Conservative Hunters and Fishermen Oppose Bush
Conservative Sportsmen Turn Against Bush
by Nick Jans
This is really some country," says my friend Arnie Erickson. He, his young son and I make our way down a steep slope toward Otter Lake, through a grove of centuries-old spruce, some of them with trunks 4 and 5 feet thick. We're scouting for spring steelhead fishing and next fall's deer in a rugged corner of Alaska's Tongass, our country's largest national forest, which encompasses nearly 17 million acres. The pristine landscape seems serene and timeless.
But as things stand now, this place is doomed. Late last month, the Bush administration announced it would exempt the Tongass National Forest from the roadless rule, set in place by former president Bill Clinton, which protected 58 million acres of public land nationwide. Former timber lobbyist Mark Rey, now undersecretary of Agriculture, spearheaded the rollback. Fifty industrial clear-cutting operations in untouched areas of the Tongass are set to move forward. The Otter Lake area, on Chichagof Island, is one of the first tracts scheduled for logging.
Little surprise that conservation-oriented groups such as the National Resource Defense Council, Greenpeace and the Alaska Rainforest Campaign are up in arms. They point out that the U.S. Forest Service's new logging plan targets 2.5 million acres of wilderness and contains more than half of the forest's remaining huge, old-growth trees — the very places on which the Tongass' abundant fish and wildlife most depend.
The tree-huggers fume that government subsidies to the timber industry cost taxpayers hundreds of millions, and the nearly 5,000 miles of existing logging roads are enough. But a powerful rumble of discontent is growing from what seems, at first glance, an unlikely source. Just weeks before the exemption was declared, Dale Bosworth, chief of the Forest Service, received a petition from the Northern Sportsmen Network of Juneau, Alaska. It was signed by 470 gun clubs from across the USA, 40 of them based in President Bush's home state of Texas.
In places, their letter sounds like classic "greenie" rhetoric, calling the Tongass "an unparalleled part of the American landscape," the management of which should "err on the side of caution." The message, which failed to sway the Forest Service, is clear and to the point: "We urge the Department (of Agriculture) to leave the Tongass protections intact." But while their agenda is similar to traditional environmentalist groups' agendas, their focus is quite different.
The drive's organizer, Greg Petrich, explains, "This isn't about the trees. What gets these clubs' attention is that the best hunting and fishing in America is threatened on land that belongs to them."
Petrich typifies the organization's constituency. The registered Republican, an avid outdoorsman with a degree in gunsmithing, says, "I respect Bush. I just can't believe he's doing this. The right thing is so obvious, it's a no-brainer."
The "right thing," as far as the Northern Sportsmen are concerned, is protecting the Tongass against the damage of game habitat wreaked by clear-cutting and the encroachment of roads into some of the nation's largest remaining chunks of wilderness.
Petrich minces no words about the message his group wants to send. "We want to make this an election issue," he says. "We want to make it clear that President Bush and members of Congress stand to lose something if they don't reverse their misguided actions."
This groundswell of conservative opposition to the administration's environmental policies is not limited to the Tongass. Hunting and fishing conservation vs. resource development on public lands is a growing issue throughout traditional GOP enclaves in the American West. Along Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, for example, protests from sportsmen on natural gas exploration are ringing out. This area is revered by hunters and fishers for its world-class trout and large populations of big game.
"Areas like this should be last on the list," says Paul Hansen of the Izaak Walton League. "A lot of conservative-voting people are pretty unhappy over the Bush administration's record on issues like this." And that record was amplified by the ringing silence accorded environmental issues in last week's State of the Union message.
"What's happening now on public lands is forcing sportsmen to organize," adds Chris Wood, vice president for conservation at Trout Unlimited. "Never before have our interests been as at risk as they are now." His group boasts close to 150,000 members, fewer than 30% of whom say they are Democrats.
The political clout of the hook-and-bullet crowd is potentially staggering. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statistics, 47 million Americans over age 16 fished or hunted in the past year. Adding those who do so less regularly would mean millions more.
"This is a constituency that is slow to anger, but the administration is starting to see a backlash," Wood says. "The 'Sportsmen for Bush' bumper stickers ... might be pretty scarce in 2004."
Hansen agrees. "Sportsmen are a significant swing vote, and taking this block of voters for granted on account of Second Amendment rights is a miscalculation."
Whether this wide-flung group is capable of banding together with their traditional environmentalist foes to protect common interests remains to be seen. But the angry shouts are growing. When I look in the mirror, I see an ardent outdoorsman and an independent who once voted Republican. I won't make that mistake again.
Alaskan writer Nick Jans is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.