I’m against HR 4089, but environmental groups are stretching the truth.
As I’ve been browsing around the internet looking at conservation and wilderness advocacy websites, I keep coming across mentionings of this bill that just passed in the House of Representatives: H.R. 4089 – The Sportsmen’s Heritage Act of 2012.
Many conservation advocacy groups and people are saying that this bill could undermine the entire wilderness preservation system by opening protected wilderness and roadless areas to motorized access and even extractive enterprises (oil and gas, logging, mining, etc…).
Naturally, alarm bells began ringing in my head… Oh no! This is terrible! This can’t happen! My mind was swimming in rage!
But, then I began to think a little more logically about this. This is in the realm of politics afterall. And, by the time most of us learn of a political matter, we can be assured that the spin doctors (conservation groups included) have spun the matter into whatever narrative they want to spin it into. The bill is, in fact, supported by the NRA. The NRA! My God, anything supported by the NRA must be immediately opposed by any liberal group. And, then, of course, there are other groups who seem to be in support of this bill precisely because of the interpretation that it will weaken wilderness protection laws. These are the groups who think wilderness “locks away” access to too much of our public lands. I think that is a ridiculous argument given the fact that wilderness protection keeps these lands attractive for public use in the first place, and because there are still vast areas where motorized access to public lands is allowed. And, that would still be the case even if we doubled our current protected wilderness acreage.
In regards to the bill the truth of the matter, as we often say in political debates, is “probably somewhere in the middle.” Unfortunately, it is that middle truth that is always lost behind the smoke screens of deception when it comes to politicized matters.
I finally decided with regret that, if I’m going to be able to see through the smoke screens of political spin I was going to have to read this bill myself (boring!!).
But, I did it, and here is my take on it:
It’s not really dangerous to our current wilderness preservation system. But, boy is it ever pointless! Actually, it’s not entirely pointless. Reading between the lines, I see it as an effort by certain “sportsmens interests” to prod federal land management agencies into a more active management approach to ensure access to and support of hunting, fishing and recreational shooting.
It’s this “access” word that seems to have environmental groups up in arms. They seem to be interpreting this as the first nudge in a door opening to destroy the wilderness system as we know it. Although I am fully and completely on the side of wilderness preservation, and more of it than we currently have today… I just don’t see that threat in this particular bill.
Here’s the section that is of greatest concern to environmental groups:
SEC. 104. RECREATIONAL FISHING, HUNTING, AND SHOOTING.
(a) In General- Subject to valid existing rights and subsection
(b) (g), and cooperation with the respective State and fish and wildlife agency, Federal public land management officials shall exercise their authority under existing law, including provisions regarding land use planning, to facilitate use of and access to Federal public lands, including Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, or lands administratively classified as wilderness eligible or suitable and primitive or semi-primitive areas, for fishing, sport hunting, and recreational shooting.
I added the bolded underlined part. Existing law here would include the Wilderness Act of 1964 among many other existing land management laws on the books not related to wilderness protection. Okay, so this by itself makes me a little nervous. It does leave a little too much up for interpretation. But, a few paragraphs later in the bill we find the following:
(1) MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS FOR ADMINISTRATION- The provision of opportunities for hunting, fishing and recreational shooting, and the conservation of fish and wildlife to provide sustainable use recreational opportunities on designated wilderness areas on Federal public lands shall constitute measures necessary to meet the minimum requirements for the administration of the wilderness area.
(2) The term ‘within and supplemental to’ Wilderness purposes in section 4(a) of Public Law 88-577, means that any requirements imposed by that Act shall be implemented only insofar as they do not prevent Federal public land management officials and State fish and wildlife officials from carrying out their wildlife conservation responsibilities or providing recreational opportunities on the Federal public lands subject to a wilderness designation.
(3) Paragraphs (1) and (2) are not intended to authorize or facilitate commodity development, use, or extraction, or motorized recreational access or use.
Again, the bold and underline was my emphasis. Maybe I’m missing something, but it certainly does not seem to me that this bill really puts the continued protection of our wilderness system at risk under the current wilderness laws. In fact, it specifically states that the bill does not intend to authorize either extractive industries or motorized access and use.
I suspect that some of the opposition to this bill may have more to do with an underlying tension between the different types of wilderness users. “Sportsmen” and “environmentalists” are not always cut from the same cloth. This was comically apparent one day when I was backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range with two climbers from Boulder. They were very much the “no campfire” types who have probably never caste a line before much less fired a rifle. We came upon a grizzly old horsepacking bow hunter on the trail. Trail etiquette establishes the expectation of a friendly exchange, but I couldn’t help but be amused by the contrast between these two groups. My friend was fascinated with this man’s boy scout style canteen as if it was a relic from the nineteenth century. The horsepacker, with his handlebar mustache and wool hat looked upon us backpackers as if we were a different species. We just don’t relate that much. Away from the politeness of the wilderness trail, there is a tension and antagonism at times between these groups. There are lefties who absolutely hate hunters and all that they stand for, even though the vast majority of hunters love the wilderness and its preservation. Hunting also serves an important purpose now because of our past removal of predator species. It is managed and controlled, and taking an animal by rifle is no more cruel (probably less cruel) than the killing of that same animal by a predator. On the other hand, there are hunters and “sportsmen” types who can’t stand the “loony toons” in the wilderness and their percieved cosmic experience kumbaya self-righteousness.
