Public land, simplified.

And 10 things you can do to help save it.

Hunting is an obsession. We are not like normal people with normal hobbies. We don’t periodically think about it and lightly indulge ourselves when the timing might be right. Except for our families, our lives revolve around hunting.

Whether it’s new gear, scouting, planning, practicing, learning, and time spent in the field during season, it truly is a year-round obsession that is only understood by those who have this age old passion.

I once quit a job because they denied my time-off request for a mule deer hunt. It wasn’t a great job anyways.

Because of this, most hunters also consider themselves conservationists. Without our public lands and abundant wild game our obsession would only be a dream. Access would only be granted to people who can write big checks or wiggle through extreme regulatory barriers like they experience in many European countries. If you’re zealous about hunting, you must also be passionate about conservation.

Imagine the last time you crested a ridge at sunrise and feeling the mountain come to life with fresh sunlight. Or that feeling you get when you witness elk depart a fog covered meadow towards their bedding area. My favorite times are when I am miles from a road in some wild backcountry. The isolation only broken by the chatter of chipmunks and the nostalgia of the land untouched by man. This is why public lands are such a priority for me. I cannot imagine life without these experiences.

What is conservation? Simply put; the preservation of natural resources. To a Western hunter, this can mean the preservation of wildlife, habitat, clean rivers and lakes, clean air, and keeping the wild public lands of the West pure and natural.

Conservation gets complicated, but it does not need to be. We are going to simplify it here, help it make sense to the average hunter, and provide real world action items. Let’s face it, unlike the celebrity hunters with huge platforms on YouTube, Instagram, television, and podcasts, we don’t have the luxury of frequent visits to the capital during the work week or spreading conservation messages to thousands of followers with a single click.

Obviously, conservation means different things to different people. Where I agree that simply buying a hunting license is in itself conservation, the time has come where more is asked of you as a hunter. Public lands is one piece of the conservation puzzle. In this discussion, the relation is simple; keeping public lands wild, clean, natural, and accessible.

Let’s start with simplifying public lands and how they differ in the Western states. If you are on the East Coast or Mid-West, this will not apply to your states. However, if you travel to the Wild West to hunt then you should have a basic understanding of these lands.

As we break down the three main land holdings of the West, keep in mind that this is all a very basic explanation. It is the minimum of what you should know about our lands and access.

State lands

Let’s start with state land. State lands are NOT public lands. If you live in Idaho like I do, consider yourself lucky. We have some of the best state land access in the West. However, it is not a right, it’s a privilege. The state can deny this access at any time. Montana also has decent state land access, for a small fee.

State lands were given to the states to hold in trust under the stipulation that they are to generate revenue for public school systems. The state can sell the land. They can lease it for logging operations or mining. Either way, the land needs to make money. Most importantly, the state can deny public access. They can charge fees for access. They can sell it to a company who will permanently close access. It is essentially private property, and the state land boards manage it.

Let’s shift to BLM land. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, there are roughly 245 million acres of BLM land in the United States. Most of which is public access land open to hunting. The BLM has a mandate which stipulates it as multi-use land. This means that if it makes sense to mine it, harvest timber, graze livestock, or leave it solely for recreational use, the BLM will do so. Understand that in most cases, BLM land is open to the public. Go hunt on it!

In 1905, this crazy cowboy named Theodore Roosevelt essentially established the U.S. Forest Service that falls under the Department of Agriculture. Forest Service land is public land owned by every citizen in the United States. It too has a multi-use goal like BLM land. Public access to these lands is almost unfettered except to motorized vehicles. You can camp, fish, hunt, hike, and enjoy these lands in a way that folks in other countries around the globe will never be able to experience. It is your land.

The three main Western land entities have now been touched on, and hopefully you can at least describe and identify them. I can and will write separate articles on all three. We have barely scratched the surface, we will take a much deeper look in future discussions.

Before diving head first into some things you can do to protect our public lands, lets discuss why they need our help.

First off, states never owned BLM and U.S. Forest Service land to begin with. The next time you hear some pompous politician talking about how the federal government needs to “give the land back to the state,” remind them that it never belonged to the state in the first place.

It is important to note that I am a right of center leaning guy, to put it mildly. In most cases, I believe in the concept of state management over federal control. Local control is generally less bureaucratic and more efficient. This is because local decision making is done regionally by people who have a deeper understanding of local issues. However, in the case of U.S. Forest Service land, giving management to the state would take the ownership of it from you and I. Put simply; if the state controls what is now public federal land, you will unequivocally lose your right to access it.

Federally managed public land: Owned by the citizens of The United States.

State owned land: Owned by the state, mandated to generate profit.

Western states have land boards and on their websites, like Arizona’s, they will clearly state that their land is not public, but maybe you can access it with a permit. It’s on their website here. Remember, Federally managed land is managed for the people. We own it. If the state owns the land, you and I no longer own it and do not have a say in it. They hold the title and they must make a profit on it.

If some of this seems redundant, I apologize. I really want to hammer the point home so that when you finish reading this, your understanding is crystal clear.

