The alarm clock sounds—it is 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday. After packing lunches and loading up the car, the kids are excited to get on the road. By 5:30, the family is driving up Highway 26 on its way to the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. Hunting season is here.

For many Wisconsin families, this will be a reality come the fall of 2018. Hunting, along with fishing, snowmobiling, and other forms of outdoor recreation, is a key part of the American heritage. At the Department of the Interior, we spent last year focused on expanding public access to public land for all Americans, especially young Americans, so we can build a generation of advocates for conservation and land stewardship. Sportsmen and women are the greatest conservationists because they have spent countless hours enjoying the land on which they recreate.

In 2017, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke expanded hunting and fishing opportunities at 10 of our national wildlife refuges. Two of them, Horicon and Fox River National Wildlife Refuges, are right here in Wisconsin. At Horicon, we expanded migratory game bird, upland game, and big game hunting, as well as sport fishing. Fox River now boasts 80 newly acquired acres open for big game hunting of white-tailed deer.

This fierce push for public access is nothing new for Ryan Zinke. Eight years ago, I stopped in Whitefish, Montana, to catch up with the secretary, then just an old friend of mine, while I was riding from Banff, Canada, to Mexico on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. From our time together in the Navy SEALs, I knew the secretary was an outdoorsman who loved to hunt and fish, but on this occasion, I saw a different side.

When I arrived in Whitefish, he invited me to paddle the Flathead River with him. Rowing along in our paddleboat and talking about the splendor and beauty of the river, we passed the remains of a covered wagon, 20 feet under the water. One of the wheels was almost fully intact, and I marveled at this incredible relic of generations past. I began to ask questions about the region’s history, and Secretary Zinke stopped the boat to explain, in great detail, the pioneering back story of the place where he grew up, relating it all back to this sunken wagon.

His passion about our land—its history, its wildlife and its wonder—was evident. He values outdoor recreation and public use of the land so deeply because they are cornerstones of the very American heritage he so reveres.

It’s no surprise that he is now secretary of the Interior—America’s principal steward of our public land, charged with protecting our natural treasures. As senior adviser to the secretary for recreation, I came to Washington, D.C., to help the secretary carry out his pro-access agenda because I believe, like he believes, that our lands are “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” as the words on the Roosevelt Arch in Yellowstone National Park proclaim.

Under Secretary Zinke, hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation are back atop the priority list. As Wisconsin families look forward to enjoying the great outdoors this year, we will build on our work in the outdoor recreation space in 2018.

Retired U.S. Navy SEAL Capt. Rick May is a senior advisor to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke for recreation.

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