Fishing Conservation photo

Montana’s U.S. Senator Jon Tester is committed to seeing his bill, The Sportsmen’s Act of 2012, passed this coming year. In Tester’s words, The Sportsmen’s Act is “The biggest advance in sportsmen’s issues in a generation,” a 19-part bill that covers issues from the seemingly micro (i.e. allowing hunters to import polar bear trophies that were taken before the ban in 2008) to the huge: freeing up millions of acres of public land currently blocked by private holdings, and reauthorizing the critical North American Wetlands Conservation Act for another five years. American fishermen, hunters, and shooters truly need to understand the potential positive impacts of this landmark effort.

I became acquainted with Senator Tester, a Democrat, when he teamed up with Congressman Mike Simpson [R-ID] to write, and fight for, the common-sense bill that would delist the wolf in Montana and Idaho and let our wolf-hunting seasons go forward as planned.

Tester is a plain-spoken farmer from the eastern Montana town of Big Sandy, population 595, known for its unique cantaloupe and musk melon crops, and known to me because it’s the jump-off point for the 45 miles of washboard road leading to one of my favorite catfish holes, Judith Landing on the Missouri River, with its luxurious public lands campground in the big cottonwoods. Not far from Big Sandy is the tiny town of Carter, home of Lones Wigger, U.S. Olympic shooting champion. It’s a farming, ranching, hunting and fishing world. Senator Tester seems to be one the few members of Congress who understands just how vitally important it is that these traditions, and the economic powers they generate, survive and thrive in an increasingly urban-centric nation.

Tester called my office on Thursday last week to talk about the Sportsmen’s Act, and why he bulldogged it through a Senate that seemed perfectly willing to let it die:

Senator Jon Tester: I’ll tell you why I did it. We’d run this up the flagpole back in June with the Farm Bill. After we brought it through all the procedural hoops, we had an 84 vote margin in support. We saw that it could actually be done–we couldn’t do it then, but we could bring it back, and actually pass it. Now is the time.

Hal Herring: What is the history of the bill?

JT: I’m the Chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, and these are all ideas that have come out of our work there. When I got to be the chairman, I said I wanted to get something big done, something real. And this is it. This is a bunch of solutions that really make sense, and that can impact the whole country in a positive way. You read it, and you say, ‘This makes sense.’ That’s why we have such a broad base of support–56 different groups have signed on to support it, everybody from the NRA on. Eighty-four Senators have voted in support. You get that because it’s the right thing to do, at the right time.

HH: The House of Representatives passed a sportsmen’s bill, too [The Sportsmen’s Heritage Act], that a lot of conservationists were worried about with its anti-wilderness components, and some other language that just didn’t seem like it was necessarily pro-sportsmen. How is the Sportsmen’s Act different from that one?

JT: That House bill only had five parts. We kept the good stuff out of it, and got rid of some of the other. We didn’t want any poison pills hidden in our bill, we wanted something real. The shooting ranges and target practice, NAWCA [North American Wetlands Conservation Act], the access components, these are real things that affect sportsmen. And they are going to pass.

HH: What are the most important elements of the Sportsmen’s Act?

JT: You and I have talked about the access issues before. That’s the issue here that is closest to my heart–making public lands accessible to the public. Our studies showed something that was hard to believe: 35 million acres of public land that are locked up, just blocked in, no legal access, 3.2 million acres in Montana alone. Montana and North Dakota have about 1.5 million acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management that have no access to the public. We are asking for an allocation of 1.5 percent from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to address these access issues, and to make sure that sportsmen and everybody else who owns these lands can enjoy them.

I’d add that the marksmanship and target practice component of the bill is extremely important to me. Senator Mark Udall [D-CO] has been pushing for this for a long time–to use some of the Pittman-Robertson tax money to build and maintain shooting ranges on public lands. We’ve lost a lot of our places to shoot over the years, and this is about making sure people have a place to teach and learn how to use the tools.

HH: I know you have the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act in motion, too, which is a public lands bill linking recreation, wilderness and watershed protection and a steadier supply of timber for logging. Do you see the Sportsmen’s Act as a kind of companion piece to that?

JT: It is a companion piece, but on a national scale. We know that fishing, hunting, or just hiking, is good for business. It’s a quality of life issue, it’s a business and economics issue. What we have with the Sportsmen’s Act recognizes what we know, and acts on it. I’m not surprised at the level of support it has. I do think that the fact we’ve gotten so far with it is extraordinary. We have this opportunity, right now, to make the biggest advance in sportsmen’s issues in a generation at least. That’s exciting and that is why I think it is going to pass, all of it.