Normally I wouldn’t mind naming names and openly bashing politicians who have strange fascinations about transferring lands. For the sake of simplicity, I won’t do that here. I will, however, mention that one Idaho senator called public land mismanaged because “that’s what happens when your landlord is thousands of miles away” in Washington D.C. This implies that states pay money to the federal government as some sort of rent or lease.

Not the case at all. In fact, quite the opposite. There is something called “payments in leu of taxes,” or PILT, in which the federal government pays local governments to recoup the lack of tax revenue on federal lands. These funds go towards public schools, emergency responders, and other public good areas. See here for a full explanation of PILT.

Lastly, in regards to the asinine comment from the Idaho Senator, our forest service lands are not managed from Washington D.C. They are managed from local field offices. They get direction from D.C., but specific decision making is done locally and locals can contribute their input to these field offices. Much positive change has come from this. A field office in Wyoming will make decisions completely devoid of influence from a field office in, say, New Mexico.

Now that the very basics are out of the way, lets transition to what actions you can take to save our public lands.

Most hunters have full time jobs not related to the hunting industry. We are married and have kids. We wish our paychecks stretched a lot further. We do not receive free hunting gear because we don’t have sponsorships. We don’t have a podcast or 50,000 followers on social media. Vacation time is limited during hunting season. Balancing hunting and normal life can be a struggle. Most of us don’t consistently put down huge bulls and record bucks every year.

I’m not picking on those that do have some of those things and platforms. What I am saying is that sometimes the discussion of conservation from these hunting and conservation guru’s is delivered through the lens of huge budgets and endless resources. They seem to have more time to commit to conservation. Not that they’re not extremely busy as well, it’s a time allocation ability that some of us do not have. This is only a perception, not their reality. This perception can sometimes meddle our reality of how easy it can be. My hope is to offer some realistic actions that anyone can take. I firmly believe that YOU can make a huge impact, without all the fluff.

Here is what is realistic for any hunter.

  1. Buy tags: A quick Google search will reveal that tags and license fees make up the most significant funds towards wildlife and conservation efforts. In fact, almost $800 million per year is generated this way.
  2. Buy guns and ammo: The Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 mandates an 11% tax on all firearms, archery equipment, and ammunition that goes to wildlife conservation and hunter’s education. So please, buy another gun and practice shooting frequently!
  3. RMEF Membership: That’s right, join The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. If you hunt elk (which if you hunt the West, come on…) it is not possible to make an argument against having a membership. It costs less than a tank of gas, unless you drive a Prius. The RMEF is one of the highest rated non-profits on the planet and has helped achieve almost one million acres of public access. Click here to become a member this year!
  4. Other foundations: Many people have strong opinions on certain groups so I don’t want to provide a long list of options. In my case, I am a member of RMEF, The Mule Deer Foundation, and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. I’m also a member of smaller, more regional organizations like Northern Idaho Whitetails Forever. Don’t underestimate the legislative ability of local associations. These are what is important to me. Find a handful that align with what’s important to you. These organizations have the means and resources to take on legislative challenges that we believe in, with your support.
  5. Banquets: These are great for raising money for conservation. However, if you have not attended one you don’t know what you’re missing! They are a great time filled with good food, prizes, and like-minded hunters. My wife and I rarely miss an opportunity to attend a conservation banquet. Attend at least one this year.
  6. Mentorship: Introduce a youngster to hunting. I know it doesn’t seem like it during hunting season, but hunting numbers are declining. Our heritage and traditions are counting on future generations. Instill the passion to at least one child or a younger person. It will be more rewarding than you may imagine.
  7. Write letters: Okay, an email will do the trick. Pay attention to state/federal legislative sessions. Read the bills and email your legislators your thoughts. If a bill is compromising public land or access, send several emails. Get heard. They pay attention more than you may think. My goal is at least one email per month. Mostly, it ends up being a lot more.
  8. Attend legislative sessions: This one is hard for me. I live in North Idaho and Boise is about a 9-hour drive. I believe I’m closer to Helena, MT than my own state capital. However, if possible, attend and make your voice heard. Be pleasant and state your case. I promise you won’t be alone. Set a goal to attend one public hearing this year. There are plenty of local ones.
  9. Talk to people: Your friends or family probably do not know what they don’t know about public land. You may have learned a few things in this article. Share this information. Discuss why public lands and hunting is so important to you. The lack of basic understanding about conservation issues is mind boggling amongst hunters. It’s not a popular topic down at the pub. But, it is extremely important. Set a goal to enlighten one individual on public lands this month.
  10. Be a good steward of the land: During the summer, I take my wife and kids camping on the river. You can set your clock, every other Friday we head up the mountain. Nothing pisses me off faster than arriving at one of our dry camp spots to find a bunch of garbage left behind. Most hunters wouldn’t do this, but there are some that do. Let’s police ourselves. Clean up, leave nothing. It may be your land, but it won’t stay yours by leaving trash in the woods.

These ten things are easy, inexpensive, and not overly time consuming. They all leave a mark in the world of conservation. We need everyone.

I truly hope you got some value out of reading this. There will be many more in the future, this is not going to be a short-lived fight. There are those who have been fighting for decades, let’s not let them down and more importantly, let’s not let our children and grandchildren down.

See you on the mountain!

Jim Hunstman

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