In an increasingly crowded and pay-to-play world, America’s 640 million acres of public lands – including our national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands–have become the nation’s mightiest hunting and fishing strongholds.
This is especially true in the West, where according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 72 percent of sportsmen depend on access to public lands for hunting. Without these vast expanses of prairie and sagebrush, foothills and towering peaks, the traditions of hunting and fishing as we have known them for the past century would be lost. Gone also would be a very basic American value: the unique and abundant freedom we’ve known for all of us, rich and poor and in-between, to experience our undeveloped and wild spaces, natural wonders, wildlife and waters, and the assets that have made life and citizenship in our country the envy of the world.
In Part Three of our series, we head to a little known region of Northern Arizona.
The Arizona Strip has been called the best place on the planet to hunt mule deer, and with more than 2 million acres of Bureau of Land Management public lands and 4,000-plus miles of roads to access hunting and fishing areas, it is a sportsmen’s dream country.
Most of the 5 million annual visitors to the Grand Canyon, which lies just to the south, have no idea that just beyond the mighty Colorado River is located another, even wilder universe of slot canyons, sagebrush plains, lost rivers and Ponderosa pineclad mountains. The rugged Grand Canyon cuts off the Strip and makes this some of the most remote country in the Southwest, where bighorn sheep clatter in the scree, bison wander and turkeys thunder in high elevation aspen groves that seem utterly removed from the deserts below. It’s the Kaibab Plateau and the Vermillion Cliffs, the Poverty Mountains, the Parashant, all names that conjure up monster bucks in desert solitude.
You’ll need your extra water and your best boots, because the Strip is a sprawling place where the deer densities are low (population estimates are around 2,000 animals most years) but you’ll find some of the largest bucks on earth. As you hunt, you’ll see the same country traversed by the pioneers who launched from Fort Smith, Arkansas, bound for the Colorado River and westward on the Beale Wagon Road. At Laws Spring you can study the pictographs left by hunters like yourself hundreds and thousands of years ago. The most unique fact about this country, other than the fact that it is ours for the roaming, is that you will see it much as those long-ago hunters saw it.
In 2012, Arizona passed Senate Bill 1332, demanding the transfer of all federal lands to the state and giving the state the right to sell them to promote development. Arizona Proposition 120, a ballot measure defeated by two-thirds of Arizona voters, would have amended the state’s constitution to “declare Arizona’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife, and other natural resources within the state’s boundaries.” What the legislature proposed is a fundamental and radical remaking of Arizona, with no regard for the quality of life or natural resource protection that the public lands have provided for more than a century. It is hard to imagine the price that would be paid for the Arizona Strip, but the outcome would be clear: a state where access to the best hunting and other recreation is reserved for those wealthy enough to buy what once belonged to all of us.
While sportsmen were successful in defeating the vast majority of land transfer bills across the nation during the 2015 legislative season, Arizona proved to be difficult territory and two problematic measures were passed. One bill was a resolution, urging the United States Congress and the Dept. of the Interior to hand over public lands directly to the state. The other bill established a study committee “to examine processes to transfer, manage and dispose of federal lands within Arizona.” A third bill, vetoed by the Arizona Governor, would have entered the state into a compact designed to aggressively seek control of public lands from the federal government. All of these bills threaten public access to public lands because the state of Arizona, if successful, simply could not afford to retain and responsibly manage these lands and would likely find it necessary to sell them to private interests. Looking forward, hunters and anglers will be engaged with the Arizona study committee process to show lawmakers and the public that land transfer is a losing proposition. Sportsmen are also planning to step up our Arizona involvement in 2016 to prevent radicals from advancing additional measures that would threaten our public lands hunting and fishing traditions.
Stay tuned. In the rest of this 10-part series, we’ll continue to cover some of America’s finest hunting and fishing destinations that could be permanently seized from the public if politicians have their way.