Beware of wolves cloaked in "access"


America’s national forests and our fish and wildlife belong to everyone. Americans rightfully demand access to this national birthright.

Access is like oxygen for hunters and anglers. But beware. Industry barracudas are trying to hoodwink sportsmen into supporting bad legislation by promising “access.”

Take HR 1581, the Wilderness and Roadless Release Act. It’s sponsored by a southern California representative who claims he wants to “improve access” to public land.

But what does “access” mean? Industry wants “access” to oil and gas under public land. Some others define “access” as the license to drive off-road vehicles wherever, whenever, they wish on public lands. Those are bogus definitions.

There are many ways to access public land and wildlife -- foot, stock, mountain bike, or motorized vehicle. All of them are appropriate somewhere -- and inappropriate elsewhere.

There are thousands of ranchers, farmers and timber companies who allow hunters and fishermen to ‘access’ their property; none equate this with some right to drive everywhere on their land or take things of value.

A handful of DC-beltway gun rights and “sportsmen’s” groups are in on the act. Melissa Simpson, of the Safari Club International, testified for H.R. 1581. In her letter to Congress, Simpson used the word “access” nine times.

Sounds good, but what would the bill do? It would peel back existing conservation provisions on tens of millions of acres of national forest roadless areas across the West, allowing industry to build new roads into our remaining remote backcountry. These areas are the places thousands of hunters go to seek elk, muley bucks, bighorn rams or just a moment of peace and quiet. They are also sources of clean water for trout, salmon and steelhead.

These areas have ready access -- generally by foot, stock, mountain bike and, in some places, off-road vehicles. Roadless areas are critical to providing the common hunter and angler opportunity in the modern world.  

In short, HR 1581 will lead to shorter hunting seasons, more restrictions and less hunter opportunity. Yet this is being twisted into a “pro-access” rhetoric.

What is going on here?

Before Ms. Simpson went to work for the Safari Club International, she worked for a Washington DC lobby firm. One of her clients was the oil and gas industry. One of her assignments was to counter the concerns of sportsmen’s groups, which voiced concerns that oil and gas exploration was running roughshod over some of America’s hunting and fishing grounds.

The sponsor of the HR 1581 is Rep. Kevin McCarthy, of southern California. Not much hunting country in his district but there are a lot of oil wells. According to, the oil and gas lobby is one of the biggest contributors to his campaign.

There are lots of wolves out there. Some wear fur. Others wear suits.

Image: Elk hunters are among those outraged by HR 1581. (c) Karen Nichols

Ben Long has hunted, hiked and roamed the backcountry of Idaho and Montana since he was 12. He is senior program director at Resource Media in Kalispell, Mont.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. They are the opinion of the author.

Mark Richards
Mark Richards
Sep 02, 2011 12:25 PM
Thanks for keeping us up to speed on HR 1581, Ben. It's bad for backcountry hunters and bad for our wildlife.
Ben Long
Ben Long
Sep 02, 2011 12:49 PM
Thanks Mark. There are many things that Congress could do to improve access to public land and wildlife. For one, stop raiding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and use it as Congress intended instead of as a slush fund for off-budget pork and earmarks. No question, HR1581 is bad for hunting and fishing.
Todd Tanner
Todd Tanner
Sep 02, 2011 03:28 PM
Excellent piece. Kudos to Ben Long for keeping sportsmen informed about HR 1581. Let's hope this particular legislation dies on the vine.
Ben Long
Ben Long
Sep 02, 2011 03:31 PM
I don't think the current Congress can pass water -- let alone a bill. Still, the larger trend of snookering sportsmen over access won't go away. Shame on us if we let 'em get away with it.
Greg Munther
Greg Munther
Sep 02, 2011 04:01 PM
Funny Montana's own cosponsor of the "access" bill Rep Denny Rehberg is illegally posting Montana State land ajacent to his land against public access....does this guy really believe in public access?
Ben Long
Ben Long
Sep 02, 2011 04:06 PM
Good question. Who is Mr. Rehberg listening to? The DC lobbyists and special interests who are pushing HR 1581 or the Montana hunters and anglers who are opposing it?
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Sep 02, 2011 05:14 PM
This is an issue more important than it might seem, the effect of trails and roads is often to cut road-less areas into ever smaller and smaller pieces. Sure the oil companies would enjoy easier access for exploration but so would ATVers, and mountain bikers, and lets be honest, I know lazy hunters that would like more trails too. Recently after hearing from it’s members the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation changed it’s stance to NO on this bill, I’d be happy to hear the same from the Safari Club as well as the Sportsman’s Caucus.

