Sportsmen pull public-lands politics to the center

As threats intensify, sportsmen emerge as a persuasive voice.

 

On Feb. 2, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, announced his intention to withdraw a bill proposing the transfer of 3.3 million acres of federal lands to 10 Western states. “Groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message,” he explained, alongside a photo of himself in camo, a dog in his arms. Only a week had passed since he introduced the legislation, but sportsmen’s groups had taken to social media swiftly and aggressively, impelling their members to speak out publicly against it.

Chaffetz’s H.R. 621 is one of several recent proposals that have struck a nerve with sportsmen. Many fear they’ll lose access to the federal lands where they hunt and fish if those lands are transferred to states, which are likely to sell or develop them. The hook-and-bullet contingent has long played a significant role in conservation — especially economically, via taxes on firearms and ammunition as well as through hunting and fishing licenses. But now, more are putting their mouths where their money is: speaking out online, signing petitions, attending rallies and town halls.

Galvanized by escalating threats and the national sweep of activism since the election, sportsmen are poised to play a key role in public-lands legislation under President Donald Trump’s administration. Generally, they tend to be more conservative than other outdoor groups, supporting gun rights and small government. “We do have a little more credibility in some conservative circles,” says Steve Kandell, sportsmen’s conservation project director for Trout Unlimited.

Conservation groups including hunters, anglers, hikers and horsemen gather at the Montana state Capitol in Helena in January to protest the idea of the federal government transferring public lands to the states.
William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images
 

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation in January 2016 “woke people up,” says Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. Although the Sagebrush Rebellion began decades ago, the “return the land” rhetoric of the Bundy family and their supporters made more sportsmen realize how deeply a small — but increasingly vocal — contingent of Westerners resents federal management of public lands. And “the drumbeat has really ramped up since the election on these issues,” says Whit Fosburgh, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership president and CEO.

When Chaffetz introduced H.R. 621, sportsmen were “ready at the flick of a switch to engage,” says Aaron Kindle, Western sportsmen manager for the National Wildlife Federation. His group has been preparing for public-lands battles for several years, educating and engaging members as they fought “bad bills” at the state level. It was particularly easy to mobilize people against H.R. 621 because the bill made the potential loss of public lands tangible. “It starts to hit home,” says Kindle, “when you think about those acres you won’t be able to hunt in anymore.”

Members of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers have organized local events across the West to get the word out, including “Public Lands Pint Nights.” “They’re on the ground,” Tawney says. “We just amplify their voices.” And the group has a lot of voices to amplify: Membership has tripled over the last year. Other groups have also seen unprecedented engagement: Kindle has been struck by the number of National Wildlife Federation members asking, “How can I write a letter? What hearing can I show up to?”

Under the Trump administration, sportsmen could wield significant influence — and not just because many of them vote Republican. It helps to have legislators and leaders who can identify with sportsmen’s connection with public lands, notes Kindle: rising before dawn and hiking miles in the dark, being “purely quiet” while watching for wildlife. Trump’s son Donald Jr. is a “Life Member” of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also hunts. And Chaffetz is among the nearly 300 members of the House and Senate who make up the long-standing bipartisan Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus.

George W. Bush’s administration heeded sportsmen when they spoke out against threats to environmental protection: In 2004, hunters and anglers met with Bush and encouraged the administration to abandon Clean Water Act revisions that would have threatened wetlands and streams valuable to fish and wildlife.

Hook-and-bullet groups may also serve as a bridge between traditionally left-leaning environmental groups and the current administration when it comes to public lands. Threats to public lands are “creating one of the biggest unlikely alliances in the world,” says David Allen, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. As Tawney points out, sportsmen tend to take a middle-ground approach, while the environmental community creates a more ambitious “goalpost” to work toward. This allows groups to make more centrist deals.

Now, sportsmen’s organizations intend to continue harnessing their members’ energy and passion on behalf of public lands. Their message to politicians is clear: “If you think you’re gonna come and tromp on the bedrock issue for all these people,” says Kindle, “you’re gonna have a hell of a fight on your hands.”

Rebecca Worby is an editorial intern at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • WYOMING CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    We are hiring a Wyoming Conservation Associate Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Cody, WY (preferred), Jackson, WY, or Lander, WY Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for...
  • SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the nations leading national park advocacy organization, seeks a Regional Director to lead and manage staff for the Southwest Regional...
  • DIRECTOR OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS
    This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • PROGRAM OFFICER, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES, NOVO FOUNDATION
    The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • ARMY OF THE DOG
    A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • ANNIE CLARK TANNER FELLOWSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • ALASKA STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • RIVER GUIDE AND EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...