Guest Post: Wilderness Does Not Equal Effective Wildlife Management

Editor’s Note: Congressman Dean Heller (R-NV) took issue with Hal Herring’s recent Conservationist blog, titled “Are There Any Politicians Who Really Understand Sportsmen’s Concerns?” and asked us for the opportunity to address Hal’s comments in an OpEd piece. Here’s what he has to say.

By U.S. Congressman Dean Heller

A recent posting on this blog commented on a Wall Street Journal article concerning the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s secretarial order to designate areas with wilderness characteristics under its jurisdiction as “wild lands.” The author of this post made assumptions about my experience based upon comments in this article that need to be addressed.

I am a lifelong sportsman, a member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, and currently serve as Policy Chair for the Congressional Western Caucus. I grew up recreating on the more than 85% of the land in my home state of Nevada that is controlled by the federal government. In some counties in my Congressional District as little as 2% of the land base is privately owned. Federal land management policies have a tremendous impact on local communities throughout the West and in my Congressional District. I spend a large portion of my time in Congress dedicated to natural resource issues, such as federal land management. For these reasons, I am particularly sensitive to any actions that could restrict access to public lands.

The assertion that locking up federal land somehow equates to responsible wildlife management could not be further from the truth. Neither should my concern over the new “wild lands” policy be construed as a desire to see all public lands developed. The reality is that closing access to public lands often prevents the conservation and restoration projects necessary to maintain and restore healthy ecosystems as well as encourage wildlife populations to thrive.

Maintaining healthy ecosystems and wildlife populations is not a simple or easy task. This task becomes more complicated when land management decisions are taken out of the hands of state wildlife officials, local communities, and stakeholders who know the area best.

Wildfires throughout Western states are the largest contributor to wildlife habitat destruction. In the wake of large range fires noxious and invasive weeds, such as cheat grass, move in making it nearly impossible for sagebrush eco-systems in the high desert to naturally recover. As this habitat is destroyed, native wildlife populations are destroyed–even the sage grouse itself is on the cusp of being listed under the Endangered Species Act. This particular problem is one of many problems that would be exacerbated, not solved, by closing access to public lands.

There is also no guarantee that the creation of “wild lands” will improve opportunities for sportsmen on public lands. Outfitters and trappers may no longer have access because restrictions may not allow horses. If you have ever been elk hunting in Western states, having a successful hunt without horses or motorized access will prove difficult. Additionally, some of the best habitat on public lands is in highly managed areas.

There is a reason why it takes an act of Congress to designate wilderness areas. It is the most stringent management designation an area can receive. To administratively create de-facto wilderness will minimize the voices of those who are most impacted. The actions taken by this Administration will in fact reduce the influence of local sportsmen over land management decisions. Public input and local support is critical to the decision-making process when changing federal land designations. As most Americans would agree, a transparent public process that includes input from local officials, communities, and stakeholders is a better model for governing.

Access to public lands is critical to sportsmen, recreationalists, off-road enthusiasts, and all individuals who wish to enjoy the many great remote areas our nation has to offer. While there are areas that may deserve special protection, proposals should be thoroughly studied and designations should not be made without careful consideration. If a portion of land is truly deserving of a wilderness or “wild lands” designation, this Administration should not be afraid to engage Congress and the individuals who are affected most.
U.S. Congressman Dean Heller is the Representative for Nevada’s Second Congressional District._