Federal Agencies Fear Bill Giving Greater Access to Hunters, Fishermen Will Spur Lawsuits

With Republicans now in control of the Senate, legislation to give hunters, fishermen and other outdoors enthusiasts better access to the nation’s public lands may finally pass Congress this year, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) says.

Murkowski, who has introduced similar legislation twice before, is confident “the third time will be the charm.”

And she may very well be right, given the bipartisan nature of the bill. The legislation, dubbed the Sportsman’s Act of 2015, has more than 18 co-sponsors — nine Republicans and nine Democrats — and appears to have the momentum this year that it lacked in previous years under the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“This [version] of the act builds on previous efforts and adds new provisions to increase access and provide new opportunities for Americans to enjoy our federal lands,” Murkowski said at a hearing on the bill last week. The hearing was held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which the Alaska senator chairs.

“It includes a provision I have supported for years,” she continued, “to ensure Bureau of Land Management and National Forest lands remain open to hunting, fishing, and other activities as a matter of law, so that our sportsmen and women know they are welcome there.”

But officials tasked with managing those very lands are concerned the bill would do little more than create another layer of bureaucracy, not to mention reams of paperwork, costly studies and legal minutiae — all in an effort to solve a non-existent problem.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service officials pointed out Thursday that 99 percent of public wilderness and forestlands are already open to the public, including hunters and anglers.

Steve Ellis, director of operations for the bureau, ticked off a long list of mandates the BLM would be forced to comply with if the bill becomes law.

“It would require the agencies to consider effects on hunting, fishing, and target shooting when developing planning documents, designate public lands as open to hunting and shooting . . ., authorize designation of areas for target shooting [and] initiate reporting requirements for any closures of lands to hunting or target shooting,” Ellis testified.

Such provisions, he said, “appear to be duplicative of existing policies,” again emphasizing that hunters, fisherman and the general public already have access to 99 percent of federal wilderness and forestlands. But Ellis’s concerns go beyond legal redundancy. He said the Sportsman's Act also would add hours of reporting and documentation requirements to an already overworked staff. That, he said, will tax the agency’s existing resources, both financial and temporal, and lead to increased budget requests or cuts in services.

Still, he stopped short of objecting to the bill’s reporting mandates — as long as certain changes to the bill’s language are made.

“We would like to work with the sponsor on technical changes to ensure that reporting and tracking requirements can be feasibly met with existing funding and staffing,” he said.

Other concerns include provisions that appear to contradict existing law, he said.

“Certain language [in the act] may be interpreted to allow activities in wilderness areas that are not consistent with the Wilderness Act,” Ellis explained.

Leslie Weldon, deputy chief for the National Forest System at the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture, expressed concern that the bill seems to give preferential treatment to hunting, fishing and recreational shooting. That could prove problematic given the wide range of activities enjoyed on public lands — and the service’s charge to accommodate everyone from bird watchers and hikers to school groups, photographers and, indeed, hunters and fishermen.

“The bill states that [it] is not intended to prioritize recreational hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting over other uses of federal lands,” Weldon noted. “[But] the USDA is concerned that [the act’s] requirements to facilitate recreational hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting could limit the agency’s flexibility to balance these uses with other uses as required under the Forest Service’s Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act."

Ellis added his voice to those concerns.

Some of the bill’s language appears to contradict the intent of the legislation, or at the very least, create confusion with existing law.

That could open the door to lawsuits from sporting groups arguing that the act allows them to hunt and fish in certain areas banned by the Wilderness Act. In turn, animal rights groups, conservation organizations, and private landowners could sue, arguing that existing law banning certain activities on one tract or another is on their side.

He also noted a provision that would allow archers to carry bows and arrows in vehicles while crossing federal wilderness or forestlands, as long as their bows and arrows are stored separately. Again, Ellis said, that is something the BLM already allows. But by not defining the word “vehicles,” he added, the act could provide loopholes through which archers could get around the ban on operational bows and arrows.

But those in support of the legislation said many, if not all, of the BLM and forest service’s concerns could be addressed with relatively minor changes to the bill’s language.

And while there may be some duplication with existing law, the act is not an exercise in redundancy. It is needed, they say, to ensure hunters and fishermen have access to public lands now and in the future — especially given the efforts of some groups to limit or even ban hunting.

“We all know there’s an anti-hunting and fishing sentiment in some people,” Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) said during the hearing. “And those who have never experienced it, well, that’s their great loss.”

Risch, a Wisconsin native who earned his bachelor’s degree in forestry at the University of Idaho at Moscow, added that hunting, fishing and recreational shooting have declined in recent decades, especially among children and young adults. That has less to do with those activities, he said, and more to do with what the great outdoors must now compete with — computers, tablets, smart phones and gaming systems. Indeed, it can be hard to lure kids to a shooting range when the latest 3D, live-action, first-person, point-of-view shooter game with stereo surround sound is beckoning to them from the comfort of a temperature-controlled gaming chair.

“We are not getting the participation of the youth that we need,” he said. “I would encourage people to mentor a young person, get them away from their devices and get them outside to hunt and fish and enjoy the outdoors.”

Jeff Crane, president of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, said that while the BLM is correct in saying 99 percent of public lands are open to the public, vast swaths of those lands are nonetheless inaccessible.

“The overarching purpose behind this bill is quite simply to ensure access and opportunity for hunters, shooters and anglers,” Crane said. “According to polling, the No. 1 reason that we lose hunters and anglers is ‘not enough access to quality places to hunt or fish.’"

Accessibility is often stymied by physical barriers, such as wetlands and other topographical challenges, but also from private landowners. Many federal tracts that are technically open to the public are inaccessible because landowners have closed off access roads and trails that cross their properties.

“With an ever increasing population and urban [and] suburban sprawl, it is imperative that access and opportunity are protected and even enhanced for future generations,” Crane said. “Recreational access to our national treasures of public lands and waters is imperative.”

He echoed Risch’s point that anti-hunting groups are getting stronger, emboldened by recent court victories to ban hunting in certain areas.

In a recent Michigan case, for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service could not keep an access road open for hunters without addressing the objections of other groups. Instead, the court said the service had to consider closing it “to protect the aesthetic sensibilities of non-hunters from hearing” gunshots.

“Part of the problem was that nothing in the forest statutes prescribed the continuation of hunting,” Crane said. “That’s what this act will do. Where access does currently exist, let’s entrench it and provide certainty that it will always be there. Where it doesn't, let’s ask why, and if reasonable and feasible, let’s look at solutions to make it more accessible. After all, these are public assets owned by the American people.”