Reintroduced sportsmen's bills would fund access, conservation

One should never get too excited when bills are introduced because the Congressional process often takes years to produce a law. But sportsmen’s groups think they could finally score with a new attempt at a bipartisan bill that includes a Montana-made proposal.

On Thursday, four House representatives introduced H.R. 3173, the “Sportsmen’s Conservation and Outdoor Recreation Enhancement Act,” otherwise known as SCORE, which would create or renew seven programs that benefit sportsmen, recreationalists and wildlife.

Reps. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), Rob Wittman (R-Va.), Gene Green (D-Texas) and Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) – all members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus – are cosponsoring the bill that resembles the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2015 in the Senate.

Various versions of the bill have been introduced in previous years. But this is the first version to include specific public-access language proposed earlier this year by Sen. Jon Tester in his S. 390, Making Public Land Public Access Act, said Backcountry Hunters and Anglers executive director Land Tawney.

“We are thrilled to see bi-partisan support for the SCORE Act, and we are particularly excited to see the ‘Making Public Lands Public’ provision included,” Tawney said. “What we hope is that this is a version (of the bill) that moves, gets conference with the Senate version, and then we are done from there. But the Senate version really hasn’t gone anywhere yet.”

Tester’s proposal would require that 1.5 percent of annual Land and Water Conservation Fund monies be made available to establish and expand recreational access to federal public lands.

But that ties into a separate Congressional battle over the 1965 Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses offshore-drilling lease money to fund parks, conservation easements and public land acquisitions.

The LWCF will sunset on Sept. 30 if Congress does not reauthorize it. Even though it uses no taxpayer money and Congress has rarely allocated the full $90 million the fund should receive annually, some politicians resist LWCF renewal. Or they want to shunt LWCF money toward federal land maintenance, which has suffered as a result of Congressional budget cuts.

But if SCORE passes, public access would get another boost from the reauthorization of the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act that expired in 2011. Under FLTFA, revenue from public land sales went into an account that land agencies could use to purchase private land inholdings and improve public access.

The SCORE bill would also reauthorize two federally created organizations: the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Partners for Fish and Wildlife.

Congress created the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in 1984 to provide federal matching grants to projects that protect imperiled species, improve wildlife habitat and conserve water for wildlife and people.

Around the same time, some U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists started the Partners for Fish and Wildlife to support restoration projects on private land. Congress eventually adopted it in 2006. 

SCORE would also benefit birds, especially waterfowl, through the reauthorization of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, which provide matching grants.

“NAWCA funding is a critical component for DU to carry out our mission of conserving, restoring, and managing wetlands and habitats for North America’s waterfowl,” said DU’s Chief Policy Officer Margaret Everson.

Over in the Senate, the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act also authorizes these programs. But both bills have a long way to go before they become law, and a lot of changes can be made along the way.

For example, the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act has already gone through what appears to be three iterations this year after dying in the Senate last July due to being overburdened by amendments.

Early this February, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act as S. 405. But some organizations and politicians opposed language that, among other things, gave hunters priority over other recreationalists on public land; allowed hunters to carry parts of endangered polar bears back into the U.S.; and blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the lead in shot and fishing tackle.

Some of that language is still part of a separate bill, the Sportsmen's Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act.

Tawney said the modified version of the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act - S. 556 - has been cleaned up. Only seven of the 14 provisions of S. 405 remain.

“There’s not the bad stuff in there,” Tawney said. “There’s been a lot of work put into it to make sure it was clean because that is what was supported in the Senate in the past.”

However, on March 4, Murkowski’s collegue, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), introduced S. 659, also  bearing the title “The Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act,” that still contains some of the contentious sections, including specifying that people should be allowed to be armed at water resources development projects.

Tester, who authored the original Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act in 2011, and Sen. Steve Daines both support S. 556.