The two candidates in Montana’s tightly contested U.S. Senate race have taken steps to win favor with sportsmen over a key outdoors issue – access to public lands. Both Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg support increased access and have proposed legislation intended to enhance hunting and fishing opportunities across the state.
The Republican Party platform that was adopted late last month supports public access for recreational activities “on all appropriate federal lands.” The platform goes on to advocate selling off public lands for private ownership.
“Experience has shown that, in caring for the land and water, private ownership has been our best guarantee of conscientious stewardship, while the worst instances of environmental degradation have occurred under government control,” the platform reads.
It follows up by saying that the most economically advanced countries also have strong environmental protections.
“In this context, Congress should reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership,” the platform reads.
Rehberg responded to his party’s platform in an email to the Beacon.
“Montanans know they can count on me to always put them ahead of Party,” he wrote. “Private land ownership is indeed a key principle of our nation, and the benefits described are absolutely right. In fact, property was one of the three unalienable rights listed in the Declaration of Independence. But public lands belong to all of us and that’s the way it should be. I’m working to streamline the permitting process to eliminate barriers to using our public lands for public benefit. We can have the best of both worlds – jobs and public land.”
Tester disagreed with the GOP’s goal of selling public lands for private ownership.
“That’s a perspective from the 1950s,” Tester told the Beacon. “If you take a hunk of federal land and put it on the market right now, there’s not a rancher who can afford to buy it. Mining companies can afford to buy it, but not ranchers. That land will be sold just like many of the ranches in Montana are being sold right now, and that will not help access. It’s not smart long-term thinking.”
The Democratic Party platform adopted earlier this month supports opening more lands for hunting, fishing and recreation, but opposes selling off federal lands.
In its final legislative action before the November elections, the U.S. Senate cast a procedural vote in favor of Tester’s expansive sportsmen’s act by a count of 84-7 last week. The Sportsmen’s Act of 2012, which is largely focused on increasing access for hunting and fishing, will be taken up by the Senate after elections.
Tester’s Sportsmen’s Act is similar to a previous version proposed in June with the exception of one measure. A provision that would have allowed firearms in Army Corps of Engineers Water Resource Development projects or facilities was dropped after receiving a lot of pushback and threatening the passage of the entire package, Tester said.
The latest Sportsmen’s Act combines 19 separate outdoor-related bills that focus on recreational hunting and fishing access. Tester, who has served as chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus for two years, included measures that would increase the amount of lands available to hunting and fishing, would allow bow hunters to cross previously inaccessible federal land, help fund new shooting ranges, improve fish populations and other wildlife through habitat conservation and exclude ammunition and fish tackle from environmental laws regulating lead.
Republican lawmakers resisted voting on Tester’s act, contending that it was only being brought up as a way to help Tester’s reelection campaign.
In the spring, Rehberg helped craft a similar measure, the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act, which combined four sportsmen-related provisions that would require federal land managers to increase use and access for fishing, hunting and shooting on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands. Rehberg’s bill passed the House 274-146. The bill would similarly require federal managers to designate land for shooting ranges and recreational shooting and exclude ammunition and fish tackle from environmental laws regulating lead.
The bill was initially criticized for having vague language that could possibly allow hunting in national parks and motorized use in wilderness areas. According to his office, Rehberg helped clarify the bill’s language removing both possibilities.
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