Conservation How is Obama Handling Sportsman’s Issues? President Barack Obama is halfway through his term and it’s time to ask: what has he done to protect your... By Brian McCombie | Published Jan 25, 2011 2:44 AM Conservation SHARE January 20, 2011, marked the mid-point of Barack Obama’s first term as president, and as he prepares to go before the nation tonight to give the State of the Union Address, now is a good time to ask: how has President Obama and his administration done on issues of concern to America’s sportsmen? Teaser photo by: Ari Levinson The consensus among the top conservation groups contacted by Outdoor Life is best summed up by Chris Wood, who heads Trout Unlimited. “Honestly, I think it’s fair to say the Administration’s attention has largely been focused elsewhere,” says Wood, given the struggling economy, health care issues, and two wars. “But the hunting and angling community? They’re waiting for these issues to be addressed.” Photo: Hoshie The Administration’s said many positive things in support of hunting, fishing and conserving wildlife habitats. But its record on the issues and situations it has actually gotten involved in–from the Gulf oil spill to wolves to Asian carp–is a mixed bag. Likewise, the Administration hasn’t gone out of its way to attack the Second Amendment. But gun rights groups and the firearms industry are decidedly wary of the Obama Administration. Here’s a look at some of these issues. Gulf Oil Spill On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. Before the well was capped, an estimated 200 million gallons of crude oil shot into the Gulf of Mexico. “I don’t think any administration would have done a very good job on something as huge and unprecedented as the Gulf spill,” says Mike Nussman, CEO of the American Sportfishing Association. “In hindsight, especially from a marine fisheries perspective,” he adds, “I think they did pretty good. They were responsive, and certainly tried to look as broadly as they could at the impacts. And they pushed BP (British Petroleum Oil) to take responsibility.” Yet, many sources criticized the president for not reacting quickly enough to the disaster. Even the ultra-liberal Mother Jones magazine–which called Obama’s achievements during his first 18 months in office “impressive”–was extremely critical of the Administration’s handling of the spill. An article published on the Mother Jones website, a month after the spill began, termed the Administration’s response to the disaster as “sluggish.” Mother Jones writer Kate Sheppard argued that the, “Obama administration has been surprisingly hands-off,” and a month into the situation was “still leaving many of the critical decisions to BP.” Photo: Obama at a briefing after the explosion at Deepwater Horizon Wolves When it took office, the Obama Administration said it fully supported removing wolves from the Endangered Species List. The federal government then moved to delist, it was sued, back-and-forth in the courts, and the matter was eventually sent back to federal government, which vowed to put forward delisting once again. “But that was like 18 months ago,” says Rob Sexton, vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, Sexton. “I’d have to say their action on this issue had been painfully slow.” Photo: U.S. FWS True, once the federal government announces its intent to remove wolves from engendered status, a new round of lawsuits will undoubtedly ensue. “But we need the feds to seal the deal on this and let this move forward,” Sexton says. “Are we going to be having this delisting conversation again when he comes up for re-election? We sure hope not.” Western Oil and Gas Exploration During the Bush Administration, new oil and gas exploration leases on western public lands accelerated greatly. Western hunters and conservationists were worried that many of the leases were granted with little consideration of potential impacts on wildlife. Many of the natural gas leases on Bureau of Land Management properties, for example, have wells and large-scale infrastructure smack in the middle of elk and mule deer wintering grounds. “You only have to look at Pinedale, Wyoming, to see the effects of that development,” says Whit Fosburgh, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Now, several years into the development there (over 800 wells drilled, and another 4000-plus approved), there’s a 60 percent decline in the mule deer herd.” The Obama Administration has created new guidelines for approving leases that do factor in wildlife and their habitats. Those guidelines should be in place soon, says Fosburgh, and it’s a very good thing. “The disappointing part? They have not done anything to fix the mess on the 40 million acres that were already leased under the past Administration.” Photo: oborseth Western Oil and Gas Exploration In another Western energy issue, “The Administration has been facilitating the Keystone XL Tar Sands pipeline,” says Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. Tar sands are heavy, clay soils that also contain bitumen, a thick oil that can be extracted from the soils. The Keystone project would mine and refine these tar sands in Alberta, Canada, and then ship the processed oil via a pipeline crossing six states from Montana to Texas, and ending at the Gulf of Mexico. Waterfowl, he says, are especially at risk for tar sands development, as a byproduct of the refining process is large ponds of toxic water. “There have been significant instances where large numbers of ducks and other waterfowl have landed in these ponds and died, the water’s so toxic,” Schweiger says. “We think the Administration clearly needs to reject the permit.” Mining “The Administration’s been relatively silent on the Pebble Mine issue,” says Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited. “If the plans go forward, it will be the world’s largest open-pit gold, copper