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Las Vegas Optic: Another Perspective: Momentum building for Sportsmen’s Act

Like many New Mexicans, some of my favorite memories with my family are from camping, fishing or hunting in our mountains and public lands. Last year, my 11-year-old son and I went on his first backcountry elk hunting trip on national forest land. The bull elk that we brought home from the Carson National Forest fed our family for the year, but the experience of backpacking into the high country, sleeping on the ground and hearing the elk bugle around us will feed my son’s imagination for years to come.

But for too many hunters and anglers, it gets harder and harder every year to find a quiet fishing hole to catch trout, or a secluded meadow to chase an elk. As sportsmen face more and more locked gates and “no hunting” signs, it’s more important than ever that we keep our public lands open and welcoming to hunters and anglers.

I’ve heard from sportsmen who have found Bureau of Land Management lands closed without notice to hunting and recreational shooting. I myself have experienced the frustration of running into a locked gate on roads that used to be open to the public to access public land. As opportunities for hunting and fishing shrink, we’re losing the next generation of hunters and anglers who will fund tens of billions of dollars in conservation and restoration through buying Duck Stamps and paying taxes on ammunition, tackle, and motorboat fuel, all of which are dedicated to conserving fish and wildlife.

That is why I have taken the lead in sponsoring the Sportsmen’s Act of 2015 with the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Lisa Murkowski (R.-Alaska). This bipartisan package, which passed out of the committee last week with bipartisan support, includes a broad array of measures to enhance opportunities for hunters, anglers, and outdoor recreation enthusiasts, reauthorize key conservation programs, improve access to public lands, and help boost the outdoor recreation economy. Hunters and anglers alone spend more than $613 million per year in New Mexico, and outdoor recreation as a whole is directly responsible for 68,000 jobs in our state.

I was especially pleased that the bill we passed includes my legislation, the HUNT Act, which requires public land agencies to identify high priority “landlocked” public lands under their management that currently lack public access routes. The agency is then required to work with states, tribes, and willing private landowners to provide public access to those “landlocked” areas that have a significant potential for hunting, fishing, or other recreational uses.

Landlocked public lands are technically open to the public but are sometimes impossible to reach legally because there are no public trails or roads leading to them. For example, northeastern New Mexico’s Sabinoso Wilderness has 16,000 acres of narrow mesas, rugged canyons, and spectacular grasslands—but without a legal road to get there, the public can’t visit it. The HUNT Act will help identify areas like this that are priorities for sportsmen and other recreational users and find solutions to open these special outdoor places to the public. A recent study by the Center for Western Priorities estimated that at least half a million acres of public lands in New Mexico are currently landlocked with no legal public access. The HUNT Act is the first dedicated effort to re-open these lands to the public.

The Sportsmen’s Act also includes reauthorization of the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, which directs revenues from public lands sales towards purchasing high value conservation lands, a critical tool for conserving fish and game habitat.

Finally, the bill also includes permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the cornerstone of our nation’s commitment to conservation. In New Mexico, has protected iconic landscapes like the Valles Caldera and Ute Mountain.

Hunting and fishing are an integral part of our American heritage. Without our public lands, that tradition will be lost.  I am proud to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to make sure our kids and grandkids will be catching fish and chasing mule deer on our public lands for many years to come.

Martin Heinrich is a U.S. Senator from New Mexico. To contact Heinrich, go to: Heinrich.Senate.Gov