A Win For Public Land

public land header image
Author Spencer Durrant with an arctic grayling in the Delta Clearwater River east of North Pole, Alaska. Photo by Benji Hadfield/@alaskankayak.

Why the Natural Resources Management Act is a huge win for sportsmen and women across the country.

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

Sportsmen and women in America got an early Valentine’s Day gift when the U.S. Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act (NRMA) on February 13, 2019. It’s likely to sail through the Democrat-controlled House since it passed 92-8 in the Senate. The biggest wins include permanent authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), protections for steelhead habitat in Oregon, and improved access to current federally-managed public land for hunters and anglers.

All eight senators who voted no are Republicans – Ted Cruz (TX), Mike Lee (UT), Ben Sasse (NE), Rand Paul (KY), Jim Inhofe (OK), James Lankford (OK), Pat Toomey (PA), and Ron Johnson (WI).

Lee opposed the bill because it “Moves federal lands policy in the wrong direction by failing to reform federal land acquisition programs and adding new restrictions to how Americans are allowed to use land already under federal control,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Deseret News.

Personally, I’m surprised Lee views the NRMA that way. It’s far from a perfect solution for public land management in the American West, but it’s an important step in the right direction. This bill brought disparate groups to the table where they actually made a compromise. Isn’t that what Americans of any political persuasion have been begging of Congress for decades?

I recently had the chance to sit down with Congressman John Curtis (R, UT) to talk public lands. During that conversation, Curtis told me something that’ll shock anyone with a passing knowledge of public land management issues in the West.

Both the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and members of the energy industry in Emery County (a rural slice of Utah with an economy based largely on coal) sat down to discuss which lands needed protection, and which could be used for further development. And, the bill requires public input – a big sticking point Lee had with this legislation in the first place.

This is what the bill actually states:

Sec. 1222. MANAGEMENT OF RECREATION AREA.


(1) IN GENERAL – Not than 5 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall develop a comprehensive management plan for the long-term protection and management of the Recreation Area.

(2) REQUIREMENTS – The Management Plan shall –

(A) describe the appropriate uses and management of the Recreation area;
(B) be developed with extensive public input*;
(C) take into consideration any information developed in studies of the land within the Recreation Area.
*Emphasis Added. View the full bill here.

Here’s the thing about public input – I absolutely believe we need more of it at the state level, especially when forming legislation as federally overwhelming as the NRMA. But that’s exactly what happened here with the provisions in the NRMA specifically regarding Emery County in Utah. I can’t speak for the provisions made for other wilderness designations in Utah, or the other states this bill benefits, but I’d imagine similar processes occurred across the country.

Wes Siler put together a great piece on all the benefits from the NRMA for Outside Online, which I highly encourage everyone to go and read.

Now, the other big win here is something Siler only briefly mentions in his article, but one that Steve Rinella and the Meat Eater crew dived deep into on the latest episode of the Meat Eater Podcast.

The bulk of wildlife conservation funding in America comes from the Pittman-Robertson Act, an excise tax on most hunting and fishing gear sold in the U.S. That includes ammunition, and for years it’s been suspected that recreational shooters were paying the lion’s share of the Pittman-Robertson tax, simply because recreational shooting uses high amounts of ammunition, and more people target shoot than hunt.

So the NRMA gives states flexibility to create new shooting ranges, and improve on existing ones, as a way of saying thanks to the recreational shooters who help support wildlife conservation, many of whom never step foot on public land to hunt.

The NRMA isn’t law yet – it still has to pass the House and get President Trump’s signature – but this is the closest we’ve come to major steps in the right direction for public land management in years. I’ve lived my entire life in rural Utah and made my career thanks to public lands in the West. This is a part of the country known for its disdain of the federal government – or any government, for that matter – and I give almost no credence to anything uttered by politicians.

If Trump signs the NRMA, assuming the House passes it, political lip service won’t matter because we’ll have new laws on the books to help preserve wildlife in America.

But more importantly, if this bill passes, it shows that conservationists and the energy industry can sit down together to wrestle a solution that works well for everyone.


Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, American Angler, Sporting Classics Daily, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Hatch Magazine, and other national publications. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.


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