Phil Douglass, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

SALT LAKE CITY — Even as the debate goes on over who controls what land in the West, a coalition of more than 100 sportsmen's organizations is reminding Congress it needs to direct dollars to critical fish and wildlife habitats and preserve access on public lands.

Groups from 11 states, including four in Utah, signed off on a letter Thursday urging support of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which receives a portion of revenue from offshore oil and gas leasing. The fund, however, has historically been depleted by Congress, with an estimate by the Land Trust Alliance that as much as $17 billion has been taken over the past 46 years.

Led by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the coalition asked for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund for fiscal year 2015, citing key efforts underway in Montana and Wyoming and success stories in fishery improvements at Lake Mead National Recreational Area along the border of Arizona and Nevada.

Enacted in 1965, the fund serves as the government's main vehicle for acquiring new lands, protecting private lands and funding urban recreation. Although it is authorized for an annual allocation of $900 million, it has only received that amount once. It now gets about $300 million, and that funding was in danger of being eliminated altogether during the last budget cycle.

Over the years, the fund has also landed in the crosshairs of conservative Republicans who contend the federal government should stop its acquisition of land until it gets its budget under control.

But sportsmen emphasize that many iconic Western hunting and fishing experiences are found on lands that have benefited from the funding and, without it, habitat and public access will be in jeopardy.

“Hunters and anglers are losing access by the day to our traditional places to hunt and fish,” said Mark Hennelly, vice president of legislative affairs and public policy for the California Waterfowl Association.

Jay Stark, with the Idaho Hunter Education Association, said federal public lands serve a key role in supporting sportsmen's traditions.

"At the end of the day, Western sportsmen understand the importance of federal public lands to our outdoor traditions,” Stark said. “These areas are vital to our continued ability to hunt and fish, they encompass priority fish and wildlife habitat, and they are available to everyone."

Utah signatories to the letter include the Utah Backcountry Hunters & Anglers as well as the Utah Council of Trout Unlimited.

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