By Deborah Courson Smith Big Sky Connection

HELENA – The U.S. Senate is back to work and moving quickly on several pieces of legislation, including Sen. Jon Tester’s Sportsmen’s Act.

The act, expected to face a final vote today, is a package of about 20 measures focused on boosting access to hunting and fishing on public lands, along with conservation provisions. Tester, D-Mont., says the act has strong bipartisan support because hunting and fishing aren’t partisan issues.

“This is a bill that I think, once we get it passed, once we get it to the president’s desk, sportsmen will start seeing the advantage of it almost immediately.”

K.C. Walsh, president of Simms Fishing Products in Bozeman, calls it landmark legislation for the outdoor-recreation industry.

“This is the most significant legislation to support hunting and fishing interests in decades. This is a big deal – important not just for Montanans, but for all folks who value hunting and angling and proper management of our wildlife.”

Land Tawney, president of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, says the Land and Water Conservation Fund component may be what Montanans notice first – after the bill is signed.

“This is where people get access to public lands, or access to rivers, and it also provides the conservation values which makes hunting and fishing continue.”

The legislation creates set-aside funding in the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase parcels or easements to open public access to public lands surrounded by private property.

Even with bipartisan support, vocal opponents are concerned about timber harvests in the legislation, as well as animal rights.

The House passed its version of the bill earlier this year.