What Will Barack Obama or John McCain mean for hunters and wildlife?
Good question, but let me start with another question: What did the Bush administration mean for hunters and wildlife?
How about the Clinton Administration?
How about the Reagan, Ford or Carter Administrations?
You see? Nothing.
As odd as it may seem, hunting, wildlife and guns are not really Presidential issues.
They are local issues and state issues. Very occasionally, they are national legislative issues which may devolve into litigation issues. But the Executive Branch? That's not where hunting, wildlife and gun issues typically play out for 99 percent of all hunters and anglers.
When Ronald Reagan was President, breakfast was not served with a "State of America's Wildlife" report next to the orange juice and a BATF "Second Amendment Report" next to the eggs.
Which is not to say that such obvious truths have too much to do with the kind of nakedly partisan discourse we are likely to hear this year. The folks at the Sierra Club are not staying up nights thinking too deeply about the Second Amendment, and the folks at the National Rifle Association don't give a damn about public lands, clean water, clean air, or whether the population of whitetail deer or redhead ducks is rising or falling in your area.
Now, here's the good news: The country is in pretty great shape no matter what anyone says.
Whether you want a rifle or a shotgun, a crossbow or a derringer, a .50 caliber Desert Eagle or a Smith and Wesson kit gun, a black powder rifle, or a laser-sighted Remington that fires saboted ammunition, you are free to buy it and own it.
And whether you want to hunt deer or elk, rabbit or ducks, geese or coyote, you are free to do it, and there's plenty of game to be had as well. Nearly everything is at 100-year record levels of abundance.
Well, OK, some may say, "But you know, Obama is not a hunter." Right. And neither is John McCain. And isn't that a breath of fresh air! I, for one, am pretty damn tired of all this Elmer Fudd stuff coming from our politicians.
It all started with George W. Bush. I don't remember Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton trotting out into a field for a shotgun photo-op.
The funny thing here is that George W. Bush is not a real hunter. He's just a beltway frat boy who borrowed a shotgun in order to strike a redneck rural pose.
Karl Rove figured most National Rifle Association members would not care, and that many would not know the difference, never mind all those pictures that showed George W. Bush to be a walking gun safety violation.
I am happy to say Al Gore took a pass on this nonsense, but John Kerry did not, and so we have him shooting a few geese to show his bonafides. Mitt Romney figured he could claim the mantle of a "lifelong hunter" because he shot a few rats with a pellet gun back when he was 15. Two weeks ago up in Wisconsin, Hillary Clinton claimed she once went duck hunting with her father "100 years ago."
I think it safe to say you won't find Barack Obama or John McCain standing in a field clutching a borrowed shotgun. Obama is not a hunter, and he has never claimed to be one. Neither is John McCain. Neither one of these guys is going to pretend to be something they are not.
Some would count that as a liability; I count that as integrity.
OK, but what about guns? What about them?
Both Obama and McCain believe in the Second Amendment, and both John McCain and Barack Obama believe the Second Amendment is an individual right.
Neither one thinks guns are just about hunting. But neither John McCain nor Barack Obama are oblivious to the kind of world we live in, and so both quite reasonably believe that insane people should not have guns, and criminals should not have guns.
Both politicians think terrorists should not be allowed to walk through airports with loaded bazookas on their shoulders.
Do these common-sense positions endear either candidate to the National Rifle Association? No, they do not.
But so what? The National Rifle Association is a direct mail fear factory of the same stripe (albeit catering to a different demographic) as the Humane Society and PETA.
Most gun owners see them for what they are; a useful wrench to grab and twist the gun-grabbing nuts on the far left, but not the kind of organization they actually care to support with membership dues.
More than 85 percent of hunters are not NRA members, and the percentage of personal-protection gun owners that are NRA members is even lower.
Besides, name one time in your entire life when a President's position on gun legislation, one way or another, mattered a damn. Guns are not a presidential issue; they are a state issue and a legislative issue and a litigation issue, but the influence of the Chief Executive is pretty minimal.
If Sarah Brady were made President of the United States, we would have the same gun laws eight years from now as we do today.
What do John McCain and Barack Obama think about conservation and environmental issues?
John McCain likes to beat the Teddy Roosevelt drum, but in truth his interest in environmental issues is generally weaker than Barack Obama's, and this is reflected in the rather anemic amount of environmental material on his campaign's web site. Obama's web site has over 20-pages of single spaced position papers on energy and the environment. McCain's has zero.
Having said that, John McCain and Barack Obama agree on quite a lot.
For example, both think the U.S. should have signed the Kyoto Treaty, and both support capping greenhouse gases to fight global warming, which they both think is real and man-made.
Both oppose drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Both support expansion of nuclear power as a way to generate more electricity with little greenhouse gas pollution, and both support expansion of liquefied coal and ethanol energy technology.
Of course, there are some differences. While McCain supports greenhouse gas reductions, his proposal is far weaker than Barack Obama's, calling for only a 30 percent reduction by 2050 (from a 1990 baseline), rather than the 80 percent reduction called for in the Obama plan.
