Has Congress Put Public Land Sales Back on the Table?
House rules could make it easier to sell or transfer federal public lands to the states, an idea broadly opposed by hunters and anglers
As of January 2023, the U.S. House of Representatives “rules” package, which determines how the chamber will operate this session, includes a change that makes it easier for the federal government to sell off or give away your public lands.
The new rule removes the Congressional Budget Office’s requirement to consider the financial value of public lands if selling or transferring those lands to other entities. American sportsmen and sportswomen handily beat back similar efforts to devalue and shift ownership of public lands nearly a decade ago—and we are ready and willing to do it again.
America’s 640 million acres of federal public lands—including lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—provide irreplaceable fish and wildlife habitat and public hunting and fishing opportunities for millions of Americans. These lands are so important for access in the West that nearly three-quarters of Western hunters depend on them for access, and they support the $689-billion outdoor recreation economy.
Quite simply, hunting and fishing would not exist as we know them if it weren’t for the public lands that provide all Americans with outdoor opportunities, free of charge.
The idea that our public lands should be sold off and given away seems to resurface every decade or three. It usually goes like this: A group of ill-informed decision-makers come to the conclusion that public lands are frivolous and unnecessary and should be sold off or transferred to some other authority. The idea sprung up in the 1970s and early 1980s with the Sagebrush Rebellion and then resurfaced in the 2010s.
From 2014 through early 2017, this idea was pushed hard in state legislatures and in Congress by a group of misguided lawmakers. In 2015 alone, a total of 37 individual bills were proposed in 11 Western states, all aimed at selling or transferring your public lands. But things really came to a head in early 2017, when former Congressman Jason Chaffetz introduced H.B. 621, which would have sold off 3.3 million federal acres.
Hunters and anglers recognized these bills as a threat and mobilized in force to stop them. For our part, the TRCP launched its Sportsmen’s Access campaign, which enabled more than 66,000 individuals to send letters to their lawmakers, encouraging them to oppose any effort to undermine public lands. The TRCP further joined with 114 national and local Western hunt-fish organizations and worked with 23 counties in six Western states to oppose this misguided idea.
In the end, the vast majority of state bills failed and most state and federal lawmakers—getting the message that the idea was deeply unpopular—quickly distanced themselves from the position that our public lands should be sold or transferred. On the campaign trail that year, Donald Trump stated his clear opposition to the concept of selling public lands, essentially ending the debate—until now.
Unfortunately, some lawmakers are again aiming for your public lands, and they’ve started their efforts with the recent House rules change. The good news is that we’ve never seen an issue resonate more clearly with hunters and anglers than the threat of public land disposal.
The 118th Congress is now underway, with narrow majorities in both the House and Senate and a considerable workload in the coming year. Fortunately, conservation issues have a way of garnering bipartisan agreement—a necessity as Congress takes up landmark legislation like the 2023 Farm Bill. The TRCP and our partners look forward to working with both sides of the aisle to advance conservation solutions in the coming months.
Here’s what’s at the top of our list for habitat and access in 2023.
Investing in Landowner-Led Conservation
Providing over $6 billion each year for voluntary, incentive-based conservation, the Farm Bill is the biggest piece of legislation impacting fish and wildlife in the U.S. Congress crafts a new Farm Bill every five years, and with the last bill expiring in September, 2023 is when decisions will be made that shape habitat on private lands for half a decade.
That is why the TRCP and our partner groups have been hard at work over the past several months to develop a comprehensive platform for what hunters and anglers would like to see in the 2023 bill.
This includes tripling investment in the popular Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which provides dollars directly to state agencies to expand local walk-in hunting access opportunities by working with willing landowners. VPA-HIP provides a significant return on investment, with $5.20 in economic activity for every dollar invested in the program. That supports not just the landowners that choose to enroll, but also local businesses like game processors, diners, motels, gas stations, and more. The access, of course, is a boon for sportsmen and sportswomen, particularly in states where there are few public lands. In fact, when polled, nearly 60 percent of hunters in Illinois said that the land made available through the Illinois Recreational Access Program was the only huntable acreage accessible to them.
Beyond VPA-HIP, hunters and anglers are looking to lawmakers to improve the Conservation Reserve Program to ensure it remains a premier tool for habitat conservation, prioritize the enrollment of conservation easements to keep working lands and their habitats in place, and ensure that wildlife remain a co-equal focus of USDA conservation programs as climate mitigation becomes a growing priority in agriculture.
