Editor’s Note (12/5/17): Scientific American is re-posting the following article, originally published October 30, 2017, in light of President Trump’s announcement on Monday that he will significantly reduce the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two national monuments located in Utah.
This past spring Pres. Donald Trump ordered a review of more than two dozen national monuments, calling the protected status of these lands an “egregious abuse of federal power.” The review included New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte, Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine and the controversial Bears Ears in Utah. The usual environmental organizations and many Democrats excoriated Trump, of course. But this time some of the fury is coming from a less-expected quarter: hunters and anglers.
Sportsmen and sportswomen don’t tend to fit the “tree-hugger” stereotype that many conservatives ridicule; a plurality of them lean right in the voting booth. Yet many strongly support preserving wilderness areas so they can use them to hunt and fish, and public lands such as national monuments often grant access to thriving wildlife.
Hunting and fishing groups have become increasingly politically active in recent years—an important development, since many of their members make up a significant part of the Republican base. Now that Republicans control Congress and the White House, hunting and fishing enthusiasts’ ideas about conservation may start to shape environmental policy more than in the past. So what does their influence look like in the Trump era? And could they sway issues like the national monuments review?
Hunters and anglers in the U.S. can trace their conservation ethic back more than a century. “Sport hunting was an elite activity, and the elite enforced hunting regulations to cut down on the game killed [commercially], and to set up preserves for themselves,” explains Thomas Dunlap, a professor emeritus of environmental history at Texas A&M University. “Hunters were important, though not the only factor, in the development of conservation.”
Their modern-day counterparts—including U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke—often evoke the memory of Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican whom many consider the “conservation president.” A lifelong hunter, Roosevelt established protections for about 230 million acres of public land during his tenure in office from 1901 to 1909. He also signed into law the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents power to create national monuments.
Today many of the more than 40 million hunters and fishers in the U.S. still believe in this ethic—and many of them also identify with the political right. “Our ranks are traditionally conservative,” says Land Tawney, leader of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. According to a national poll, 42 percent of hunters and fishers are Republicans, versus 32 percent as independents and 18 percent as Democrats. In terms of ideology, 50 percent consider themselves conservative, 37 percent moderate, and 10 percent liberal. The poll, conducted for the National Wildlife Federation, also found that most sportsmen and women see themselves as conservationists. “Even for the most hardcore duck hunters, I still think the conservation mission drives them,” says Rogers Hoyt, president of Ducks Unlimited. “Hunters and fishermen are true environmentalists—they enjoy using the resource, and believe in taking care of the resource.” Tawney says his organization’s efforts “are all aimed towards an end goal: having access to our public lands, and fish and wildlife habitat once you get there.”
Hunting and fishing enthusiasts spend significant amounts of money and effort on conservation as well. Hoyt points to initiatives such as the Federal Duck Stamp program, which have long brought in revenue to protect wildlife and habitats, as have revenues from other hunting and fishing licenses and taxes. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, hunters pay for the majority of wildlife conservation efforts in most states through stamps, tags, and licenses. Many sporting organizations devote substantial funds to promoting environmental issues as well—Ducks Unlimited, for example, has spent millions of dollars conserving wetlands.
“What's more conservative than stewarding our resources so we have them when we need them? That's planning today for tomorrow—that's fundamentally conservative,” says Steve Kline, a Republican and hunter who works for the non-profit Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP). “We are in a place now where conservation issues have become incredibly partisan, and I think that's unnecessary.”
Other conservative hunters and fishers echoed these views. “The best word is ‘stewardship’,” says Andy Rasmussen, a lifelong Republican and fisherman, and a field coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Utah. “It’s a conservation ethic—you need to be able to have these [public resources and public lands] managed sustainably, so that future generations can use them.” John Cornell, a Republican, hunter and New Mexico field representative for the TRCP, sees such an outlook as an inherent part of what he does. “I’ve always been a sportsman, and have always been a conservationist by being a sportsman,” he says.
After Trump announced his administration’s review of national monuments, several major hunting and fishing and conservation groups sent a joint letter to the president, asking him not to repeal any of the monument designations. And as Zinke worked through the review this summer, those same groups and others waged a public campaign against changes to the monument designations. They sent letters, voiced their support for monuments on social media, ran ads critical of the review and met with Zinke about the issue.
National monuments matter deeply to many hunters and fishers. A country-wide poll by TRCP and research firm Public Opinion Strategies found that 77 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats supported preserving the existing national monuments that allow hunting and fishing. Nearly all of the monuments in Zinke’s review currently offer access to both. Sporting organizations say monument designations are important because they safeguard those lands from future mining, oil and gas drilling, and other forms of development.
