Tester Proposes Expansive Sportsmen’s Act

Flathead Beacon

by Dillon Tabish

As the latest Farm Bill lands on the U.S. Senate floor for consideration, Montana Sen. Jon Tester has proposed an expansive amendment designed to increase access to public lands, fund new shooting ranges and reauthorize a federal grant program that protects wildlife habitat, among other sportsmen-related measures.

In a conference call last week, Tester announced the new bipartisan legislation, called the Sportsmen's Act of 2012, which includes 20 provisions being supported by an array of outdoor and sportsmen groups, including the National Rifle Association, Safari Club, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the Nature Conservancy.

Tester's bill, co-authored by fellow co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, Republican Sen. John Thune from South Dakota, stands in contrast to the Sportsmen's Heritage Act of 2012 passed in April by the House of Representatives. The House bill, HR 4089, has six provisions and 27 co-sponsors, including Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, Tester's opponent in this year's Senate race. The bill passed 274-146 and advanced to the Senate for consideration.

Although its supporters say the House bill was designed to improve the heritage of hunting and fishing, the bill has come under fire for vague wording that could be broadly interpreted and significantly change wilderness areas. One section reads federal public land management officials would be required "to facilitate the use of, and access to, federal public lands, including Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, or lands administratively classified as wilderness eligible or suitable and primitive or semi-primitive areas, for fishing, sport hunting, and recreational shooting(.)"

The bill, however, may have reached a dead end with the emergence of Tester's Sportsmen's Act. Tester's sportsmen's package has two of the same provisions as the House bill: allowing polar bear trophies to be imported from a sport hunt in Canada and shifting regulation decisions over ammo and fishing tackle from the Environmental Protection Agency to state agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tester described his bill as "completely different" and a "much larger, comprehensive package" than HR 4089.

"I heard a lot of concerns about (House Bill) 4089 but there were good ideas in that bill, too," Tester said. "We can't allow development in some of our best hunting and fishing places of Montana, which 4089 would do."

Tester's bill would require at least 1.5 percent of annual Land and Water Conservation Fund resources be spent on projects like easements and road maintenance to open up access to public lands. For every dollar invested in LWCF, which is funded by offshore drilling, $4 would be invested in local economies, Tester said, which strengthens rural communities and creates jobs.

"When I talk to hunters and fishermen, their biggest concern is access to public lands," Tester said.

Other provisions in Tester's Sportsmen's Act include: amending the Pittman-Robertson Act by adjusting the funding limitations and allowing states more flexibility to create and maintain shooting ranges; allowing firearms in Army Corps of Engineers Water Resource Development projects or facilities; allowing bows to be transported across national park lands; reauthorizing the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, which works with landowners for habitat restoration; allowing states to issue electronic duck stamps; and reauthorizing the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, an initiative designed to provide grants to protect habitat critically important for migratory birds, such as ducks and other wildlife.

Tester said the provisions encompassing the Sportsmen's Act were priorities among the outdoor and sportsmen groups and committee he surveyed. He believes there's enough support to include the amendment to the Farm Bill.

"We've put this bill together with ideas that it can do good things for fishermen and hunters and sportsmen and women," he said.

While the federal highway bill has stalled, the Senate voted to advance the Farm Bill to the floor last week. It will begin by considering Tester's amendment and others. The Farm Bill primarily sets the nation's nutrition and agriculture policy. The current bill would cut overall spending by $23 billion while still costing an estimated $969 billion over the next 10 years. The current bill expires this year, leaving the fate of programs across the nation and in Montana hanging in the balance.

Montana Sen. Max Baucus is urging the passage of the Farm Bill in a timely manner because "one in five Montana jobs relies on our agriculture industry which ads to the urgency of this bill."

"There’s a lot of talk on Capitol Hill about creating jobs and cutting debt," Baucus said on the Senate floor last week. "The Farm Bill is our jobs bill and it’s also responsible to taxpayers."