Safari Club and the NRA aim to gut wilderness

  • Talasi Brooks


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( 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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Bob  U
Bob U
Jun 21, 2012 11:55 AM
"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 the conservation movement."

Well talk about the pot calling the kettle black: Wilderness (capital W) advocates wrote the book on this one.

The article is about hunting but why the Wilderness Act will suffer cuts across many user groups.

Their holier-than-thou belief that only (!) hikers and horseback riders are the only "acceptable" travelers in these public lands is having a major backlash here and this attitude is part of the problem.

It's noble to preserve large tracts of land for minimal use and logical to have areas off limits to bikes, motors, even hikers.

But to continually land grab for more and more gigantic swaths of land (it just never stops with y'all) all the while banning historic users (mountain bicycles -who could have been one of your biggest ALLIES, who you've ALIENATED time and again) and other users (motos, snowmobiles, quads..etc). There's appropriate SHARED management amongst silent users and motors.

So now we've come to this vote on dismantling the Wilderness Act to a degree and it's in no small part because Wilderness powers that be are stuck in the last century, are unwilling to adapt and have "driven a wedge between allies in the conservation movement".


Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Jun 22, 2012 05:43 AM
The Senate version of this bill introduced by Democratic Senator Tester is actually very good, it includes great ideas by my Democratic Senator Udall on Pittman Robertson funds, and I'm sure it will pass the senate with broad bi partisan support and be signed into law by Democratic President Obama, one of the greatest environmental Presidents in a generation.

It does nothing at all to harm or weaken Wilderness Protections. Zero! Nada. In a classic bit of rhetoric the writers of this article do two things, they use dishonest examples and they confuse the senate and house versions.

Take the polar bears for instance. That's the example they use and it's a great example of the dishonesty of this particular piece of writing.

A few years ago before the polar bear was listed as threatened, some Americans were legally going to Canada, hiring Inuit guides, and going on dog sleds out onto the pack ice midwinter to hunt bears. Forty one of those hunters were having hides processed in Canada when the law changed and it became illegal to bring those already harvested animals back to the US. This bill would solve the legal limbo that those 41 hunters from way back when fell into and would not allow any importation of any newer hides from animals taken after that time.

To say that this bill undermines the Endangered Species Act by allowing the importation of polar bears shot in Canada is disingenuous at best.

This article reminds me most of the Teaparty's noise just before the health care bill was passed. Similar to Sarah Palin's "pulling the plug on grandma" I read such things as "transforming wilderness areas into manipulated game farms", "motorized access and the construction of buildings and dams within wilderness", and my favorite, "helicopters to collar and kill wolves". Not mentioned was the eating of live baby seals.

The authors wonder why the big silence from the conservation community. Could it be because we are sick of the dishonest shrill screaming from our more radical side?
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Jun 22, 2012 12:43 PM
I'll say up front that I generally think these types of bills are pointless at best and often detrimental to the resources they claim to protect. That said, when I read the bill (House version), it seemed to include a provision that explicitly stated that nothing in the act was intended to increase motorized access to wilderness areas. My legal knowledge is admittedly limited however, so perhaps the authors could address that more clearly -- the statement that wilderness is under attack simply goes on the point out the polar bear and EPA titles, not where wilderness is under attack.

The Monument provision(s) were obnoxious and the bill seems to ignore the idea that shooting and other recreation don't mix well. And if they'd seen the damage and trash left by recreational shooters on the local NF, not to mention the noise, they'd likely (hopefully) rethink that idea. But then again, probably not.

Overall, it looks like the authors of this essay engaged in a bit of hyperbole about the repercussions of this bill's passage. Nevertheless, it looks like an utterly pointless bit of legislation that will make federal land management more difficult and will not likely make hunting or fishing more popular.
Talasi Brooks
Talasi Brooks
Jun 22, 2012 04:04 PM
Senator Tester's amendments to the Farm Bill are different from the provisions of the Sportsmen's Heritage Act, which have also been introduced in the Senate. You can see the troubling amendments in S. 2066. Here is a link to the Farm Bill amendments introduced by Senator Risch that contain the Sportsmen's Heritage Act provisions: Tim, I would encourage you to read the Sportsmen's Heritage Act, available at:[…]/~c112Pvc2Hy::. See particularly Section 104(a) and (e).
Larry Audsley
Larry Audsley
Jun 22, 2012 06:23 PM
Very good comments from Bob U. and Robb Caldwell.

