Opening the Wilderness: Does a New Hunting Bill Put Parks in Danger?


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Photo: Kalakutskiy Mikhail/Shutterstock

This fall, Hal Herring plans to go backcountry hunting with his son near his Montana home. If they both take an elk, they'll be able to provide the family with enough meat for the following year. But should House bill 4089 pass into law, he's worried that such a hunting trip could be jeopardized. Somewhat ironically, H.R. 4089, the Sportsmen's Heritage Act, is described as pro-hunting legislation.

The bill, which has passed through the House and is awaiting a vote in the Senate, uses language that its opponents—which include wilderness advocates, conservationists and some hunting groups—believe could lead to motorized vehicles being allowed into protected wilderness areas. Other parts of the bill would open the door to hunting and shooting in national parks system lands that currently ban those activities. The bill would also require state approval before the president could declare any new national monument, a move that punches a hole in the Antiquities Act—a legislative tool that has been used to protect many important areas in the past, including the Grand Canyon. 

Road to Ruin?
If the roadless areas in which Herring hunts were open to motorized access the game would be more scarce and the regulations and limits around access would likely become more onerous, he says.

“We need to cease and desist this endless attack on roadless areas and wilderness by people who have no idea what they're talking about,” says Herring, who, aside from being an avid hunter and angler, is a journalist. “We already have millions of acres on which to cavort on ATVs. Road access into wilderness means more regulated hunting.”

Before it passed the House, an amendment was made to the bill saying that it is not intended to allow “motorized recreational access” to wilderness areas. But what if someone were to toss a fishing pole in his ATV, head off into the wilderness, and then argue that he's just going fishing?

“Disallowing motorized vehicles is what the Wilderness Act is all about,” says David Alberswerth, senior policy advisor for the Wilderness Society. “So if motorized access for hunting or fishing is allowed, that violates the very nature of the Act,” he says. “We support hunting and fishing in wilderness areas, and I personally do it. There are are plenty of places on Bureau of Land Management land to use motorized vehicles, but there are relatively few places where you can hunt and fish without motor access.”

This is the same reason Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, which advocates for non-motorized hunting, opposes the bill—or at least that part of it.

Open Season
Since its introduction this winter, H.R. 4089's scope has grown. It currently contains a number of separate parts, all related to hunting. The National Rifle Association is strongly in favor of the bill.

The section referencing national parks and national monuments says the bill does not “require” hunting access in those areas, but as a whole, the legislation burdens federal land managers with having to make a case for why hunting should be disallowed. Today, hunting is prohibited in the national park system except for in select sites where it has been authorized (and there are around 90 sites—recreation areas, preserves, etc., where hunting is allowed).

The bill's language boils down to “everything is open [to hunting and shooting] unless a compelling reason is shown to close it,” says Craig Obey, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association. “There is no NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] analysis required to open them [to hunting and shooting], but you'd need a major analysis based on 'best' science to close them.”

Antiquities Act
“If it weren't for the Antiquities Act, the Grand Canyon would be dammed today,” says Pat Wray, a hunter and author based in Montana.

Both Democratic and Republican presidents have used the Antiquities Act many times since Theodore Roosevelt enacted it in 1906. It allows federally-owned land to be preserved through an executive order, but the Sportsmen's Heritage Act could significantly bottleneck the process, opponents say.

The bill's restrictions on the president's ability to use the Act is “basically an evisceration of the most powerful tool we have to protect public land,” says Alberswerth.

Clearly, H.R. 4089 has many detractors. But the NRA isn't the only large and powerful group that supports it. The Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation is gunning for it, as is the Safari Club International, which reportedly sent a small army of its members to Capital Hill to lobby for the bill.

The bill is being held at desk in the Senate, meaning it won't be put through the committee process and could be called up any time, says Obey. As for its chances of passage, Obey simply remarked: “Well, it's an election year. And these types of things tend to be politically charged in election years.”

—Mary Catherine O'Connor