Hunters see value in federal tracts, oppose selling them — poll

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

A new poll has found that a large majority of hunters in the United States view public lands as an economic asset that should not be sold off to reduce the deficit or promote energy development.

The poll, conducted last month for the Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance, also found that more than two-thirds of hunters have used public lands in the past five years but that roughly the same number said there are fewer hunting opportunities near their homes than a decade ago — a sign that access to public lands remains a top concern for sportsmen.

The new findings come as lawmakers in Washington, D.C., seek ways to trim more than a trillion dollars in federal spending, with Republicans and some Democrats proposing curbs on new land acquisitions and steep cuts to an array of conservation programs. In contrast, Senate Democrats recently passed a budget to significantly boost land acquisitions.

The poll, conducted by the Republican-aligned Public Opinion Strategies and the Democratic-aligned Global Strategy Group, surveyed 800 hunters and had a 3.46-point margin of error.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents described themselves as “conservative,” with about 26 percent calling themselves “moderate” and 9 percent “liberal.” Political affiliation was split about even, with 46 percent identifying themselves as Republican and 51 percent Democrat.

“From Tea Party supporters to Democratic hunters, overwhelming majorities of American hunters of all political persuasions express strong support for investments in public lands and conservation; reject the sale of public lands; and say that conservation programs should not suffer disproportionate cuts,” said pollsters Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies and Jef Pollock of the Global Strategy Group. “Support for these policies likely stems from some widely-shared beliefs of hunters that public lands are essential to our economy; that children not spending enough time in nature is a serious problem; and that protections for land, water and wildlife are not in conflict with the goal of having a strong economy.”

Notably, the pollsters said hunters exhibited stronger support for using oil and gas revenues to bolster the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is used to acquire new federal lands and secure conservation easements on private lands, than general voters who participated in a June 2012 poll for the Nature Conservancy. In addition, 91 percent of hunters agreed that “public lands like our national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas are an essential part of our economy,” which is 21 points higher than voters in the June 2012 poll.

Other key findings include:

  • Seventy-three percent were opposed to the sale of “some public lands, such as National Forest or Bureau of Land Management lands, as a way to help reduce the budget deficit.”
  • Eighty percent said they agreed more that public lands are an economic asset for hunters and other outdoor recreationists, compared to 17 percent who said they agreed more that public lands “take land off the tax rolls, cost government to maintain them, and prevent opportunities for logging and oil and gas production that could provide jobs.”
  • If the federal budget must be cut, 36 percent said “programs to protect water, natural areas and wildlife should be cut less than other federal programs,” while 59 percent said they should be cut proportionally and 3 percent said they should be cut more than other federal programs.
  • More than 70 percent said the loss of farms and ranches; of habitat for fish and wildlife; of water quality in rivers, lakes and streams; and of opportunities for hunting and fishing is a “serious problem.”
  • Two-thirds said there are fewer hunting opportunities near their homes than a decade ago, while 18 percent said there are more.

The poll comes weeks after lawmakers failed to avert the across-the-board cuts known as the sequester, which trimmed a $1.043 trillion budget down to $984 billion, cutting conservation programs including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, wildlife grants, wetlands conservation, and land and forestry management by an even 5 percent.

It comes also as the Obama administration nears the release of its fiscal 2014 budget and as appropriators in each chamber consider how to allocate a shrinking pot of federal funds. House Republicans are expected to again target conservation programs they argue are fiscally irresponsible.

“Long before sequestration, there was an existing maintenance backlog on our federal lands, and now land managers are reporting that sequestration is only further compounding this issue,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations. “It makes zero sense that we provide tax dollars for new land acquisitions, especially given the financial crisis before us.”

But sportsmen of both parties are lobbying for continued support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, in addition to legislation that would ensure a portion of those funds is spent to improve access to hunting and fishing grounds. Proponents argue that greater recreational use of public lands would stimulate local economies and offset the costs of conservation.

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