and molybdenum mine–built right on the headwaters of the world’s most prolific salmon fishery, worth a half-billion dollars a year.” The Pebble Mine would be dug in the Bristol Bay watershed of Southwest Alaska, and test drilling has already begun. “That plan includes several miles of toxic tailings being stored behind an earthen dam,” Wood continues, “in an area with seismic activity. If the dam were to fail, that fishery could be devastated. We think the Administration needs to tell sportsmen where it stands on this mine.” Photo: AlaskaTrekker Asian Carp Asian carp have been steadily making their way up the Illinois River and right at Lake Michigan. A series of canals connect the Illinois River with Lake Michigan, and, in December 2009, DNA testing found evidence that Asian carp in these canals were just a few miles from Lake Michigan. Later testing suggested carp may be in Lake Michigan proper, though, to date, no live Asian carp have been discovered here. The stakes are high. Asian carp gobble up plankton, the base of the aquatic food chain, and are very prolific. In stretches of the Missouri and Mississippi River, these carp have become the dominate fish, pushing out native and sport species. If they got into the Great Lakes and started reproducing? A $7 billion a year sport and commercial fishery could be destroyed. Photo: LouisvilleUSACE One big problem, says Marc Gaden, Communications Director and Legislative Liaison for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, has been little to no coordination between the many agencies that have some responsibility over Asian carp. “What the Administration has done, which has been of tremendous value, is that they have made an attempt to identify who has what responsibility over these issues,” says Gaden. The Administration also created a regional coordinating committee and appointed a “Carp Czar,” John Goss, former director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, to oversee the federal effort. Photo: Tdk Yet, beyond getting an electric barrier up and running to block the carp, at least somewhat, from Lake Michigan, the pace of action has been very slow. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, has been given the responsibility for creating a series of carp management recommendations. “But even those recommendations are several years off,” Gaden notes. “We have to start working on carp time! They’re not just going to sit around that electric barrier and wait for us to do something.” Wetlands and Waterfowl Wetlands and waterfowl conservation invariably comes back to the federal Farm Bill. When the Obama Administration took office, a new Farm Bill was already in place. “The proof in the pudding is going to be the next Farm Bill debate, in 2012,” says John Devney, vice president of Delta Waterfowl. “At that time, we’re going to see how big a priority the Administration puts on the ‘Conservation Title,’ those program run under the Agriculture Department like the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program.” The Administration has also said it wants to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Administered by National Parks Service, the LWCF provides matching grants to states and local governments for the acquisition and development of public outdoor recreation areas and facilities. Photo: U.S. FWS Marine Fisheries It hasn’t received much press, but the Administration is working on a far-reaching plan called “The National Ocean Policy.” “It’s an effort to plan and zone ocean activities for the future,” explains Mike Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Association. “We’ve been very, very concerned about where this national effort might go and its impacts on recreational fishing.” California’s Marine Life Protection Act has actually banned fishing in a number of areas previously open to the public, and that state law, it seemed to Nussman and others, was being used as the template for the early drafts of the new federal policy. In fact, Nussman notes, the words “recreational fishing” didn’t even appear in the first draft. Photo: Roman.Petruniak ASA and other marine conservation groups made their concerns known to the Administration. In subsequent drafts, recreational fishing was included as an activity that will receive consideration. Yet, “We had asked for public recreation to be among the primary goals of this policy,” Nussman notes. “Unfortunately, the Administration did not agree with us on that point.” Photo: roman.petruniak New Wild Lands and National Monuments–Access Denied? Just before Christmas, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar issued Secretarial Order 3310, which directed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to start the process for identifying lands which may be designated as “Wild Lands.” If designated as such, these federal lands will be managed, “to protect their wilderness values,” according to a BLM press release. Earlier in 2010, the Administration also announced it was considering designating 14 federal properties in the western United States as National Monuments. Whit Fosburgh, who leads the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, says new wilderness areas could save important fish and wildlife habitats that might otherwise be hurt by energy development. Photo: Krossbow But, notes Rob Sexton, vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, there are sportsmen’s access issues at stake here. Past wilderness and monument designations done under the Clinton Administration closed many areas to off-road vehicle use, and in doing so limited hunting. “I know some hunters don’t want ATV’s where they hunt,” says Sexton. “But many of the properties under consideration are really huge. If you stop motorized access, most people will never get a chance to hunt the interiors of these properties. A lot of hunting opportunities could be