Hunting for conservation

Legislation aims for hunting access, but would destroy wildlife populations

Rep. Dan Benishek on board a Coast Guard boat
Photo courtesy of

If you ask communications staff for Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Michigan) about H.R. 2834, the representative’s proposed bill on hunting and fishing access, they’ll quickly clarify that, despite claims, the bill does not apply to wilderness areas. Benishek probably doesn’t mean any harm. He’s got the sweet-eyed earnestness of someone who just wants a few rounds alone in the woods with some buckshot.

“It’s hard for me to think of something I enjoy more than heading out from my camp in the Ottawa National Forest during late September and doing some bird hunting. Our goal with this legislation is to make that possible for future generations of sportsmen,” Benishek said in a press release about authoring the bill.

Benishek introduced the bill on Sept. 2, 2011. It’s passed through multiple committees and is, essentially, on hold — the committees have released it for action on the floor with the understanding they can revisit the legislation should it, or a reintroduced incarnation of it, move forward in the House and be referred on to a more favorable Senate or a president even less invested in conservation than President Barack Obama.

The “Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage Opportunities Act” (H.R. 2834) calls on federal land managers to ease access to federal lands for people who want to hunt, fish and shoot on those lands.

We’re not talking about tearing down barbed wire so they can hike in. These are federally owned lands; anyone with boots tough enough to walk onto them can do so to hunt and fish.

Facilitating use, as the act calls for, implies letting these land managers permit people to drive ATVs, snowmobiles, motorbikes, motorboats and other motorized vehicles — even use a chainsaw, should trailblazing require it — onto those lands to hunt, fish and shoot on them. That equates to creating roads and allowing for traffic, both of which would degrade pristine forests and threaten wildlife.

The report on the bill from the Republican-led Congressional Committee on Natural Resources argues otherwise. The background on the bill claims that “Nothing in the language, tailored to reverse inappropriate judicial activism, authorizes any form of roads or mechanized vehicle access to these units. Nothing in the bill includes any references to allowing, directly or indirectly, roads or vehicles in wilderness areas.”

Officially designated wilderness areas would be protected, but primitive areas not officially marked as roadless wilderness areas would be a different matter. Wilderness areas that aren’t in the 5 percent of Colorado land protected by wilderness designation would be under an “open until closed” policy. That is, even areas that have pristine conditions would see no more protections from road building, logging and energy development than areas like the BLM land on the now drilled-to-a-pincushion Roan Plateau. Allowing for roadbuilding among permissible activities means those lands could never be closed. They’d never meet the qualifications for wilderness areas after someone had driven all over them.

The implication that roads would be allowed appears in a section that mandates that all other federal land planning documents would need to evaluate the implications for fishing, hunting and shooting opportunities. However, under H.R. 2834, no decision that would increase hunting and fishing opportunities would require an official study of the environmental effects. Land managers adding hunting and fishing opportunities would also be instructed not to consider whether opportunities to fish, hunt or shoot are available on neighboring lands when crafting those plans.

In short, H.R. 2834 would rewrite the Wilderness Act, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, excusing the Refuge System from compliance with NEPA for all decisions related to hunting and fishing, according to the dissenting views recorded in the report from the Committee on Natural Resources. And those dissenting representatives argue there’s little evidence that opportunities to hunt and fish on public land are anything but abundant.

“While hunting and fishing are allowed in wilderness under current law, Section 4(e) of H.R. 2834 appears to require roaded access and mechanized vehicles in wilderness areas in furtherance of hunting and fishing,” the dissenting views included in the Committee on Natural Resources report argue. “Such a change in wilderness policy would fundamentally rewrite the Wilderness Act and permanently alter the character of most wilderness areas.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) introduced an amendment to strike those provisions from the bill. That amendment was defeated by committee vote.

