Republicans were once instrumental in passing laws like the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In recent decades, however, the party has developed a reputation as the enemy of public lands, a stance further solidified by the Trump administration’s rapid rollback of environmental protections. But in Idaho and Wyoming, two of the West’s most conservative states, hunters and anglers have thrown down the gauntlet, demanding state policies that protect access and voting down gubernatorial candidates who threatened public lands. As state legislatures shift in 2019, sportsmen’s groups are positioning themselves to fight the administration’s erosion of protections for public lands.
In the early 20th century, conservation became a political issue in America, fueled largely by Theodore Roosevelt’s desire to protect rich hunting and fishing grounds. Republicans carried on that legacy until the early 1990s, when the GOP began opposing environmental initiatives. Once President Trump took office in 2016, his administration slashed national monuments and put increasing amounts of public land up for resource extraction. In Congress, Republicans refused to renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a popular program that safeguards natural areas.
In the West, the Utah, Montana and Nevada state legislatures have introduced resolutions urging the transfer of federal lands to state ownership. Sportsmen’s groups generally oppose such transfers, as they would likely limit public access.
More than half of Idaho is federal public land, including the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the biggest contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48, and 891 miles of wild and scenic rivers, including the Salmon, Owyhee and Snake. But the state has no national parks. That’s partly because Idaho is a sportsmen’s state, and hunting is generally not allowed in national parks. In 1972, for example, state leaders from both parties ended a decadeslong fight over making the Sawtooths a national park by designating the region a national recreation area, thereby protecting its status as a popular hunting ground.
Voters like Jerry and Terry Myers, who guide fishing trips on the Salmon River, made the protection of public lands a central issue in the 2018 elections.
“We live here because we love this lifestyle, and we’re always continually working to keep that lifestyle as part of Idaho,” said Terry Myers, who is also president of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. “Even if leadership isn’t coming from the top down, it’s coming from the bottom up, with the idea that those things built locally will build into the political arena.”
In Wyoming, public lands proved one of the defining issues in the race for governor. As in Idaho, sportsmen are a powerful force: Thirty percent of the state’s 600,000 residents applied for a hunting permit in the last five years, and 18 percent bought fishing licenses.
“If you look at the voting public, which is 50 percent, I’m going to bet every one of those guys who hunt, vote,” said Dwayne Meadows, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. “And if you look at the fact that roughly two-thirds of the state are registered Republicans, that’s a lot of voting Republicans who are hunters.”
In August 2018, at a candidate forum hosted by the Wildlife Federation in the crowded Republican primary, three candidates — Harriet Hageman, Taylor Haynes and Rex Rammell — expressed support for the transfer of federal lands to state ownership.
Hunting groups picked up on the issue immediately. The hunting podcast Right to Roam made it the focus of an episode on the candidates. The Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance endorsed Mark Gordon — a hunter and advocate of multiple use for public lands — because of the forum, citing his stance on issues related to hunting, and his opponents’ stances on land transfers. Gordon won the primary with 33 percent of the vote, while Foster Friess, who received Trump’s endorsement but “provided a mix of positive, negative, and neutral stances on sportsmen’s issues,” according to the alliance, got 26 percent. Hageman, who had been polling well before the forum, received 21 percent.
“I think all the public-lands transfer conversation has done is galvanize the sportsmen,” said Meadows. “You can see it in the growth of organizations like mine over the last few years, and it’s powerful.”
Such issues also had an impact in other Western states. In the New Mexico race for governor, Republican Rep. Steve Pearce went on the record as supporting the Land and Water Conservation Fund despite previously voting against it in Congress. Pearce lost the race to Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who supported protections for public lands and is also an avid fly-fisher.
“Our community is a staunch supporter of public lands,” said Kerrie Romero, executive director of the New Mexico Guides and Outfitters Association.
“Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona are all moving more toward the Democrats, and that’s in part because of the GOP being tone-deaf as to why people of all political stripes value public lands,” said David Jenkins of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship. “I’ve always said that if you’re trying to change the political right on environment, you have to show how that aligns with their values — and in the West, people’s affinity for public lands is part of who they are.”
In 2019, sportsmen’s groups plan to continue the advocacy that helped Gordon and Idaho’s Brad Little win their governorships. In rural states like Idaho and Wyoming, it can be hard to track what the legislature is voting on each day. That is one reason why the Wyoming Wildlife Federation is launching bill tracking with real-time alerts to follow specific legislators, so that citizens can let their elected representatives know how to vote. The group is also stepping up recruitment of local ambassadors in rural communities, to help explain how the transfer of public lands and the administration’s removal of protections could limit public access. Groups like Trout Unlimited and Artemis, a new sportswomen’s advocacy organization, plan to ramp up trainings that teach people how to engage in local politics.
Sportsmen’s groups are already taking action in the federal arena as well: On the first day of the 116th Congress, House lawmakers reversed a 2017 measure widely criticized by hunters and anglers that had made it easier to sell off or transfer public lands.
“The overarching thing that every sportsman can agree on is public-lands defense,” said Michael Gibson of Trout Unlimited. “Over beers or at meetings, we might argue about regulations or season length. But whether the season is a week or a month, or you keep two fish or four fish, you have to have access to them.”
Cassidy Randall writes about adventure, public lands and conservation. The views expressed in this column are solely her own. This story was originally published by High Country News (hcn.org) on Jan. 11.