Improving Recreation Opportunities on Public Lands
As lawmakers negotiated an end-of-year funding deal in late 2022, a proposed package of recreation and public lands bills wound up on the cutting room floor and should receive top billing in 2023.
This starts with the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act, a bipartisan package of bills developed by Senators Manchin and Barrasso to enhance recreation opportunities on public lands. Included are bills directing the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to expand access to shooting ranges and complete road-use planning on their lands. Other bills would streamline permitting processes for guides and outfitters, limit the spread of invasive species, support gateway communities, and make it easier for outdoorsmen and women to experience our vast public lands.
Providing Necessary Resources for State Wildlife Management
For more than a century, sportsmen and sportswomen have led the charge on new ways to invest in fish and wildlife habitat. That leadership role continues in 2023 as we look for a way to pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, landmark legislation that would provide $1.4 billion annually in dedicated funding to state wildlife agencies to conserve species of greatest concern. Not only would this new funding restore habitat and benefit hunters and anglers, it would also keep those species from being listed under the Endangered Species Act, minimizing untold costs to the energy industry, developers, and small businesses.
The RAWA was widely celebrated, enjoyed broad bipartisan support, and nearly made it to the finish line in 2022. Now, its base of support is greater than ever before. Hunters, anglers, conservationists, recreators, landowners, and business owners agree on the importance of passing RAWA. While the path is never easy, the TRCP and our partners will be working to expand congressional support, secure approval in the House Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and send RAWA to the president’s desk in the 118th Congress.
Accelerating Conservation and Restoration Projects
We’re expecting Congress to consider legislation to improve project approvals—especially for energy development, mining, and other infrastructure projects—early in 2023. It may be a surprise to some that challenges with permitting and approvals don’t only slow down development projects, but also the stream and wetland restoration, forest health, and other environmentally beneficial projects. Costly and often redundant planning processes discourage local partners from participating and result in wasted time and energy while federal funds remained locked up with the agencies, rather than benefitting fish and wildlife.
Additionally, when it comes to improving mining and renewable energy development on public lands, hunters and anglers have long fought for bipartisan solutions like the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act and Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act. PLREDA, for example, would balance renewable energy development and habitat needs, while funding for fish and wildlife conservation projects. The Good Samaritan legislation would reduce existing barriers to abandoned hard rock mine cleanup, making it easier for local partners to help improve water quality and habitat.
Accelerating conservation and restoration projects will ensure that the funds made available by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and other recent legislative successes touch down on the landscape. In the year ahead, the TRCP will be engaged on both sides of the aisle, bringing conservation and habitat restoration priorities to the permitting conversation taking place in Congress.
For more information, and to take action in support of these critical conservation priorities in the year ahead, visit the TRCP Action Center. To follow important conservation legislation as it makes its way through Congress, follow @theTRCP on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Outdoorswoman and director of SITKA’s ecosystem grants program shares her most memorable hunt, the toughest conservation challenges facing Utah’s Wasatch Front, and how climate change has affected her experience of hunting, fishing, and enjoying the outdoors
Lindsey Davis is an entrepreneur, conservation advocate, writer, and ecologist based in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she has been exploring public lands with a rod, gun, or bow for more than eight years. She currently runs SITKA Gear’s ecosystem grants and conservation partnerships program and serves on the board of directors for the Outdoor Alliance and Utah Wildlife Federation. Previously, she spent three years shaping the work of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, a coalition of outdoor recreation trade associations representing over 110,000 American businesses.
Today, she shares her thoughts on some of the toughest conservation challenges we face.
TRCP: How and with whom do you prefer to spend your time outdoors?
LINDSEY DAVIS: I seek out ways to interact with the landscape around me through hunting, fishing, and foraging for wild food and observing wildlife. No matter where I am, finding wild edible plants and cooking my catch are my favorite ways to build memories in a new place. I love experiencing this on the home front with my friends and family here in Utah, and while exploring new places with friends and knowledgeable locals. Those with literacy in the landscape tend to be the people I enjoy being outdoors with most!
TRCP: Describe your most successful/rewarding day afield or on the water. When was this and what were you doing?
