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HR4089 – Bane Or Benefit To Outdoorsmen?

June 14, 2012

There’s been a lot of press lately concerning HR4089, AKA The Sportsman’s Heritage Act of 2012

In a nutshell, the act is intended to ensure continued opportunities for hunting, shooting, and fishing on federal lands.  The act is, in part, a response to multiple recent efforts by environmentalists and anti-hunters to close some federal lands to hunting and target shooting under the arguments that these activities infringe on the experience of non-hunting visitors (backpackers, bird watchers, etc.), present a safety hazard to other visitors, or that they present a danger to protected species (such as the desert tortoise or California condor). 

I’ve been following the story, sometimes casually and sometimes quite closely because I’m honestly trying to understand both sides of the argument.

On the one side, we have opponents of the bill.  Their arguments boil down to:

  • The bill would open “all” federal lands to hunting
  • The bill would open wilderness areas to vehicular traffic
  • The bill would create a dangerous environment for non-hunters
  • The bill would open wilderness areas to logging and mining

On the other side, the arguments focus on things like:

  • The current loss of access for hunting, shooting, and fishing
  • The decline in the number of hunters, shooters, and fishermen
  • The potential loss of tax and fees as less people hunt, shoot, and fish
  • The efforts by non-hunting and anti-hunting organizations to close more public lands to hunters, shooters, and fishermen

There’s a lot more going on in the debate, but these seem to be the key discussion points.

So where’s the truth?  Personally, I’m pretty cynical any time politicians start cooking up laws with attracive names (Sportsmen’s Heritage Act… really?).  I get even more suspicious when they start trying to sneak the bills in on the coat tails of other bills (in this case, they’ve attached it to the new Farm Bill… which is a monstrosity in its own right).  At the same time, I’ve lost all faith in organizations like Center for Biological Diversity and others who call themselves “conservationists”, but tend toward the extremes when it comes to environmental and animal rights issues.  The CBD, in particular, has really stooped to new lows in misinformation and even downright lying to fatten the donation coffers and push their various agendas. 

To begin my personal quest for elucidation, I read HR 4089.  I recommend this course of action to any interested parties.  The actual text provides a pretty solid baseline from which to launch into interpretation and dissection.  I’m tempted to post the bill in its entirety, but I think it’s probably more reasonable to provide a link directly to the US Government Printing Office, where you can review a certified (unadulterated) copy.  This way, you can be sure that I haven’t made any alterations to support my own arguments.

Let’s be clear here, in case there’s any doubt.  I am not a lawyer.  I am not a politician.  I’m just a guy with reasonable intelligence and a lot of questions.  I am a lifelong hunter, shooter, and fisherman, so I admit that I may have a bias in this issue.  However, I think people who know me, and maybe those who’ve read my writing over time, would agree that I usually take a pretty balanced point of view when it comes to sorting out this kind of thing. 

Also, I recognize that documents drafted by lawyers and politicians can carry layers and layers of nuance. It can be dangerous to take these things at face value, and that a layman’s read of these documents may have little relationship to what it’s really saying.  But then again, words can only be twisted so far.  I believe a logical and careful reading can expose most of the sneaky stuff.

So here’s my take, after reading through the document a few times.

First of all, the bill’s language takes pains to make two things clear.  One is that nothing in the bill changes existing laws, regulations, or policies that relate to the prohibition or allowance of hunting, shooting, or fishing on federal lands.  If a place, like a national park, is closed to recreational hunting due to existing rules, then it stays closed.  If a wilderness area is closed to vehicular traffic in order to preserve the habitat and wilderness environment, it will stay closed to vehicular traffic.  No matter how I tried to twist the language, I couldn’t make it spell out a requirement to build roads, quad trails, or anything else in existing wilderness areas.  It does, however, clearly state that providing access for hunting, shooting, and fishing should be a priority on lands where such activities are not otherwise prohibited.  That is, indeed, the stated purpose of the bill. 

The second thing it clarifies is that any new changes to prohibit or restric hunting, shooting, or fishing on federal lands that are currently open must be justified by legitimate considerations such as safety, scientifically proven environmental sensitivity, or national security.  These restrictions must then be revisited and approved on a regular basis. 

The bill also makes clear that management of the public lands, whether National Parks, BLM, or National Forest remains in the hands of the current managers.  These managers are still authorized and charged to develop and implement land management decisions… including hunting, shooting, and fishing access.  However, decisions that restrict those uses must meet the above requirements, and must be reviewed regularly.  It’s clear, by the way, that public safety is both a legitimate and reasonable rationale for restricting hunting and shooting in some places.  It is also clear that the bill will require the land managers to justify their decisions to prohibit hunting, shooting, or fishing and that future management plans must address these uses.  After the issue in the Los Padres National Forest last year (or was it 2010?), I have to agree that this level of accountability and oversight is necessary and good.  It may place a little additional burden on the land managers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

There were a couple of points in HR4089 that I found intriguing.  The first was the stipulation that, even on public lands closed to hunting, volunteers could be utilized to manage populations (e.g. elk, deer, and feral hogs).  This is already in practice in some places (Rocky Mountain National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, etc.), and if I understand the bill correctly, this would extend to any federal land where such a program could be safely utilized.  I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all.  The other interesting addition was the section that apparently seeks to clarify the language in the Toxic Substances Control Act that prohibits the EPA from regulating lead ammunition and fishing tackle.  This is clearly an effort to head off the assault by the CBD and associated organizations to force the EPA to ban lead ammo and fishing tackle.  I don’t know if it’s really warranted, but I don’t see it as a harmful addition.

What I really don’t see here is anything that specifically does any of the things the bill’s opponents are claiming.  In fact, to my eyes, the bill addresses most of these concerns directly. 
Am I missing something?  I don’t think so, but I’m open to other perspectives.

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