Senator Martin Heinrich and his son Carter, elk hunting on public land last fall. (Photo courtesy of the senator's office.)

— by Elizabeth Shogren,

Published with permissions from High Country News. Originally Published on March 14, 2015.

Senator Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) was hunting Barbary sheep in the southeastern part of his state a few weeks ago, and had a stark reminder of a problem he’s trying to fix with a bipartisan sportsmen’s bill.

He and his friends had finished hunting one swath of public land, and scanned a BLM map for the kind of terrain the sheep like—rough arid landscapes like that of their native North Africa, with lots of small canyons, nooks and crannies. The men found a place that looked to be accessible by road.

But when they arrived, there was a gate across the road and a “No Trespassing” sign.

“The landowner closed off what used to be public access and now you can’t get to the public land,” Heinrich told me in a recent interview in his office in the Hart Senate Office Building in D.C., where hunting trophies—including Barbary sheep skulls and horns—share wall space with photos of gorgeous New Mexico scenery “That is not unusual. If you talk to sportsmen, particularly in the West, access is the number one issue: You hear it over and over again.”

A big source of those access issues, which HCN explored in a recent cover story, “This land is their land”, is the West’s patchwork of private and public lands. A 2013 report by the Center for Western Priorities estimated that 4 million acres of federal land—in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—were completely surrounded by private lands.

Heinrich is one of the lead sponsors of a bill designed to improve access to federal land for hunting, fishing and other recreation. Similar packages failed in the last two sessions of Congress. Despite the partisan gridlock in Washington, Heinrich is optimistic about the legislation’s prospects this time. His co-sponsor, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and plans to use her significant influence to get the bill drafted and voted on early so it does not get mired in election-year politics like the last one did.

“I’m optimistic that the third time is going to be the charm,” Murkowski said during a Senate hearing on the bill Thursday.

“I am very, very serious that … we are going to deliver on this sportsmen’s bill. It is an issue we’ve been working on for far too long.”

The Sportsmen’s Act would:

  • Direct the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to identify federal lands where hunting, fishing and other kinds of recreation are permitted but access is nonexistent or significantly restricted, and then to develop plans to provide public access.
  • Dedicate $10 million or 1.5 percent of the Land and Water Conservation Fund annually to pay willing landowners for easements to access public land.
  • Reauthorize several conservation programs that have expired or are about to expire. The Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, which expired in 2011, lets the government sell BLM lands and use the revenue to buy higher-priority parcels such as inholdings in national parks and national forests. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act provides funds to buy or enhance wetlands that are critical for migratory birds.

The BLM and Forest Service support the overarching goals of the legislation but have concerns about some provisions. For instance, the agencies testified that a measure designed to open access to film crews for a $200 fee doesn’t give them enough control over possible impacts the crews might have on federal lands. They also expressed concerns that provisions of the measure could consume too much of their already-stretched staffs’ time. For instance, federal land managers would have to report how much environmental groups’ lawyers are reimbursed after successfully suing the federal government. Steven Ellis, BLM’s deputy director, said that would take time away from those managers’ other responsibilities.

Hunting and fishing groups support the legislation. In general, conservation groups do too. But some of them oppose particular provisions, such as the one exempting lead ammunition and tackle from the Toxic Substances Control Act. “(That would) allow for something we know is harmful to the health of birds, wildlife and maybe in some cases people,” said Brian Moore, the National Audubon Society’s legislative director.

Nationwide, lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting in 1991, but lead ammunition for upland hunting and lead fishing tackle remain widespread. AsHCN has reported, California condors can die from lead poisoning after feeding on carrion containing bullet fragments. Studies suggest that other scavengers–vultures, hawks and eagles—also are susceptible. In 2013, California became the first state to ban all use of lead bullets, by 2019.

The House has yet to produce its own version of a sportsmen’s bill, but is expected to do so soon. Heinrich, who first worked on the legislation several years ago, when he was in the House, is hopeful. “I am optimistic that we’ll be able to navigate the pitfalls and be successful,” he said. And perhaps one day he – and other hunters and hikers—will be able to reach that chunk of New Mexico land

— Elizabeth Shogren is HCN’s DC correspondent. Follow her @ShogrenE

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  1. I support the efforts of this bill,

    I spend quite a bit of time in the medicine now national forest where a large majority of private lands are woven together in such a way that make hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest lands inaccessible to the public.

    What adds salt to the wound is that the forest service maintains (forest service) roads that are paid for by the public but can only benefit the landowners as they block access. Sometimes the stretches of private property are only a few hundred yards wide yet they restrict access to large areas of national forest and state lands.

    The land owners had might as well own the lands as they are the only ones who can benefit from them. They use them for grazing their livestock and charge hefty fees to allow guides to take hunters to hunt on public lands.

    One thing that I do not understand about his bill is why we have to pay landowners for easement access. In my view if a sizable amount of public land exists beyond your property line then you MUST provide access. Even if it is a foot trail.

    The other thing that is particularly a problem here in Wyoming is the checkerboard. BLM lands are mixed in a checkerboard pattern with privately owned (previously railroad….freely given by the U.S government to the railroad) lands. With today’s technology (GPS) traveling across section corners is still prohibited. This too inhibits access to a LOT of public lands. It is my hope that this bill also addresses this issue.

    Wyoming public land is something we all hold near and dear… Let’s stop allowing landowners to be the only ones to benefit from OUR lands

    Dan Dean