RENO, Nev. — Hunting, Dirk Kempthorne told the crowd, isn't merely about the outdoors. It's tantamount to Americans' overall well-being.
"Hanging in the balance is the future of hunting heritage," the U.S. Secretary of the Interior said in an address to the White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy last week. "And with it, the future of conservation in America — the health of our wildlife, the health of our land, our water, our forests, our wetlands, and ultimately, I would argue, the health of our people."
Organizers of the conference — a meeting of policymakers and conservation groups — couldn't have known when they scheduled it that Americans' financial health would so dominate the news during the conference.
(Originally slated to appear was President George Bush, who remained in Washington to deal with the economic crisis and Vice President Dick Cheney in his stead.)
For some, bills hit where it hurts the most, affecting their ability to get out and hunt and fish, the very things that help people leave it all behind.
Sales of fishing and hunting licenses have declined for two decades, and dwindling license revenues mean less funding for the outdoors. Managing the woods and fields we hunt takes time, effort and money.
No better time, then, to address the future of conservation in this country. And it was clear throughout the conference that hunting will remain a major component of America's conservation plans.
In an interview after his address, ESPNOutdoors.com asked Secretary Kempthorne about the role of hunters and anglers in efforts to promote sound wildlife policy. A hunter himself, Kempthorne replied: "They play a key role in conservation. Those who to love to fish and hunt love to be outdoors ... They play the role of being the advocates for the outdoors."
That reply doesn't exactly suggest that Joe Hunter is writing policy. But the conference was a prime forum for the honchos of government to hear his opinion, and vice versa.
The two-day, invitation-only event featured speakers straight out of the executive office and included, in addition to Kempthorne and Cheney, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer and Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
While attendees included high-level leaders of sporting and conservation organizations, trade associations, and state and federal wildlife agencies, the real significance of the event lay with the concerns of individual hunters and anglers — folks who work regular jobs, pay taxes, and, whether it rains, snows, or shines, head to the lake or woods.
Those hunters and anglers are represented by organizations like the Bowhunting Preservation Alliance, Buckmasters American Deer Foundation, Conservation Force, the Mule Deer Foundation, the North American Bear Foundation, the Pope and Young Club, Quail Forever and the Wildlife Society, to name a few.
The inclusion of sporting organizations marks a real shift in the discussion of wildlife policy, offering a path for the needs and desires of everyday outdoor enthusiasts to perhaps affect law.
When asked how individuals might have a say in legislation, John Frampton, a wildlife biologist who worked his way up to director of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), agreed that this has been a problem in the past.
But, Frampton said, "hunters and fisherman today are much more educated than they were 20 or 30 years ago — they have the same access to research as we do." This makes their opinions particularly valuable.
He and other state officials said the newfound willingness of state agencies to listen to average hunters is nothing shy of a sea change for policymaking.
Over the past few years, Frampton's agency has been listening to hunters and sporting organizations in order to guide policy. He told ESPNOutdoors.com, "We present the issues to [hunters] and let them come up with recommendations. And we've found that it's much easier to get those changes through the legislative process, because it's not the agency that's pushing it, it's the constituency. And they're the ones who vote for politicians who make those decisions."
Behind the black curtains after his speech, Agriculture Secretary Schafer echoed the importance of individual hunters. "If you talk to county commissioners, if you work with local and state government, if you pound members of Congress' doors about policy — that we need to preserve and protect a way of life — then that results in policy," he said.
Sound policy can lead to the preservation of tradition. The conference marked the centennial of the Governor's Conference on Conservation, hosted by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, and focused on eight core points:
Improving wildlife conservation funding
Measuring wildlife habitat conservation efforts
Continuing hunter traditions
Increasing access to public and private lands
Recruiting and educating new hunters
Coordinating federal, state, and tribal conservation efforts
Assessing climate change effects on wildlife
Balancing energy development with wildlife conservation
These core issues in turn boiled down to three major themes for the conference: land access, wildlife and tradition.
To discuss these issues, sporting organization leaders were given the chance to rub elbows with high-level government officials, offer suggestions during small-group sessions and build networks of relationships. Bill Merhege, the Deputy State Director of New Mexico's BLM office, said that this conference gave non-government organizations a chance to be heard on important habitat and wildlife issues. "They don't need to hear it from a bureaucrat," he said. "This conference is for them."
