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Public Land Proxy – How Hunters are Helping

From the archives: CARNIVORE Magazine Issue 1

HUNTERS HAVE MOVED EN MASSE TO HELP PUBLIC LANDS IN AMERICA IN THE HANDS OF THE PEOPLE

Remi Warren is a public lands advocate. He’s not a politician or lobbyist, and he wouldn’t fit well in most suit-and-tie legislative hearings. He’s more at home in  the mountains as a user. It’s been that way since he was old enough to hike, climb, and glass. Growing up in the harsh high desert of Nevada, Warren spent countless hours exploring the millions of acres of public access in his home state. After high school he jumped head first into guiding and outfitting, opening up Montana Outwest Outfitters at the age of 22. Located in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, Warren specializes in elk and deer hunts on public land.

The vast tracks of western land that he calls home have shaped him, and he’s used his experiences to help introduce others to the benefits of the lands we share. In short, Warren is invested in our public lands, and those lands have invested in him. Last February, Warren had a chance to pay back what he’s been afforded, to help keep Nevada lands in the hands of folks like him.

It started in a previous session of congress on March 19, 2015, when Nevada Republican Congressman Mark Amodei introduced a measure known as the Honor the Nevada Enabling of 1864 Act. The legislation wasn’t the first of its kind in Nevada, but it was definitely the most aggressive. The bill moved “to direct the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior to convey certain federal lands to the state of Nevada ….” The simple term used for this premise is “land transfer.”

The bill included a massive transfer of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service property that would have, in its first phase, given control of 7.2 million acres parallel to Interstate 80, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Humboldt River back to the state. In its second phase, Amodei’s Bill would champion a much more substantial transfer that would eliminate much of the land managed by the federal government in Nevada. This would exclude wilderness, wildlife refuges, national parks, and tribal land.

Amodei and his fellow Republicans listed their reasoning in an eight-point argument summarizing why, in their minds, land transfer was the only way forward. The local economy, they said, is severely constrained in size and diversity by the paucity of state land and privately controlled land.

The federal government controls over 80 percent of all of the land within the state of Nevada, a greater percentage than any other state, and Nevada could generate significant net revenue for
the benefit of its lands and people if it were afforded the opportunity to manage an expanded state-controlled land portfolio.

Supporters of the Bill claim that the federal government does a poor job of oversight on these lands, and that the ranchers, recreationalists, anglers, and hunters would benefit from local leadership
calling the shots.

Warren thinks otherwise — and he’s not the only one. A broad opposition to the land transfer movement had already formed before he made his plan to attend a hearing of the Nevada Wildlife Commission in Carson City on February 9. But the Commission, which oversees the Nevada Department of Wildlife, needed to hear that opposition loud and clear from the people their decisions would affect most tangibly.

So Warren rented a bus, filled it full of like-minded advocates, and drove from Reno to Carson City. His plan was to lay out the opposition platform, summed up by the fact that land transfers can only lead to the sale and privatization of these lands and, eventually, the end of public access. States can’t afford the cost of managing large tracts, placing them in danger.

“I just wanted to get across to them the value of these lands,” he said. “The value to me and to future generations. I wanted them to see us all together.”

Rearview shot of a crowd protesting outside a public buildinghttp://195.154.178.81/DATA/shoots/ic_781584.jpg

In total, 15 people spoke to the commission that evening; only one was in favor of the transfer. Most of the opponents were backcountry hunters.

The plan worked. The commission voted unanimously to summarize Warren and his fellow hunters’ concerns in a letter to Amodei. It was a powerful step in the fight to kill the bill.

“In my opinion we should look at preserving these high value habitats and movement corridors as public lands,” said Commissioner Jeremy Drew, one of the members that signed off on the letter.

The letter detailed the concerns voiced at the meeting:

“There was nearly unanimous opposition to the transfer of most ‘Phase 1’ lands … The primary reasons for concern with such a transfer of Phase 1 lands include, but are not limited to: The state of Nevada does not have adequate resources (funding, staff, or programming) to administer large tracts of transfer lands; it is unclear as to how funding for the actual transfer (short-term) and management (long-term) of such lands would be secured; and, the use of lands for ‘long-term maximization of net revenue,’ including potential sale to private parties, was a concept that was very clearly opposed.”

The letter might as well have been a template for land transfer oppositions in the recent and distant past. The stage was set for a fight that would decide the fate of millions of acres of land.

A LONG HISTORY

These kinds of battles go way back. Back to the conception of America’s public lands. Teddy Roosevelt found staunch opposition to his fight to save our Nation’s wildlife and wild places at the turn of the century. At the height of market hunting and commercialization, Roosevelt took over the presidency with a mission to save our lands from industrialization and to promote a naturalist’s approach to land use across the West.

During his time in office, Roosevelt was able to conserve and protect about 230 million acres of land for public use and help create The North American Model of Wildlife Management, setting in stone that wildlife resources are a public trust, markets for game are eliminated, allocation of wildlife is by law, and science is the proper tool to discharge wildlife policy. Concern about the administration of public resources also led the Roosevelt administration to appoint a Public Lands Commission to study and report on public lands issues in 1903.

Rock Formation Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, USA

Who opposed Roosevelt? Industrialists, robber barons, and those who stood to pro t from the privatization of those lands. The early 20th century was marked by profiteers like John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, other titans of industry, and railroad magnates. In many ways this was the antithesis of a free market; rather, crony capitalism reigned supreme.

Throughout the next century our public lands continued to be a divisive issue among politicians and businessmen alike, but Roosevelt and his conservation contemporaries’ values have held mostly true.