“We’re seeing a sharp increase in the last few years in bills that attack longstanding conservation policies and bedrock environmental policies,” says Scott Braden, Colorado Mountain Club’s conservation director. “We can only infer that people introduce these bills because we want them to pass and if there was a change in the makeup of Congress and the presidency and these bills started to pass, they would have really severe impacts.”

Some Colorado lawmakers, particularly Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colorado), who signed on as a cosponsor, may not be aware of it, but some 67 percent of Coloradans identify as conservationists, according to the Colorado Mountain Club, and 44 percent of Coloradans say environmental regulations have a positive impact. The outdoors industry brings $10 billion to the Colorado economy and hundreds of thousands of jobs.

“I’ve made my living photographing legally designated wilderness areas among other things, and I’m a big fan of making more of our roadless areas into wilderness because we really don’t have enough wilderness,” says nature photographer John Fielder. “When you look at the inventory we’ve got about 3.5 million acres in Colorado out of our 66 million acres in Colorado and that’s only about 5 percent.”

In the decades he’s spent and miles he’s covered in various photography projects, what the photographer and amateur naturalist has learned, he says, is that it takes a lot of wilderness to protect wildlife — the species recreational hunters and fishers would want to enjoy hunting and fishing.

“They just don’t seem to get it that wilderness is not just for people recreating, but wilderness is the bastion of wildness to protect biodiversity,” he says.

In 2011, the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers prepared a review of scientific literature on how motorized vehicles — two-, three- or four-wheeled — affected the landscapes they traveled through. “ATV Impacts on the Landscape and Wildlife” reported that offroad vehicle travel degraded soil and water quality, decreased vegetation productivity, propagated invasive species and increased stream sediment. Their review concluded that the impacts are universal and cumulative, that much of the damage can be done by a few people over a short period of time, and that restoration was unattainable as long as any off road vehicle activity continued. The effect on the wildlife was to fragment their habitat, disrupting migration, promoting inbreeding and reducing reproductive success.

While hunting and fishing do contribute revenue to conservation in the form of tags, licenses and stamps, there’s little evidence to suggest that hunters and anglers are running out of places to hunt and fish. Were access opened for the nesting grounds used by the species they recreate to pursue, however, that could change — and no one would be responsible for studying those changes if H.R. 2834 were passed.

“Right now the dynamic is such that the bills pass the House of Representatives and they’re not going to get anywhere in the Senate,” Braden says. “The nightmare scenario is we get to the place where these bills can pass. They could have some grave impacts.”

The impacts of an “open until closed” policy in terms of road building and motorized vehicle use may be disputed by the Congressman, but the intent is clear: to strip the footing from lawsuits seeking to close hunting and fishing in selected wilderness and wildlife refuge areas. In the wake of court decisions requiring wildlife managers to study the affects of fishing and hunting on wildlife refuge areas, the legislation is meant to “ensure that anti-fishing/ anti-hunting activists may not use these recent court precedents to attack fishing or hunting within wilderness areas as not being ‘necessary.’”

Though environmental impact studies that examine the effects of hunting and fishing on refuges and wilderness areas are deemed an unnecessary draw on resources, federal land managers would be required to submit annual reports about areas closed to hunting and fishing.

“H.R. 2834 uses an issue on which there is broad agreement — the importance of hunting and fishing on public lands — as cover to make harmful, backdoor changes to conservation laws,” the committee’s dissenting views report argues. “If enacted, H.R. 2834 would destroy the wilderness character of most designated wilderness areas and permanently alter wildlife refuge management. As a result, the enactment of H.R. 2834 would destroy wildlife habitat, severely limiting opportunities for the recreational pursuits the bill claims to protect.”

This story is part of our Wilderness on the Ballot series.

Part 1: A road too far: Colorado’s wilderness is at stake in November’s election, by Elizabeth Miller

Part 2: Hunting for conservation: Legislation aims for hunting access, but would destroy wildlife populations, by Elizabeth Miller

Part 3: Too much of a good thing: Legislation proposes to sell ‘excess’ federal lands, by Elizabeth Miller