In Congress: Bill Aims to Divide Hunters and Conservationists

Because Congress traditionally breaks for the Easter and Passover holidays, the House and Senate were in session for only half of April. But it turned into a busy month, with the House passing legislation curbing the president's ability to protect federal lands as national monuments under the Antiquities Act and potentially weakening wilderness protection.

The one bright spot was April 10, when Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, traveled to Taos, N.M., to announce his intention to introduce legislation to designate the nearby 45,000-acre Columbine Hondo area as wilderness and to make a small addition to the Wheeler Peak Wilderness. Wheeler Peak was originally protected in the 1964 Wilderness Act and greatly expanded by Congress in 1980. The same 1980 legislation set aside Columbine Hondo for wilderness study. This area boasts some of New Mexico's most spectacular landscapes, encompassing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, including Gold Hill, the highest peak. Elk, mountain lions, black bears, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, pine marten, and Rio Grande cutthroat trout make their home there. The area also contains the headwaters of two important rivers that supply water to the acequias, or canals, used by cities to the south and west. Sen. Bingaman introduced S.2468 on April 27.

Our public lands fared less well the following week, when the House, by a 274-146 vote, passed H.R. 4089, the Sportsmen's Heritage Act of 2012. The bill is an amalgamation of four measures relating to hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting. These provisions open certain public lands to recreational target shooting, allow importation of polar bear trophies from Canada, and remove ammunition with lead components and lead fishing tackle from regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), with 27 co-sponsors. Its champions included the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, Safari Club International, and a coalition of hunting and gun-rights organizations, including the National Rifle Association. Several traditional sportsmen groups, such as Ducks Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Boone and Crockett Club, were also supportive.

Title I of the bill—incorporating legislation introduced earlier by Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.)—would dictate interpretation of key provisions of the Wilderness Act of 1964. One provision would require that “opportunities for hunting, fishing and recreational shooting, and the conservation of fish and wildlife to provide sustainable use recreational opportunities on designated wilderness areas on Federal public lands” be held to be “measures necessary to meet the minimum requirements for the administration of the wilderness area.” While the language is technical, the sponsors say the amendment would explicitly change the Wilderness Act to more liberally grant land managers authority to build structures such as water collection devices in desert areas. This authority, which wilderness managers have as part of their administrative authority to deal with wildlife in wilderness, was restricted recently by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands, argued that the language would simply restore authority to the “legal status quo that prevailed for decades until activist federal judges … effectively rewrote these provisions.”

The original language of H.R. 4089 was, according to a Congressional Research Service memo, “relatively vague” and the impact of the bill on wilderness management was “not clear.” However, it said that the open-ended language “could be construed to virtually any activity related to hunting and fishing, even if otherwise inconsistent with wilderness values,” including possible authorization of off-road vehicles or construction of roads. Responding to the criticism that the language could lead to motorized use or development, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) introduced an amendment stating that the language was “not intended to authorize or facilitate commodity development, use, or extraction or motorized recreational access or use.” The House agreed.

Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) argued that the manager's amendment was not sufficient to protect wilderness from abuse. “Whether or not that's the bill's intention, the language in the bill allows for that possibility,” he said. He offered his own amendment providing that nothing in this bill “shall be construed to allow” otherwise prohibited activities in wilderness areas. Rep. Hastings opposed the amendment, arguing that the new language was clear but that substituting the term “construed” would lead to litigation. The House voted down the Heinrich amendment, 176-244. “I suspect if we can't get this issue cleaned up on the floor of the House, we'll get it cleaned up in the Senate,” Heinrich told Environment & Energy Daily before the vote. “We're not going to let it go to the president's desk with this language inside.”

Potentially a greater threat to conservation was an amendment by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) requiring concurrence by a governor and a state legislature before the president could invoke his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate a national monument. Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have used the 1906 Antiquities Act to preserve areas of cultural, historical, and natural importance, often when Congress was unwilling to act. The Grand Canyon and Grand Tetons national parks and many parks in Alaska were originally protected as national monuments using the power of the Antiquities Act. The Foxx amendment could delay or likely block future protections. In 2011, the House narrowly defeated a similar amendment on an appropriations bill; the Foxx amendment passed 223-198.

Many conservation groups joined in working to defeat the unfortunate provisions of the Sportsmen's Heritage Act. But these efforts fell short due to the balance of power in the House. However, the debate has heightened the focus on these issues, and conservation-minded members of the Senate have been alerted to fight back.