We Need Our Public Lands, Now More Than Ever

The most powerful and effective anti-hunting movement in the United States is not PETA, or the Humane Society. It is not headquartered in any bustling metropolis; it has no representatives in Hollywood; it needs no beautiful, scantily clad women to promote its dark agenda.

The most powerful anti-hunting movement in the U.S. is the loss of access to places to hunt and shoot. Every Field & Stream reader over the age of 40 is familiar with the problem. Not so long ago, a place to hunt could be had for the price of politely asking a farmer or rancher for permission. Now the question is how much can you afford to pay to lease the hunting rights or be a part of a hunting club.

Suburban and urban sprawl has robbed us of more hunting and fishing than any animal rights fanatic could ever hope to. We live in the fastest growing developed nation on the planet. Since 1960, when we had 180.7 million people, we’ve grown to 315 million. Before 2050, we’ll make room for at least 89 million more people. Immigrants will comprise 82 percent of those new Americans, and most of them will come from nations where hunting and fishing, as we know it, are not part of the culture.

So what can we do? Our American public lands will become one of the last bastions of our sports, so we’ll need to make sure we keep them, and we’ll need to be able to get to them. And here, at least, we find some good news. A fascinating new study by the nonpartisan Center for Western Priorities has revealed that there are more than 4 million acres of public lands scattered across Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming that are cut off by private lands or are otherwise blocked to access. The Center for Western Priorities’ Trevor Kincaid puts it like this: “Keeping people locked out of the land they own is like letting a ’57 Corvette rust in your backyard. Just a waste.”

It’s a startling finding — an area larger than the state of New Jersey, or four Yellowstone National Parks, is currently off limits to the public that owns it. With lack of access comes a loss to neighboring communities of the revenue generated by hunters and other recreationists, which now totals $646 billion a year.

Lack of access also contributes to the decline of other revenues such as fishing and hunting license sales. Mostly though, lack of access equals a lack of new hunters and fishermen, fewer young people following their parents and grandparents into the woods and fields, fewer shooters, fewer conservationists, fewer outdoorspeople.

To solve this problem, Montana Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) have introduced the Making Public Lands Public Act, which would allocate 1.5 percent of the money in the Land and Water Conservation Fund to establish access — easements, purchases, whatever works best — to these landlocked public lands. The Act has gathered a lot of support. Rep. Steve Daines (R-MT) recently came out in favor of it. Daines’ state has the most blocked public lands of all — 1,955,145 acres, and outdoor recreation accounts for an estimated $5.8 billion share of Montana’s economy.

So far, the Making Public Lands Public Act has failed to pass, but it is wending its slow way through Congress right now as part of the much larger Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2014, (read Bob Marshall’s post on that here) which includes some other very critical legislation.

The problem is that the Land and Water Conservation Fund has to be reauthorized in order to fund Making Public Lands Public. And here, we have a classic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum, although in this case, we could end up with a smashed egg and a stillborn chicken. More than two dozen House Republicans (including Montana’s Steve Daines) have signed a letter supporting reauthorization of the LWCF, but as of this writing, no bill has yet been passed. LWCF expires in 2015. No LWCF, no Making Public Lands Public. And the losses will just begin there.

Created in 1965, the LWCF is fueled by a small portion of the annual revenues from offshore oil and gas production. It’s used for everything from building urban ballfields to buying fishing access sites and protecting the headwaters of rivers that supply irrigation and drinking water. LWCF’s importance over the past 49 years cannot be overstated; when looked at closely, much of the outdoor recreation and access that Americans take for granted as part of their heritage are in fact, direct result of projects funded by the LWCF.

In 1965, LWCF was authorized to be fully funded at $900 million per year. It has been looted pretty consistently since the late 1980s, by those in Congress who care nothing for conservation or the fact that for every dollar of LWCF money invested in conserving our outdoor heritage, there is an estimated return of $4 to the economy as a whole.

We need for Congress to reauthorize LWCF, make sure that it is fully funded to its original limit of $900 million, and make sure that those dollars are spent as they were meant to be: on conservation, public access and efforts like those in the Making Public Lands Public Act.

While political leaders in Western states may address hunters and fishermen with loud brays of support for the Making Public Lands Public Act (who could hate such an aptly named bill?) the first real question burns: do they support the reauthorization and full funding of the LWCF? Some Congressmen these days seem to delight in declaring their wholesale, never, never, never, opposition to any new purchases of public land (they call it “adding to the federal estate”). Such an ideological stance would make a eunuch out of the Making Public Lands Public Act — there would be cases where we lose access to tens of thousands of great public hunting because some politician has an ideological disdain of using our own money to buy a few acres. In the real world of second jobs and paying for houses and kid’s boots and college bills, we don’t use one-size-fits-all ideology to make our decisions. We should not allow our elected leaders to do it, either, even way up there in the rarefied air of politics.

It’s a crowded world, growing more so by the hour. We’ll have to forge a new path into that future, and in order to do that, we’re going to have to hold our noses, if necessary, and pay close attention to politics. Everything we love and want to pass on to our children and grandchildren is at stake.