Hunter to NRA: It’s the habitat, stupid

  Like most gun owners of America, I do not belong to the National Rifle Association. Sometimes, I am grateful for their work. But it seems ever more often, I find myself embarrassed by this consummate beltway lobby group — a group that seems to be more intent on settling political scores than solving real problems.

I was among several hundred outdoor writers at the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America recently in Spokane, Wash. It’s a friendly crowd for the NRA, a bunch of shooters and hunters who happen to make their living writing about shooting and hunting.

I learned one thing: NRA President Kayne Robinson is no Charlton Heston. It takes real skill to embarrass yourself in front of this friendly bunch. Robinson pulled it off. As one embarrassed board member of the Outdoor Writers group told a reporter: "The NRA made an ass of itself."

Robinson ranted during a group breakfast. The Clinton administration, he said, had placed 26 million acres off limits to American hunters. He blasted the Sierra Club, saying the group was out to snatch guns and stomp out hunting.

The trouble was, Robinson’s bluster was full of blatant falsehoods.

The fact is, the Sierra Club supports ethical and legal hunting and about one in five Sierra Club members hunts or fishes. (For the record, I’m not a member of the Sierra Club, either.) The Club was also at the writers’ conference along with the NRA, trying to build bridges with hunters. Robinson decided he would rather drive political wedges. Or throw verbal hand grenades.

The other fact is, hunters were not locked out of a single acre of public land during the Clinton years. Reporters pressed Robinson on his statements after breakfast and he confessed he could not point to a single acre where hunting was now off limits on public land thanks to the Clinton administration. Yet, he refused to correct himself.

Over the years, the National Rifle Association has become more and more political. It is trying very hard to get President Bush re-elected. That’s OK, but a fellow has an obligation to get his facts straight.

Here’s a fact Robinson missed. Some 8,700 acres of wildlife habitat — farms, fields and forests — are lost to development every day in the United States. They were lost to urban development. They are gone forever behind "No Trespassing" signs and beneath asphalt. That’s the real enemy of all who love the outdoors.

At the same gathering, the conservation and angling group Trout Unlimited held a news conference, unveiling a series of reports that illustrate how America’s finest hunting and fishing opportunities are in undeveloped roadless areas on our national forest and Bureau of Land Management ground. Whether you stalk elk or cast for chinook salmon, our roadless lands often offer the finest quality habitat for the many game species that Americans like me love to pursue.

Hunters watch with broken hearts as our best habitat — our cleanest water and the best winter ranges and wetlands — is lost to the crush of development. We are watching the quiet, lovely and open places we love to hunt and fish become noisier and more crowded.

Hunters need guns in order to hunt, but we also need natural places and healthy streams, fields and forests. There should be no conflict between those who work to protect our freedom to own firearms and those who work to keep our public lands healthy. Their interests are much the same. Defenders of both our Second Amendment rights and our public lands need more allies, not more enemies.

Which leaves an unsettling question: Why was the NRA president so intent on slapping the hand reached out to it? Come to your own conclusion. Mine is this: The NRA is more interested in protecting turf and throwing its political weight than it is about sticking up for the true needs of American outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen.

It’s about the habitat. When it comes to defending the hunt, the NRA would be wise to remember that.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer in Kalispell, Montana.