I’ve both faxed and called my senators about this very bill, and if I go to one of their “town halls” I’ll ask them again, but, and it’s a big but, there’s always the chance something like 1581 could be passed as a rider on some must pass budget bill.

 Kimberly Hirai on the Goat Blog has done a couple of great posts on trail use by mountain bikers and trophy hunters in Idaho. One of the more important public land issues in the west.
Jeff Chapman
Jeff Chapman
Sep 02, 2011 11:18 PM
I see bills from both ends of the political spectrum that tend to wield a heavy hand to an issue. No doubt 1581 does so from the politically right end, and I am not surprised that Ben and others point out that conservatives are tied to conservative causes, like Ms Simpson or Congressman Rehberg. What I’m not convinced is that really adds anything to the discussion.

The fact is 1581 addresses an issue that is as much a left-side issue as a right-side one. That is how to deal with Wilderness Study Areas that remain as WSA areas for seemingly perpetuity. On the USFS side, the question would be more aptly aimed at Recommended Wilderness Areas (RWA) than RARE2 Roadless Areas. The question though is if WSAs (and RWAs) are inventories of wilderness character lands, and they are managed strictly as such (which is done in certain regions and proposed in others), then how long can they remain as inventoried study areas with similar restrictions to congressionally designated wilderness? Forever? If they are, isn’t this the very definition of “de facto” wilderness? Should mountain biking continue to be allowed then? And if they are in fact agency created wilderness, then what is the point of Congress? The fact is there is the expectation in law that a WSA or RWA will be designated at some point, or released. So 1581 is a broad scale blanket release proposal. No doubt the oil industry would like this, but that point is just a distraction from the fact there are significant policy issues being looked at here. But the left likes to point at oil and gas and exploitive industries, and right wingers want to believe everything by Democrats is a ruse to impose socialist rule under the UN.

 I do not support 1581, for very similar reasons as the agencies (BLM & USFS) give. During the years of existence of these quasi designations, states and agencies have been finding ways to deal with them with various kinds of agreements and laws, and this bill is just a monkey wrench in the works at this point. It solves nothing, just mixes up the pieces on the public lands game board.
As to LWCF, what Congressman Simpson said is that before releasing 900 million dollars/year, he’d like to see the funding be addressed for more than just acquiring more private lands for the federal government in states already are predominantly federal lands. A small portion of LWCF does go to stateside projects and parks. A portion also goes to the Forest Legacy program for conservation easements. These are both worthy uses of the off-shore revenue that goes into LWCF, and they should continue. These aren’t pork barrel earmarks. Maybe LWCF should be reformed so that it also does help fund the stewardship of existing public lands and help support public federal land recreation. Is looking at this a bad thing? I do want to see LWCF fully funded, but I also don’t mind that Congress takes a look at how the money is best spent during these hard times.

Or we can return to our respective black and white corners of the political sparing ring.

Ben Long
Ben Long
Sep 03, 2011 10:19 AM
Mr. Chapman points out exactly what is wrong with HR 1581. It conflates Forest Service roadless areas with BLM wilderness study areas, when in fact they are entirely different. Seems to me the best way address wilderness study areas is case-by-case, as is now being done in the Idaho Clearwater, the Montana Rocky Mtn Front, not with fiats from Washington. Bottom line, it's a really bad bill and I think voters deserve a credible explanation from the folks backing it. So far, they're not getting one.