As a key faction of the Republican base, hunters and anglers, often hailing from rural, culturally conservative areas, are seemingly the last people on earth who would call themselves environmentalists or progressives. The GOP has for years courted this demographic by stressing an unwavering support for gun ownership rights, and by vilifying urban Democrats who have pushed for modest gun control.
But now the GOP is increasingly trying to erode other protections for outdoorsmen. As the old saying goes, “That dog won’t hunt.”
In states and localities throughout America, more and more Republican lawmakers are taking orders from wealthy landowners, developers and energy companies. These fat cats want to weaken laws that mandate hunting and fishing access rights, sell off public lands, privatize hunting licenses, and allow drilling and mining in the most sacred natural preserves. That puts the GOP squarely at odds not only with hunters and anglers, but also with exurbanites concerned about open space and sprawl.
In the 2004 Montana statewide elections, public lands and hunting and fishing access rights became central. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer sharply criticized his opponent for previously trying to restrict the state’s treasured Stream Access Law at the behest of wealthy private landowners. Schweitzer called for keeping public lands in the state’s hands, and for spending more money to maintain them. It was one of the key ways he outperformed previous Democrats in rural areas and won his race in a solidly Republican state.
In Colorado, where Democrats won a U.S. Senate seat, a U.S. House seat and the state legislature, the Bush administration has riled up locals by trying to weaken the Clinton-era Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Specifically, the White House is pushing a court case that would make sure the law does not stop industrial development in designated roadless areas. According to the Denver Post, the gas drilling that such a case would allow “generally horrifies locals in the Roaring Fork Valley” — a traditionally conservative area. “This is all about quality of life for folks in the Carbondale area — quality of air, water, hunting, fishing, recreation and ranching,’’ said town trustee Scott Chaplin.
Not to be deterred by this kind of grassroots anger, Republican Colorado Gov. Bill Owens’ administration is now considering providing more big-game hunting licenses to private landowners — effectively making the wealthy the arbiters of hunting policy. Colorado outdoorsmen oppose the measure because landowners would be able to sell their licenses for whatever price they see fit. As one local newspaper columnist wrote, the move would “greatly diminish access to prized bull elk, buck deer and buck antelope for anyone who doesn’t pay the increasingly large fees for a privately controlled tag. … Such a trend takes Colorado hunting increasingly toward the European model of privatization of game.”
In Wyoming, the Bush administration’s land policy took center stage in Republican Rep. Barbara Cubin’s reelection battle. “I don’t think we should sell any of our federal lands,” Democratic challenger Ted Ladd said in one debate, “and I think we need to return to true multiple use — where it’s not just corporations who get access, but it’s hunters, it’s fishermen, it’s recreationalists — to ensure that our public lands are not only the foundation of our economy, but they’re the foundation of our culture.” Ladd ultimately held the five-term Cubin to her smallest margin of victory despite being far outspent.
In solidly blue states that have Republican governors, similar radical land policies are on the agenda. In Maryland, where suburban sprawl is a top-tier concern, Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich is moving forward with plans to sell off state land for development. Internal documents obtained by the Washington Post show that Ehrlich’s plans are being driven by his backers in the real estate and development industries.
Similarly, in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has gutted funding for the Parks Department. Environmentalists and outdoorsmen alike fear this has deliberately left the state unable to manage its public lands, until eventually they will have to be sold off. Schwarzenegger has also prohibited the addition of new lands to the park system.
These and countless other battles about public lands and hunting and fishing rights have the potential to radically alter the national electoral map, especially in the Mountain West. Democrats already occupy four Senate seats and four governor’s mansions in six Rocky Mountain states — and there are bound to be more gains at the electoral college level if the GOP continues to ignore outdoorsmen.
Bloviating about the supposedly vast divide between “red” and “blue” states ignores the possibility that if progressives continue to make green environmentalists out of red-state outdoorsmen, the election night map may look a lot more blue the next time around.