As the host of the MeatEater podcast and Netflix series of the same name, Steven Rinella spends a lot of time talking about hunting, fishing, and cooking. He is a proud voice in what’s often called the hook-and-bullet crowd. He’s also a staunch conservationist, a contributing editor of Outside magazine, and the author of American Buffalo, which explores the role of the buffalo hunt throughout North American history. This makes him uniquely qualified to bridge the divide between hunters and outdoor recreationists. In a column for the magazine, Rinella argued that it’s never been more important for these two groups to forge an alliance. Outside editor Christopher Keyes chased him down to talk about the need to find common ground in order to protect our most cherished public lands.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Interview with Chris Keyes.
Peter Frick-Wright (host): Steven Rinella is pretty cool under fire. I think you have to be to do what he does and spread the message he spreads about hunting's role in conservation. It's a message that's sometimes not smiled on by urban outdoors people. Steven is a long time Outside contributor, probably most known for his book, American Buffalo, where he writes about hunting buffalo in Alaska and the animals’ place in American culture and history. He's also the host of Meat Eater, a Netflix TV show where he spreads the message that there's a lot more to hunting than just going out into the woods and firing guns. As you might imagine, he can get the cold shoulder when hipsters outnumber hunters in the trailhead.
But as a writer for Outside, which only rarely covers hunting, and the host of a hunting show and podcast, Rinella is uniquely able to talk to both major user groups in the outdoors. He has a line on both the weekend hike, bike, and ski crowd and the hunting season camo and Cabella's demographic. These are two user groups that generally run in different circles, but recently he wrote a piece for the magazine about how they actually have more in common than you might think and how absolutely vital it is for them to come together right now in defense of the outdoors. Outside’s editor Chris Keyes called him up to talk about it.
Keyes: I want to talk a little bit about the column you wrote recently for Outside. It was titled “This Land is Our Land: It's Time for the Outdoor Industry to Embrace Hunters and Anglers as Political Allies in Conservation Battles.” And first I want to discuss this divide that you point out right at the jump in the piece, and this idea that we've kind of segment segmented ourselves into two distinct groups. You've got the hook and bullet crowd, and you've got the outdoor recreationists, the climbers, hikers, bikers, mountain bikers, et cetera. And there's not a lot of overlap between these two crowds.
So you've hunted all your life, you fished all your life. When did you first become cognizant of this divide?
Steve Rinella: I didn't become cognizant of the divide till I left where I grew up. In Western Michigan, people didn't self identify as outdoor recreationists. Everyone, every family had someone who hunted. And it was just your sort of assumption that's just what people did. And it wasn't till I moved to Montana, which is really known for outdoor recreation. Then later also living in Anchorage for a while. Where you saw that there was this other type of person who was extremely passionate about the outdoors. And I remember it being like a little bit surprising to me. I think of it like a trailhead tension and I've experienced it many times, of like you're heading up a trail head with your bow and people are coming down with their whatever -- they got six dogs, two of them are off leash, and you come down and there's just a sort of this like uncomfortableness now and then.
Keyes: And so like that trailhead example that you've experienced, how do you handle that? Have you tried to handle it different ways? Do you just kind of look askance at each other or do you try to interact with those people and have a dialogue?
Rinella: Oh man, I go out of my way. You know, it's changed over the years. As I've, as I sort of felt more like you have some social responsibility, right? In the old days, I wouldn't have paid attention. But now I'll go out of my way, cause now I've become where I believe in a certain level of diplomacy and how effective it is. I used to engage a little bit, and I would joke about this with people, where I would engage a little bit just to try to see what they had seen. One time we used to hang out with someone who didn't hunt, but they were a trail runner and man, we'd get great reports from her all the time about where she was running into elk. And so since she was such a reliable resource and totally unbiased and had no reason to like hide information from me, we would always go to Jane and be like, Jane, what you been seeing lately?
