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NRA Pressured To Resist Bush Energy Policies

Top Democratic leaders appear to have taken the shut-your-mouth-about-guns lesson to heart. Aides to the new speaker and majority leader in the House said that Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland have no intention of bringing up gun control in the coming year.

For six years, the NRA joined the Bush administration in opposing the Clinton-era roadless rule, a broad land-protection measure that put nearly a third of the national forests off limits to most development -- while keeping them open for hunters and anglers willing to walk or ride horseback into the backcountry.

The 2001 rule, which was overturned by the Bush administration but reinstated by a federal judge in September, had little initial support from state fish and game agencies, Western governors or many major hunting groups. The NRA opposed the rule, arguing that it was too broad and prevented older, less mobile and disabled hunters from using prime hunting lands.

But years of aggressive oil and gas leasing on prime hunting areas in the federal lands of the Rocky Mountain West seem to have made those protections more attractive. Fish and game agencies in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana now support the roadless rule, as do most of the region's governors and more and more hunters.

"It is a no-brainer," said Hal Herring, a contributing editor for Field and Stream magazine and an avid hunter who lives near Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, the only area in the lower 48 states where grizzlies, elk and bighorn sheep still come out of the mountains to feed on the plains.

"The NRA stance on the roadless rule is a mistake," Herring said, echoing the view of many prominent outdoor writers. "There are no more roadless areas being produced."

A reader poll in 2003 by Field and Stream found that 41 percent of hunters saw shrinking wildlife habitat as the biggest threat to hunting in America, while 25 percent saw anti-gun legislation as a major threat to hunting.

Trying to seize on these sentiments, a rival gun group, the American Hunters and Shooters Association (AHSA), was founded two years ago by former Washington Redskin Ray Schoenke and John Rosenthal, a real estate developer in Boston. "I believe that we have reached a tipping point where the majority of hunters and shooters realize the NRA isn't representing their interests," said Rosenthal, who is a longtime activist for handgun control.

The group concedes that, so far, the NRA has more executives than the new group has members. That has not stopped the NRA from attacking the AHSA in its magazine, America's 1st Freedom, as a "cold, calculated attempt by the gun-ban lobby to thieve the hard-earned political credibility of gun owners and hunters."

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin in Washington contributed to this report.

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