House votes to free public land for hunting and fishing

The House on Wednesday passed legislation aimed at reducing the federal government's restrictions on hunting, fishing and sport shooting on federal land.

Members passed the Sportsmen's Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, H.R. 3590, in a 268-154 vote. While most House Democrats and the Obama administration oppose several components of the bill, it garnered the support of 41 Democrats in the final vote.

ADVERTISEMENT
The bill is a collection of several Republican proposals that fit the broad theme of beating back environmental restrictions on the use of federal land. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said the bill is needed because people's right to use public land is under constant attack.

"Hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting are longstanding American traditions that deserve our protection," Hastings said. "This important legislation is not a solution in search of a problem. Regrettably, bureaucratic threats to hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting are very real."

Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), the lead sponsor of the bill, said the right of sportsmen and women need to be protected because they make a significant contribution to the national economy.

"These hunters and anglers provide a tremendous economic benefit to our country," he said. "In 2011, they spent over $90 billion. In my home State of Ohio, sportsmen and sportswomen spent $2.85 billion on hunting and fishing."

Democrats downplayed GOP arguments that restrictions on access to federal land is a burning issue.

"Let me remind my colleagues that 75 percent of all Federal lands are open to recreational hunting, fishing, and shooting," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). "There are ample opportunities for hunters and fishermen to pursue these recreational activities, and H.R. 3590 effectively overrides several important, commonsense conservation laws, and elevates hunting and shooting ahead of all other legitimate uses of land."

Democrats' biggest objection to the bill was language that would require the government to encourage these activities on federal land, which the Obama administration said goes too far by overriding environmental goals. For example, it says allowing recreational hunting, fishing and sport shooting cannot be considered a major factor affecting the environment, and that no additional consideration of environmental impacts are needed.

The bill scraps an existing conservation council and sets up a new advisory committee that would have to include the views of sportsmen on conservation issues. It also ensures people have the right to carry firearms on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers — the Obama administration opposes these measures as well.

But Democrats seemed fine with other provisions, such as language boosting federal funds for states to establish and maintain shooting ranges, and provisions letting states issue conservation permits electronically.

The bill also lets the government issue permits for commercial film crews to film on federal land in crew of five or less. And, it allows for the import of polar bear hunting trophies from Canada that were taken before May 2008, when the polar bear was listed as an endangered species.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said some of these provisions would likely pass the House in a voice vote if they were called up separately.

The White House also said it supports language prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating fishing tackle and ammunition that contains lead. In Tuesday debate, DeFazio said the EPA has already said it won't regulate these items, which makes the provision unobjectionable.

But Hastings said it's important for Congress to close down this regulatory possibility. "Banning lead bullets and tackle would increase costs for hunters, sports shooters, and fishermen, and cause economic harm to outdoor sportsmen and the recreation industry," he said Tuesday. "This legislation ensures that the EPA does not… have the authority to regulate ammunition and fishing tackle."

While the White House opposed the bill, it didn't say President Obama would veto it. But the White House reaction is unlikely to be tested — the House passed a similar bill two years ago that the Senate ignored, and the Senate seems likely to ignore this year's version as well.

Just before the final vote, the House rejected two Democratic amendments to the bill. One from DeFazio would have eliminated the environmental waivers in the bill, and it failed 185-237.

The other from Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) would have allowed the government to consider climate change as a factor in whether to keep federal land open for hunting and fishing. This proposal failed 181-242.