So I would engage with people, non-hunters that I run into at the trailhead, I would engage them a little bit wanting to pick their brain, but now I'll just go out of my way. And I've had some pretty fantastic interactions with people where I've run into hikers. Not long ago I was hitting some BLM land in Colorado and ran into a couple of people most people would look and be like, Oh, there's a couple of hippies, right? And we get to talking and t we're kinda talking about wildlife and movement patterns and we get done and the guy expresses, he's like, man, I'm really surprised. One, it's cool to see someone this far out here hiking around. And he was really surprised by my knowledge of wildlife. And I remember thinking like, dude, I'm really nothing special. I didn't say this to him. I'm thinking like, I'm really nothing special. I think that if you engage with more hunters out here, you'd find that that level of interest in wildlife is inherent and everyone shares it. But I think he had a perception -- I definitely came into it with a perception-- of what this person's value system was, what their worldview was. That was upset by my conversation with them. And they also had really no idea really about the regulatory structure of hunting. And they were pleased and surprised to hear about that. That there's rules in place, that you're not just out shooting at whatever you see running around in the woods. And it was just like a nice interaction, and I find that when you go out of your way to have that, it's really helpful.
Looking, you know, looking back at all the interactions I have with non-hunters, people who are suspicious of hunting, people who are outright antagonistic toward hunting -- I can't think of a single one where they came out of our interaction more entrenched in their beliefs. And that's a bold statement. So I'm talking about 20 years of doing this.
Keyes: And through all of those encounters, what have you seen is like the most common misconceptions between both sides?
Rinella: I think that people, a lot of people who are antagonistic, or ambivalent to antagonistic about hunting, generally are very happy to hear about the somewhat Byzantine regulatory structure that governs hunting activities -- as simple as this, that you have wildlife in this country managed at the state level, generally -- this is excluding certain migratory animals where there's some federal overlay and Endangered Species Act animals where you have federal oversight as well. But typically wildlife in America is owned by Americans. It's a public resource and the trustee who guards this interest for the people is the state. And so states have wildlife management agencies. Wildlife management agencies derive the bulk of their funding by selling, hunting, fishing, trapping, licenses, permits and stamps. And they drive the other major chunk of their funding from excise taxes on guns, ammunition, sporting goods equipment, some sporting goods equipment, and fishing equipment. They take this fund and they hire teams of biologists and researchers who assess wildlife populations and then make a decision about what is an amount of this population that could be killed or culled without having long-term deleterious effects on the resources, and they work out season systems with quotas and date ranges and weapons restrictions. That's the system that we have set up over the last 130 years to make this whole thing work. And it's the most effective system in the world.
Once people get that, they breathe a real sigh of relief. That's one of the most impactful things. I think the funding and the regulatory structure where people kind of have like, Oh, I thought y'all just went and killed a bunch of stuff out in the woods. Another thing that's really impactful that I find, it's such a slam dunk and it's so true and it registers as true, is the relationship with food. That's something that people understand. We're pragmatic. Like we're a pragmatic species still and people want to know that resources are being put to good use. And if someone is a hunter and they utilize the resource to its fullest potential, it generally makes people very at ease. That helps.
There's some things that mean a lot to hunters that don't mean a lot to non-hunters --there's certain truths that we hold. Like this idea of legacy. It's a thing you hear again and again from people, not just hunters, but hunters and fishermen, where you have this idea -- like I point out all the time my maternal grandfather was a hunter and fisherman, my paternal grandfather hunted and fished. My father was a very avid hunter and fisherman. Me and my brothers are, I'm raising my children that way. My brother's raising his children that way. And we look at that and we see there's a beauty in the continuity, but that isn't impactful to people looking from the outside in because they're like, just because your grandpa was doing something bad and your dad was doing something bad, how does that make you doing something bad okay? Like I don't care. You know, slavery used to be legal. I don't think that it's that it's warranted because it's a legacy. It's a thing that means a lot to us that you find that you run into a wall when you try to discuss it.
