By Nick Simonson
The preservation of outdoor opportunities and the continuation of the traditions of hunting and fishing in North Dakota are sustained by three things: 1) the people who use and conserve hunting and fishing opportunities; 2) the habitat necessary to provide populations of fish and wildlife; and 3) perhaps most important in the triumvirate, is access to that habitat by hunters and anglers. Last week as part of the 66th general legislative session in North Dakota, a bill was introduced that would remove approximately one million acres of access from the general public and do untold damage to those opportunities.
Among all the states in the union, North Dakota is perhaps the most unique, with a storied and open history of doers and makers who braved cold winters to settle the frontier and enjoy its vast spaces and amazing places. As part of its very Constitution, the state and its people called out specifically and vowed to protect hunting and angling and preserve them for future generations. North Dakota remains one of the last states in the union with a “best use” land access policy, whereby if a landowner chooses not to post his or her land as closed to others, the public is free to access it for legal activities, including hunting and fishing.
Senate Bill 2315, which would reverse the 130-year best use tradition and its well-developed case law and specifics, undercuts not only the important need for people to be able to access wild places, but also the very spirit of North Dakota preserved in its governing document. This need for access is so important, especially in this new century, as support for the natural world and its wild places, along with the hunting heritage is challenged by other factors.
In 2017, around 140,000 of North Dakota’s 750,000 residents hunted. That’s roughly one out of every five people. Part of the reason for these numbers that sit atop the national per-capita ratios in the category, is the abundant access provided by the state’s best use law pertaining to unposted land. Unlike Minnesota, with its sprawling and seemingly endless national forests in the north, and well-developed WMA program in the south, and Montana with its rugged stretches of block management lands, North Dakota’s public land system is quite small, and access hinges on hunters being able to enter unposted lands. The 30 percent decline in acres enrolled in the state’s PLOTS system over the last decade also deepens the cut of the proposed legislation. If this access to unposted acres were to disappear, as under the language of SB 2315, many hunters would disappear with it; which for the non-hunting public, might not seem like a huge loss, but it is.
Since the inception of the Pittman-Robertson Act, which was designed to raise funds from the sale of outdoors-related goods such as shotguns, rifles and ammunition, to preserve habitat and outdoor opportunities, North Dakota has brought in $11.5 Billion in federal funds to help the state maintain and protect its vast and varied landscapes, building up the habitat and programs necessary to sustain and grow wildlife populations, from white-tailed deer to warblers. The connection between the hunting population purchasing those items, and the protection of the state’s natural resources is not only direct, but vital as well. SB 2315 would deal a mortal blow to the state’s hunting tradition as we know it and set off a dramatic downward spiral. When access goes, hunters go. When hunters go, dollars go. When dollars go, habitat goes. When habitat goes, wildlife – huntable, watchable and otherwise – will go with it.
No one who lives in North Dakota can deny the importance of wildlife. It’s part of who we are. From the buffalo, elk and bighorn sheep that roam Teddy Roosevelt National Park, to the downy woodpeckers and dark-eyed juncos that visit the suet stand and bird feeder outside a kitchen window, seeing wild things and knowing that they are there is as reassuring as the rising sun. SB 2315 is a threat to the way of life which has made North Dakota a haven for hunters and all those who love open spaces since 1889, but it is a greater threat to the well-being of the landscape and the wild things that call it home. Losing public access to a million unposted acres means losing the tradition of hunting, which is one our state government and its officials have sworn to protect in the document that governs every action of those at this year’s legislative assembly.
For these reasons, it is so important that you take a stand and contact your legislators – via phone, email or letter – and request that they vote NO on SB 2315 while letting them know how this bill would impact your hunting activities, those of your children and grandchildren, and how lost hunter dollars impact the future of North Dakota and every wild thing that lives in this unique and open place…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Access is what binds hunters and conservationists to the lands that rear wild creatures and sustain the outdoor opportunities in North Dakota. SB 2315 would reverse 130 years of legal precedent, remove approximately 1,000,000 acres of public access lands from the map and decrease hunter participation and the federal dollars that sustain the state’s wild places. Simonson Photo.