By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 7, 2007
SEATTLE -- After years of close association with the Republican Party and hard-nosed opposition to federal land-use regulation, the National Rifle Association is being pressured by its membership to distance itself from President Bush's energy policies that have opened more public land for oil and gas drilling and limited access to hunters and anglers.
"The Bush administration has placed more emphasis on oil and gas than access rights for hunters," said Ronald L. Schmeits, second vice president of the NRA, a member of its board of directors and a bank president in Raton, N.M.
The new emphasis on the issue of access to public lands, which Schmeits said is at the "discussion" level among the NRA's directors, would represent a strategic shift for the NRA, whose leadership in Washington has long maintained that its 4 million members were not complaining or even asking questions about access to public lands.
But, during the past six years, an increasing number of the country's 46 million hunters and anglers, including Republican-leaning shooting organizations such as the Boone and Crockett Club, have been grumbling about the Bush's administration fast-tracking of oil and gas drilling leases on public lands.
"We find that our members are having a harder time finding access to public land," said Schmeits, who recently pushed the NRA to lobby for congressional protection of the game-rich Valle Vidal forest on federal land in New Mexico. "Gun rights are still number one, but there will be more time and effort spent on this issue [by NRA leaders] as we move forward."
Such a change in policy could undercut a key argument that the NRA uses to raise money, sway voters and help elect candidates. It has long warned its members that many environmentalists are advancing a subversive gun-grabbing agenda masterminded by liberal Democrats.
Andrew Arulanandam, the group's spokesman in Washington, said he agrees with Schmeits that members are voicing increasing concern about access to hunting land and that the NRA is focusing on the problem.
This comes at a politically challenging time for what has long been one of the most feared lobbying groups in Washington. The NRA is increasingly being criticized as out of touch by some members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. A new gun ownership group is trying to win the support of disaffected hunters. Also, there is some complaining within the gun industry that NRA policies might be bad for business.
"The core, the dream, the passion that drives gun ownership is hunting and getting out on the wide open spaces," said a senior gun company executive who did not want to be quoted by name for fear of retribution from the NRA. "In the same way the Bush administration has overreached on Iraq, the NRA has overreached on gun rights. We are losing our grip on this green environmental thing."
The NRA found new strength and increased membership with its battles against gun control during the Clinton era, while cementing ties with the Republican Party. An NRA official was videotaped boasting in 2000 that the association would open an office in the Bush White House. No such office opened, but close identification now with an unpopular president and a party that has lost control of Congress may be hurting the NRA.
"If Republicans have a bad year, the NRA is going to have a bad year," said Charlie Cook, the political analyst who runs the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "The Democrats have learned in recent years to shut the hell up about guns. Once they did, they started to win some elections."
In November's midterm elections, a number of prominent NRA-backed Republican incumbents were defeated, including Sen. George Allen of Virginia, Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, Sen. James M. Talent of Missouri and Rep. Richard W. Pombo of California.
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.