Randy Newberg, the renowned hunter’s hunter, hosts a popular, uncannily gripping show on the Sportsman Channel. The title bears his name — Fresh Tracks with Randy Newberg — and is the sort of program that can pull in viewers who aren’t exactly inclined toward his lifestyle. Episodes are framed as adventures on rugged, unforgiving expanses of public land, where Newberg hikes for miles, camps, struggles with extreme self-doubt, and eventually stalks and kills an unsuspecting animal — maybe a lumbering black bear or perhaps a magnificent pronghorn. The meat often winds up in his refrigerator.
A resident of Bozeman, Montana, and a lifetime member of the NRA, Newberg considers himself not only pro-gun, but “right-of-center on most social issues” and “extremely conservative” on fiscal issues. “I have all of the conservative credentials anyone would want,” Newberg tells The Trace. But as a hunter, he feels Republican lawmakers and conservative advocacy groups — his natural representatives — have not only let him down, but actively worked against him.
In the West, a number of Republican-controlled state legislatures, including Arizona and Wyoming, have recently introduced — or in the case of Utah, passed — bills that seek to transfer ownership of federally held, publicly accessible lands to state governments, under the premise that states will provide superior management. Newberg, like many other hunters, says this is a ruse, claiming that once the land changes hands it will be sold to investors to make up for budget shortfalls, as Western states routinely liquidate their property. This would make the land private, and no longer accessible to hunters. (Nevada, for instance, has sold more than 95 percent of its state-trust land; earlier this month, Utah sold several thousand acres of its own.)
That Republican lawmakers, who generally receive high marks from the NRA, are the ones pushing state-transfer legislation is baffling to Newberg. The conservative advocacy groups that often lobby for the passage of these bills, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans For Prosperity (AFP), represent the interests of the oil and gas industries, who perceive land in terms of profit. As it happens, ALEC also drafted model legislation for “Stand Your Ground” laws that have taken root around the country.
Over the past 15 years, Newberg has become the most prominent, outspoken critic of state-transfers. He created his show to demonstrate the value of keeping land public. In April, Newberg testified before a congressional subcommittee, several members of which support state-transfer, and explained why shifting land-control away from the federal government would be a grave mistake. For him, the debate raises a crucial question: Can today’s hunters rely on “pro-gun” politicians to stand up for them? The Trace spoke with Newberg about his work.
Why is it incongruous for politicians to claim they represent hunters and, at the same time, advocate for the state takeover of federal lands?
Public land access is good for guns. Less public access means less hunting. In the West, hunting and fishing and camping are such a huge part of our lives. How can you say you’re representing your constituents and support state-transfer?
But the Republican Party, which is generally representative of gun owners, would say it protects the interests of hunters.
For the Montana Republican Party to have state-transfer in their platform makes it hard to convince hunters that they are looking out for their interests. That hunting and gun ownership are the same issue is a myth.
Yet the NRA, for most of its history, was a sporting and hunting organization.
The NRA has stayed pretty silent on the issue, though the politicians who are pushing for state-transfer usually have positive ratings from the NRA. That raises the question: Could the NRA exercise some influence on these politicians? There are some politicians who will be really bad on public land access, but their defense is, “I’m really good on the Second Amendment.”
Do you see a point where hunters would be better off breaking away from the Second Amendment movement?
I don’t think that’s what hunters should do. They should, via those groups, hold politicians accountable for their position. I think hunters should try to keep their influence within the Second Amendment group. We benefit a lot from them.
What if the NRA continues not to say anything?
Reality is, hunters give the NRA the benefit of the doubt. [The NRA] has earned the luxury of being able to be noncommittal at times. Now, if the NRA actively supported state-transfer, that would make it more difficult to support the NRA. They’d blow a lot of political capital.
Do you think the Republican Party has blown their political capital with hunters?
In a lot of western states? Yes.
In the case of Cliven Bundy, it seemed the issues of public land access and Second Amendment rights converged. What was your feeling about the standoff?
Cliven Bundy is a welfare case. What would Cliven Bundy think if someone came and used one of his assets free of charge for many years? Why do we have sympathy for a guy who’s been sucking on the government tit for how long now? But we criticize people who need health insurance? To me, it was like, who decided to let that chucklehead have the microphone? Cliven Bundy had nothing to do with gun ownership.
[Photo: Randy Newberg]