The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 13, 2013

Even in the Great Outdoors, it's politics as usual

By John Cross
jcross@mankatofreepress.com

---- — Late on Friday afternoon, on the eve of the opening of pheasant hunting seasons in Minnesota and several other states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it was immediately re-opening federal Waterfowl Production Areas to outdoor activities.

It was welcome news to hunters and a refreshing illustration of how common sense sometimes prevails, even when up against the inexorable momentum of government bureaucracy.

In the unlikely event you were unaware, a partial government shutdown after Congress was unable to reach an agreement on the budget resulted in the closure of all kinds of federal entities from national monuments to national parks.

Aging World War II veterans who traveled on honor flights to Washington D.C. were turned away from viewing the WWII Memorial. Even the massive and expansive Grand Canyon was declared by the federal government to be closed.

And the USFWS had announced that because of reduced staffing levels resulting from shutdown, national wildlife refuges along with federally managed WPAs — small tracts of wildlife habitat found mainly in the Upper Midwest — would be closed to public activity, as well.

In this, the month of October when many fall hunting seasons are open, it couldn’t have come at a worst possible time.

Understand that if it wasn’t for hunters, the National Wildlife Refuge System that encompass some 150 million acres likely would be far smaller or might not exist at all.

In Minnesota, there are about a half-million acres of federal wildlife lands, including some 200,000 acres of WPAs, scattered throughout the state, most of them open to public outdoor recreation.

Virtually all of it has been funded by hunters.

The lion’s share of the $15 that hunters pay annually for their Federal Duck Stamp is expressly earmarked for the acquisition of wildlife habitat to become part of the national wildlife refuge system or Waterfowl Production Areas.

And every time a hunter buys a gun, ammo, binoculars or other outdoor gear, a federal excise tax is levied, once again targeted for the acquisition and management of such places.

Private conservation organizations — Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, among them — have turned over hundreds of thousands of hard-earned dollars to government entities for the express purpose of land acquisition for public recreation.

Locally, for the last 26 years, through dint of hard work and dedicated membership, the Blue Earth County Chapter of Pheasants, Inc., has managed to raise about $800,000, mostly used to purchase some 1,300 acres of land, some to become Federal Waterfowl Production Areas managed by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.

And at least until Friday afternoon, all of this land bought and paid for by hunters was declared off-limits because of the shutdown.

Claims by the USFW of staffing concerns rang hollow, to be sure.

After all, while staffing might be necessary in areas with some sort of infrastructure — refuge headquarters buildings, for instance — most WPA acres are comprised only of grasslands, wetlands and woods — just wild and wide-open spaces.

What’s more, even when the federal government is operating at full strength, encountering a badge-wearing federal agent while hunting on federal lands, especially on WPAs, is an exceedingly rare event.

Hunters on federal lands are far more likely to encounter state conservation officers enforcing both state and federal regulations, instead.

A cynic might suggest that the real reason for the wholesale shutdown of the federal lands was based on politics, pure and simple, to make a point by inflicting disruption and inconvenience on taxpayers.

One can argue the relative merits of both sides of the political issue but really, there’s plenty of blame to place on both sides for creating this mess in the first place.

While average citizens like to believe they have a say in what happens in the rarified air of the Capitol, ultimately, it’s power, money and influence within the D.C. elite calling the shots.

Undoubtedly, if the government shutdown continued, some hunters were going to thumb their noses at the federal government and venture into the WPAs to recreate, possibly risking tickets for trespassing.

In the narrowest view, we can be grateful that a measure of common sense prevailed and the areas, bought and paid for with hunters’ dollars, once again are acessible.

But viewing the big picture, it’s pretty clear that we continue to be plagued by a federal morass of ineffective governance and sorry statesmanship.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at jcross@mankatofreepress.com.