federal land managers to take into account the effects of public land management planning on wildlife and those of us who hunt and fish on public lands. There is a lot of detail in this section of the bill that even deal with closures of land that are over 1280 acres or more. While this section does not place hunting and angling as a priority on public lands, it does, finally, give hunting and fishing the due stature they deserve when it comes to public land planning.

Feel like you've read about this package before? Well, you have. In fact, we've blogged about it here a few times.

So why are we doing so again?

Who Killed the Last Bill?
Earlier attempts to pass comprehensive legislation have stalled for a variety of reasons.

An earlier House version contained a few poison pills that Wilderness Advocates and some public-land-oriented hunting and angling groups couldn’t support and resulted in the Senate killing it.

Then came a similar bill, the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012. Sen. Jeff Sessions, upset that conservationists were asking Congress to increase the price of duck stamps, shot that one down and convinced his Republican colleagues to vote against it, even if they had supported it up until then.

In 2013 the same pattern repeated. The House, not content with cratering a good bill with poison pills in 2012, reissued a similar proposal which was quickly passed and again ignored by the Senate.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski did outstanding work trying to get all sides together to endorse almost exactly the same bill that was introduced in 2014. That bill, like all other efforts related to public land conservation and conservation in general, also died because of politics.

These bills don’t die because of the merits or lack thereof. Far from it. They die because Congress can’t agree on what to have for lunch, let alone to allow some of these bills to come up for a straight vote. Rules put in place to make debate reasonable and honorable have been hijacked to stop any legislation from moving forward.

Politics, not policy guide the votes these days. There is little wonder that Congress has the approval ratings of a slug. One side doesn’t want the other to get any credit on advancing policy, so they continue to scuttle efforts that should bring people together.

Politicians advance bills they know have no chance of passing simply to stand up at the podium and give a mealy-mouthed “I tried, but the other guy won’t do what’s right” speech.

The Giants of Congress used to work together. They put party aside and simply did what was right, whether that was establishing new wilderness areas, creating legislation that would benefit hunters and anglers like the Dingell-Johnson/Wallop-Breaux acts, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts or just simply passing a budget that was workable and fiscally sound instead of doing the bidding of lobbyists and political hacks.

Politics is often described as the Art of the Possible. The Bi-Partisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2014 certainly shows that working across party lines, even in an election year, is possible.

Hopefully both house of Congress can look past their own gilded noses and see that the people they are elected to represent are tired of the ridiculous posturing and fear-mongering.

Hopefully they see that a vote for a bill like this is what we sent them to Washington D.C. to do.