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Boundary Waters threatened by federal hunting and fishing bill

When the U.S. House passed the legislation two months ago, H.R. 4089 didn't get much attention. But the Sportsmen's Heritage Act of 2012 increasingly is being viewed as an assault on federal wilderness protections in place for about a half-centur...

When the U.S. House passed the legislation two months ago, H.R. 4089 didn't get much attention.

But the Sportsmen's Heritage Act of 2012 increasingly is being viewed as an assault on federal wilderness protections in place for about a half-century.

"I think it's probably the most serious threat to the Wilderness Act since it passed in 1964," said Kevin Proescholdt, conservation director of Montana-based Wilderness Watch and former head of an advocacy group for the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Some worry the bill would open up the BWCAW to motorized vehicles.

The bill, which expands hunting and fishing opportunities on public lands, passed the House on a 274-146 vote on April 17. In the Senate, at least two versions of it are being introduced as amendments to a large farm bill.

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When the bill cleared the House, six of Minnesota's eight representatives voted for it. They were Republicans Michele Bachmann, Chip Cravaack, John Kline and Erik Paulsen and Democrats Collin Peterson and Tim Walz. Democrats Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum voted against it.

It's being pushed by such powerful hunting and gun groups as Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association. Many other sportsmen's and conservation groups also back it.

Among other things, it seeks to boost hunting opportunities on federal public lands. But in doing so, Proescholdt said it also would limit federal wilderness protections.

"It would allow anyone who had a fishing pole or a rifle to run motorboats, snowmobiles, or ATVs anywhere in the Boundary

Waters," Proescholdt contended. "Under the House bill, these activities are given higher priority than wilderness protection."

In the federal BWCAW, hunting and fishing already are allowed under state regulations. But under a compromise, only 21 percent of the water surface area is open to motorboats. No ATVs are allowed, and snowmobiles are only allowed in two short routes to access Canadian properties.

In an analysis of the bill, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the public policy research arm of Congress, appears to agree.

"Because of imprecise wording in the bill, the full extent of the bill's impact on the Wilderness Act is unclear," it said. "However, it appears that Section 104(e) would not only allow any activity related to fishing, hunting or wildlife conservation to be conducted in wilderness areas, but it may also obviate the primacy of wilderness values in determining permissible activities in wilderness areas."

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In lobbying efforts and on their websites, sportsmen's groups have minimized any potential impacts on wilderness areas. Representatives for Safari Club International and the NRA, meanwhile, were not made available to comment for this story.

The Wilderness Act passed with overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans in 1964; there was only one dissenting vote in the House and 12 in the Senate. It's widely considered to be the key measure in protecting almost

110 million acres of federal land.

The Sportsmen's Act of 2012 passed the Republican-controlled House, Proescholdt notes. He said it likely would have a tough time on its own in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

But attaching its provisions to the farm bill, an all-encompassing measure that addresses everything from farm subsidies to school lunches, offers another opportunity.

Of the two attempts to tie the sportsmen's bill to the farm bill, only one -- pushed by U.S. Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho -- has the controversial wilderness language. The other, from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., does not.

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENTFISHINGHUNTING
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