As Donald Trump seeks to win over skeptical Republicans on Capitol Hill and fence-sitting voters, he seems to have wooed one important voting bloc: sportsmen.
With the help of his son, Donald Jr., an avid sportsman and ambassador for the campaign, Trump Sr. is saying all the right things to America’s hunters and anglers. He’s capturing endorsements and positive reviews from sportsmen’s trade publications — hook, line and sinker.
The Trump campaign has pledged to nominate a hunter to lead the Fish and Wildlife Service, aggressively fight lawsuits by anti-hunting groups, make wildlife habitat more productive, and control predators like wolves that prey on game species like elk.
Most notably, Trump in January broke from the GOP establishment by pledging to oppose efforts to transfer federal lands to states, gaining plaudits from sportsmen across the political spectrum who oppose the privatization of federal lands, fearing it would reduce places to hunt and fish.
"It says he is smart," wrote editor Mike Schoby in a Jan. 31 article in Petersen’s Hunting endorsing Trump for president. "It says he realizes that 13 million hunters and 80 million gun owners represent a large voting block, one that will likely agree with his policies on hunting and protection of Second Amendment rights."
Yet some Republicans say Trump’s public lands platform is alienating potential allies, particularly those in Congress and industry who oppose the federal government’s massive landholdings and believe states could better manage them for activities like drilling, mining and logging. By catering heavily to hunters and anglers, Trump may be shooting himself in the foot.
"They have made the calculation that the hook-and-bullet crowd is the relevant demographic here, but the reality is the professional hook-and-bullet crowd is a small group compared to [those who care] about federal land management in the West," said Mike McKenna, a GOP strategist and energy lobbyist. "I can’t think of a single issue other than this one where he’s so far out over his skis."
Key questions remain over how Trump would manage the roughly 640 million acres under the control of the executive branch primarily through the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, FWS and the National Park Service.
Would Trump roll back Obama administration oil and gas leasing reforms designed to keep drilling farther from national parks and backcountry areas while tightening regulations on hydraulic fracturing? Would he dismantle Obama’s sage grouse plan by loosening restrictions on drilling, mining and grazing? What kind of influence would Trump exert on Endangered Species Act decisions that can affect hunters and energy companies?
Trump’s silence on these issues has made industry officials and Capitol Hill Republicans wary.
"It’s almost impossible to know where Donald Trump stands on the issues," said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, a regional trade group that advocates for public lands drilling.
"As a New Yorker, he doesn’t have the innate understanding of how much of the West is owned by the federal government, and how communities surrounded by public lands and the states are better stewards of the land than the federal government," she said. "I think the key to his public lands policies will be who is advising him."
Interior Secretary Trump?
Trump doesn’t claim to know much about public lands, much less hunting and angling.
On those issues, he has largely deferred to Donald Jr., the 38-year-old executive vice president of the Trump Organization, who has hunted all over the world.
Sportsmen advocates say the younger Trump is the real deal.
Trump Jr. said he’s a board member of the Boone and Crockett Club and a member of Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited. He’s a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, groups that at times have been polar opposites on the public lands policy spectrum.
After graduating from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the alma mater of his father, Trump Jr. moved to Colorado to bartend so he could hunt and fish; he once spent 28 days in the mountains chasing elk with a bow, he has told multiple news outlets. He said he makes delicious venison meat sauce for his wife and kids.
In his interview with Petersen’s, Trump Jr. said he’d like to be the next secretary of the Interior Department, the agency that controls one-fifth of the nation’s landmass and almost all of the oceans. Trump Sr. said his sons (Eric Trump is also an experienced hunter) are already helping shape his platform.
"You can be assured that if I’m not directly involved, I’m going to be that very, very loud voice in his ear," Trump Jr. told Petersen’s. "Between my brother and myself, no one understands the issues better than us. No one in politics lives the lifestyle more than us."
The younger Trump has waged a media blitz to get that message to American hunters. He shared a pheasant hunt in January with reporters from The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN, and spoke with The New Yorker. He has aggressively courted the hunting and angling trade publications, giving exclusive interviews to Field & Stream, Bowhunter Magazine and Deer & Deer Hunting and the websites Bowsite.com and Wide Open Spaces.
In January, Trump Sr. was the only presidential candidate to speak at the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s annual Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas. On May 20, Trump will speak at NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum in Louisville, Ky.
How this outreach will affect Trump Sr.’s election chances against Hillary Clinton, the favorite for the Democratic nomination, remains unclear, since the hook-and-bullet crowd is hard to put in a political box.
Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, a Harrisonburg, Va., recreation research firm, said he has performed a couple of studies on the political affiliations of sportsmen over the past year, but that the results are confidential.
An Interior survey in 2012 estimated more than 90 million people hunted, fished or watched wildlife in 2011, reversing a 20-year decline in wildlife-related recreation (E&ENews PM, Aug. 15, 2012). Of those, 13.7 million Americans hunted and 33 million fished, up roughly 10 percent from the previous survey in 2006.
Trump Sr.’s natural resources platform could resonate with many voters in public lands states, including swing states like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
While some hunters will be skeptical of Trump Sr., a Manhattanite, more will be wary of Clinton, another New Yorker who has said much less to reassure gun owners and sportsmen, said Bill Horn, a former Reagan administration Interior official who is now an attorney with the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance.
"I can’t think of a single instance where Clinton did anything that could be conceived as pro-hunting and fishing," Horn said. "I think there’s going to be an enormous amount of apprehension."
Yet Trump’s rejection of federal land transfers is a sign that the issue will not be a partisan wedge in the election. It’s forced some tough conversations within sportsmen’s groups whose policy platforms have historically aligned with Democrats.