I digress on this because I happen to be one of those individuals who uses our wildernesses in the margin between uber euro backpacker and leathery handlebar mustache “sportsmen.” I have caste a few lines for trout and fired a few firearms (although I’m not a hunter). I’ve also sipped water from a hydro pack and practiced lightweight backpacking with ultra-liberal Boulderites. Maybe that perspective allows me to see a little more clearly that our wilderness system can accommodate both extremes and everything in between as long as we all understand and respect the rules that help preserve the natural qualities that ensure our wilderness areas maintain their wilderness characteristics. And, the vast majority of us, even hunters, do understand. It’s the wildland that draws us all there.
Back to the bill. After reading it, I have come to the conclusion that this bill is about a solution looking for a problem. When it comes to wilderness use and management there doesn’t seem to be any real change of substance created by the bill. It seems to be a preemptive effort by “sportsmens” interests to ensure that the federal agencies overseeing public lands continue to prioritize hunting, fishing and shooting as legal and legitimate uses of public land. Opening the door for ATV use, or even oil and gas extraction, in our wilderness areas? I just don’t see it in this bill based on my reading of it.
But, I do have three legitimate concerns about the bill:
1.) Unprotected roadless lands. There are roadless areas in our country that deserve and need wilderness protection. It is these lands that are at risk to changing policies at the whim of a forest manager or politician. This is where I think the environmental groups should focus their opposition rather than on making misleading statements about our current Wilderness Areas being at risk. A bill that prods forest and land managers to favor more “access” without changing current laws may not impact designated wilderness, but it may result in more lenient access and use rules for those wilderness lands that are not yet protected specifically as legal Wilderness Areas.
2.) Recreational shooting. I’m not against recreational shooting on public land in places that are appropriate for it. In the wilderness areas, this seems inappropriate to me. The occasional hunter’s rifle shot in the wilderness is not a big deal. But a barrage of continued firing from a makeshift firing range would be very disruptive to the wilderness experience not to mention stressful to the wildlife. I don’t think our federal agencies overseeing protected wilderness lands should be actively setting up, promoting and managing outdoor shooting range areas within our wilderness areas. However, I don’t see this happening very often even if this is allowed (and it is arguably already allowed today under current laws). It’s just not practical. And, on some of our BLM lands, even BLM Wilderness Study Areas, there is no need for a designated shooting area. Just go and shoot in a safe area where there is no one else likely to be around.
On the issue of lead bullets: I do find it concerning that the bill seems to modify Section 3(2)(B) of the Toxic Substances Control Act. I haven’t taken the time to review that amendment, but some wildlife advocacy groups are making the claim that the bill is removing EPA authority to ban lead ammunition. Based on the exaggerations I observed from these groups about other parts of the bill, I’m skeptical that this section results in substantial changes to what is currently on the books, but I could be wrong. For the record, I think lead ammunition for the purpose of hunting should be banned.
3.) Most concerning to me is the last provision of this bill which states the following:
SEC. 601. DESIGNATION OF AND RESTRICTIONS ON NATIONAL MONUMENTS.
(a) Designation- No national monument designated by presidential proclamation shall be valid until the Governor and the legislature of each State within the boundaries of the proposed national monument have approved of such designation.
(b) Restrictions- The Secretary of the Interior shall not implement any restrictions on the public use of a national monument until the expiration of an appropriate review period (determined by the Secretary of the Interior) providing for public input.
Normally, I favor congressional due process in government and disfavor too much power in the Executive. But, there are cases where congressional process is too inefficient, too slow, or too ineffectual. One such case is in the establishment of land protection. The President, today, under Section 2 of the Antiquities Act of 1906, has independent authority to:
Sec. 2. That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected: Provided, That when such objects are situated upon a tract covered by a bona fied unperfected claim or held in private ownership, the tract, or so much thereof as may be necessary for the proper care and management of the object, may be relinquished to the Government, and the Secretary of the Interior is hereby authorized to accept the relinquishment of such tracts in behalf of the Government of the United States.
It is precisely because of this Executive power that we have some of our most treasured natural protected places, such as the Grand Canyon, which was originally designated by Executive order as a National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt made wide use of these powers and arguably set the stage for future conservationist actions such as the Wilderness Act of 1964.
To me, this is the most disturbing aspect of H.R. 4089 because it makes one of the more powerful and useful methods for land protection ineffective. For this reason and for the lesser reason that the rest of the bill is largely pointless, I’m against it and hope that it is either defeated in the Senate or Vetoed by the President.