This April 17, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act, which promised “to protect and enhance opportunities for recreational hunting, fishing, and shooting.” Actually, this bill takes an ax to the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Over 30 House Democrats voted in favor of H.R. 4089 because they did not want to be seen as “anti-hunting.”  Now, our U. S. senators face similar political pressure, because Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch has added H.R. 4089’s wilderness-eviscerating provisions as amendments to the voluminous Farm Bill.  The bill also lies before the Senate for consideration as a separate measure, S. 2066.  Meanwhile, the conservation community has remained mostly silent in the face of this blatant attack on wilderness.

Why is it so quiet out there?  Unless wilderness advocates can match the voice of the gun-rights groups and trophy hunters backing this bill, our hard-won wilderness safeguards will lose all their traction. The House bill enjoys support from powerful groups, principally theSafari Club and the National Rifle Association, and both are reportedly lobbying hard for its passage.  However, two Republicans did vote against the bill. Perhaps they agreed with Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, who labeled it as just another backdoor attempt to open wilderness to development and drive a wedge between allies in theconservation movement.

Historically, some of the strongest advocates for wilderness have been sportsmen and sportswomen who understood the importance of protecting habitat in the remote backcountry. In 1958, Tom Ford, President of the Ravalli County (Montana) Fish & Wildlife Association wrote:

[The proposed Wilderness Act] is vital ... [to preserve] our fast-dwindling areas that are still in a primitive and pristine condition.  By losing these areas, we shall have lostthe kind of country that helped in no small way to mold the American character. … Passage of the wilderness bill will assure us … of always having available the means to get away for a time from the sights, sounds, and smells of civilization.

It is ironic that a bill purporting to benefit sportsmen would dismantle those hard-won Wilderness Act protections. Yet not all of the hunting and fishing public is fooled. As David Lien wrote in the magazine AmmoLand: “While hunters and anglers support numerous parts of this bill, there are specific details that could result in enormous negative consequences for world-renowned hunting and fishing destinations, conservation, and public lands fish and wildlife habitat.”  Ben Lamb agrees in Outdoor Life, but adds: “Legislators just need to … amend the bill to ensure that we do not violate the 1964 Wilderness Act. …”

However, the House bill does violate the provisions of the Wilderness Act, because it makes providing access for hunting, fishing and recreational shooting the primary management mandate on our publicly owned lands. Examples: The bill would undercut the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammals Protection Act by allowing hunters to import polar bears shot in Canada.  It would force the Bureau of Land Management to allow recreational shooting in all national monuments and would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from banning lead ammo. Although the bill’s supporters claim its purpose is not to open our 110 million acres of designated wilderness to development, the House rejected an amendment that would have clarified its language to exclude that possibility. There is also a provision that limits the president’s authority to designate national monuments under theAntiquities Act.

More important, H.R. 4089 cuts to the heart of the Wilderness Act by replacing the Act’s mandate that managers preserve the “wilderness character” of protected land.  It would allow motorized access and the construction of buildings and dams within wilderness areas to facilitate recreational hunting, fishing and shooting.  It would allow wildlife managers to take over wilderness management through extensive manipulation, such as using helicopters to collar and kill wolves, or building water guzzlers for bighorn sheep in the wilderness.  All of these actions would be exempt from review under the National Environmental Policy Act.  Finally, the bill would open wilderness to any development remotely related to hunting, fishing and shooting.  By transforming wilderness areas into manipulated game farms, H.R. 4089 would eviscerate the Wilderness Act and the protections it guarantees.

The House of Representatives is already a lost cause, but it’s not too late for the Senate. Some of those lawmakers might like to hear from those of us who still believe – and believe deeply – that the Wilderness Act is one of the best ideas America ever had. We all enjoy outdoor recreation, but a lot of us value wild places for their own sakes. Are we so self-centered that we really need to place recreation ahead of our country’s last undeveloped places?

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). Talasi Brooks is a legal intern at Wilderness Watch and lives in Montana; Kevin Proescholdt is conservation director of Wilderness Watch and lives in Minnesota.