Keyes: It's interesting that that one of the most effective ways is to talk about all that regulatory framework around hunting and fishing because I think so many on the outdoor recreation side aren't aware of that. Do you think recreationists should be forced to pony up for more access as well? Should we have a backpack tax?
Rinella: I love the idea and I'll tell you it's certainly controversial in that industry where people point out like, Oh, you know, we're paying all these taxes already. People making soft goods, backpacks, it’s an import dustry and so they point out that we're already paying so many taxes. We'd be happy to have you redirect some of our taxes to conservation, but they're generally antagonistic toward this idea of slapping on some additional stuff. I'll point out that under Franklin Delano Roosevelt we had the Wildlife Restoration Act and that sort of spawned this Pittman-Robertson Fund, which is this 13 or 14% excise tax on guns and ammunition. Now that was enacted a long time ago. It was the redirection of an existing tax and it's built into the manufacturing end. So when people go and they buy a box of shotgun shells to go duck hunting, they don't look at their receipt and see like this 13% add on. It's built in. And I think I grew up my whole life paying thing and for the bulk of my life I didn't know it existed. But depending on what's going on with gun sales, this thing could kick in up to a billion dollars a year into wildlife funding.
But it's interesting to point out that about somewhere between 70 and 75% of that comes from recreational shooters, not hunters. So hunters love to point out that fund. But you know what if you're an old grandma from New Jersey packing a pistol around in her purse, she kicked into wildlife funding. And so we can't like own it. We love to act like we own it, but we really can't own it all. Like hunters can’t, but gun owners can own the fund. The backpack tax that has come to be known. I think it's a great idea, but you'll even find people within my community, I'm not one of them, but you'll find people within my community who are very leery about having money come in from other sources because they fear that with that money will come and ask for influence, and people are reluctant to invite other people to have a legitimate seat at the table because they're fearful of what that input might bring.
Keyes: That being specifically like restrictions on hunting in certain areas?
Rinella: Sure. It could take many forms. It could be people saying, Hey, we're bought in, we're paying a lot of money for wildlife and we want state agencies to hear our voice. The hunter and angler world has enjoyed a lot of influence on wildlife management decisions because it's something that we've built. So when we look at this thing we made, we want to make sure that the work that our forefathers put in and the work that we've put in serves a purpose that we have in mind and that we maintain social involvement, that wildlife maintains a commercial value, a cultural value. And we understand when we look at it, we see, like when I look at an elk, I see a resource, I see a well managed resource. There are other people that look at elk and they might see, I don't get the resource part. I look at an individual elk. I don't care about the population of elk. I don't want anything bad to happen to that elk. That notion of looking at individuals and not managing wildlife at the population level is like anathema to the system that we put in place. So there's a reluctance to have people gain a seat at the table and gain a voice who might not share our same resource population based ideas about wildlife.
I worry about it too, but I also worry about the long term health and wellbeing of our wildlife and wild places. When I weigh it all out in my mind, I have the feeling that I would certainly accept more funding even if it's going to come with influence. Because I know that when hunters and contemporary wildlife managers, when we express our goals and express our viewpoints and explain the legacy, I am confident that we will be able to continue managing wildlife in a way that maintains that cultural and financial incentive to have it around.
Keyes: Here we are with these two distinct groups and as we've talked a lot here already about just sort of the differences in the way that we might see wildlife and resources, but obviously where we have total commonality is over the idea of access to public lands. Whether you're a hunter or a hiker, you don't want that to change. And we're, we're living in an era where that's under real threat. I want you to talk a little bit about the example you write about, specifically where these two groups came together to battle. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican Utah Congressman who introduced a bill that would have forced the federal government to sell like huge swaths of public land. What happened there?
