San Diego Union Tribune

April 19, 2004

Outdoors enthusiasts back away from Bush
Some hunters, anglers blast policy in West


WASHINGTON When hunting and fishing enthusiasts gathered at President Bush's ranch this month to talk about protecting wild places that are dear to them, Scott Stouder wasn't there.

Stouder has a solid history of voting Republican for Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr. and George W. Yet this year, he said, "I would vote for John Kerry. The things this administration are doing to our public lands are inexcusable."

Stouder's feelings reflect widespread disappointment among those in a traditionally Republican stronghold hunting and fishing enthusiasts who say White House policies are destroying millions of acres of Western lands for fish and wildlife. Their recent activism puts them hand-in-hand with an unlikely ally: environmental groups typically aligned with Democrats.

"A lot has been made about the differences between environmentalists and hunters and anglers," said Chris Wood, vice president of conservation for Trout Unlimited, whose Republican members tend to outnumber Democrats 2 to 1. "But they share most of the same goals: healthy habitat for fish and wildlife, clean air, clean water. What's uncomfortable for the hunting and angling community is that (until now), we viewed our relationship with the federal (government) as a collaborative one."

The White House insists that it is listening to outdoor enthusiasts, and points to meetings it held last December with outdoors enthusiasts' groups, and the one Bush hosted April 8 for 15 gun and outdoors enthusiasts' clubs at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

"We've had a long-standing, constructive relationship with these conservation and sportsmen's groups," said James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "Does that mean, all the time, a specific interest group will get everything it wants? Certainly not."

Forty-seven million Americans over age 16 hunted or fished in 2001, and collectively spent $70 billion doing so, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Hunters and anglers are often conservatives interested in gun-owners' rights, and typically, they are a reliable Republican voting bloc.

But it's not clear that Bush can count on their support this year.

Last fall, 486 outdoors clubs signed a letter to Dale Bosworth, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, complaining about Bush's decision to open the Tongass National Forest nearly 17 million acres of old-growth forest in Southeast Alaska to logging.

"These people are flat-out furious with a lot of the public-land policies of the Bush administration," said Greg Petrich, director of the Northern Sportsmen Network of Juneau, Alaska, which led the letter-writing campaign. "This is not the kind of treatment they want to see for their public lands."

Hunting and fishing groups have expressed similar concerns about Bush's efforts to open public lands along the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains to oil and gas drilling, and his reluctance to more tightly interpret laws protecting wetlands from developers and farmers. Throughout the West, these groups say, Bush's policies are threatening some of the best hunting and fishing in the United States.

"Bush doesn't know the depth of the attachment that people out here in the West have to public lands," said Stouder, an Idaho resident and Western field coordinator for Trout Unlimited. "This administration is using end runs to completely neuter everything we've done to protect our fish and wildlife."

A Bosworth spokeswoman said the Forest Service "took the (Tongass) letter seriously."

"We regularly work with these groups, and we will continue to work with them to address the concerns they brought up," said the spokeswoman, Heidi Valetkevitch.

Doug Painter, a board member for the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation and a participant in the meeting at the president's ranch, said Bush has protected hunting and fishing interests with his Healthy Forests Initiative, which intends to protect forests by clearing fire-prone trees and brush, and with his attempts to open more refuges and public lands to hunting.

"I have been very impressed with the fact that (Bush) is not only a very avid sportsman, he is also a very knowledgeable and thoughtful conservationist," Painter said.

The National Rifle Association, which had a representative at the meeting, suggested that groups disappointed with Bush's policies represent a minority of those in the hunting and fishing community.

"The overwhelming majority of sportsmen's groups are very pleased with this administration's record on hunting and wildlife conservation issues," said Chris Cox, an association lobbyist.

Paul Hansen of the Izaak Walton League, a hunting and fishing enthusiasts' conservation group, noted that the NRA represents 4 million of the 47 million people in the country who hunt and fish.

"A portion of the hunting community will vote guns first, but a lot of hunters vote conservation first," said Hansen, who is the league's executive director. Of the league's 50,000 members, 40 percent are Republicans, 20 percent are Democrats and 40 percent are independents.

The White House meeting last December did result in some "positive" developments, said one person familiar with the gathering who asked not to be identified so he could speak more candidly. Those included Bush's decision to stop federal rule-making on wetlands that would have made it easier for farmers and developers to fill in wetlands.

Yet, at the Crawford meeting, "there was nothing of real substance discussed," he said, adding that federal policies still allow landowners to fill in wetlands that don't connect to other bodies of water.

"There's been some action, but it's been fairly minimal on the part of the administration," said this person, a registered Republican who, like Stouder, plans to vote for Kerry this year despite his past support for Bush.

Petrich, a registered Republican for 10 years, may not cast a ballot in this November's presidential election. He predicts like-minded hunting and fishing enthusiasts may do the same.

"What this translates into is anyone's guess," he said. "It may be someone does not give $100 this year to Bush, or that they don't put a Bush sign in their yard. Maybe (on Election Day) they just stay home."