New legislation introduced recently by Congressman Dan Benishek (R-MI) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) could soon affect large swaths of federal land. The Recreational Fishing & Hunting Heritage Opportunities Act of 2013, or H.R. 1825, will require the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to create an “open until closed” policy on millions of acres of public land. Previously, the rights of hunters, anglers, and other sportsmen to federal land was unclear and at times jeopardized by local politics.

“There is an open policy for sportmen’s use of federal land,” Congressman Benishek told Outdoor Hub in an interview. “It is not particularly spelled out in the use of federal land that specifically lists hunting, fishing, and shooting as a protected right because it was always assumed. This act actually codifies in statute that federal lands would be open until closed […] in order to protect access for hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting on federal land. I grew up in northern Michigan, and I’ve been a sportsman all my life like many people. We want to ensure that our children and our grandchildren will be able to enjoy federal lands forever.”

The bill’s language has been updated since earlier versions of the act was introduced in late 2011 and early 2012. The 2013 bill specifically states that it will not open national parks and protected wilderness areas. This addressed much of the criticism by environmental groups to the previous bill, which some interpreted as setting a precedent where national parks–along with memorials and other protected areas–will be opened to hunting. Other critics were concerned that the bill will allow the use of motorized vehicles in areas previously not allowed. Congressman Benishek stated that nowhere in the bill will change current motorized vehicle policies.

Safari Club International, a top hunting and conservation group, has already pledged its support for the bill. Many others are also expected to endorse the act, including the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Sportsmen’s Association, who both endorsed the bill last year.

According to SCI, the bill will:

  • Establishes an “open unless closed” policy for recreational hunting, fishing and shooting on lands managed by the USFS and BLM.
  • Retains the discretion of federal land management agencies to establish closures or restrictions, pursuant to existing legal authorities, where and when the agencies determine that such closures or restrictions are appropriate or necessary.
  • Directs management of federal public lands to facilitate the use of and access to these lands for recreational hunting, fishing and shooting with certain exceptions such as for national security and within the limitations of other Federal statutes.
  • Requires that recreational hunting, fishing, and shooting be addressed in land management plans in order to protect public access and to encourage proactive management of these activities.
  • Prevents the sudden closure of lands to recreational hunting, fishing, and shooting without public knowledge or input, or when lacking sound scientific support.
  • Asserts the authority of the state fish and wildlife agency and ensures that hunting seasons are not unnecessarily restricted by federal land managers.
  • Expressly does not open national parks managed by the National Park Service to recreational hunting or shooting. It does not open lands designated as wilderness to activities prohibited by the Wilderness Act.

The area affected by the bill is estimated by SCI’s Nelson Freeman to be around 600 million acres of federal land.

“Without question, these are some of the most valued lands for American hunters,” Freeman wrote in an email.

The bill is currently on its way to a committee hearing later this week, where it is expected to pass. If signed into law, Benishek expects the act to take effect later this year.

When asked why sportsmen should support this legislation, Congressman Benishek replied, “We’ve been the target of an onslaught of anti-hunting and -fishing environmental groups who have been using every opportunity to limit peoples’ access to federal land and forests. It is the intent of the federal forests when they were created to be for multi-use. This codifies in law that hunting and fishing will be allowed. I think it is a good thing.”

An avid grouse and whitetail hunter, Benishek intends to try his hand at crossbow hunting next season.

More information on the bill can be found here.

Image from Torrey Wiley (pocketwiley) on the flickr Creative Commons

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