Conservation community: Second Amendment-only voters threaten hunting opportunitiesBy Dustin Bleizeffer
Whether it’s birding, hiking, hunting or fishing, America’s love for the outdoors brings together people from all political views. While they may clash on many issues, most do agree on one thing; conservation of wildlife and wild places is vital.
When you ask sportsmen about conservation, many will tell you that it’s downright American. The Nature Conservancy commissioned a survey of 800 registered voters earlier this year and found 82 percent agreed that conservation of America’s natural resources is “patriotic.”
“We continue to see that voters overwhelmingly reject the idea that protecting land and water is at odds with a strong economy,” said Christy Plumer, director of federal land programs at The Nature Conservancy.
The sporting economy that Plumer alludes is a major contributor to the estimated $2.9 billion in tourism and travel revenue that flows into Wyoming’s economy each year. Nationwide, spending on all outdoor recreation totals $646 billion annually and supports 6.1 American jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association’s “The Outdoor Recreation Economy” study.
Yet the full force of that conservation consensus among sportsmen rarely comes together behind any single issue or election. A steadfast support of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, for example, often splits the sporting community with many choosing to cast their vote solely on the basis of which candidate they believe will best preserve or advance gun rights.
But the pro-gun candidate isn’t always the best on preserving wildlife, public lands access and other conservation matters important to the outdoor recreation community.
“I would agree with that,” said David Manzer, organizer for Friends of the National Rifle Association (NRA) Wyoming chapter. Manzer said the NRA endorses candidates based on gun rights, and it doesn’t tend to factor in many other considerations beyond that. (Click here to see how the NRA has graded candidates in Wyoming’s general election.)
Yet it is a discussion in the sportsmen’s community. Robert A. Wharff, executive director of Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, said some sportsmen are conflicted over conservation and supporting strong Second Amendment candidates.
“The two really go hand in hand. Gun rights are important. But it does you no good to have a gun if there is nothing to hunt. On the other hand, it doesn’t do you any good to have all kinds of wildlife if you don’t have a gun to hunt with.”
Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), said sportsmen ought to carefully consider whether gun rights are a larger determining factor for their vote than conservation. It’s especially important this election because many conservation programs and causes are on the budget chopping block, and many worry that the Congressional Budget Committee is filled with more budget-cutting proponents than conservationists.
Both the 2011 and 2012 versions of the House Budget Bill — also dubbed the Ryan Budget, named after House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Gov. Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate — called for sweeping across-the-board cuts, including in the Farm Bill in which sportsmen and the agriculture community had come together on many conservation efforts.
Thirty years ago, conservation funding made up about 2.5 percent of the nation’s budget. Today, it accounts for about 1.2 percent of the budget. Yet there are more stresses on America’s public lands than ever. Conservation funding falls under the “discretionary” portion of the budget, and that means it’s prone to budget cutting efforts.
“If you eliminated every single conservation program in the country, it would do almost nothing to balance the federal budget, but it would cripple an outdoor economy worth about $646 billion every year that supports more than 6 million jobs,” Fosburgh told WyoFile. “The bottom line is that if the proposed budget cuts fall disproportionately on discretionary spending, conservation is apt to be severely impacted.”
Many candidates say they support opening public lands to full-scale energy development — primarily for oil and natural gas, but also for renewable solar, wind and geothermal energy projects. This stance has some conservationists concerned. Even the 1,000-turbine Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project in south-central Wyoming — one of President Barack Obama’s fast-tracked renewable energy projects — has riled some wildlife advocates. In Wyoming, energy development has had measurable negative effects on wildlife, including a serious decline among deer near the Pinedale Anticline natural gas complex.
Yet even some professional outfitters in Wyoming, who rely on healthy habitat and wildlife, say a strong energy industry is one of the most important considerations for their business.
“We don’t book hunters if they don’t have money,” said Jesse Rodenbough, with 4U Outfitters in Moran. Rodenbough, who stocked up on ammunition after President Obama was elected in 2008, said he is aware of energy development implications on the land. There is potential energy development near where he lives and works, but so far development in the state has been done responsibly and fairly, he said. The trade-offs are worth the benefits it brings to the state and, in Rodenbough’s view, there is still plenty of protected public land for recreation.
Fosburgh said he’s an ardent Second Amendment advocate, and he doesn’t view President Obama as a threat to gun rights (read related story). While the Second Amendment is a relative non-issue in this election, according to Fosburgh, conservation and public lands access are absolutely on the line.
“I don’t begrudge anybody for voting on (elections) on the Second Amendment basis. But I have an issue with people who only look at it from that point of view,” said Fosburgh. “So ask your candidate some simple questions in addition to where he or she stands on gun rights. Will you stand up for conservation funding? Will you roll back conservation laws in order to expand oil and gas development onto sensitive fish and wildlife habitats on our public lands? … Will you support full funding for the Voluntary Public Access program of the Farm Bill, which has opened up hunting and fishing opportunities on almost 3 million acres of private lands?”
Wyoming Range Legacy Act
As oil and gas drilling took hold in Wyoming’s basin areas during the past 15 years, the industry began buying up leases in and around surrounding foothills and mountain areas, including the Wyoming Range — favorite sporting grounds for locals and out-of-state sportsmen alike. When it became apparent that full-scale energy development was hurting wildlife populations (in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah natural gas fields, for example), sportsmen quickly came together as the driving force behind what would become the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which halted further oil and gas leasing in the area.
A subsequent effort helped convince Plains Exploration and Production Co. (PXP) to sell its federal oil and gas leases that were grandfathered under the law.
“The Wyoming Range was the dagger. When we got (the opportunity for) the Legacy Act we jumped onboard,” said Kim Floyd, president of the Wyoming AFL-CIO, and an avid hunter.
The Wyoming AFL-CIO, which represents some 18,000 blue-collar workers in Wyoming, recently announced the formation of the Wyoming Federation of Union Sportsmen. A recent Wyoming AFL-CIO press release stated, “The Wyoming State AFL-CIO — with over 18,000 members — decided to get more involved in issues related to wildlife, habitat, access to public lands, conservation and the many forms of recreation that their membership enjoys.”
Floyd said he and others are not satisfied with leaving the task of protecting hunting opportunities to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, suggesting the agency hasn’t taken a strong enough stance on the issues. Floyd also said he’s not a fan of the NRA because, as he sees it, the organization’s singular goal is to get people to vote Republican. And that mindset is counter to the careful consideration needed on public lands issues.
“I’ve got over 5,000 members who recreate on the Wyoming Range,” Floyd told WyoFile in a recent interview. Floyd said many of the AFL-CIO members are workers who say they could make more money by moving to another state, but they remain in Wyoming for the outdoors opportunities. “This whole issue about the NRA, and how they endorse and divide, has driven me crazy for years.”
“They (NRA) get people to vote their guns because it is a hot issue, and they don’t vote their pocketbook,” Floyd continued. “If you don’t have anywhere to go and use (guns), then we all lose.”
Craig Smith of Triple Three Outfitters near Buffalo sees additional oil and gas development as key to getting people back to work and then back to spending money on hunting guides. He is supportive of oil and gas development, if it is done “properly,” he said. So far he believes development in the state has been in balance with sportsmen’s interests.
“The biggest thing is getting people back to work; then they can afford to come and hunt with us,” he said. “I think everyone is aware that Democrats are for more gun laws. … We have enough gun laws on the books right now if we just enforce the gun laws we have.”
— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. Reach him at 307-577-6069 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dustin on Twitter @DBleizeffer. WyoFile reporters Gregory Nickerson and Kelsey Dayton contributed to this report.
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