Public Lands & Waters photo

Editor’s Note:** Conservationist blogger Hal Herring’s post last week about politicians not understanding sportsmen’s concerns drew numerous passionate responses, including one from Congressman Dean Heller (R-NV). This is Herring’s rebuttal to that post.

Representative Heller, I appreciate your taking the time to reply to my post here at, and I am glad to learn that hunters and fishermen have a fellow sportsman in Congress. It is a comfort, these days, to have a representative that shares our concerns, and can be counted on to stand strong in the face of the anti-gun, anti-hunting forces that gain power as our nation becomes more urban, and more disconnected from the land and the essential values of liberty and its sire, self-sufficiency.

I would not make assumptions about your experience as a sportsman or your knowledge of the vast estate of public lands in the state of Nevada, but based upon what you have written here, I wonder if you are familiar with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which is the law of our land, passed by the Congress that you serve. Under the heading “Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study,” the Act states:

“Sec. 603. 43 U.S.C. 1782 Within fifteen years after the date of approval of this Act, the Secretary shall review those roadless areas of five thousand acres or more and roadless islands of the public lands, identified during the inventory required by section 201(a) of this Act as having wilderness characteristics described in the Wilderness Act of September 3, 1964 (78 Stat. 890; 16 U.S.C. 1131 et seq.) and shall from time to time report to the President his recommendation as to the suitability or nonsuitability of each such area or island for preservation as wilderness….”

When Interior Secretary Salazar and BLM Director Bob Abbey announced that they were going to assess the wilderness values of isolated BLM lands, they were simply following the law. I could not understand the quotes from you or your colleagues in The Wall Street Journal expressing your displeasure at the Secretary’s announcement that his agency would follow that law. I still don’t.

It is possible that the understanding of federal lands policy by some in Congress dates back only to 2003, when then-Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, working with Governor Mike Leavitt of Utah, created a “no new wilderness” policy for BLM lands in that state. Such a creation ignored the federal law, and sadly enough, was followed by a cascade of such instances, as exemptions to laws meant to protect wildlife and other resources poured forth from Norton’s administration. We’ve been forced to live with the predictable results: winter range for elk and mule deer bulldozed, leks for sage grouse ruined, headwaters of fisheries degraded, hunting and grazing lands stripped. We’ve witnessed firsthand what happens when law is ignored. That’s why so many people welcome Sec. Salazar’s return to the tradition of federal agencies honoring the rule of law.

Beyond the aspects of the law, I do not understand your claim that a designation of wilderness “locks up” lands. Motorized access is restricted, that is true. But ask any hunter this question: how many trophy bulls or bucks are taken on public land where you can drive a truck or ATV? Where is the best fishing on public land? Except for motorized or mechanized use, access to wilderness lands is not restricted. Have we become so utterly weakened by modern life that no one will ride horseback (contrary to your expressed concern, I know of no wilderness areas that ban horseback riding) or hike into an area to hunt? The thousands of people who use wilderness areas on their own, or who hire guides and outfitters to hunt and explore them, would object strongly to that notion. (I’ve packed a lot of elk meat out of the woods on a backpack frame, and I know that many other F&S readers have, too.) Entire economies in the West are based on people who love and use wilderness. And these are economies that, unlike mining or energy extraction, can continue in perpetuity.

Most wilderness areas, like most forests public and private, in the West, have been subjected to wildfire since the end of the last Ice Age. Left alone, they seem to recover pretty well, judging by the ones with which I am most familiar. Compared to human endeavors–growing cities, energy needs, agriculture and irrigation–habitat temporarily lost to wildfire is inconsequential. Because we cannot really control wildfire without excessive financial and ecosystem costs, and because there’s no indication that our cities and our food and energy needs are going to stop growing, the last remaining undisturbed parts of our public lands need to be protected, if only so that our children might see and marvel at what once was.

I do not understand your claim that a study of wilderness qualities on BLM lands could lead to challenges for wildlife management. State wildlife agencies have full jurisdiction over management of wildlife on public lands, including wilderness, unless we are discussing federally endangered species, which are not (usually) hunted. A visit to one of the game check stations near my home in Montana to view the vast array of trophy elk, whitetails, bear, and mule deer coming out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness gives one only a glimpse of the richness of habitat, and the richness of experience, that wilderness provides. Here, as in wilderness areas across the west, state wildlife officials manage wildlife well, local communities enjoy the wilderness and the economy it has created–and stakeholders do indeed know much better than people in Washington, D.C. where the value of the land, and the wilderness, lies.

There may be, as you write, no guarantee that the creation of “wild lands” will improve opportunities for sportsmen on public lands. But I think we can all look around us, and at the world on the nightly news, and agree that not protecting our last wild lands will result in a loss of hunting opportunities, and a host of other losses as well.

I’ve answered the points in your letter as well as I can. There are some points that cannot be answered, such as the Administration being “afraid” to engage Congress and individuals with proposals to create new wilderness areas on BLM lands. There have, as yet, been no such proposals. This whole kerfuffle has resulted from a simple announcement by the U.S. Secretary of Interior that his agency intends to follow federal law. Imagine that.