Fast-forward to earlier this year and the cousin to Amodei’s the Honor the Nevada Enabling of 1864 Act, House Resolution 621. The Bill was sponsored by now-infamous Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, calling for the disposal of 3.3 million acres of federal land in 10 western states. The concept was a carbon copy of Amodei’s Nevada efforts.

Chaffetz, a hardline republican, had hopes to find public support for his land transfer bill. He was met with the fervor of a movement that he never expected. In the days that followed the bill’s introduction, Outside Magazine, Men’s Journal, The Guardian, and other media outlets panned it, driving huge opposition. HR 621 become a rallying cry for hunters and anglers. The congressman’s Instagram and Facebook pages were full of comments opposing his bill, and the outpouring of anger seemed to swell.

He was pushed into a corner and had to respond. Only a week after the HR 621 made its appearance Chaffetz posted on Instagram: “I’m a proud gun owner, hunter, and love our public lands. The bill would have disposed of small parcels of lands President Clinton identified as serving no public purpose, but groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message … I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow.”

The hashtag “keepitpublic” boomed.

A NEW MOVEMENT

Just over 13 years ago a group of dedicated hunters and anglers gathered together around a camp re. Mike Beagle, Dick Hentze, Tim Lillebo, James Montieth, Tony Heckard, Michelle Halle, and Brian Maguire saw a problem in this country that needed to be fixed. Habitat loss, pollution of waters, and dwindling public access to wild places was a scary proposition for the group. They decided to act.

In March of 2004, a group dubbed Backcountry Hunters & Anglers was born. The mission: Be the voice for public lands, wildlife, and waters. It was a pretty simple cause to get behind, more important than any single local issue.

The members called back to public land pioneers like Roosevelt and Leopold, aiming their message at hunters and anglers who grew up knowing the freedom that wild places provide. Most only needed to be made aware of the threats facing their way of life to jump in and help.

“When I was a kid I just thought everyone in the world had what we had,” Warren said. “But I slowly found out how special this land was.”

A view of the Chama River during fall, near Abiquiu, New Mexico

Today the organization is booming, growing by thousands of members a month and enjoying a growing influence on The Hill. With over 35 state chapters, they got the attention of avid users like Warren.

“I’m a member of BHA because I care about the future of public access,” he said. “They are the future of public lands, and I will do all that I can to help this cause.”

The group’s #keepitpublic has become a staple of the movement. Celebrities and activists don “Public Land Owner” shirts on social media, turning the opposition into a trending topic, injecting relevance and energy.

Driving the machine is CEO Land Tawney, a fifth-generation Montanan who was tapped to lead the organization and has turned up the dial on the organizations relevance. He’s appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show, on CNN with Joe Rogan talking about the issues, and on national TV with several interviews regarding Rep. Ryan Zinke’s confirmation as Secretary of the Interior.

“We are starting to feel this groundswell,” he told me. “We might not be a big group, but we are vocal, and we are relentless.”

Thousands of members flooded into Missoula, Montana, with Tawney this past April for the 2017 Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Rendezvous. They drank beer, ate wild game, and celebrated their local, regional, and national efforts to shine a light on public lands. Twenty-year-old college kids joined with 65-year-old ranchers, van-living hipsters stood beside hard-core DIY elk hunters, and politicians ate locally sourced wild game with leaders of industry. The core of the movement was represented there, a breed of activists multiplying in every corner of the nation.

This reawakening has brought together animal-loving mountain bikers, hikers, and campers with even the most hard-core hunters and anglers. It’s inspired rallies at state capitals in Montana, Idaho, and Utah. The Montana rally, coauthored by the Montana Wilderness Association and BHA, saw 1,000-plus gather in Helena. Last year, Colorado officially coined the third Saturday in May America’s first-ever “Public Lands Day” to bring together all that hope to push back on the idea that our lands are for sale. The Outdoor Retailer trade show pulled its influence and dollars out of Utah in opposition to the state’s public land politics. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, a titanic and unifying industry voice, penned an open letter helping to push that idea forward. The list goes on.

The movement has shot down just about every attempt from this small band of politicians hoping to reverse the course of history. The simple values of the #keepitpublic campaign have unified in a way that few thought possible.

BATTLES WON

On May 16, only three months after Warren sat in front of the Nevada Wildlife Commission, Rep. Amodei changed his message during an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal editorial board.

“Transferring millions of acres of public lands … is not something I think the majority of people think is a good idea,” he said.

Amodei is right. According to Colorado College’s 2017 State of the Rockies poll, 56 percent of people in seven western states oppose transferring national lands to state ownership. Pair public sentiment with the strong opinion of the Wildlife Commission, and it seemed there was no path forward.

Nevada State Supreme Court Building - Horizontal

With that, the Honor the Nevada Enabling of 1864 Act was dead. It would not return to congress.

In the long history of America’s public land fight, hunters and anglers marked this as another win. The integrity of these lands, though, will only stand as long as like-minded users like Warren speak out as advocates. Just as the idea of shared resources defines our Nation, so does the premise of a people’s republic. Warren’s bus trip may seem small in the scope of this issue, but
its message was strong enough to be heard in halls of Congress. The people would not consent in this case.

With the killing of Amodei and Chaffetz’s bills and the rise of organizations like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the underpinnings of a movement have taken hold. Hunters and anglers now understand their political clout and have become leaders in the fight against land transfer. Now emboldened, their collective voice promises to only get louder.

Millions of acres of public lands are off the market … for now. The battles have been won, but the war is just getting started.


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