"To his credit, he was willing to be very vocal about [land transfers] in the primaries," said Whit Fosburgh, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which does not endorse presidential candidates. "The Republican primaries were a repudiation of that nonsensical thinking that we need to get rid of public lands. We consider ourselves the victors of that primary."
Yet like other Trump policies, his natural resources platform has been criticized as vague and fluid.
On Jan. 21, Trump told Field & Stream he opposed federal land transfers "because I want to keep the lands great."
"You don’t know what the state is going to do," he said. "I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble?"
Yet in an op-ed that month in the Reno Gazette-Journal, the candidate slammed the "draconian rule of the BLM" in a piece clearly aimed at courting Nevada voters who bristle at the federal government’s 85 percent ownership of the Silver State.
"In the rural areas, those who for decades have had access to public lands for ranching, mining, logging and energy development are forced to deal with arbitrary and capricious rules that are influenced by special interests that profit from the D.C. rule-making and who fill the campaign coffers of Washington politicians," Trump wrote. "Because the BLM is so reluctant to release land to local disposition in Nevada, the cost of land has skyrocketed and the cost of living has become an impediment to growth."
Sam Clovis, a Trump policy adviser, told the Associated Press this month that Trump supports "shared governance" of federal lands between federal agencies and state and local governments and backs transfers of federal lands near cities that are not prime hunting or fishing grounds.
It’s a more nuanced position that could appease sportsmen and anti-federal lands lawmakers alike.
In his interview with Petersen’s, Trump Jr. said his father’s administration would use the proceeds of some land sales to promote wildlife and conservation, such as by purchasing private ranches to open access. It would use the money it spends defending lawsuits filed by "radical environmental groups" to increase the size of game herds.
"I want to change some laws and better invest current money to make our lands more productive, while having fewer wildfires," he said. "Well-managed lands, with thinned timber, food plots and habitat improvements that help animals would be the goal."
On other issues — particularly Trump Sr.’s dismissal of human-caused climate change and his pledge to eliminate U.S. EPA — sportsmen are scratching their heads, Fosburgh said.
"It’s not like Donald Trump is a dream conservation candidate," he said.
Trump’s support of federal lands is merely the start of a "much deeper conversation we need to have about how we balance competing uses," Fosburgh said.
While Trump told Field & Stream he’s "very much into energy, and I’m very much into going and fracking and drilling" and believes new technologies can facilitate oil and gas production with a smaller footprint, industry heads are not champing at the bit to support him.
"The general pitch of the Trump crowd is the public lands policy of the United States is fine as it is," said McKenna, the energy lobbyist. "I’m assuming he’s serious that he’s going to be every bit as bad on federal land management as the Obama guys."
More details on Trump’s energy policy may be revealed on May 26, when he’s scheduled to deliver a keynote address to the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, N.D., which focuses heavily on drilling in the Bakken region.
Western Republicans on Capitol Hill are hoping for a Trump energy platform they can rally around.
"When he talks about the impacts of regulations and mandates and taxes on things, he realizes that’s a drag on using American resources in a way they should be used," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). "I think these are areas where he is absolutely going to be well-united with the Rocky Mountain West and our energy-producing states because of the role of energy as a master resource, and he knows about resources."
Trump’s Capitol Hill outreach will ratchet up today with several meetings scheduled with GOP leaders. He’ll meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in a closed-door session being brokered by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, Ryan’s fellow Wisconsinite, and then with House and Senate Republican leaders later in the day.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said she does not expect those meetings to delve deeply into energy policy, but she’s eager to hear more from the campaign.
"I very much want to explore his views on drilling onshore and offshore, on mineral productions, his views on public lands, his views on federalism and statehood," she said.
Lummis endorsed Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for president during the GOP primaries, but said she’ll rally around Trump if he’s the Republican nominee.
"I am so concerned about who is going to be supporting the next Supreme Court justice or justices that I will support the Republican nominee hook, line and sinker," said Lummis, who carries a lifetime Wyoming fishing license in her wallet.
House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who initially backed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the presidential nominating race, said he has no clue how Trump would handle energy development on federal lands and waters, but "I hope to find out."
"I do know what the alternative is," he said. "That’s horrific."
Environmentalists see a Trump presidency as a disaster for public lands and the climate.
"Donald Trump’s policy positions on public lands, as with most environmental issues, are inconsistent at best and cast serious doubt that he has the knowledge, common sense and good judgement to be president,’ said Seth Stein, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters. "He has made it clear he would double down on fossil fuel extraction from our public lands, at a time when we need to continue transitioning to a clean energy economy. Combined with his continued insistence that climate change is a hoax, we should rightly fear what a Trump presidency means for America’s public lands."
Don Barry, a former Interior Department official during the Clinton administration and a longtime conservationist, said Trump’s pledge to retain public lands raises another question: How would he pay to maintain them?
Barry, who recently retired from Defenders of Wildlife, said there are hundreds of national wildlife refuge units that have no on-the-ground staff to manage them.
"They’re kind of mothballed," he said. "The refuge system is starving at this point already."
Barry noted that appropriations for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a major priority of sportsmen, spiked in fiscal 2001, the final year of Clinton’s presidency, but fell for the first seven years of President George W. Bush’s two terms, except for a small $4 million bump in 2007.
Even if Trump wants to keep federal lands, it’s unclear how much political capital he would spend to achieve that, Barry said. The tradition of presidents of both parties has been to select Interior secretaries from the West, where the crop of available conservative candidates are generally pro-transfer, Barry said.
"My experience over 41 years in this business is to forget who is in the White House," Barry said. "Who you need to worry about is who is in the Cabinet."
Reporters Corbin Hiar and Geof Koss contributed.