Just a few years ago, bills to transfer federal lands to state and private ownership seemed like little more than symbolic protests from restless right-wing lawmakers. But as proponents of land transfers in Utah, Arizona, Montana, Idaho and other Western states gained political momentum and public support, hunting and fishing groups that oppose transfers began to take the proposals more seriously. And now, they are launching a remarkably unified PR-counterattack.
“The notion of transferring ownership of lands currently overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or any other federal land manager to states, or worse yet to private interests, is not a solution to federal land management issues," wrote Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation president and CEO David Allen in an open letter last fall to all Western congressional members.
Allen's letter added to a flurry of reports, press releases, and public statements from hunting organizations across the political spectrum opposing federal land transfers. Just last week, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), a coalition of over 1,400 membership-based hunting and fishing organizations, released a public report highlighting nine prized hunting and fishing areas on Western public lands, access to which is at risk from federal land transfer proposals.
The areas include the Arizona Strip perched above the north rim of the Grand Canyon, segments of the St. Joe and Clearwater Rivers in Idaho, the Missouri River Breaks in Montana, and the Book Cliffs of eastern Utah.
TRCP released its report to coincide with the 2015 Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show, which took place last week in Las Vegas. TRCP also announced a new national campaign devoted to rallying hunters and anglers against federal land transfers. A variety of national hunting and fishing groups as well as outdoor businesses including Simms and Remington are sponsoring the campaign.
The actual likelihood of any of these federal lands being transferred to state control is low. Utah's 2012 Transfer of Public Lands Act demanded the federal government cede much of its lands to the state by December 31st, 2014; the federal government ignored the request. State lawmakers are now discussing filing a lawsuit against the feds. Idaho passed a similar law in 2012, but set no deadline. Since the bill's passage, an economic analysis of the proposal found that it could result in a net loss of $111 million a year, from increased management expenses for things like wildfire that the federal government currently finances. Republican Rep. Tim Stubson of Wyoming has announced his intention to propose a state-sponsored study of a federal land transfer in the upcoming session. Lawmakers in several other Western states are also likely to introduce bills this year.
While land transfer proposals have yet to succeed, hunting and fishing groups clearly deem the dangers to public lands worth organizing against. Sixty-nine percent of hunters in the 11 Western states rely on public lands for hunting according to a recent report by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Groups also tout the huge economic benefits of public lands. The Department of Interior reported that its 2013 management activities alone supported 296,993 jobs in outdoor recreation and added $16.6 billion dollars to the national economy.
Beyond the financial impacts, however, hunting and angling anti-land-transfer campaigns also speak to a more personal concern: being "locked out" of lands that communities have used for generations. As the recent TRCP report declares, national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands are "strongholds" for hunters and anglers of all income brackets. “Federal public lands have always afforded the opportunity for Americans to hunt, hike, fish and enjoy the outdoors,” said Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s David Allen. “The RMEF wants it to remain that way.”
Alex Carr Johnson is a contributor to High Country News and is based in Paonia, Colorado.