"Transforming wilderness areas into manipulated game farms" is a typical example of the propapganda we've had to live with ever since anti-hunting groups discovered they could use the Wilderness Act to advance their agenda. Here in Arizona we've seen numerous lawsuits in which Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club have joined with HSUS, Friends of Animals and Animal Defense League to use the Wilderness Act as a launching pad for legal challenges. When Congress was considering making the Kofa Wildlife Refuge a wilderness area, wilderness supporters assured us that maintenance and construction of bighorn sheep water catchments would not be affected. Then later they started suing to stop any additional catchments deemed beneficial by wildlife biologists. Groups like the Wilderness Coalition sent out fundraising letters bragging that they had stopped bulldozers from tearing up the Kofa wilderness without ever mentioning that the bulldozers would have built water catchments for wildlife. The Sportsmen's Heritage Act would put an end to this kind of mischief.

Wilderness purists ignore the fact that the lands surrounding Arizona's 87 different wilderness areas have been permanently altered by highways, irrigation canals and other barriers, and that wildlife can no longer easily migrate when local habitat conditions deteriorate. Many of these wilderness designations are now habitat islands, and sometimes it's necessary to give wildlife a little extra help getting through tough times.

Wildlife should be considered an attribute of wilderness, and activities aimed at benefiting wildlife and the ecological health of the land should be exempt from Wilderness Act provisions. That should include controlled burns, which are currently hard to get approved up through the management of federal land agencies.

Green non-profits and animal welfare groups do not like state wildlife agencies and view the hook-and-bullet constituency as an enemy. These groups are forever mischaracterizing the work of state wildlife biologists with inaccurate words and phrases like "manipulation" and "game farm." Our public lands and wildlife do not deserve to be made into the political footballs they've become with green groups using them to raise funds to fight exaggerated threats. Sportsmen's Heritage Act should have been passed a long time ago.
Mark Bailey
Mark Bailey Subscriber
Jun 23, 2012 09:45 AM
It IS quiet out there. I see the NRA lobbyists are commenting - regulatory capture is alive and well. Where's the environmental agencies? Thanks for letting a little light and clean air in the room Talasi and Kevin.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Jun 23, 2012 11:23 AM
Talasi, I did read the bill, in particular Section 104(e) 3 :(3) Paragraphs (1) and (2) are not intended to authorize or facilitate commodity development, use, or extraction, or motorized recreational access or use.

That would seem to preclude some of your initial arguments about wilderness loss.

I will gladly admit that the idea of placing hunting and fishing as 'primary' to any other use is a bad idea -- we must continue to view resources holistically with a variety of uses, including ecological services, that should be superior to hunting and fishing access in at least some cases.

I'm a bit more ambivalent about the lead ammunition part -- no argument that lead in the environment is bad and detrimental to wildlife but I also haven't seen any good (and affordable) alternatives on the horizon. Then again, I'm an old school archer, not a gun person.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Jun 23, 2012 12:08 PM
Tim, I think the farm bill passed Thursday evening and didn't get much mention in the press until mid day Friday. Don't think they added many amendments. I'm sure there will be other attempts to pass things through the senate but the Farm Bill was the big hope as it's a "must pass" type thing.

The part that places hunting as a primary use is phrased as "open until closed" meaning hunting is allowed on all Forest Service and BLM land until it is specifically ruled out. It's an attempt to get in front of law suits closing newly designated land. It doesn't mean hunting is more important than any other use.

About the lead. I and many have switched to Barnes or similar for it's superior weight retention, and it just happens to be 100% copper. But that's not what the law suits from Center for Biologic Dishonesty (CBD) are about, they just want to eliminate all hunting and ranching.

To be an accurate shot takes quite a bit of time target shooting and that's where lead is a necessity. Anti hunters figure if they can make rimfire and other amo expensive they can drive many hunters from the sport and make it hard for new people to take it up. Target shooting has shown to have insignificant affects on the environment.

Lead kills fewer birds than buildings, fewer than cars, and far far fewer than cats.
Bill Schiffbauer
Bill Schiffbauer Subscriber
Jun 25, 2012 01:41 PM
Hey Robb, First I am not anti-gun or hunting. I am anti lead shot however. It does impact many birds with lead poisoning. Several species are game birds, particularly puddle ducks. As for your two other points - hunters spend thousands on all manner of equipment, travel, and frequently hunting leases. The elk & deer hunters I see here in CO have clearly not worried about the cost. A few more dollars spent on practice ammo means nothing. In fact several hunters of both bird and mammal I have know should spend more time on the range. As to the idea that lead is less harmful than cats etc I would agree except that just because someone dumps a big pile of trash on the highway does not mean that you can now throw a can out the window. Every little thing helps or hurts. Hunters should support no lead ammo for the good of game and non-game species. Good hunting, Bill