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Public lands saved for now; conservation officials predict another round coming

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No question, there is a shred of truth to the apathetic label. Over the years, we have been our own worst enemies. But that's slowly beginning to change, I believe. We've become more and more engaged, more and more informed and more and more willing to speak truth to power.

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Exhibit A: the current public lands brouhaha in Washington, D.C.

Last month, I wrote a column about a measure that was inserted into the House-Senate Budget Reconciliation Bill without any public debate or hearing; inserted quite literally when no one was looking.

Call it covert government.

The provision by Reps. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and Joe Gibbons, R-Nevada, would amend the so-called General Mining Law of 1872 and allow public land to be sold to mining companies for $1000 per acre. The dirty secret is the loophole would allow the mining companies to abandon the mining claims and sell off the property to developers, enriching the companies beyond their wildest dreams. That, my friends, is what you call a sweetheart deal. One can only imagine the per-acre price a mining company would get from a developer for the "claim" the company purchased. Let's just say it would be much more than $1000 per acre.

In return, we taxpayers get nothing. Yes, we U.S. citizens, we hunters and anglers, to whom the land in question actually belong, get nothing.

As word spread in conservation circles about the Pombo Provision, as it is now infamously called, sportsmen mobilized like never before. Internet sites were buzzing. Conservation groups contacted their members. Local, state and federal lawmakers from all sides of the political spectrum cried foul. Environmental lawyers went ballistic.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, more than 750 sportsmen's groups from across the country signed a letter to Congress opposing Pombo's and Gibbons' "scandalous" public land grab.

What happened? Without a leg to stand on, and feeling heat from hunters and anglers, Pombo and Gibbons pulled their ill-conceived provision.

They retreated. They cried uncle. American sportsmen, historically regarded as an apathetic lot, beat back one of the stupidest and short-sighted political maneuvers in recent memory.

"I'm so proud of the hunters and anglers in this country," said Steve Torbit, director of National Wildlife Federation's Colorado office. "What was being done was a sneak attack on our hunting and fishing heritage," said Torbit, in reference to the attempted public land sell off. "For sportsmen, it was like a kick in the gut. They were saying over my dead body you're going to steal our public lands."

True enough. The public land at stake is some finest fish and wildlife habitat in North America, lands where all Americans can go to watch wildlife, hunt elk or mule deer, or cast flies to discerning, wild trout.

"Public lands are woven into the fabric of our society," said Torbit.

"They are wild places where we can go with our families to visit nature up close and personal. We have responsibility to keep them out of the hands of the greedy for future generations."

While this is a major victory for our outdoors heritage, Torbit, a smart and well-spoken advocate for natural resources who understands the political process, says sportsmen should not rest on their laurels.

He predicts that in the near future Congress will revisit the mining law of 1872. "They're many lawmakers who want to reform the law," Torbit said. "And once again there will be questions about the future of public lands. That's why hunters and anglers need to stay engaged on this issue."

Added Torbit: "There will be a round two."

Torbit is right. Hunters and anglers need to make sure their Senators and Representatives know they want them to block any legislative maneuver that would open millions of acres of public land to development, destroying fish and wildlife habitat and closing off sportsmen's access.

We did it once, and we may have to again. Stay tuned.

Babe Winkelman is a nationally-known outdoorsman who has taught people to fish and hunt for over25 years. Watch his award-winning "Good Fishing" and "Outdoor Secrets" television shows on Outdoor Life Network, WGN-TV, Fox Sports Net, The Sportsman Channel and WILD TV. Visit www.winkelman.com for air times where you live.

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