Many sportsmen and women depend on federal lands managed by agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for access to activities like hunting, fishing and recreational shooting. As these agencies develop strategies to manage federal lands, it is critical for those who support these activities to participate in the public processes that impact access to these time-honored public land traditions.
The federal government owns approximately 640 million acres of land, which equates to roughly 28% of the 2.3 billion acres that make up the land area of the United States. Although 260 million of these federally owned acres exist in Alaska alone, many of the states west of the 100th Meridian feature high percentages of federal land ownership when compared to their counterparts in other areas of the country. Of this publicly-owned land, four federal agencies – the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the National Park Service (NPS) – manage approximately 607 million acres, or approximately 95% of federal lands. In many parts of the country, hunters, anglers, trappers, and recreational shooters are highly dependent on access to these lands in order to enjoy a variety of outdoor activities. As the nation’s population continues to grow, our federal lands, and the sportsmen and women who depend on them, face increased pressure from competing recreational uses, development, industrial activity, and differing public opinions regarding the appropriate volume of motorized and mechanized travel access to public areas.
Many of the modern federal land management practices that impact sportsmen’s access are largely guided by federal laws passed by the U.S. Congress such as the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960 (USFS) and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (BLM). Although these laws include provisions that require federal agencies to consider general impacts to recreation during planning processes, planners are not required to consider how management plans specifically affect the public’s ability to engage in hunting, angling and recreational shooting. During the 112th, 113th, 114th and 115th sessions of Congress, members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus have introduced legislation that would require federal agencies to consider planning activities’ impacts to sportsmen’s traditions and facilitate the use of BLM and USFS lands for hunting, angling and recreational shooting as they develop land use plans that guide the management of federal public land. These goals were finally realized during the 116th session of Congress with the passage of the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act (Dingell Act, 2019) and the Great American Outdoors Act (2020).
Points of Interest
- BLM manages 248 million acres of the federal estate and has a multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate intended to support a wide range of uses including energy development, recreation, grazing, wild horses and burros, and conservation.
- The USFS manages 193 million acres for multiple-use and sustained-yield activities including timber harvest, recreation, grazing, watershed protection, and fish and wildlife habitats.
- The USFWS manages 89 million acres of federal land that includes the National Wildlife Refuge System for which hunting and angling are considered priority uses.
- The National Park Service administers 80 million acres of federal land in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. Roughly two-thirds of the system’s lands are in Alaska.
- According to surveys conducted by Responsive Management, 46% of hunters cited a lack of access as taking away from their enjoyment of hunting and influencing their decision not to hunt. 44% of hunters surveyed also indicated there are not enough places to hunt.
- Physical aspects of access include:
- Availability – the actual land available to hunt or fish.
- Accessibility – the ability to get to hunting land or fishable waters. Problems may include public lands blocked by intervening private lands or public lands that are far removed from roads and trails that are restricted.
- Accommodation – the ease of mobility and how it relates to the experience that sportsmen and women have once they are on the land. Examples include the ability to avoid crowds for sportsmen seeking an isolated outdoor experience, trail quality or ATV restrictions for sportsmen wishing to access public lands via mechanized travel.
- Social / psychological aspects include:
- Awareness – the information and knowledge necessary for sportsmen and women to understand the access options available to them.
- Assumptions – sportsmen’s and women’s perceptions about the hunting, fishing, or recreational shooting opportunities available to them. These include the sense (existing or perceived) that access to outdoor recreation opportunities are being threatened or that other barriers exist.
- Physical aspects of access include:
- Recently passed legislation such as reauthorization of the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act and the John D. Dingell Conservation, Recreation and Management Act contain provisions that provide additional flexibility and funding to improve access to federal lands.
- In early 2020, the Department of the Interior announced a historic proposal that would expand hunting and fishing access across 2.3 million acres of wildlife refuges lands and national hatcheries.
- In comments given during the announcement of this proposal, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said, “we will continue to work to strike the proper balance for land and resources management, increase access for hunting, fishing, and recreation, and create economic prosperity while protecting and preserving America’s treasures.”
- The recently passed Great American Outdoors Act fully and permanently allocates the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually to fund conservation, recreation, or access projects around the country.
- The Great American Outdoors Act also includes $9.5 billion in funding over five years to address infrastructure needs and maintenance backlogs on federal lands, including lands managed by the Bureau of Lands Management (BLM), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), agencies that provide critically important recreational access and opportunities for America’s sportsmen and women.
Legislators should consider working with sportsmen’s organizations and other stakeholders to monitor and engage federal agencies as they conduct planning activities that will impact hunters, anglers, trappers, recreational shooters and state wildlife agencies.
Policymakers also can utilize resources made available by federal agencies to track planning activities and become engaged in the public processes that help guide public land management in their states. Available on the web, these resources provide an overview of ongoing and future planning efforts that will include opportunities to provide input on behalf of sportsmen and women.
- BLM Land Use Planning: https://www.blm.gov/programs/planning-and-nepa/eplanning
- USFS National Forest Management Planning Act /Planning: http://www.fs.fed.us/emc/nfma/index.htm
Over the last four Presidential Administrations, there has been a Federal Advisory Committee dedicated to advancing the interests of hunting, recreational shooting, and wildlife conservation on USDA and DOI lands. Beginning in 2018, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation President and CEO Jeff Crane served as Chairman of the Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council (HSSCC). The purpose of the HSSCC was to provide recommendations to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior on issues of importance to hunters, anglers, and recreational shooters with the goal of promoting federal policy decisions that take into account the needs of the nation’s sportsmen and women. In December 2021, the Secretary of the Interior announced the formation of the Hunting and Wildlife Conservation Council (HWCC). The purpose HWCC is to provide recommendations to the federal government, through the Secretaries Agriculture that (a) benefit wildlife resources; (b) encourage partnership among the public; sporting conservation organizations; federal, state, tribal, and territorial governments; and (c) benefit fair chase recreational hunting and safe recreational shooting sports. The nomination period for membership on the HWCC was announced in February 2022. Similarly, the Sport Fish and Boating Partnership (SFBPC) exists to advise the Secretary of the Interior, through the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, on aquatic conservation endeavors that benefit recreational fishery resources, recreational boating, and encourage partnerships among industry, the public, and government. State legislators wishing to make the SFBPC or HWCC aware of emerging issues on lands or waters managed by the BLM, FWS or USFS are encouraged to contact CSF staff to discuss engaging these advisory committees.