Hunting in the National Park System? A Closer Look at the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act
By Jennifer Errick, Editor, Online Communications
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill known as the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act which, if passed in the Senate in its current form, could allow hunting in units of the National Park System that currently do not permit it. NPCA strongly opposes this provision of the bill. What follows is an interview with NPCA’s Director of Government and Legislative Affairs Kristen Brengel and Legislative Representative Elise Russell Liguori on the serious implications of the bill and next steps to safeguard national parks.
Q: What is the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act and how was it created?
Elise: It’s actually a compilation of three bills that were introduced in the House of Representatives. The Natural Resources Committee combined those three bills into one bill, the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act. One had to do with increasing access to hunting on federal land; the other two bills involved recreational shooting on BLM lands and importing polar bear trophies from Canada, which is currently prohibited. It became this one uber-hunting bill.
Q: Does the bill target National Park Service land?
Elise: No. The stated purpose of this legislation is to increase opportunities for hunting on federal land, mainly on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service lands. But the way that the language is written, it leaves a big opening that could allow hunting in many national park units that do not currently permit the practice. When the bill was introduced last year, we hoped this was simply an oversight that would be corrected.
Q: Doesn’t the bill exempt national parks and national monuments from hunting? Is the concern that other kinds of park units like national military parks, national historic sites, national memorials, and others are not exempted?
Elise: Both of these questions are major concerns. You are correct that the bill fails to exempt many types of park unit that do not allow hunting, such as battlefields and historical sites. But even for national parks and monuments, the language only states that it does not “require” opening these lands to hunting. Current law prohibits hunting unless specified by statute, so this is a huge change that puts many parks and monuments at risk. The language would allow a Secretary of the Interior to open parks like Yellowstone or monuments like Devil’s Tower to hunting. There’s no reasonable justification for giving anybody that option.
So there are two issues. First, the bill doesn’t exempt all the different kinds of national park units; but second, even the so-called exemption in the bill doesn’t really protect any national park or monument. The bill says “does not require.” What it should have said is that the bill “does not authorize” the opening of park areas to hunting, to keep the status quo in those parks.
Q: Is there a demand to hunt in these other kinds of park units?
Kristen: It is ridiculous to even think about. Would we interrupt school field trips at Fort McHenry to use the seagulls for target practice? Hunt for squirrels at the Liberty Bell? Shoot clay pots at Chaco Culture National Historic Park? I mean, does our country really benefit from opening these sites to hunting, when there are millions of acres of land that are better suited to hunting, and when it conflicts with so many other ways people already use and enjoy these places, from hiking to bird watching?
Q: Did you try working with legislators before this reached the House floor?
Elise: Yes, we tried working with the sponsor of the original bill, Representative Dan Benishek of Michigan. We reached out and initially had good reception—we gave his staff the language that would have fixed the problem. Although we followed up on several occasions, we never received confirmation that the member would support an amendment to the bill. The next thing we knew, the bill was being combined into this larger bill, the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act.
Then, on April 17, when the bill was brought to the House floor, an amendment was offered by Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey that would also have fixed the bill, at least as it relates to exempting additional types of units. Even before that amendment came to the floor, Representative Holt went to the chairman of the committee to attempt to have his amendment accepted—and the chairman said no. Then, the full House voted on the Holt Amendment, which was defeated.
So there were at least three opportunities to make this right and exclude the National Park System from this bill.
Kristen: This happened so quickly, and the bill got swept into a more political issue about hunting. I don’t think a lot of people understood that this issue concerning national parks was also in the bill. That’s why we’re still hopeful that there will be opportunities to change the bill in the Senate.
Q: And it’s a simple fix?
Kristen: Very simple.
Q: There are about 60 or 70 national park units where hunting is permitted. Is there a reason why hunting is acceptable on some public lands and not others?
Kristen: Most BLM and Forest Service lands allow hunting—that’s millions of acres of public land. There’s an understanding and a tradition during hunting season—people know where they can go to hunt and other people enjoying these public lands know when it’s hunting season.
For national parks, it’s very different. Every national park is established for specific reasons. People want to learn about historical events that occurred in these places, and learn about our heritage and democracy. It’s very different from multiple-use lands.
For the nearly 70 national park service units that allow hunting, it’s one of the purposes of those units, and it’s written into law. For the ones that don’t have it, it’s for good reason, and it was intentional. To superimpose a requirement that allows hunting and target shooting would take away from that traditional experience that people are used to having when they visit national parks. A hunting provision is contrary to the fundamental purpose of those hundreds of other units.
Q: Ultimately, wouldn’t this put the burden on park officials to accommodate hunters?
Kristen: Yes. How ridiculous would it be to require the superintendent at the Frederick Douglass House to actually write a document that says you can’t hunt there? What a waste of time.
Q: Wouldn’t there also be an effect on wildlife?
Elise: Yes, these parks were created to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein”—that’s exactly what the National Park Service Organic Act says. Also, parks are historically places where wildlife can regenerate so that hunters can hunt them on adjacent lands. When certain animal populations get really low, the parks become the place where they can go to recover. President Theodore Roosevelt was an early proponent of this.
Q: When is the Senate likely to vote on this bill?
Kristen: It’s unclear. The likelihood is that this proposal would be offered as an amendment to something else, and it’s very hard to know when that could happen—but it could happen at any time. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate, and it needs an exemption for the National Park System. What we need to do is get the Senate to agree to exclude the National Park System from this legislation, whatever form it takes—amendment or bill. That’s why it’s so important that park supporters let their senators know right away that this bill, as currently written, is bad for national parks.
UPDATE, January 3, 2013: Although the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation in spring 2012 that would open much of our National Park System–including historic sites–to hunting and recreational shooting, NPCA worked hard to have similar provisions successfully pulled from Senate legislation. For now, national parks are protected, but we expect this bill to be introduced again. NPCA will continue to work closely with the new Congress to ensure that park wildlife and visitors are protected.