Rinella: The debate around public lands was centered and focused around the idea: like is it legitimate that the federal government manages such huge acreages in the American West? People were pushing on this idea and challenging this idea. Like, is this the federal government's role? Is it even legal? Should this be going on? I think that in the years we've had since then, that shifted a little bit,and I'll talk about that shift in where the conversation around public lands access, where it sits now, but at that time just this idea that you were going to take land that was open to the public to hunt fish, bike, kayak, whatever -- it was open to the public. People were put in this position where they were going to see undoubtedly a net reduction in the amount of acres upon which we can pursue our passions. And people exploded. And the explosion came from surprising places where you could imagine that like people's idea of like your like Sierra Club or whatever, like Oh yeah, you're big tree huggers, of course they're going to be mad.
But what shocked people was when the hook and bullet crowd responded so negatively to the idea. And I think it was shocking to everyone involved and the Congressman who had put it up quickly withdrew it and issued an apology. And so it was like a great instance where like politics and public pressure worked and we got an outcome that we're after. A lot of politicians in a lot of Western States have learned that you're not going to be able to sell the public on this idea of dumping federal lands and you can see it from the Trump administration that we're not looking to offload federal lands. But what is being decided now is, okay, we're going to have federally managed public lands, but to what degree are we going to grease the wheels for unfettered resource exploitation?
And that's kind of where the debate is now. And there's this popular word right now that everyone likes to use: access. If you say to people: do you support access? You find that most Americans, if they know what we're talking about are like, of course I support access. But our definitions of access are very different. When I think of increased access, I think that in my mind what we're talking about, is increasing the total number of acreage that the public has the ability to go and use for recreation, be that hunting, fishing, biking, ice climbing -- I don't even care what, but it means an increase. Other people look at that--- Oh, no, no, no, what access means is build more roads because we need more roles. We have these places that not enough people can get to. So access isn't increasing acreage, it's just making more quad runner trails, more paved roads, increasing access like that. Or access means access for the oil and gas industry to get in. And so we have this thing where we're all applauding access. We're all agreeing about access, but we're having very different conversations.
And so that right now in my mind is where this idea about public lands, this ongoing debate around public lands, that's where it's centered. We're sort of like at a truce, we're going to have a bunch of federally managed public lands. We're not going to question the legitimacy there, but we're going to argue over what they're going to do and how much they need to justify themselves, how much these lands need to justify themselves through economic activity. I think people in my community, I find that a lot of people I associate with and hang out with are very aware that we burn gas in our cars, man. We use energy, we use minerals. You can't have this openly -- it's hypocritical to have this openly antagonistic perspective or attitude toward the extraction industries. But at the same time, we want to make smart decisions that aren't going to be screwing ourselves down the year. We want to move in a slow, calculated way and not make big mistakes and not push certain species to the situation where we need to bring in the Endangered Species Act in order to recover them. And so it's complicated and it winds up being very nuanced and it's combative.
Keyes: Well, it's interesting too, I mean talking about those ranging interpretations of access. I lived in Texas for a while and, that's a state with an enormous population of hunters and very little public land... a good amount of the hunting there takes place on private land and these massive ranches. From a hunter's perspective, why is that a bad thing if some of this federal land does go into local control or even private control and it's managed by private land owners?
Rinella: The fear there -- I can't say that this is a national thing, I mean right now we're talking about something that winds up being a Western issue, particularly states where you have 30 to 70% of the landscape is federally managed. Like that's where this conversation is centered. The reason the hunting and angling community is leery of state management is a couple of reasons. If you look across the American West, state managed state lands, they don't enjoy a lot of protection and States are often in situations where they need to sell off and privatize state lands. So when people talk about saying, we want to take federally managed lands and move them over to stay ownership, people see it as -- it's not just like this conceptual slippery slope. It's a reality. Like Texas used to have a hell of a lot more public land than it does now. They sold off virtually all of their school trust lands. State after state across the West, when they get lands and they have budget deficits and other things happen and they need to go and sell the stuff because States administer land typically under the system by which it needs to return maximum economic yield. And so other user groups take a back seat to extraction resources and sale. So we hear state land, state management, and we often see like not a lot of certainty where this is headed.
