Soon after House conservatives kicked off a new effort last week to reduce the amount of wilderness and other lands protected by the federal government, a leading conservationist quickly dashed off an email to an ally with especially close ties to the incoming Republican administration.
The note went to Donald Trump Jr., eldest son of President-elect Donald Trump and a member of several hunting and fishing groups, who promised fellow hunters during the campaign that he would press his father to protect federal lands that are popular for outdoors activities.
Donald Trump Jr. “has been great on this issue,” said Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, who wrote the email. “He’s a legitimate outdoorsman. I think it’s part of who he is and how he identifies himself.”
The urgent appeal to Trump Jr. reveals how hunting and conservation groups plan to rely on the 39-year-old to serve as their champion in his father’s administration on an issue that puts him in direct opposition to many conservatives who are counting on a GOP president to scale back federal control over millions of acres where drilling, grazing and other private uses are restricted.
The outcome of the unfolding lobbying campaign will shed light on what kind of influence Trump Jr. could wield behind the scenes after his father takes office, as well as his willingness to oppose Republican lawmakers taking aim at what they describe as federal mismanagement of public lands. It also will signal how much Trump Jr., who along with his brother Eric are taking over management of the family’s real estate empire, will push personal policy interests that his father can influence.
The president-elect announced Wednesday a long-awaited plan explaining how he will wall off his business interests from his governing and hand the reins of his company to his sons.
Even as Trump Jr. has been preparing to take on new business responsibilities, he has already had a significant imprint on the incoming administration. A dedicated hunter and angler who retreats with his wife and their five children to their Catskills cabin nearly every weekend, he helped handpick Ryan Zinke (R), a fellow hunter, public lands advocate and Montana’s lone House member, as nominee for interior secretary.
His impact could extend beyond that appointment.
Throughout the campaign, Trump Jr. pledged that if his father were elected, he would be a vocal advocate for those who rely on federal parks and streams for recreation.
“I will be the very loud voice about these issues in my father’s ear,” he told Wide Open Spaces during the GOP primaries.
Neither Trump Jr. nor transition officials responded to repeated requests for comment this week.
Trump Jr.’s pull — and willingness to use it — is now being tested after the House passed a measure last week that makes it easier to transfer federal land to the states. The move caught Trump transition officials off guard and upset conservation groups, who were heartened when both Trump and his son expressed opposition to such transfers during the presidential campaign.
“I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do,” then-candidate Trump told Field & Stream in January 2016, as Donald Jr. sat by his side. “I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land.”
Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said the early move by the House “cuts entirely against the president-elect’s priorities.”
What appears to be an arcane fight — which government authority should manage public lands — has become an article of faith for many Western lawmakers, who are determined to wrest power from Washington. The movement, described by many as a new “sagebrush rebellion,” has enjoyed a recent resurgence in states such as Utah, Nevada and Oregon, where lawmakers and ranchers complain that federal bureaucrats have blocked unfettered access to tapping resources in vast swaths of territory.
There are several dozen bills in states across the country aiming to take control of federal land. In Wyoming, for example, the legislature is considering a constitutional amendment that would enable the state to manage any federal land transferred to it by 2019.
Meanwhile, a group of Western GOP members of Congress wants to roll back monument designations and other public land protections laid down by the Obama administration — legislation that will also seek to transfer more federal land to the states.
The effort is being spearheaded by lawmakers such as Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) in Utah, where about two-thirds of the land is owned by the federal government.
“They are terrible managers,” he said.
Any proposed land transfers, he added, would have to provide assurances to hunters such as Trump Jr. that they would still have access once the land is under state control. “If we can’t, we probably aren’t going to get very far,” Chaffetz said.
Hunting and conservation groups are skeptical of such promises, noting that financial pressures have sometimes prompted states to sell off much of the public land they have taken over from the federal government.
