By Darren Samuelsohn
7/12/11 4:30 PM EDT
House Republicans fighting the Obama administration's environmental agenda are finding themselves making decisions that threaten the party's carefully nourished relationship with the hook and bullet crowd.
Anglers and hunters once courted by former President George W. Bush don’t like what they’re seeing in the GOP’s mad dash to cut spending and have made their feelings clear in meetings this month with top aides to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
As the Republican leaders no doubt know, this is not a crowd to mess with. The Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation estimates that nearly eight in 10 hunters always vote in presidential elections, while six in 10 come to the polls in off years.
The outdoorsmen typically lean Republican, but Democrats say they could capitalize with a constituency that's also known to be pretty independent minded.
"That's a very powerful group," said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.). "They bring in a pretty diverse voice. I think you have to be really careful with this because I think the American public, while they want spending cuts, certainly don't want to decimate the environment for the long run."
Bush fought routinely with mainstream environmental groups. But the Texan who loved to clear brush on his Crawford ranch worked hard to court the outdoor crowd.
Bush won accolades from conservationists for his handling of Healthy Forests legislation to diminish forest fire risks and in creating Farm Bill programs to promote wetlands and wildlife habitat.
The Adirondack Council, which focuses only on the New York state park, also backed Bush's Clear Skies legislative proposal, which skirted reductions for global warming pollution but tried to make inroads on acid rain, a big problem in the region.
"There was definitely a feeling in the hunting and fishing community that the Clinton administration had not shown the level of respect [it deserved]," said Dale Hall, a former Bush-era director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now leading Ducks Unlimited. "Whether it's true or not, the perception was there that they were a secondary thought. We believed it should be a primary thought."
Back in power, House Republicans may have poisoned the well with their austere spending strategy, including the fiscal year 2012 Interior and environment spending bill that won approval Tuesday in the House Appropriations Committee.
Under the legislation, the Interior Department's overall budget would fall $720 million from fiscal 2011. A popular land and water conservation fund would see a more than 80 percent cut to $62 million, while funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act gets a 47 percent reduction to $20 million. State Wildlife Grants are also cut 64 percent to $22 million.
Wildlife-themed riders are also sprinkled through the bill, including language that allows chemical companies and large agriculture operators to skirt pesticide permit requirements and enforcement of certain mountaintop mining rules. Conservation groups are complaining the language would dirty rivers and streams they use for recreation.
Other riders include a prohibition for any judicial review on Interior's decision to delist wolves from the Endangered Species Act in Wyoming and the Great Lakes region, as well as a zeroing out in funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service to list new species and designate critical habitat under the law.
"In the past, conservation has been a bipartisan issue. Democrats and Republicans have always agreed about hunting and fishing," said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, one of four conservation groups that took issue with another GOP-sponsored rider that blocks the EPA from updating Clean Water Act policies dealing with fish and wildlife habitat.
"I think you're seeing a divide that's starting to open up that hasn't always existed in the past and we hope won't exist for very long," Fosburgh added.
House Republicans said they've done the best they could for the hook and bullet crowd given tight fiscal times.
"There's an awful lot of Republicans who are concerned about conservation and that I'd call Roosevelt Republicans, myself included to some degree," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the chairman of the Interior-environment appropriations subcommittee.
"But when you don't have the money, you don't have the money," Simpson added. "I'd like to drive a Porsche. Guess what? My wife says I can't afford it."
Conservation group leaders said they understand what GOP leaders are going through, and they’ve told lawmakers like Simpson as much in private meetings.
"Mike Simpson got dealt a lousy hand," said Fosburgh. "He was in an incredibly unenviable position. There was no way he was going to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."
Many also said they support the overall goal of reducing the deficit.
"Inside the hook and bullet crowd, you'll find a lot of fiscal conservatives in general, not because of any party affiliation but more of a philosophy of how to try to get things done," Hall said.
But while they may understand the budget crunch, hunters and anglers are not done making their case to get their funding restored and the riders removed.
Leaders from Ducks Unlimited, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies met last week with top aides for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Office of Management and Budget.
In their presentations, they cited the side benefits that come with wildlife conservation, including flood control and better water quality. Federal dollars are also leveraged by upward of five to one with private and state money. Lawmakers also need to be reminded that the nation’s estimated 40 million sportsmen of voting age pay billions of dollars every year in state and federal taxes through their licenses and equipment purchases.
"If we want to talk about how to fix the deficit and how to fix the debt, our respectful argument is don't get rid of those things that make you money," Hall said.
Apart from tight budgets, hunters and fishermen face some other trends not working in their favor. For starters, Republican lawmakers often chalk up some of their cherished conservation programs as little more than green boondoggles. As America gets more and more urban and suburban, the hook and bullet crowd also finds fewer lawmakers who regularly cast a line or shoot a gun.
"John Dingell is the last of the crowd who's still around, a guy who is not partisan who knows fish and wildlife," Fosburgh said of the Michigan Democrat and Dean of the House.
The loss of key advocates like the late Rhode Island GOP Sen. John Chafee and New York Republican Reps. Sherwood Boehlert and Jim Walsh has also hurt. "What we've not seen is the next generation of leaders step up like that, especially on the Republican side. There's a smaller bloc than there was once was," Fosburgh said.
Jim Connaughton, former chairman of George W. Bush's White House Council on Environmental Quality, said a variety of hook and bullet groups are expressing angst over budget cuts.
"All of the major conservation organizations, from center-right to center-left, are deeply disheartened by the sidelining of their issues and their needs in the wake of these huge stresses as a result of the deficit and runaway entitlement programs," he said.
Many conservation leaders were cautious about making overt political threats. But they said their dues-paying members will take notice if funding levels for their favorite programs keep getting slashed and if the policy riders don’t disappear.
"There's a tipping point,” said Scott Kovarovics, conservation director at the Izaak Walton League of America, “in which folks who hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors are going to take a step back and say this isn't one thing, it's a series of things.”To read and comment online: