(CN) – The Department of Interior on Friday announced an initiative to open federal lands to more hunting and fishing, a move environmentalists called “cognitive dissonance” given the Trump administration’s recent interest in reducing national monuments.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order he says will enlarge hunting and fishing opportunities on federal lands while enhancing conservation stewardship, improving wildlife management and increasing recreational opportunities.
“Hunting and fishing is a cornerstone of the American tradition, and hunters and fishers of America are the backbone of land and wildlife conservation,” Zinke said. “The more people we can get outdoors, the better things will be for our public lands.”
Some hunting is already allowed at national monuments, but Zinke’s plan seeks to significantly expand those areas and allow shooting at some monuments where it is currently forbidden.
Environmental organizations greeted the news with suspicion, saying the expansion of recreational opportunities on public lands contradicts steps the Trump administration has taken to shrink certain monuments and allow the development of oil and gas extraction on others.
“There is an interesting cognitive dissonance at work here,” said Bobby McEnaney, government affairs director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s land and wildlife program. “We support the intent to increase recreational opportunities for hunters and anglers, but if you look at this administration’s track record it has largely been counterproductive to reaching those goals.”
The Center for Biological Diversity had stronger words, accusing the Trump administration of using the Zinke’s announcement to divert attention from its policies of opening up vast amounts of public lands to mining and drilling.
“This is a PR stunt intended to distract from the fact that the Trump administration is accelerating logging, fracking, mining and livestock grazing that damage public lands and destroy crucial wildlife habitat,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director for the center.
Environmental organizations have fought to keep hunting from public lands before, most notably when the Wilderness Society sued to prevent target shooting at the Sonoran Desert National Monument in Arizona.
But McEnaney said that was a case in which local residents were using Saguaro cacti as targets, which ran contrary to the mission of the national monument.
He said environmentalists largely support hunting and fishing in public lands where it is compatible, and that the process to determine its suitability is open and transparent.
“Public access and public process is key,” he said. “Whether it’s mountain biking, hiking or hunting, having everyone be involved in determining what are the most suitable activities for each monument is important.”
Zinke said the announcement was in reaction to a survey released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week that found participation in hunting has dwindled by 2.2 million since 2011.
Several hunting advocacy organizations including the National Rifle Association praised the plan.
“On behalf of the 5 million hunters, recreational shooters and members of the NRA, we commend Secretary Zinke for continuing to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s sportsman legacy by opening more land and water to hunting and target shooting,” said NRA executive director Chris Cox.
But McEnaney isn’t convinced Zinke’s plan changes that much from a legal standpoint, other than the administration appears committed to re-examining certain hunting bans in national monuments – which will involve robust public processes.
Zinke said a concrete plan to expand hunting is due in 120 days. His order also mandates the amendment of certain national monument management plans, outreach programs and creates a department at Interior dedicated to providing up-to-date information about hunting opportunities throughout the monument system.
“Secretary Zinke’s action today follows in the great tradition of President Teddy Roosevelt and recognizes the central role that hunters play in conservation and successful wildlife management,” said Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Many environmentalists acknowledge the enormous role that hunting and fishing have played in the conservation movement throughout its history, but also want to see more than just lip service from Zinke and the rest of the Trump administration.
“Don’t be fooled by Zinke’s secretarial order and his Teddy Roosevelt references,” Spivak said. “What’s best for those who hunt and fish on America’s public lands is protecting and restoring wildlife habitat.”