It's surprising to people to hear this, but state lands carry a lot of restrictions that federal lands don't. You have States and the American West where it's illegal to camp on state lands; it might be illegal to hunt and fish on state lands because again, that state land has to be used for maximum economic yield and they don't have the multi-user mandate that we have when it comes to Bureau of Land Management, USDA, U.S. Forest Service Lands, refuge lands where it's administered by an agency that has a mandate to allow multi use that all these different people have a seat at the table and they all have a right to access the place. You forfeit that when you move to different systems. That is why you find a lot of antagonism in the outdoor community at large, particularly a lot of hunters and anglers who hear that and they don't see good things coming.
Keyes: As you say in the piece too, Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument were downsized, which was not what the end goal was for these two distinct groups. But it could have been a lot worse cause they were looking at a lot of other monuments. And one of the reasons it wasn't a lot worse that you posit was again the both communities, your recreationalists and your hunters and anglers coming together as one voice and saying, well we won't stand for this. I guess my concern and I'm just curious how you think about this is like, it's great that we're having this dialogue. It's great that we’re uniting our voices.
At the same time, and I mean not to put a total blanket statement on it, but I think you would agree like largely the hunting and angling community leans towards the right and Republican party and the outdoor recreation community leans left and towards the Democratic party. And we're in this system right now, which seems built to totally discourage any kind of bipartisan cooperation. As I was preparing for this, um, this interview, I saw that the Federalist had written this scathing article about a mediator essentially criticizing you and your colleagues for working with the back country hunters Alliance, a pro conservation group because they had a radical environmental agenda. It seems to me like pieces like that or what was going to scare off one group from working with the other side and how do we overcome that?
Rinella: I don't know how you overcome it because it manifests differently in every situation. Let's talk a bit about the monument thing. When I talk about the monument issue with hunters and fishermen, there's a sentiment that I wind up hearing a lot where people have a fear that monument ---because this has been born out in certain places certainly-- where monument designation is a slippery slope to it becoming an overly restrictive landscape and that something that's going to become a monument and it's on its path toward becoming a national park. And one of the reasons I think that you had suspicion around the monuments and maybe not a total public backlash from my community around the monuments was this idea that this is a gradual step towards squeezing hunters and anglers out of the land. At that time that it went in, to be fair, there was no restriction there. There was no net loss of lands upon which to hunt and fish. But there's that public relations battle, that perception thing that really needed to change because people are antagonistic toward the idea. You can imagine that if there was a rumor mill that a monument designation was going to mean big tracks of land closed off to hiking, big tracks of land closed off to mountain biking, big tracks of land closed off to all these other pursuits that you could have seen other user groups becoming suspicious. But there's an ingrained suspicion that once you start doing these overlays of administrative detail and bureaucracy that people become real nervous. And I think that maybe those apprehensions are misplaced in certain cases. But I think in going forward and talking about monuments and certainly we're gonna have more conversations around monuments in the future, I would advise people who are laying those out to go out of their way to engage with the sportsmen and women community in order to get total buy-in.
I feel that right now, if you are concerned about the future of hunting and fishing, if you're concerned about the future of wildlife in America, the thing that you need to be most concerned about in my mind is habitat. How much wildlife habitat are we protecting and how much do we have because animals reproduce, you know, land doesn't, and right now my thing, like the thing I watch out for, is every year we lose wildlife habitat. We see reductions in it all the time. And my feeling is that hunters and anglers, if they are watching out for their future and the lives of their children, lives of their grandchildren, we need to be making sure that we're not dramatically reducing the viable land landscapes that are viable fish and wildlife. That is something that I worry about a lot.
Frick-Wright: That’s Steven Rinella talking with Chris Keyes. This episode was produced by Chris and Robbie Carver. It was brought to you by Arizona, home of Tucson, the best place to ride a bike in Arizona, if not the whole Southwest, if not the whole country, especially this time of year. The Outside Podcast is a production of PRX and Outside Magazine. We'll be back in two weeks.