Sportsmen's bill with wide-ranging support hits snag in Congress

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 1, 2012 - 5:25 PM

The compilation of 17 bills that would, among other things, improve wildlife habitat fell victim to the "political maelstrom."

A massive bill that would improve wildlife habitat, expand access to federal lands for hunters and anglers, establish more public shooting ranges and boost the cost of the federal duck stamp -- an increase hunters have sought for years -- was shot down in the U.S. Senate last week.

Now its fate in the lame-duck Congress is uncertain.

Ironically, the wide-ranging bill called the Sportsmen's Act -- a compilation of 17 bills -- has widespread support among Democrats and Republicans, as well as virtually all major wildlife, conservation and gun organizations, including the NRA, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited.

It has been called one of the most important hunting and fishing bills in a generation.

But despite its broad support, Republicans killed the bill, at least temporarily, in a political and procedural clash with Democrats and the Obama administration over the current fiscal crisis.

"It got caught up in the political maelstrom,'' said Gary Taylor, Ducks Unlimited's government affairs director. "The wide-ranging support is unprecedented, and it's a voice that Congress should pay attention to. Conservation should be a bipartisan issue.''

In a procedural 50-44 vote along party lines, the measure was killed -- stunning supporters. It needed 60 votes. In an earlier vote it passed 92-5. Minnesota Sens. Al Frankin and Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats, voted in favor.

Republicans said they voted against the measure because the proposed $10 increase to the $15 federal duck stamp would mean $132 million in new spending in the next decade -- which they said would violate the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Supporters argued the bill raised money for those provisions, and that the increase, long supported by Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups, wasn't a tax. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office said the bill would reduce the deficit by $5 million over the next decade.

"It is ironic and unfortunate,'' Taylor said. "The stamp is a user fee requested in the 1930s by hunters to pay for wetlands and waterfowl conservation. This is not taxpayer dollars, rather hunters and conservationists reaching into their own pockets to support conservation.''

Senate staffers said Friday the bill's author, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was working with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to salvage the bill. They said Tester had offered to add a "sodsaver'' amendment to the bill, which would reduce crop insurance and other subsidies to farmers when they plow native grasslands for crops. It would save about $175 million and would offset the duck stamp expenditures.

Even if the Senate approves the bill, it also would have to pass the House.

"The biggest thing working against us is the clock,'' Taylor said. Congress is scheduled to adjourn Dec. 14.

"This is one of the most significant acts for sportsmen in the last 20 years,'' said Vaughn Collins, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership government affairs director. "If it goes down in flames, it will be an embarrassment coming off an election in which the American people said they want cooperation.''

The bill is considered so important that Field & Stream and Outdoor Life announced their support -- one of the few times in their 100-plus-year history they have endorsed legislation.

"This is not the time to be divisive or partisan, because this is likely the most important piece of hunting and fishing legislation of our generation," said Anthony Licata, editorial director.

Among the bill's provisions:

• Provide hunters, anglers and others access to 35 million acres of public land by buying easements, or lands, from willing sellers, using money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, gained from oil and gas drilling fees.

• Reauthorize for five years the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which provides matching grants to protect waterfowl and other wildlife habitat. Over the past 20 years, it has conserved 26 million acres and leveraged almost $3 for every federal dollar allocated. More than $30 million has been spent in Minnesota.

• Authorize the Interior secretary to boost the price of the federal Duck Stamp beginning in 2013. It would be likely to increase by $10. The cost of the stamp, now $15, hasn't been increased since 1991. Revenue buys wetland habitat.

• Allow federal duck stamps to be issued electronically by all states.

• Allow 41 stored polar bears killed in Canada before the Fish and Wildlife Service designated them as threatened in 2008 to be imported to the United States.

• Exclude lead ammunition and fishing tackle from the Toxic Substances Control Act, leaving decisions about whether to ban or restrict it to states and the Fish and Wildlife Service. This and the polar bear issue are the most controversial items.

Those provisions caused Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to vote against the measure, the only Democrat who did. Anti-hunting groups also oppose the lead exemption.

Supporters argue, meanwhile, the provision wouldn't change much.

• Amend the Pittman-Robertson Act to provide more funding to states to create and maintain shooting ranges.

• Allow bows to be transported across national parks. Currently, firearms can be legally transported through these areas, but not bows, posing a practical problem for bow hunters who must cross national parks to access other lands.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com Twitter: @dougsmithstrib

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