It’s tempting for those of us who love the outdoors to think of ourselves as belonging to one of two groups. There’s my own crew of sportsmen and women, known as the hook-and-bullet crowd; and then there’s the outdoor recreationists or “nonconsumptive users,” a term for hikers, climbers, kayakers, birders, mountain bikers, and others who might enjoy being around wild creatures without ever eating one for dinner.
From cold shoulders at the trailhead to outright hostility, the tension between these groups can be traced back to at least 1903, when the preservationist John Muir asked President Theodore Roosevelt, a dedicated hunter, when he was going to get beyond “the boyishness of killing things”—a glib question to put to a man whose hands-on relationship with nature later inspired him to protect about 230 million acres of American land.
Even today, while I spend as much time and effort advocating on behalf of wildlife habitat as I do hunting in it, some people who spot me with my rifle are never going to imagine anything but a callous hick who inflicts suffering on animals while littering backcountry roads with beer cans. Of course, the stereotypes run both ways. While a professional nature photographer may advocate for conservation through their work, a hunter may view them as profiting from wildlife without financially contributing to federal and state conservation programs, the latter of which are funded primarily through the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses and the collection of excise taxes levied against guns, ammo, archery equipment, and fishing supplies. In 2017, these fees added up to over $2.7 billion.
Such divisions are especially seductive in today’s fractured political climate of red versus blue and rural versus urban, where we’re all busy wounding our enemies rather than collecting friends. But there’s never been a more important time for hunters and anglers and the outdoor-recreation community to come together for conservation. By doing so, we can shift our focus to common foes who would like to undo the legacies of both Roosevelt and Muir by privatizing our public lands, stripping away our access to public waterways, and opening up our remaining bastions of pristine wilderness to industrial development.
This call might sound like kumbaya bullshit unless you consider a couple of well-known case studies that demonstrate the power of unity. The first happened in early 2017, when Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz introduced H.R. 621, the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act. The bill would have required the federal government to sell off millions of acres of public land in ten western states. The hook and bullet crowd and outdoor recreationists were both apoplectic that someone would want to reduce the acreage of federally protected lands where we’re free to hunt, fish, climb, bike, and hike. Protesters coalesced under #keepitpublic, and the movement grew to a ferocious rallying cry on social media. Within days, Chaffetz posted on Instagram that he was withdrawing the bill. Normally a suit and tie kind of fella, the congressman appeared in his photo decked out in a camo hat and jacket and cradling a hunting dog.
Case study number two: In April 2017, President Trump ordered interior secretary Ryan Zinke to review 27 national monuments created or expanded after 1996, with an eye toward reducing their size or repealing their status. The move sparked a firestorm of outrage from many of the same organizations that protested H.R. 621. Yes, Trump axed a combined two million acres from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments in Utah. But there was a hidden upside to the outcry that is rarely mentioned: a partial win for conservationists.
Remember, President Trump had ordered Secretary Zinke to review 27 national monuments, not two. Some of those were certainly red herrings, but others were at risk. “There were definitely other monuments they intended to reduce, including Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks,” says New Mexico senator Martin Heinrich. But insiders say that Zinke was surprised by the breadth and intensity of the pushback and acted accordingly. “I don’t want to make light of the reductions that did occur,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a nonprofit group for sportsmen and women. “But it certainly would’ve been a lot worse if sportsmen and the outdoor community hadn’t raised their voices the way that they did.”
What’s it going to take to see more and bigger wins? First, we need to make sure that our disagreements don’t bleed over into areas where we’re aligned. You and I might not see eye to eye on removing Endangered Species Act protection from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (I support it) or revamping existing law to allow mountain bikes into federally designated wilderness (I’m against it). But we should view those disagreements as luxuries that come from having a wealth of wildlife and pristine landscapes for people to experience. If we lose the more important fight around defending those ecosystems in the first place, the arguments become moot.
Second, the holier-than-thou attitudes and territoriality need to end. Over the past 80 years, hunters and anglers have funded billions of dollars’ worth of vital conservation work, and many of us have cultural ties to the land that go back generations. That hardly means we have a greater claim to wildlands or wildlife than anyone else. If you’re in a situation where a hiker spooked your deer, you’ve got it all wrong: the hiker spooked our deer. Likewise, nonhunters need to recognize the validity of regulated hunting and fishing, even if some of those practices might seem personally off-putting. Sure, hunters remove limited numbers of animals from the landscape for personal use. But with proper management practices and good habitat, those animals are back again the next year. If you strip away someone’s connection to the landscape, you risk losing their support as well.
Third, we need to start talking more. Some dialogue is already taking place. In April, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard got up in front of a gathering of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers members in Boise, Idaho, to celebrate public lands and told a couple of stories about hunting doves and eating venison. In July, Chouinard and Land Tawney, the president and CEO of BHA, cowrote an op-ed in the Denver Post calling for alignment among hunters and anglers and outdoor recreationists. Likewise, Fosburgh has moved the needle on conservation issues by working with unlikely allies, including the Audubon Society and the Environmental Defense Fund. Regrettably, these interactions make some people uneasy. BHA caught flack from some of my fellow hunters, who were angry at the group for giving voice to people who might not be 100 percent aligned with their views.
Politicians get nervous about these alliances, too. They’re comfortable pissing off 49 percent of their constituency, but they can’t afford to piss off 51 percent. And they especially can’t afford to ignore the money. Hunters and anglers spend over $63 billion annually in pursuit of their passions. Wildlife watchers contribute some $30 billion. Skiers, snowboarders, and other snow-sports enthusiasts throw down $73 billion. Trail-sports folks shell out more than $200 billion. The total spending of outdoor enthusiasts is approaching a formidable $900 billion. Collectively, our economic footprint should be able to kick down the doors of the partisan safe havens where politicians go to do bad things.
And there are plenty of bad things brewing. In June, Utah senator Mike Lee vowed to dismantle the public-lands system that we know today. He described it as existing for an “upper-crust elite,” which is surprising given the 331 million visits to national parks last year and the 72 percent of hunters who pursue game on public lands in the West. There are plenty of politicians on both sides of the aisle who respect the sanctity of our protected landscapes, and they need to be rewarded with campaign support and votes as we head to the polls this November.
Likewise, we need to be forceful in our insistence that the Land and Water Conservation Fund be permanently reauthorized with dedicated funding. This piece of legislation from 1964 diverts money from oil and gas leases on offshore federal property into a fund that’s used for recreational access to public lands and waters across the nation. It’s also one of our most important tools for conserving fish and wildlife. The fund was thrown a temporary three-year lifeline in 2015, but that expired on September 30, 2018. While some long-awaited movement for its reauthorization has recently been passed in committee, Congressional leaders have yet to move a package forward for consideration by the full House and Senate.
The list goes on. With issues ranging from the ill-advised Pebble Mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay to sage grouse recovery in the American West to Everglades restoration on the Florida peninsula, there’s plenty of room for sportsmen and women and outdoor recreationists to sing as a chorus rather than as lone voices crying out from the wilderness.
Contributing editor Steven Rinella is the host of MeatEater, available on Netflix.
*The paragraph about the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been updated to reflect the most recent news.