DAVIS: One of my most memorable days in the field was my first successful archery hunt. I had backpacked into the Uinta National Forest for the opening weekend of mule deer season. That year, we’d had a wet spring, so the gooseberries were ripe and full. As I stalked around the woods, I ate fistfuls of berries and looked for deer. I ended up being in the right place at the right time to find a bachelor herd of mule deer, and I put a successful stalk on one of them.
On that hunt, the days were long, the skies were clear, rain was regularly refreshing the landscape, and we were the only hunters around. It was perfect.
TRCP: What is the biggest habitat challenge in your area?
DAVIS: There are many challenges facing wildlife and its habitats here in Utah, but the most glaring in my opinion is the rapid pace of development and population growth in this state. Along the Wasatch front, we have four of the fastest growing cities in the nation and a ton of new housing developments. Advocates are working diligently to map key habitat areas and propose smarter development, but every year I see more wintering grounds and sagebrush habitat ripped out and replaced with condos. I fear that we are putting too much pressure on our wildlife in this urban interface with little understanding of the impacts.
TRCP: How has climate change affected your hunting and fishing experiences in recent years? (Example: Altered seasons or migrations, species decline due to drought or wildfire, invasive species pushing out native forage, etc.)
DAVIS: You have to pay attention to snow, rain, and wildfire like never before. The strength and severity of winter storms has affected the ability of elk, deer, and pronghorn to make it through the winter. The amount of precipitation determines whether there will be enough green-up in the spring for calving females and what elevations the herds will need to be at in the late-summer and early-fall to find food. These same factors impact where ranchers will be grazing their sheep and cattle on public land. It all matters so much and determines how and where I hunt in the fall.
Variability in these factors has changed where it is productive for me to hunt in recent years. Wildfires have made it necessary to pack an inhaler and an N95 mask. It has also made it near impossible, at times, to see wildlife more than a few hundred yards away. Warmer water temperatures have made flyfishing closures imperative for the health of fish, limiting recreational fishing hours to just a handful a day before noon.
In short, it feels like there are just too many pressures on wildlife.
TRCP: How has this affected outdoor recreation businesses and/or hunting and fishing participation where you live?
DAVIS: Here in Utah, hunting and fishing participation is growing for the first time in decades. This makes for even more pressure on delicate resources at a challenging time. Limited hours for flyfishing inhibits a guide’s ability to book full days, which is having a huge impact on the guiding and outfitting components of outdoor recreation. With population increasing, hunting tag allotments are growing more limited and permits are harder to acquire, frustrating residents who would like to hunt every year.
TRCP: Why do you feel responsible for engaging in conservation and efforts to build climate resilience?
DAVIS: I see humans as a part of, not the center of, the ecosystem at large. We have an outsized impact on our natural habitats and also have the means and resources to do things differently. Because I am aware of my impact on the natural world around me, I feel responsible for being a steward and working to ensure generations that follow mine have the opportunity to experience wildlife and its habitats.
TRCP: What is one thing you wish every hunter and angler knew about the impacts of climate change?
DAVIS: While our individual experiences of climate change feel isolated and unique, it is a global issue we are all experiencing. I wish we had more of a shared sense of responsibility around it—more than the priority species we care about or the one region where we live.
TRCP: Do you think the hunting and fishing community is getting serious about fighting for climate change solutions? What would you like to see more of?
DAVIS: I appreciate the growing interest that the hunting and fishing community is showing toward climate change solutions. I think there is still more proving ground for our community at large before we are known as unified and serious, but we are getting there.
A Hunter and Angler’s Guide to the Omnibus Funding Deal
Hits, misses, and other highlights for conservation in the end-of-year package that keeps government funding flowing
Just before the Christmas holiday, Congress quickly took up and passed a funding agreement that keeps the gears of government moving through September 30, 2023. Importantly, the package carried several conservation priorities across the finish line and boosted funding for key programs that are perennially stretched thin. On the downside, long-sought transformational solutions, like the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, and major public lands legislation failed to make it across the finish line.
Here’s a breakdown of what the omnibus deal included for hunters and anglers:
The Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act authorizes $70 million annually to boost data on and curb the spread of the disease. The bill also directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to carry out a review of its Herd Certification Program for captive deer operations. Read more about this victory here.
The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act does away with the use of harmful mesh gillnets in federal waters, which has had devastating impacts on marine species and ecosystems.