McCain is also weaker when it comes to energy conservation. For example, McCain opposes mandating improved vehicle fuel economy standards by 2020, while Obama supports such measures.
Now stop there for a minute.
Think about that in the context of the current world in which we live.
How can anyone oppose mandating fuel economy standards on car manufacturers (who are capable of making a good 90-mile-per-gallon car right now with existing technology) while being FOR waging a 100-year war in Iraq that will inexorably result in more kids dying, more terrorists coming to our shores, and many more trillions of our tax dollars going down a rat hole in the sand?
There is no good answer there.
McCain is similarly out of touch, and politically shifty, when it comes to wildlife issues. For example he has run television ads mocking a $3 million appropriation to study the DNA of bears in Montana, suggesting Uncle Sam is running some kind of weird Yogi Bear paternity test. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey is engaged in classic rub-pad hair-sample research of the kind usually used to determine grizzly bear population densities.
And though McCain mocked the research in a political ad, he actually voted to fund it. I will let others figure out what that means; loveable lying maverick, insane megalomaniac, or teachable ignorant -- your choice.
McCain shows more shaky logic when it comes to National Forest issues. For example, he would repeal the Clinton Administration's executive order banning new road construction in more than 58 million acres of National Forest. McCain's argument is that such things should not be done by executive order, which sounds good until you realize he is simply ignoring the more than 3 million public comments received during the rule-making period, 99 percent of which were were in favor of forest protection. How much more public input does he want? Who other than the public would he have decide the future of America's public forests?
It turns out that John McCain is also a little shaky as to what a National Forest really is; he thinks timber harvest issues should be decided by local residents. Never mind that forest service personnel, road maintenance, campgrounds, hiking trails, and docks are paid for by ALL of America's taxpayers. Never mind that the the U.S. Forest Service loses more than $400 million dollars a year selling National Forest timber off of public lands. He wants the locals to decide what happens, and never mind if America's taxpayers get sacked with financial, as well as environmental, loss while a few thick-thumbed dropouts get the world's biggest subsidy to run a skidder or feller-buncher ripping down our national heritage.
OK, what about Barack Obama? How does he do on these same issues?
Unlike John McCain, Obama supports the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which would keep 58 million acres of National Forest lands in pristine condition.
Obama also supports strengthening the Conservation Reserve Program and the Conservation Security Program which would create additional incentives for private landowners to protect and restore wetlands, grasslands, forests, and other wildlife habitat.
Much of this land is now open to hunting.
The rest of Obama's environmental positions can be read on the rather impressive Energy & Environment section of his campaign web site which features a 9-page single-spaced backgrounder on the environment (sections include: climate change, clean water, clean air, healthier communities, encouraging organic and sustainable agriculture, support for local family farmers, partnerships with landowners to conserve private lands, and protecting national parks and forests).
Be sure to also check out his 11-page single-spaced backgrounder on energy (sections include: cap-and-trade greenhouse gas emissions, investing in clean energy technology, investing in biofuels research, investing in developing clean coal technology, safe and secure nuclear energy, renewable energy goals, making the federal government an energy conservation leader, creating incentives to improve building energy efficiency, investments in developing advanced vehicle technology, and increased investment and incentives for public transportation).
OK, fine. But isn't all this just Washington gobbley-gook? I mean, what evidence is there that Obama or McCain really care about the environment at all?
To tell the truth, there is not much evidence to suggest John McCain cares about public lands, energy issues, or wildlife.
This is not to blame him; born on an airbase to a military family, he was often uprooted as a child, and raised in the concrete-and-lawn world of naval bases enclosed by guarded perimeter wire fences.
Barack Obama's childhood was quite a bit different. Though he was raised by his apartment-living grandparents in Hawaii, he spent a few early formative years in Indonesia where he learned that the chickens in the backyard were destined for the family meal pot, where he had a monkey and a pond full of small alligators as pets, and where wild and domestic animals of every type were sold as food and were sampled by a curious youth from America.
Later, fresh out of college, Barack worked as an organizer at a public housing development in Chicago that had a sewage treatment center on one side, the City landfill on the other, and a toxic-poisoned river running across the back. The development itself was shot through with asbestos contamination -- a situation he helped correct, and which left him a firm believer in the value of clean water, clean air, and recreational space for youth -- and not just because one of his own young daughters has asthma herself.
Obama sees environmental issues as a thread which can tie us together as a people. As he noted in a recent speech:
"Environmentalism is not an upper-income issue, it's not a white issue, it's not a black issue, it's not a South or a North or an East or a West issue. It's an issue that all of us have a stake in. And if I can do anything to make sure that not just my daughter but every child in America has green pastures to run in and clean air to breathe and clean water to swim in, then that is something I'm going to work my hardest to make happen."
John McCain's relationship with wild places and wild life is a little less clear. We know he loves Sedona, and the rugged beauty of that countryside, but not much else. Is it the wildlife habitat he loves, or is it scenery? And yes, there is a difference.
