America's national forests belong to everyone, and all Americans deserve and rightfully demand access to this national birthright. Such access is like oxygen for hunters and anglers, but beware: Industry barracudas and their pals in Congress are trying to hoodwink sportsmen into supporting bad legislation by promising more lenient access.
Today's case in point is HR 1581, the so-called Wilderness and Roadless Release Act. It's sponsored by a Southern California representative who claims he wants to "improve access" to public land. What does this mean? For the oil and gas industry, access means gaining the opportunity to drill. For folks overly fond of their quads and dirt bikes, access means license to drive motorized vehicles wherever and whenever they wish.
There are many ways to access the land—on foot, by horse or mule, mountain bike or motorized vehicle. All of them are appropriate in some places and inappropriate in others. In Montana, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has a successful access program called Block Management. It offers ranchers incentives for allowing hunters to access their private land. Hunters come by the thousand, but they come on foot. They park where the rancher tells them to park, and they walk in.
Likewise, Plum Creek Timber Co. is the largest private landowner in the Treasure State. The company allows hunters access to their land (I've shot several whitetail deer on Plum Creek ground, so I'm grateful), but hunters may only drive on roads deemed open by the company. Still, thousands of acres in Montana are accessible by foot, game cart, mountain bike or packhorse.
As most Westerners can tell you, the biggest threat to national forest access is the moneyed people who buy the surrounding land, then shut down the trails and roads leading to the public land. Unfortunately, HR 1581 does nothing to solve this problem. No, the backers of HR 1581 seem to have breathed too many of the D.C. fumes to remember the smell of pine needles. A handful of Beltway gun and sportsmen's groups are in on this act. Melissa Simpson of Safari Club International even testified for H.R. 1581. In her letter to Congress, Simpson used the word "access" nine times.
It sounded good, but what would the bill actually do? It would peel back existing conservation provisions on tens of millions of acres of roadless areas in national forests across the West, including 6 million acres in Montana. These areas are often the most secure big game habitat—the places thousands of hunters go to seek trophy elk, muley bucks, bighorn rams or just some peace and quiet. And they are also the source of clean water used by trout, salmon and steelhead (and their pursuers) far downstream.
These areas already have ready access, generally by foot, stock animal, mountain bike, and, in some places, off-road vehicles. Roadless areas are critical to providing ordinary hunters and anglers opportunity in the modern world. That is why sportsmen's groups including Trout Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers are opposed to the legislation. I am puzzled why some Western Republicans, like my own Rep. Dennis Rehberg, trumpet their support for this bill. In election years, most politicians try to warm up to the voting hunters and anglers, not slap them in the face. Yet HR 1581 is bound to lead to shorter hunting seasons, more restrictions and reduced opportunities for hunters. And this is being twisted into "pro-access" rhetoric. What is really going on here?
Draw your own conclusions, but keep a few facts in mind: Before she went to work for the Safari Club International, Simpson worked for a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm. One of her clients was the oil and gas industry, and one of her assignments was to counter the concerns of sportsmen's groups, which had voiced concerns about oil and gas exploration running roughshod over America's hunting and fishing grounds.
The sponsor of HR 1581 is Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Southern California. There's not much hunting country in his district, but he does brag that his district produces more oil than all Oklahoma. And, according to opensecrets.org, the oil and gas lobby is one of his biggest campaign contributors.
There are lots of wolves out there. Some live in the woods and have sharp teeth. Others live in the city and carry briefcases.
Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Kalispell and has hunted the backcountry of Idaho and Montana for more than 30 years. He is senior program director for Resource Media.