Lawmaker Spotlight: Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.)

Congressman Steve Daines (R.Montana) after a successful antelope hunt with his daughter Caroline.

Congressman Steve Daines (R.Montana) after a successful antelope hunt with his daughter Caroline.

Our periodic series of interviews features Members of Congress who are staunch supporters of hunting and the goals of SCI.   This time, we talked with a lawmaker who not only meets this description, but is also a Life member of SCI.

Rep. Steve Daines, a Republican, occupies the at-large House seat representing all of Montana. Rep. Daines opened the discussion by saying, “I’m a Life member of Safari Club.   I appreciate what SCI stands for … we’ve got to continue to fight for our hunting rights.   This is our way of life, and it’s important to protect this for the next generation. “

Rep. Daines explained his motivations for running for office, saying, “I’m a fifth generation Montanan, and I think we need more people in Washington who have experience in running businesses and providing jobs.   I spent 28 years in business. I loved the life we had in Montana, with four children. I’m a passionate outdoorsman, and if I wasn’t in Congress I’d be a hunting and fishing guide.   But I saw a country with crushing debt, lethargic economy, and a loss of confidence around the world in who we are as a country. We have enemies who don’t fear us, allies who don’t trust us – I’m the son of a U.S. Marine, and was taught the value of service. I just wanted to make sure we had someone in office who stands for Montana, and not Obama.”

The congressman outlined his legislative agenda, saying, “We can summarize what I stand for in four words: More jobs, less government.” Daines is a member of the important House Natural Resources Committee, where he works to balance economic development with conservation. “When I was growing up in Montana, our license plate called us the ‘Treasure State.’ The treasures we have are our natural resources – timber, oil, natural gas, mining. But we have to combine that economic development with the science of conservation, to protect the ability to take your kids hunting and fishing on the weekends.”

“People grow up there then have to leave because they can’t find jobs. We have some of the lowest per capita incomes in the nation, but our natural resources provide jobs. We need to manage our resources better. The way we manage timber on public lands – instead of watching them burn, why not harvest some of the beetle-killed trees? But the other side is also important, to carefully manage our natural resources so Montanans can enjoy the outdoors on the weekends.”

Daines has a particular focus on timber management. “ Remember, when Lewis and Clark came through Montana, the elk were primarily a plains animal. The grizzly bear was a plains animal. They’ve been pushed to higher altitudes by man’s presence, and they’d do better if the woods were better managed with proper thinning.” The Congressman holds up two disks of wood that are the same diameter, but show a radical difference in the growth rings.   “Here’s an example – this is a cross section of a tree that’s 56 years old. This one is seven years old. When you properly manage the forest and use thinning practices, you get a healthier forest.   When you don’t, you get catastrophic fire, and that’s devastating to the ecosystem.   I’m here trying to tell the federal government to let us manage our own forest, we know how to do it. Montana is about one third federal land, so it’s a big issue.”

Rep. Daines has his own signature conservation bill – the North Fork of the Flathead Watershed Protection Act. “We have been working with Max Baucus for a number of years to protect land up near Glacier National Park.   It would still allow us to harvest timber and to graze,

Congressman Steve Daines R.Mont.) on his first wolf hunt.

Congressman Steve Daines R.Mont.) on his first wolf hunt.

but it would extend protection on oil and gas exploration.   This is the first time in 30 years that bill has passed through the House.   Conservation is not necessarily an either / or proposition. I stand for responsible resource development combined with conservation because we need to create high-paying jobs, and protect our wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities as well.”

The Congressman has a common-sense agenda on issues beyond conservation, as well. “The very first bill I introduced in the House was the Balanced Budget Accountability Act. What it says is that if Congress doesn’t balance the budget, they don’t get paid.   Simple as that, and easy to measure. The state of Montana requires a balanced budget – it can be done. But not here in DC, and that’s why we’re sitting on nearly 18 trillion in debt – a staggering figure.   China now has four trillion of our debt – so it’s also a national security issue, to my mind.”

Congressman Daines has also established a record as a vigorous defender of the Second Amendment. “I was raised from a BB gun, then a .22, then a .243. It’s how you grow up in Montana, it’s a way of life for us. But I also recognize that the Second Amendment is not about hunting. It’s ultimately about freedom, and liberty.”

Rep. Daines didn’t sit idly by when the Senate debated a sweeping roster of proposed gun restrictions in 2013. “When the Senate took up the Toomey-Manchin bill, I went to the House floor and began speaking in opposition, to put pressure on the Senate.   As we say in Montana, it’s always best to put out a fire when it’s small. We were sending that message back home to make sure Montanans knew what was going on in the Senate.”  The congressman knows how important these issues are to Montanans, saying, “If a gun issue comes up in Washington, it quickly becomes the #1 issue in our office. When I push that button to cast a vote on the floor, I’m pushing it on behalf of one million Montanans.”

The Congressman has even acquired the nickname Dead-Eye Daines, based on media coverage of an event at a gun range. “I’ve had many shots in my life I could have made better, but on that particular day I was visiting a gun store in Billings. So we went out to the range there, and I just got down on the bench rest to shoot 100 yards and squeezed off two quick shots for the camera.   They were inside a penny, so I decided to stop then!   The newspaper reporter just blurted out ‘Dead-Eye Daines,’ and the nickname stuck.”

In recent elections, SCI members in Montana have seen the emergence of front groups that purport to represent hunters’ interests, but are actually driven by partisan politics.   Rep. Daines has an answer to their deceptive tactics. “In politics and campaigns, there are often times distortions of the truth. What’s important is that we shoot straight. I always remain committed to making sure Montanans know what my record says, and I don’t let groups from outside distort my record. That’s all you can do.”

The Congressman pulled out photos of moments spent hunting with his kids. “My grandpa and dad were both avid sportsmen. My granddad took me out to shoot my first antelope. At my grandfather’s funeral, all the pictures were laid out on a table, all the highlights of his life. And they were all hunting and fishing. And I was in most of them.”

The funeral gave Rep. Daines an opportunity for reflection. “I was a young father at the time, with young kids. I was busy in business, trying to raise a family and everything else. During the funeral, I said to myself, I want to make sure I don’t let the years get by. When the time comes, I want to make sure I will have lots of pictures hunting and fishing with my kids.”

The Congressman noted that it’s not as easy as it sounds. “You have to be very deliberate and intentional about that, or else the life just goes by quickly. So I started a new tradition of my own. I started to take my kids out of school for a week, during hunting season.   It was Dad and one child at a time, just the two of us, hunting for a week. I’m grateful I got to lean that lesson early, because it just gets harder. That’s what I did with my boys and my girls, including Caroline here. That’s her first big game animal, and her grandpa was there too, he took the picture.”

Congressman Steve Daines (R.Mont.) and his daughter after a successful mule deer hunt.

Congressman Steve Daines (R.Mont.) and his daughter after a successful mule deer hunt.

Rep. Daines concluded by saying, “To this day, I can’t tell you what I had going on in business during those weeks, though at the time it seemed very important. I can tell you that my kids don’t remember what homework assignments they had, or what else they missed, but to this day when we get together we remember every minute of our hunting. Going back to my grandpa’s funeral, it kind of boils down what’s really important – those memories of taking our kids hunting and fishing.”

With that, the Congressman was off to his next meeting.   Every day on Capitol Hill, Rep. Daines is protecting the interests of not just Montanans, but all of his fellow SCI members. Your Washington team is very appreciative of his hard work and unwavering support, and we firmly believe that he has a long and productive future as a lawmaker still before him.– Patrick O’Malley

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