O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain! [America the Beautiful]
In a country that has vaunted its “purple mountain majesty” to a place of anthem, hymn; visceral and true patriotism, there is something deeply contradictory about a political party that represents less than half that beautiful America, doing what it can to gut an act of Congress that, for almost 50 years, has been in place to protect the wilderness we so cherish. But the GOP-led House of Representatives passed a bill in April of this year, called The Sportsmen’s Heritage Act, H.R. 4089, that is designed to do exactly that.
Stewart Brandborg, a wildlife biologist who was the former director of the Wilderness Society and a “long-time board member and now senior adviser to Wilderness Watch, America’s only organization dedicated to keeping wild the lands and waters in the nation’s 110 million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System,” has not taken kindly to this incursion into the needed protections of our natural lands. He decided to make his opinion known in a recent piece in The Christian Science Monitor:
Deceptively entitled the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act, the bill (H.R. 4089) purports to protect hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting. The bill is being pushed by powerful groups like the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International and supported by some of the most anti-wilderness Republicans in Congress. And it would effectively gut the Wilderness Act and protections for every wilderness in America’s 110-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System – everywhere from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness along the Montana-Idaho border that I can see from my home. [Emphasis added.]
The House bill’s provisions could still become law during the current lame-duck session of Congress. Though the Senate is considering a different sportsmen’s bill that does not include the harmful elements, the Senate bill could eventually be merged with the devastating House bill in order to pass both chambers.
At issue is the battle between sportsmen – defined as hunters, shooters, fishers, snowmobilers, etc., – who see open wilderness as a place to exercise their ability to enjoy their respective sports, and those who view wilderness as it is defined in the Wilderness Act of 1964. Per Mr. Brandborg:
The Wilderness Act eloquently defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The statute further designates wilderness as an area that retains “its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation” and is “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”
Brandborg’s passion is understandable; he has been deeply involved in wilderness preservation and conservation his entire life, working alongside Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society, who authored the original Wilderness Act and worked from 1956 to 1964 to win its ultimate passage by Congress. At Zahniser’s death shortly after, in 1964, Brandborg took up the directorship:
I directed the Wilderness Society for the next 12 years in implementing the new law and in adding new areas to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Congress responded to requests from the American people by adding tens of millions of acres to the wilderness system. Today, that system has grown from the original 9 million acres in 1964 to nearly 110 million acres. The Wilderness Act provides the best and most protective standards of all types of federal public land protection.[Emphasis added.}
What is now at stake are the elements of the House’s H.R. 4089 that seek to minimize protections while granting greater consideration to the demands of “sportsmen,” who are clearly less concerned about preservation and more about free usage. Vehicles could be driven within previously off-limit areas and roads, bridges, dams, hunting blinds, airplane landing strips, etc., could be built if even loose rationalization is made for “facilitating opportunities” for outdoor sports.
Potentially worse, H.R. 4089 manipulates protections even further by allowing certain activities that could marginally be justified as increasing opportunities for sportsmen; such things as logging, if the loggers claim it’s being done to create more grazing area for deer (to hunt), lake poisoning, to kill native fish to replace with exotic fish (to create more fishing opportunities), or predator control to help increase “big ticket” hunting species like elk or bighorn sheep.
The sporting industry, the NRA, and the many businesses involved in the various outdoor activities in question are a huge and powerful lobby supporting H.R. 4089. Additionally, there are many in the country who demand their “right” to enjoy their activities wherever they may best be enjoyed. But for others, the preservation and conservation of the glorious and natural wilderness left in this country seems to be a far greater goal than providing a bigger and more spectacular playground for sportsmen. Certainly there is no shortage of available acreage for the proponents of every kind of outdoor sport to fully enjoy their activities; is it not necessary to intrude upon the wilderness that so requires our protection to keep it from man-made destruction and ultimate annihilation. Brandborg believes we are all stewards of the earth, with responsibility to find appropriate balance in how we live within the natural terrain of our country. I agree. And that is true whether discussing where wind turbines can go, where development may be allowed and, certainly, where hunters shoot their prey.
I urge you to do your own research and if you believe we each have a hand in protecting the wilderness that serves this planet, its climate, its people and wildlife, please speak up and ask your Senators to BLOCK the advancement of the GOP backed Sportsmen’s Heritage Act, H.R. 4089, and instead, preserve the hard-won and essential protections granted by the Wilderness Act of 1964.