ALBUQUERQUE – Sportsmen are throwing their support behind federal legislation that aims to improve access to millions of acres of public land.
The measure introduced by U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., calls for an inventory of all public parcels larger than a square mile where hunting, fishing and other recreation are allowed but where access is blocked. It also asks agencies to acquire easements and rights of way for improving access.
The bill is just the latest in a decade-long effort to overcome access issues created by a combination of population growth, changing demographics and the landownership checkerboard that defines the American West.
John Gale, a regional representative for the National Wildlife Federation, characterized access as the No. 1 issue for sportsmen.
“There are a lot of places with gates up on roads and things like that. We’re looking to secure access to places for people to go and enjoy,” he said. “We have this wonderful resource in public lands, and it’s there for all of us to enjoy, not the privileged few.”
The access issue is of particular interest across the West, where many other states have large tracts of public land and where sportsmen and other outdoor recreationists represent large voting blocks.
Heinrich’s bill is circulating just as election season ramps up. He’s in a key race against Republican Heather Wilson for the seat held by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who is retiring.
The political action fund of the National Wildlife Federation is among a coalition of environmental groups that are funding ads aimed at Wilson and other candidates.
Heinrich’s office maintains that the congressman has been working on the access issue long before campaign season.
Aside from the nationwide inventory, the legislation calls for setting aside 1.5 percent of the Land and Water Conservation Fund – supported by oil and natural gas revenues – to pay willing sellers for rights of way and conservation easements for better access to public lands.
Supporters contend that the funding mechanism is what gives the legislation a better chance of producing results.
Jason Heffley, executive director of the Congressional Western Caucus, said the access issue already has been addressed in a sportsmen’s bill passed by the House in May and that the reporting requirements in Heinrich’s legislation could prove to be a stumbling block given that federal agencies are stretched thin.
Heffley said the Western Caucus sees the access issue as an avenue for boosting job creation in the West.
The caucus released a report last fall that found hunting and fishing generated $193 million per day and supported more than 1 million jobs. The western two-thirds of the U.S. accounted for about half of that revenue and jobs.
“Outdoor recreation like hunting and fishing contributes a great deal to New Mexico’s economy, particularly in our rural communities,” Heinrich said in a statement. “The HUNT Act will open up these areas to sportsmen and support our economy in the process.”
Wilson’s campaign said she supports a multiple-use policy for public lands and that reasonable access must be part of that policy.
Experts say in the past, many access issues have been settled administratively through agreements between land managers and property owners. However, hunters and anglers such as Gale are hopeful Congress can provide more clarity so future fights can be avoided.
Hunt said concerns about Second Amendment rights have almost taken a backseat to access for many sportsmen.
“I think it’s indicative of the fact that we’re having such a hard time getting to places to hunt and fish,” he said of the shift. “As a father, I look to the future and say, ‘Am I going to be able to take my kid to hunt and fish in the same place that my grandfather and my dad took me?’ I used to take it for granted.”