Any new bill to transfer federal lands will trigger “a hue and a cry unlike anything ever heard from people who hunt and fish on public land,” said Chris Wood, president of the group Trout Unlimited.
Among his group’s 155,000 members: Donald Trump Jr.
After the presidential election, Wood wrote a letter to Trump Jr. offering to take him fishing or hunting in Washington and brief him on ways to help “make your father a great conservation success.”
“We are a tight clan, people who love to hunt and fish and who love the outdoors,” Wood said.
It remains to be seen how the Trump administration will deal with the renewed efforts by Western lawmakers to transfer federal lands. After the House vote, Zinke told Land Tawney, president of the Montana-based Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, that his stance “hasn’t wavered on public lands” and “nothing like this is going to happen,” according to Tawney.
Zinke declined to comment.
Tawney, seeking further assurances, said he also reached out to Trump Jr., a member of his group. On occasion, the two men exchange hunting stories and photos via text.
So far, Trump Jr. has not indicated to conservation allies whether he will wade into the debate.
But friends said it is hard to imagine him suddenly refraining from speaking out on the issue of public access for hunters.
“He really understands how important it is to keep those traditions alive and to have places to hunt and fish,” said Jay Dewing, a real estate broker in Palm Beach, Fla., who frequently hunts quail with both Trump brothers.
“A lot of these creatures we like to chase around don’t have much space anymore,” Dewing added. “Having a public figure like himself to be able to increase the availability of public land — shoot, I don’t think there’s a better guy to get that done.”
During the campaign, Trump Jr. served as a powerful surrogate for his father with hunters and anglers, visiting shooting ranges, gun shops and outdoors outfitters in states such as Ohio, Maine and North Carolina. Last January, when he and his brother Eric took reporters along as they shot pheasant in the Iowa countryside, Trump Jr. compared their father’s support for conservation to that of President Theodore Roosevelt’s.
Trump Jr. has said that his love of the outdoors took root as a young child when he and Eric accompanied their maternal grandfather, a blue-collar electrician, on long summer visits to his native Czechoslovakia, then under communist control.
“It was basically, you know, ‘Here, let me teach you how to shoot an air gun. Here’s a knife, go have fun. Here’s the woods, I’ll see you at dark,’ ” he told the website Bowsite.com last year.
He started hunting in earnest at boarding school in central Pennsylvania, where he sampled clay shooting, fly fishing and upland forest shoots, he said.
After graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Trump Jr. spent a year working as a bartender in Colorado, spending much of his time fly fishing and hunting elk.
Nowadays, friends said, he is known for tramping around the woods or crawling through muddy fields nearly every weekend, reloading his own guns and fletching his own arrows.
“I don’t just hunt once a year to talk about it at a cocktail party,” he told Bowsite.com. “It’s really part of my life.”
Fosburgh, a former fly-fishing champion, said that Trump Jr. caught more trout than he did when they spent a day last June angling in Colorado’s Cache la Poudre River. The next day, Trump Jr. spoke on behalf of his father at a presidential forum hosted by the Roosevelt partnership, reassuring hunters and anglers that a Trump administration would fight attempted land transfers.
“This is where we’ve probably broken away from a lot of traditional conservative dogma on the issue, in that we do want federal lands to remain federal,” he said.
Trump Jr. said he was open to having the states play a larger role managing the public land, but that maintaining federal control was important. Otherwise, “it’s sold off for development purposes or whatever it may be, never to be touched by the citizens of this country, who that land belongs to,” he added.
He promised that he would make sure there were people in his father’s administration who “understand our policy.”
“Hunting, fishing, the outdoors has been good to me,” Trump Jr. said. “It’s been good to my brother. We’re both very avid guys in this world. And it’s frankly probably kept us out of a lot of trouble we would have gotten into growing up as, you know, let’s say, rich kids in a big city. . . . I want to make sure that it’s around for the next generation, and the next generation following that.”
David Fahrenthold contributed to this report.