Ravalli Republic: Sportsmen’s Bill resumes march through Congress

A wide-ranging “Sportsmen’s Bill” introduced Thursday in Congress would expand hunting opportunities on federal land but doesn’t include a reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., noted the absence of LWCF in his comments at S.B. 733’s mark-up before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Daines co-sponsored the measure authored by committee Chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, along with four other Republicans and three Democrats.

“Although absent from today’s discussion, I will continue efforts to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Daines said Thursday. The program may collect up to $900 million in royalties from federal off-shore energy leases for purchase or development of wildlife habitat, city parks and recreation facilities. However, Congress only appropriated the full annual amount twice in more than 50 years. The fund often was raided to cover other government expenses. In the most recent temporary reauthorization, it was only funded $450 million for 2016.

“LWCF has long been an effective tool for improving access to public lands in Montana, which is an invaluable business asset to Montana’s entrepreneurs,” Business for Montana’s Outdoors Executive Director Marne Hayes wrote in an email. “Given LWCF’s tradition of success in Montana, we find it unacceptable that it was stripped from the Sportsmen’s Bill.”

The Sportsmen’s Bill contains a variety of other measures, including a single joint land-use permit for commercial filming on public lands. The rule would exempt film crews of three people or less from commercial fees and ensure “that First Amendment rights to free speech and newsgathering are protected on federal lands,” according to a committee statement. The change could modify the Wilderness Act’s restriction of commercial activity in federal wilderness – something that’s often ensnared makers of hunting and fishing TV programs.

It would prohibit the National Park Service from restricting transportation of bows or crossbows that remain in a vehicle while the owner is visiting a national park. And it would increase state ability to use federal grants from the Pittman-Robertson Fund for shooting ranges.

It would implement the “Hunt Unrestricted on National Treasures” Act, intended to improve access to hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation on public lands. It also would clarify policy for all federal land managers to work toward expanding hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities on federal lands.

“Whether it’s ice fishing in the winter or pheasant hunting in the fall, getting out and enjoying nature sets our state apart,” co-sponsor Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, stated. “By improving access to public lands, creating more shooting ranges, and providing for input from sportsmen on federal policies, our bipartisan bill would make sure future generations have the same chance to take advantage of the great outdoors.”

In his committee remarks, Daines noted the bill “would bring transparency to fringe litigants who are obstructing land management.” However, the full text of the bill was not available Friday, and the committee bill description didn’t mention what sort of litigation changes it contained.