America’s 640 million acres of federal public lands – including national forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands – provide hunting and fishing opportunities to millions of Americans. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 72 percent of sportsmen depend on access to public lands for hunting. Despite that knowledge, access to public land is one of the biggest issues facing sportsmen today. In fact, it is often noted as the number one reason which lapsed hunters and anglers give when asked why they no longer participate.
The definition of access is currently up for debate. Some say access is defined by well managed habitat that creates abundant wildlife. Others argue that is defined by the ability to actually get to a remote place with abundant wildlife. And who manages the habitat is key to both arguments.
Currently, there are efforts across nine Western states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming) to take over management of public lands from the federal government. This could not only have an impact on where hunting may be allowed, it could also affect how the land is managed and what conservation measures are completed.
Proponents of the states managing public land believe the states understand the specific conservation needs of their land and could even put some land to better use. For example, the state game and fish directors and state foresters who collaborate regularly on the management of state lands could utilize their conservation practices on a broader and more effective scope that allows for implementation of state conservation plans. In addition, a study in Utah commissioned by the state and performed by economists found the transfer of federal lands to the State of Utah could be profitable and potential revenues would cover the costs of managing the lands. The report, An Analysis of a Transfer of Federal Lands to the State of Utah, found that Utah would incur an additional $280 million in costs to manage the lands, but would bring in some $331.7 million in royalties from mineral resources development, mainly oil and gas.
Others believe the idea that individual states will do a better job at running public lands is flawed. States may not be equipped to shoulder the enormous costs associated with fighting wildfires, maintaining roads and trails, treating noxious weeds and conducting habitat restoration. Some fear that if states take over management authority of lands currently managed by the federal government it could result in the sale of those lands, especially if they are not able to meet the cost of managing them. Eventually, the states might opt to sell them to private interest groups and land developers. If sold, conservation could be less of a priority and the opportunities for hunting and fishing could be reduced.
The complications of public land management will not be fixed overnight, but progress can be made with better collaboration between the government and the states and the stakeholders. However, a major key to progress is having an informed public, a public that is aware of the issues and the facts regarding those issues. SCI Foundation will closely monitor the debate regarding public lands and how they should be managed.
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