WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Martin Heinrich was hunting for Barbary sheep across the terrain in his native New Mexico when he was stopped in his tracks.
Tracts of land around him were under the control of the federal Bureau of Land Management — and off limits. Period. Among them: areas where he recalled hiking or hunting when he was younger that are now behind a locked gate.
"You have land that taxpayers own, you know, that is my kids' birthright," said Heinrich, who used a 270 Winchester rifle for the recent sheep hunt. "You can't even get on it."
The New Mexico Democrat is working with a bipartisan group of Senate colleagues on legislation to dramatically broaden access to federal land for hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation. The bill, which he is sponsoring with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also would ease some regulations for those who hunt and fish, and strengthen land conservation.
A Senate committee scheduled its first hearing on the bill Thursday, with witnesses including federal officials and conservation experts.
In a partisan Congress, the legislation stands out for its lack of outspoken critics and its wide political range of co-sponsors. They include relatively liberal members like Heinrich and bedrock conservatives like Idaho Sen. Jim Risch and Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer. As one of its co-sponsors, North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, put it, "There's something for just about everyone."
In years past, though, that hasn't been enough.
Twice before, in 2012 and 2014, similar bills were introduced with bipartisan support but were doomed by a mix of election-year politics and procedural hurdles. Supporters think this year's version has the best chance to pass and could reach the Senate floor this spring, with House legislation introduced afterward.
Murkowksi said the bill is designed to preserve "traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation."
Some environmental groups have objected to an element of the bill involving lead ammunition and fishing tackle. A provision would make permanent an exemption that bars the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating lead shots and add lead fishing tackle to the list of exempted items. The National Resources Defense Council, among others, has said the provision would hurt the EPA's ability to protect the public. But no group has organized an effort against the bill this year.
The bill would be a boon for hunters and anglers, opening federal lands and requiring the federal government to set aside money to make land more accessible. The only exception would be national parks and wildlife refuges. Improving access would also be required, including making paths more accessible and adding signs.
Regulations on hunters and anglers would be eased. The bill would allow hunters to carry their bows and crossbows across National Park Service land, and hunters with legal firearms would be able to take them on land that's managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for water projects.
For North Dakota hunter Jason Weber, the directives about land use are the most important component of the bill.
Weber describes himself as a multi-purpose hunter — he takes his bow out many weekends, goes ice-fishing when it's cold enough and looks forward to the first day of deer season with a sense of anticipation.
"Anything we can eat and hunt, I do it, and I look forward to doing it," Weber said.
But the Fargo resident says he is often frustrated that federal lands are not more open and accessible and that they aren't widely known to outdoorsmen like himself. He said requiring federal officials to do more sends the right message.
"This is a way of life here," he said.