The machinery for putting hunting and wildlife groups in contact with government has already been working on behalf of hunters and anglers through agencies like the American Wildlife Conservation Partners (AWCP). Central to the planning of the conference, the AWCP comprises a loose affiliation of 45 hunting, trapping and wildlife conservation organizations.
Those names are immediately recognizable: Safari Club International (SCI), the Izaak Walton League of America, the National Rifle Association, the Boone and Crockett Club, the National Wild Turkey Federation and Texas Wildlife Association, among others. These groups combined their respective forces to form a powerful lobby on behalf of hunters and anglers.
The Sporting Conservation Council (SCC) makes up another affiliation that hunters should be aware of. Created in March of 2006 to advise the Department of the Interior on resource conservation and hunting-related interests, the SCC was then given the added responsibility of advising the Department of Agriculture.
The SCC includes some of the same organizations that make up the AWCP and come from some of the largest hunting and wildlife organizations in the U.S., including the Boone and Crockett Club of America, Congressional Sportsmen Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Roughed Grouse Society, the National Rifle Association, Ducks Unlimited and others.
The council will be responsible for compiling feedback from conference attendees and making sure grassroots-level concerns are presented to lawmakers.
The conference was designed to connect the bottom with top, so to speak. But, really, how do hunters' and anglers' concerns reach Washington, D.C.?
The capitol can seem awfully far away — and relatively silent about local issues.
Jodi Stemler, a communications consultant for the AWCP, stated that sporting organizations were assigned to panels where they met with "at least one or two high-level officials and a handful of conservation-related organizations, or industry."
Note-takers kept track of discussions in meetings; those notes will be incorporated into a final conservation plan. That plan will then be presented to the president and other federal legislators. What they hope to produce is, in Stemler's words, "a living and organic document."
Through their local sporting organizations, in other words, hunters and anglers reach Washington, D.C., and help their solitary experiences in nature through political involvement.
"If you cherish time alone," Stemler said, "you need to be aware of and involved in these decisions, in order to maintain a stake in the issues. Otherwise, your priorities and your goals are going to be pushed farther and farther down the line."
This doesn't mean that lawmakers are not sympathetic to the needs of the outdoors. Often hunters and anglers themselves, they see the importance of outdoor activities for the well-being of the nation, and they do notice when sportsmen support conservation efforts, especially with their pocketbooks.
Take Vice President Cheney (Secret Service codename: "Angler"), an avid fly fisherman and hunter, who addressed the conference.
"Last year alone," Cheney said, "sportsmen across the nation provided hundreds of millions of dollars for wildlife restoration. You don't just talk about issues that matter, you back it up with money, with time, with effort. You've proven that the people who are closest to the land are usually the ones who do most for the land. Our whole nation benefits from the wisdom, the daily work, and the common sense of the American sportsman."
The notion of "tradition" was continuously invoked throughout the conference.
Bob Model, who chairs both the Boone and Crockett Club and the Sporting Conservation Council — and who, with his moustache and Rough Rider hat looks eerily similar to Roosevelt — said, "You have to understand the history in order to appreciate all the things that have been done by the early conservationists. This conference embodies the new challenge that we have for the 21st Century."
Nearly every speaker at the conference addressed not just the importance of preserving tradition, but of involving kids in outdoor programs. There's no future for conservation without future sportsmen and -women.
"We are stewards," Secretary Kempthorne said. "We are given this responsibility,which is an awesome responsibility to take care of the land, to take care of wildlife, and beautiful sceneries — the landscape. It would be tragic if we did a good job of doing that and forgot to bring the children along so that as they inherit this, they don't have a connection, they don't have a passion in their hearts; it doesn't make sense to them."
In 2000, when Secretary Schafer, then governor of North Dakota, instituted an early deer season for kids, hunters criticized him, he said.
He countered: "That's one of the most important things we can do. We've got to provide the opportunity, knowledge, and excitement about people working outdoors."
The conference wrapped up on Friday afternoon, and many felt that much had been accomplished in the short two days. Much — and yet, until talk becomes law, nothing.
John Sherman, the lead for the Wildlife Riparian Program in New Mexico, a organization that works with the state of New Mexico to restore river habitat, said, "Representation from government, from [non-governmental organizations], from groups that are hybrids between the two — I just hope that this will carry on; I hope it's not one of those meetings where we come once to meet, and it washes out and nothing is done from this point on."