The Charitable Conservation Easement Integrity Act eliminates a harmful exploitation of the charitable conservation easement tax deduction, ensuring Americans can continue to voluntary conserve private acreage.
The Growing Climate Solutions Act will improve farmers’, ranchers’, and foresters’ access to carbon markets, creating additional revenue streams and keeping lands intact in the process.
Beyond these highlights, the package included modest funding increases for critical conservation initiatives, like the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, North American Wetlands Conservation Act, Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, and others. Unfortunately, given inflation, many of these adjustments amount to flat funding from the year prior.
Included a rider that continues to tie the hands of Fish and Wildlife Service experts when it comes to making decisions aimed at keeping the greater sage grouse off the endangered species list.
Overlooked funding for the implementation of the MAPLand Act, which the TRCP and hunters and anglers everywhere fought so hard to get across the finish line earlier this year.
Failed to include a suite of public lands or recreation bills that would have boosted access and opportunities for sportsmen and sportswomen on our nation’s vast public lands.
2022 was a rollercoaster year in Congress, and many expected the late-December flurry of post-election dealmaking that resulted in this funding agreement. Drafting and passing a package of twelve appropriations bills is no easy task, particularly during a midterm election year. The TRCP, our partners, and the entire hunting and fishing community have been actively engaged in the process from the start, and we look forward to building off these successes—and circling back to missed opportunities—in 2023.
Top 10 Conservation Issues of 2022 (According to You!)
TRCP members showed the most support for these legislative solutions and conservation priorities in 2022
Since our founding in 2002, the TRCP has existed to unite hunters and anglers around common goals and then bring the strong, unified voice of our community directly to decision-makers, who can implement pragmatic solutions that benefit fish, wildlife, and outdoor recreation access.
Our best metric of success is whether we’ve compelled you—our members, readers, and social followers—to act in support of conservation, whether that’s by signing a petition, sending a message to your lawmakers, attending a public hearing or rally, or donating to keep our work going.
In looking back on this year—our 20th anniversary—we saw a pattern of strong support for many issues, both national and regional in scope. More than 30,000 of you took action at least once in 2022. Here are the issues that convinced the most sportsmen and sportswomen to speak up.
Sportsmen and sportswomen from the Gulf of Mexico to Maine have been primed to act on the menhaden issue since we began sharing the impact of reduction fishing on sportfishing opportunities years ago, but multiple net spills and fish kills this past summer brought even more attention to Omega Protein’s bad behavior.
Our work for menhaden, and the need for your support, continues.
Public Land Access and Management
Unsurprisingly, public land issues came in next on the list, with many opportunities for sportsmen and sportswomen to weigh in on national and local proposals and protect against threats to habitat and access. TRCP supporters have long defended public hunting and fishing opportunities, and some had reason this year to remind decision-makers that our community strongly opposes the sale or transfer of national public lands to the states.
You also spoke out about the need for federal agencies to digitize their paper maps and access records and make this information publicly available. Thanks to your support, this is a requirement made by the MAPLand Act, which was signed into law this year.
Finally, hunters and anglers stepped up to advocate for enhanced hunting and fishing opportunities and balanced, science-based management of national forests, refuges, and BLM public lands in Oregon, Montana, Nevada, and Alaska. Support for hunting and fishing opportunities in the Last Frontier was especially apparent: Across four different campaigns, TRCP members in Alaska and across the country supported re-establishing conservation safeguards for roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest, maintaining 28 million acres of prime habitat known as D-1 lands, preventing degradation of remote caribou and grizzly hunting areas in the Brooks Range, and creating commonsense protections against mine waste in Bristol Bay.
In the past two years, hunters in this community have gotten us closer than ever before to sending more adequate federal resources to state and Tribal wildlife agencies that are struggling to respond to the rapid spread of CWD among wild deer and elk. As a result, the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act sailed through the House in 2021. This year, thousands of you have pushed senators to pick up the baton and lock down these investments in better surveillance and testing and next-level science. We hope to have good news to share on this any day now.
You also called on the USDA to hold captive deer operations accountable for their role in spreading CWD between farm-raised and wild deer. This will be the major focus of our work once legislation is passed, so stay tuned.
