One of the first things House Republicans took on when they came back from the holiday break was making it easier for the government to transfer control of federal public lands to states. But some of the most avid users of these lands—hunters and anglers—are on edge about the idea. Julie Grant recently spent time with a Pennsylvania hunter to get his take. (Photo: Brian Peshek for The Allegheny Front)
On the Sunday before buck hunting season started in late November, Randy Santucci, chair of a group called the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, got up early to show me some of his favorite hunting sites.
Santucci is a big guy, in his 50s, and owns a machine shop in Robinson Township near the Pittsburgh airport. Today, he’s wearing a camo shirt, a ball cap and what looks like a week’s worth of scruff on his face.
“We are about three miles outside of Tidoute, Warren County, in northwest Pennsylvania,” Santucci says. “Our camp here [is] pretty typical of the thousands of camps across the northern tier of Pennsylvania. This is the big weekend for deer season, which is the one that everyone kind of waits for all year. The whole group here is family.”
LISTEN: A Hunter’s Take on the Politics of the Great Outdoors
Santuccis’ brother, cousin, nephew and brother-in-law are still sleeping in after the annual campfire and cook-out they do on the Saturday night before deer season. While they sleep, we hop into his pick-up to get the lay of the land—and talk a little politics. Donald Trump has said he wants more energy development on federal lands, and this worries some hunters. Groups like the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers fear that leasing public land for oil and gas wells will destroy wildlife habitat—and the solitude of being in the woods.
But Santucci isn’t worried. And he wants to show me why.
We drive down an access road and he points into the woods. “There are wells strewn all through here,” he says. Pennsylvania’s game lands have been used for energy development for decades, and there are thousands of working oil and gas wells in the nearby Allegheny National Forest. Santucci says his hunting group was early to support drilling.
“You aren’t going to stop it. So the second best thing to do is to get on board and be involved with these energy companies to promote proper land reclamation.”
Santucci says land that’s cleared for drilling actually benefits hunting. After four wheeling some rough roads, we walk into the woods toward another well site and a beautiful stream. The roads built for well pads provide access to spots like this.
“No hunter could get anywhere near this without these access roads. You’re miles and miles from the forest road. There’s no way to hunt it, you couldn’t get the deer out—especially older hunters. Obviously, I’m not in great shape. I can’t go long distances, dragging deer. But I can get back here and get off the road a little bit.”
And once the forest has been cut to make way for drilling, he says the brush that grows back is actually better for hunting species like deer and ruffed grouse.
“You know, you don’t want it in your backyard. Some guys will say, ‘Jeez, they ruined my favorite hunting spot, they put this well in, or they cut a pipeline’. But as the years go by, the game comes back in, the trees start to canopy over the edges of the pipeline a little, and you’ve basically created food and cover for game.”
It might not be surprising that Santucci supported Donald Trump for president. Most of his hunting buddies did too. They even have a deer head on their camp wall wearing one of those red “Make America Great Again” ballcaps.
Santucci isn’t worried that Trump’s calls to cut environmental and energy regulations will do much harm. He thinks the energy industry is already well regulated when it comes to protecting water quality and ensuring drill sites are cleaned up. In fact, he believes environmental regulations have gone too far.
“I know Trump talked about relaxing regulation. Well, I’m sure those ones he’s going to remove are probably the ones that are the least intrusive from a standpoint of causing any concerns to the environment. There’s a lot of overregulation.”
Other hunting groups across the country are not as confident. Organizations like Trout Unlimited have issued dire warnings to hunters and fishermen about the Republican Party’s goal to transfer federal lands to the states. The group worries if states decided to lease or sell those lands, they would be gone for good. Trump and his pick to lead the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke, have so far not supported these land transfer efforts.
As Randy Santucci and his son show me their guns, they say they’re not really worried about it. They just want to hang out, and hopefully bag a buck.