Despite this rare but solid patch of common ground, conservative hunters and fishers still tend to see themselves as fundamentally different in their philosophy than the standard liberal environmentalist—many support natural resource development and view themselves as active managers of the land, rather than preservationists. “There are not a lot of sportsmen who want to preclude oil and gas development [in general],” Rasmussen explains. “A lot of workers out in the oil fields are hunting and fishing in their time off.” Yet national monument lands and other conserved public lands are largely seen by sportsmen as off-limits to development. “Sportsmen want to make sure that within the monument, habitat is protected,” says Cornell, who hunts in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico (one of the monuments reviewed by Zinke). “We don’t want to see those areas opened up to industry.” But of course, they say that any national monument designations must also guarantee access to hunting and fishing.
The hunting and fishing community is especially concerned that if the Trump administration’s review rescinds or shrinks the boundaries of any national monuments, it will set a dangerous precedent. Currently U.S. presidents use the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate national monuments; it remains unclear whether this act gives them the power to undo such protections ordered by past presidents. Hunting and fishing organizations fear that if this administration does so it will open a door for future ones to do the same. “An attack on one monument is an attack on them all,” Land Tawney says.
Even though hunters and anglers make up a large voting bloc, it has not always translated to the policy they want to see. “The problem is that our community hasn’t been necessarily well represented by our elected leaders,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. “Everybody likes to pay lip service to [us].” The reason, he explains, is that the hunting and fishing community has not typically held politicians accountable when they vote against its interests. “Our community is to blame for it,” he says.
“I’d say [the community] has a lot of power, but it is [largely] untapped,” Tawney says. “We could be getting more done if people were more aggressive. But it’s a sensitive subject, how politically active you should be.”
Cornell thinks this is changing. “We have to be more political than we’ve been, or we’ll lose ground,” he says. “It used to be enough to buy a license and find a place a place to hunt, but now we’ve had to up our game.” Rasmussen agrees. “For so long, these groups just didn’t play in the policy arena,” he says. “[Now] sportsmen have a growing political influence.” He notes that eight years ago, Trout Unlimited didn't have anybody in state legislatures—but in 2017 the organization had dedicated representatives in every western legislature, working directly with them. “That’s [now] typical across the board for sportsmen's groups,” he says. TRCP says that people who hunt or fish also tend to turn out to vote more than the average American, making them a potentially more influential force in elections—for Republicans in particular.
Just last February Rep. Jason Chaffetz (a Republican from Utah) withdrew legislation to transfer millions of acres of federal land to state ownership after facing immense opposition to the move, including from the hunting and fishing community. In an Instagram post showing Chaffetz in the woods, dressed in camo and holding his dog, he wrote, “I'm a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands,” adding that “ groups I support and care about fear [the bill] sends the wrong message.” Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, says his group has seen similar successes in states including Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada. “Our members were able to help convince legislators that [transferring public lands] was a bad idea,” he says.
When it comes to the national monuments, though, not all hunting and fishing groups have decided to enter the political fray. Ducks Unlimited has declined to take a stance. And not all hunters and fishers support national monuments; some believe the land could be conserved in a better way, without government involvement. “Sportsmen aren’t a monolith,” says John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University, who specializes in public lands. “The number one thing that concerns sportsmen is access. Many of them are environmentalists, but some of them aren't.”
This August Zinke sent Trump a report of his national monuments review. At first only a general summary of the report was made public, without Zinke’s specific recommendations for the president. But the report acknowledged that when the Interior Department invited public input on the review, the majority of the 2.8 million comments it received favored keeping existing monuments as they are.
Shortly afterward, a draft of Zinke’s detailed report to the president was leaked to the media. It revealed that the Interior Secretary had suggested cutting boundaries or reducing restrictions on seven of the land-based monuments and three of the marine monuments: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah; Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande Del Norte in New Mexico; Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou; Nevada’s Gold Butte; Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine; Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument; Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument; and Rose Atoll Marine National Monument. Various hunting and fishing organizations expressed deep disappointment in Zinke’s recommendations.
But those recommendations are not final—the president will ultimately decide what happens to these monuments. Outdoor organizations do not know what to expect next, since Trump is notoriously unpredictable. But, says Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited, “it seems like so far they're not paying attention to what we care about.” Just last month, Rep. Rob Bishop (a Republican from Utah) introduced a bill to overhaul the Antiquities Act, which would significantly limit the president’s power to designate national monuments. And last Friday, Trump reportedly told Sen. Orrin Hatch (also a Utah Republican) that he would shrink the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument.
Whether conservatives in Congress and the White House realize it or not, these may turn out to be risky moves. Since many hunters and fishers count themselves as part of the Republican base and number in the tens of millions, “[they are] a huge voting bloc, and something that politicians and the administration need to pay attention to,” Tawney says. Wood puts it more bluntly: “We will ensure the voices of sportsmen and sportswomen are heard throughout,” he says. “They ignore us at their political peril.”