As previously noted, the environmental section of John McCain's web site is as austere and empty as the desert, and there is no energy section at all.
In this silence, it is hard to think John McCain is not telling us quite a lot.
But, of course, as I noted at the beginning, it's easy to overstate the role of the President when it comes to hunting and fishing issues. The President can suggest legislation, can veto legislation, and can water or prune things to make them bloom or wilt, but Congress has to pass a bill for a President to actually sign it.
And, of course, a lot of hunting and wildlife issues (as I have said before) are not federal issues at all; they are state or local issues.
The bottom line is that no matter who wins in November, your hunting access is less likely to be determined by Washington politicians than it is by remembering to shut all the farm gates, keeping your truck out of wet fields, and thanking the farmer at Christmas with a bottle of his favorite beverage.
Which is not to say the President has no impact on conservation and environmental issues. In fact, quite a lot is done through administrative action by cabinet-level appointees and lesser associates.
The problem here is that until an Administration is in power, we cannot guess who will fill any particular cabinet-level slot.
That said, while past is not prologue, that's generally the way to bet at the track. In that sense, what we've gotten from each political party in the past is probably a little bit like what we will get from each political party in the future.
So what can we learn by looking at the environmental appointees of George W. Bush (the last 7 years) and Bill Clinton (the previous 8 years)?
In both cases, there is a tendency to fill posts with former politicians, corporate lobbyists, professional administrators, academic experts, and public interest group representatives.
For example, Christine Todd Whitman, a former Governor of New Jersey, was put in as the head of EPA under Bush II, while Carol Browner, the former head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, was put in as head of the EPA under Clinton. Neither EPA administrator did much to distinguish themselves in my opinion.
A more interesting comparison can be seen by looking at the Secretaries of the Interior and the Under Secretaries of Interior for Natural Resources and Agriculture. If you have an interest in what goes on in our National Forests, our National Parks, and on BLM land, these are the two jobs where things happen, for better or for worse.
At the U.S. Department of Interior, Bruce Babbitt (a former Governor of Arizona and former head of the League of Conservation Voters) was put in as head of the Department of Interior under Clinton, and Jim Lyons, a Yale-educated professional forester and wildlife policy expert was put in as Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Agriculture in charge of National Forest issues.
During the Clinton-era, these two gentleman, along with U.S. Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck (a former fishing guide and fisheries biologist who was actually raised in a National Forest) pushed through the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to protect 58 million acres of pristine National Forest land.
With encouragement from Babbitt and Lyons, the Clinton Administration also created the Giant Sequoia National Monument in California's Sierra Nevadas (a 328,000-acre monument protecting 34 groves of ancient sequoias and the surrounding forest), the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (1.9 million acres of astounding scenic desert in Utah), the Sonoran Desert National Monument (496,000 acres), the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument to protect 149 miles along the Upper Missouri River in central Montana, and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (53,000 acres of forest) in southwestern Oregon.
With the end of the Clinton Administration, there was a changing of the guard at the Department of Interior. Gale Norton, a former Attorney General of Colorado, and a lobbyist for a lead company and other mining interests, was tapped as head of the Department of Interior, and Mark Rey, a paper and timber lobbyist, was made Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Agriculture in charge of National Forest issues.
From day one, the Bush Administation sought to reverse the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, but they have been unsuccesful so far thanks to protracted litigation which is likely to outlast the Bush Administration itself.
Gale Norton's contribution to the debate was a Washington Post editorial in which she claimed that the forests needed to be "thinned" for the forest birds -- an editorial which was roundly laughed at by the National Audubon Society which sent her a letter noting that the birds cited were not forest birds at all, and perhaps she might consult an Audubon Field Guide next time?
In the end, Norton got herself wing-shot out of the sky in a swirl of corruption charges when the "Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy," an industry front group she created prior to her tenure in the Bush Administration, was found to be receiving large donations from now-jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff on behalf of Indian gambling interests (note that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is part of the U.S. Department of Interior).
Though Norton herself managed to avoid jail, J. Steven Griles, the number two person within the U.S. Department of Interior, and himself a former mining industry lobbyist, went to jail on public corruption charges as part of the Abramoff scandal.
As for Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Agriculture Mark Rey, the latest news is that he is waiting to see if he goes to jail for deliberately skirting the law so that the Forest Service could use a flame retardant known to be toxic to wildlife. The result of Rey's actions and inactions was a massive fish kill in Oregon that left a creek totally lifeless, and 20,000 fish dead.
So where does that leave us, the hunter-voter?
The same place we were before -- alone with our conscience and our vote.
Which is OK.
This is a great country and a free country, and the more we all know about the issues, the options, and the trade-offs, I think the better off we will all be.
As always, vote as you see fit.
I think if you are reading and asking questions about these kinds of issues, you are on the right road. And in my experience the right road rarely leads to the wrong place.
Bruce Springsteen does Woody Guthrie: "This land was made for you and me"