The Public Lands Debate: Hunting As ‘True Democracy’

TRCP president says hunting best on public lands, foresees continued 'chipping away'

Feb. 16, 2017

By Mark Carter

Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, believes hunting represents American ideals in their purest form.

“Hunting is something anybody can do regardless of socioeconomics, race or background,” he said. “It’s true democracy.”

In many European countries even today, he noted, hunting is limited to the “landed gentry” whose members have exclusive access to private lands where hunting is possible.

“Hunting is best when it takes place on public lands,” Fosburgh told America Hunt.

For many sportsmen, hunting’s place in the American consciousness is under fire as several Western states contemplate legislative action to try and force the federal government to transfer control of public lands.

And while states’ rights resonate with hunters and outdoorsmen who favor less government involvement in local affairs, many believe access to public lands transcends the issue.

Fosburgh acknowledged the “terrific job” of managing fish and wildlife by individual state agencies but said states simply couldn’t afford to take on actual public land management.

“It’s an appealing argument,” he said of states’ rights. “But the entire transfer argument is a false argument.”

RELATED: Opposition Mounting to Transfer of Public Lands

That’s because the federal government can run on a deficit, which gives it an advantage not available to most individual states. Meanwhile, 45 states have some sort of balanced budget stipulation built into their code or constitutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That tether to balanced budgets, while noble in spirit, would shackle states charged with funding the management of formerly public lands.

“The cost of a forest fire alone would be prohibitive. States can’t fight fires,” Fosburgh said. “They’d have to raise taxes or sell off the lands, and we all know which they’d be more likely to do. It’s not a hypothetical that states would do it; states are already selling off state lands to offset budget shortfalls.”

The state of Idaho, for example, has sold 41 percent of its own lands since it joined the union in 1890, according to a report from the Wilderness Society, which last year analyzed data from the Idaho Department of Lands.

In 2014, the Montana Department of Natural Resources estimated the cost of assuming responsibility for the state’s 25 million acres of federal land at roughly $500 million.

Fosburgh believes the debate over the transfer of public lands is diverting attention from what should be the focus.

“The real issue is how do we do a better job of managing public lands,” he said. That could include more funding devoted specifically to upkeep and maintenance, for one. Fosburgh said the backlog of maintenance required for public land infrastructure is in the billions of dollars.

While Fosburgh is optimistic for the future of public lands, which he believes are in better ecological health today than they've been in a while, he worries of “sliding back” on past progress.

The legislative "frontal assault" on public lands in recent years -- state governments contemplating and in some cases taking action to try and force a transfer -- may be losing momentum. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) recently agreed to withdraw his HR 621 in the U.S. House which would have called on the Interior department to sell of 3.3 million acres of "excess" public land.

Chaffetz, a hunter, voiced his support for public lands and the importance of access to them for hunters in his response to backlash generated by the bill.

But Fosburgh foresees more "chipping away around the edges" such as Chaffetz' HR 622. It would eliminate the law enforcement functions of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and instead provide block grants to states for the enforcement of federal law on public lands.

Backcountry Hunters president and CEO Land Tawney recently told America Hunt that even if transfer legislation passes in the House, negotiating the Senate will be a more difficult task. "I've never seen collective groups of people come together like this on a single issue," he said.

Still, Fosburgh believes this community of public-land users, which includes most of the country's 13 million hunters, must remain engaged. "Our community holds the key to good management of public lands down the road."

The newly minted 115th Congress is just ramping up, and it does so in an unpredictable political environment. The public lands debate promises to stick around for a while. Stay tuned.  

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