RBC I U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, was hunting Barbary sheep in the southeastern part of his state a few weeks ago, and had a stark reminder of a problem he’s trying to fix with a bipartisan sportsmen’s bill.
He and his friends had finished hunting one swath of public land and scanned a BLM map for the kind of terrain the sheep like—rough arid landscapes like that of their native North Africa, with lots of small canyons, nooks and crannies. The men found a place that looked to be accessible by road.
But when they arrived, there was a gate across the road and a “No Trespassing” sign.
“The landowner closed off what used to be public access and now you can’t get to the public land,” Heinrich told me in a recent interview in his office in the Hart Senate Office Building in D.C., where hunting trophies—including Barbary sheep skulls and horns—share wall space with photos of gorgeous New Mexico scenery.
“That is not unusual. If you talk to sportsmen, particularly in the West, access is the No. 1 issue: You hear it over and over again.”
A big source of those access issues … is the West’s patchwork of private and public lands. A 2013 report by the Center for Western Priorities estimated that 4 million acres of federal land in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming were completely surrounded by private lands.
Heinrich is one of the lead sponsors of a bill designed to improve access to federal land for hunting, fishing and other recreation. Similar packages failed in the last two sessions of Congress. Despite the partisan gridlock in Washington, Heinrich is optimistic about the legislation’s prospects this time. His co-sponsor, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and plans to use her significant influence to get the bill drafted and voted on early so it does not get mired in election-year politics like the last one did.
“I’m optimistic that the third time is going to be the charm,” Murkowski said during a Senate hearing on the bill Thursday.
“I am very, very serious that … we are going to deliver on this sportsmen’s bill. It is an issue we’ve been working on for far too long.”
The Sportsmen’s Act would: Direct the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to identify federal lands where hunting, fishing and other kinds of recreation are permitted but access is nonexistent or significantly restricted, and then to develop plans to provide public access; Dedicate $10 million or 1.5 percent of the Land and Water Conservation Fund annually to pay willing landowners for easements to access public land; and Reauthorize several conservation programs that have expired or are about to expire. The Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, which expired in 2011, lets the government sell BLM lands and use the revenue to buy higher-priority parcels such as inholdings in national parks and national forests. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act provides funds to buy or enhance wetlands that are critical for migratory birds.
The BLM and Forest Service support the overarching goals of the legislation but have concerns about some provisions. For instance, the agencies testified that a measure designed to open access to film crews for a $200 fee doesn’t give them enough control over possible impacts the crews might have on federal lands.
They also expressed concerns that provisions of the measure could consume too much of their already-stretched staffs’ time. For instance, federal land managers would have to report how much environmental groups’ lawyers are reimbursed after successfully suing the federal government.
Steven Ellis, BLM’s deputy director, said that would take time away from those managers’ other responsibilities.
Hunting and fishing groups support the legislation. In general, conservation groups do, too. But some of them oppose particular provisions, such as the one exempting lead ammunition and tackle from the Toxic Substances Control Act.
“(That would) allow for something we know is harmful to the health of birds, wildlife and maybe, in some cases, people,” said Brian Moore, the National Audubon Society’s legislative director.
The House has yet to produce its own version of a sportsmen’s bill, but is expected to do so soon.
Heinrich, who first worked on the legislation several years ago, when he was in the House, is hopeful.
“I am optimistic that we’ll be able to navigate the pitfalls and be successful,” he said. And perhaps one day he—and other hunters and hikers—will be able to reach that chunk of New Mexico land.
Elizabeth Shogren is High Country News’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.