Defending Pittman-Robertson Dollars
One bill that we’ll be glad to see on the cutting room floor at the end of this Congress generated outrage (and action) among hunters and anglers who are proud of our essential role in conservation. The RETURN Act, introduced in July of this year, would have obliterated Pittman-Robertson funding, which is collected via excise taxes on our licenses, firearms, and other gear to underwrite habitat improvements, enhanced hunting and fishing access, hunter’s education programs, and new public shooting ranges across the country.
We’re always hesitant to bring too much attention to legislation that appears to have no path forward, but in this case, with the bill co-sponsored by so many decision-makers upon introduction, education and advocacy was necessary. You rose to the occasion, firing off this message and leading some lawmakers to quickly pull their support for the bill.
Water Conservation and Drought Planning
While public lands and looming threats took top spots on this list, a diverse array of water resource issues also attracted your attention in a meaningful way this year. The biennial Water Resources Development Act was a surprising rallying point for hunters and anglers—while the TRCP always advocates for habitat and outdoor recreation in this process, it has rarely been met with so much support from sportsmen and sportswomen. Thanks, in part, to you, WRDA just passed out of the Senate and heads to the president’s desk with important provisions for Mississippi River conservation efforts, natural infrastructure, and Everglades restoration. The Everglades also got a boost in early 2022, but hunters and anglers continue to advocate for completion of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir with federal support.
The limitations on our good ideas and strongest conservation policies are nearly always related to how much funding is available. While a balance on federal spending must be maintained, it is worth noting that conservation dollars, as a percentage of all congressional spending, had been cut in half in recent decades. Gains have been made in many existing programs, but new funding sources need to be identified to keep conservation moving forward.
We can always expect a positive response when we post about wildlife crossings and big game migrations, and it’s easy to see why these are popular topics with sportspeople: Crossings reverse habitat fragmentation, save lives, and keep herds healthy, while trail cam footage of their use—particularly during migrations—is just incredibly cool to see.
Hunters and anglers also stepped up this year to support conservation of big game seasonal habitats, including wildlife corridors and stopover areas, across the West. Sportsmen and sportswomen in Colorado and Oregon spoke out about proposed land-use plans and legislation affecting these habitats and the possibility of installing wildlife crossings. This work is likely to be important again in the 2023 state legislative sessions.
Nature-Based Climate Solutions
It is easy to feel overwhelmed at the scope of the climate change crisis and how habitat and species are already being affected. But healthier landscapes and waters are powerful solutions, as well. For this reason, we launched a new online educational resource this year to engage hunters and anglers in this conversation and push decision-makers to embrace habitat-powered solutions to climate change. Many of you downloaded our guide to climate change impacts on hunting and fishing and then took the next step to demand action from Congress and federal agencies. The next major opportunity to secure some of these nature-based solutions is in the upcoming Farm Bill debate, so check back here for more in 2023.
A word about advertising:
I want to acknowledge that hunters and anglers can’t take action on these or other conservation priorities if they are not aware of the opportunity to do so. This is why—in addition to reaching out to our email subscribers and social followers—the TRCP uses advertising, particularly on social media, to expose as many potential advocates as possible to a given issue.
The budget to do this varies from campaign to campaign, so there definitely could be an indication of more support for campaigns that can afford more advertising. Still, even with an unlimited budget, we can’t sell anyone on a weak call to action. So, enthusiasm for the above issues is clearly there.
Thank You for Your Commitment
Perhaps you, yourself, were compelled to take action through a Facebook ad or other sponsored post before knowing much about the TRCP. If so, we’re glad you’re here. If you’ve been subscribed to our emails for a while and filled out your first action alert this year, we thank you. It really does make a difference when we can show lawmakers that their constituents care about an issue.
If you would have liked to support one of these issues, but you’re just learning about it now, please consider signing up for TRCP’s emails. Our weekly Roosevelt Report gives a good overview of what’s going on in conservation across the country, while more regionally specific and issue-based emails go out to smaller groups as opportunities to take action arise. And we will never sell your information or spam you.
Signing up is also a great way to get ahead of any new year’s resolutions to get more involved in or informed about conservation. Let us do most of the work and deliver that information directly to your inbox! Expect your first Roosevelt Report to be sent on January 6, 2023.
In closing, we are extremely grateful for your support of TRCP and overall commitment to conservation, habitat, and access this year. Happy holidays, and we hope you have excellent hunting and fishing in 2023.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
CHEERS TO CONSERVATION
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.