Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Retracts Support of Anti-Roadless Bill

In my last post for The Conservationist, I wrote about the so-called Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, H. R. 1581, a bill written by Representative Kevin McCarthy of California and Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, which promised to open to motorized use several million acres of America's remaining roadless public lands.

H.R. 1581 is an extreme piece of legislation, described by Bob Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management, as "a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, that fails to reflect local conditions and community-based interests." In an interview with the New York Times, Abbey compared the bill to "shooting a small rabbit with a large gun, leaving almost no meat on the bone" (read the New York Times story here).

The Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association came out in support of H.R.1581, which was surprising to many sportsmen, since SCI is an organization that celebrates trophy big game hunting, and for most hunters, the only, or at least the best, opportunity they will ever have to pursue a trophy-size elk or deer will be on remote, difficult to access, public lands. The NRA's support of motorized access to these last remote public lands was baffling as well, since such land management policy debates would seem to have nothing at all to do with our embattled Second Amendment rights.

But it was the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's support of H. R 1581 that stunned many RMEF members and elk hunters across the nation. There is no big game animal that is more susceptible to disruption from motorized access to its summer and winter range than elk, and no big game hunting in North America that is more closely associated with big roadless spaces, hard hiking, and the revered and powerful tradition of "packin' in with horses and mules." Stacks of studies confirm these facts, hundreds of years of collective experience of elk hunters confirm that elk hunting, at its best, is an activity that takes place on roadless lands.

Perhaps we will never know why the RMEF supported H. R. 1581 in the first place, and perhaps we do not need to know. What is most important is that, in response to the mystified anger and concern expressed by its many members, the venerable conservation group has retracted its support. (The letter from RMEF is pasted below.) And now, it is the sincere hope of myself and every other elk hunter that I know, that the RMEF can get back to doing what it has done so well (5.9 million acres of critical elk habitat, winter range, and public access to hunting and fishing preserved so far) since its founding by four hard-core elk hunters from Troy, Montana, in 1984.

RMEF Withdraws Support for H.R. 1581

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation today announced it has withdrawn its support for H.R. 1581.

RMEF President and CEO David Allen will respectfully inform the bill's authors and supporters that RMEF cannot endorse the bill because of its potential negative impacts to roadless areas. Allen said responses and feedback from RMEF members and a review of the scientific literature led to the withdrawal.

"We strongly believe in managing habitat to its best condition for elk. Along with controlling invasive weeds, managing forests, restoring grasslands and riparian zones, another element of habitat that's growing in importance is roads. The roadless-area impacts of H.R. 1581 include too many unknown risks for us to remain supportive," said Allen.

The fundamental concern with H.R. 1581 is its attempt to deal with "inventoried roadless areas" administered by the U.S. Forest Service alongside "wilderness study areas" administered by BLM. The complexities of different land designations--by two different agencies with unique and historic policies on use--prevent a one-size-fits-all approach.

Allen said, "We believe the proponents of H.R. 1581 are well intentioned and have restarted a necessary debate on best designations for public lands. If a parcel is suitable for wilderness, then it's imperative to designate it as such. If not, then the best science-based land and habitat management practices should be applied. Neither this bill nor the status quo are acceptable paths to resolving the problem. RMEF will revisit these issues with the BLM, Forest Service, Congress and sportsmen for a better solution."

Federal and state agencies have been gridlocked too long in litigation and lawsuits from special interest groups and environmentalists, with land and habitat suffering the consequences. Allen called on all sportsmen to support a balanced, collaborative approach to management. He said RMEF watched the litigation and court maneuverings with the wolf debate for years, and now sees similar tactics being applied to public land management. RMEF will push for what is best for the land and the habitat.

He added, "RMEF listens to its members and is guided by science. We reversed our original non-stance on wolves four years ago and we'll always be willing to revisit our positions and processes to do what's best for our mission. The debate over use of public lands is far from resolved and we will continue to engage the debate for the sake of the future of these lands."

Photos courtesy of Gene Sentz, Choteau, MT