lost.” Photo: ingridtaylar The Second Amendment When he was a candidate for the presidency, Obama talked about banning so-called “assault weapons.” He also voiced his support for Washington D.C.’s ban on handguns (since overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court). Photo: Holek Just before Obama was sworn in as president, gun sales went through the roof as many gun owners scrambled to take advantage of what they thought might be their last chance to buy a gun. And in one of the most infamous moments in Obama’s presidential campaign he said small-town America voters “cling to guns or religion.” But once in office, gun control was not on the agenda–at least, not overtly. Photo: art_es_anna “The Administration has not pursued efforts to further restrict Second Amendment rights or to curtail the lawful commerce in firearms inherent in the Second Amendment,” notes Lawrence Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade group for the firearms and ammunition industry. But that lack of effort, Keane feels, was more about a Congress which had signaled its unwillingness to promote more gun control. In fact, Congressional unwillingness to pass gun control became most apparent when Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, in February 2009, called for a renewal of the federal ban on “assault weapons.” That brought a sharp reaction by the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups, and many members of Congress responded that they were opposed to such a renewal. At that point, the Administration dropped all talk of an assault weapons ban. Photo: interchange88 Recently, the Administration, through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, proposed making firearms retailers report multiple sales of two or more semi-automatic rifles that are larger than .22 caliber and capable of accepting a detachable magazine–if the rifles are purchased by the same individual within five consecutive business days. That proposal generated a lot of criticism from the NRA and NSSF, and is currently on hold at the White House. “But there’s no indication they’re backing off the idea,” says Keane. The stated reason for the proposal? To stop firearms from going to Mexican drug cartels. But, says Keane and others, the “reporting” smacks of gun registration. Maybe more importantly, Obama nominated two people to the U.S. Supreme Court who appeared to be at odds philosophically with the Second Amendment. Elena Kagan, the NRA noted, was a “nominee who opposes Second Amendment rights and is clearly out of step with mainstream Americans,” while Sonia Sotomayor’s previous judicial record revealed a “hostile view of the Second Amendment.” Both of them, of course, are now justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, and will rule on any Second Amendment issues which come before the high court. Photo: Elena Kagan whitehouse.gov Appointees From a wildlife conservation point of view, the two most important Administration appointees are U.S Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack [pictured here] and U.S Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar. “Vilsack and Salazar are real champions of giving sportsmen a voice in this Administration,” says Larry Schweiger of the National Wildlife Federation. Schweiger sits on the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council, an 18-member panel of conservationists formed in 2010 to advise the administration on hunting, shooting and wildlife habitat issues. “I think every one of us on the Council is a hunter and an angler,” Schweiger notes. “It’s an important venue where sportsmen can raise concerns and have an on-going dialogue with the Administration about issues that are important to us.” Meanwhile, Obama has nominated Andrew Traver to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He had headed up that agency’s Chicago office. It’s a nomination strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association. As an NRA press release noted, “Traver has been deeply aligned with gun control advocates and anti-gun activities. This makes him the wrong choice to lead an enforcement agency that has almost exclusive oversight and control over the firearms industry, its retailers and consumers.” The Future Nearly every conservation and sportsmen’s group Outdoor Life talked with commended the Administration for a willingness to hear from sportsmen. The Administration made a big point of hearing from us in 2010, when Administration officials were on the road gathering information, ideas, and support for America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. Created by a Presidential Memorandum, the Initiative will promote and support innovative community-level efforts to conserve outdoor spaces and to reconnect Americans to the outdoors. Kendra Barkoff, Deputy Communications Director for the Department of Interior, says a final report on the Initiative is due out soon. Photo: aflcio There’s been a lot of buzz about America’s Great Outdoors Initiative in hunting, fishing and conservation circles, notes Whit Fosburgh, President of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We’ve been told there’s going to be a lot of good things coming out in it for sportsmen,” Fosburgh says, “like increased funding for conservation and programs to get kids out hunting and fishing. It all sounds really positive, but no one’s seen any specifics yet. So we’ve got our fingers crossed.” Photo: sburke2478 And how will it all be funded? That is yet to be determined, too. Photo: Borman OK OL readers, it’s your turn to weigh in. How do you think Barack Obama has done so far concerning sportsmans’ issues? Comment below. Photo: edgygrrrrl President Barack Obama is halfway through his term and it’s time to ask: what has he done to protect your hunting, fishing and Second Amendment rights? Share your opinion in the comments section.