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for people who care about the West

What’s the NRA’s beef with roadless areas?

  I am a hunter who cares deeply about our hunting heritage and our ability to pass it on. Like most hunters, I consider organizations that work on behalf of hunting my friends, and those that work against hunting my adversaries. So I don’t like it when the lines become blurred. And today the lines are blurry indeed in regards to the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The NRA is one of the most effective lobbies in America. It has protected our right to keep and bear arms for more than 100 years, and I have been a member for more than 20 of those years. I am thankful for what the NRA has done. More than that, I believe in the NRA.

And there’s the rub. Because I and millions of others like me believe in what the NRA does on behalf of our right to own guns, we are inclined to believe the group when it tells us it’s standing up for our right to hunt. This is a dangerous assumption, because when the interests of gun ownership and hunting diverge, the NRA always comes down on the side of guns.

Not that the NRA hasn’t done good things for hunters. It helped introduce legislation to allow hunting on Sundays in states that prohibit it. It’s working to reduce the minimum hunting age in states like Wisconsin. It supports No Net (hunting) Loss legislation in several states, which will require them to compensate for closing state land to hunting by opening other state land. But this is a lot like fancy window dressing.

Behind the window, the NRA aligns itself with politicians who care little about the land or wildlife, but can be counted on to deliver votes against gun control. This includes politicians like Republican Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, who serves on the NRA Board of Directors. Craig was a primary supporter of the Bush administration’s recent decision to remove federal protection from 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas in our national forests, returning their fate to the tender mercies of individual states. The NRA regularly parrots Craig’s message about our roadless areas, interchanging the terms wilderness, roadless areas and road closures, confusing the public and convincing hunters that their hunting access will be lost in all of those areas.

In fact, land in all of those areas remains open to hunting; only motorized access is restricted to various degrees. In fact, hunting and fishing are usually better in roadless areas. Exhaustive scientific studies confirm that elk, deer, bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and trout do much better in areas away from active roads. They grow bigger, live longer and reproduce more effectively. This is not under debate. People who contest it will probably also argue that cigarette smoke is good for you.

Perhaps the NRA thinks, as President Bush seems to, that if you raise bluegills in a pond, keep white-tailed deer in a fenced enclosure and feed wild turkeys in your backyard, you are a friend to wildlife. That simplistic approach doesn’t work here in the West, where our big game and game fish species adapt poorly to human encroachment. The problem is not that the NRA leadership acts aggressively to protect the Second Amendment. That is their mission. The problem is that they mislead hunters into thinking that this helps hunting. All too often, hunters are naive enough to believe them.

Here’s the bottom line: If the Bush administration, with the active support of the NRA, builds roads into our previously roadless public lands, the premier hunting and fishing once available there will decline until these areas will be no different than places you can drive to now.

I know a man who raises snakes. His snakes are important to him, so he raises mice to feed to the snakes. He takes good care of the mice, because he needs lots of them to support his snakes.

We hunters are the NRA’s mice. They want lots of us, too, but they worry because there’s always the outside chance we might start thinking for ourselves. So they keep us scared of enemies, or people they want us to think are enemies. Then we dutifully cough up money to help fight those enemies. Think about it: When was the last time you heard of a snake actually helping a mouse? We’re being tricked.

Pat Wray is a writer in Corvallis, Oregon, a former Marine helicopter pilot, and an avid hunter and fisherman with a wife and three dogs.