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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: A Sporting Chance

There's room at the campfire for everyone who enjoys the outdoors.

by Carl Pope

At a gun-owners forum in conservative New Hampshire, Republican presidential candidates seeking to sell off America's natural heritage got a bath of cold Connecticut River water. "That's our land," hunter Dave Rosseau told Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and his rivals. "I'd rather see some of the land given back to the Indians than sell it."

At a rally in Seattle, a thousand people gathered to ask President Clinton to repeal the "logging without laws" rider that allows perfectly healthy trees to be cut as salvage. Among them was Peter Soverel of the Federation of Fly Fishers. "It's kind of ridiculous to be here to defend our forests from our government," he said.

It's not only presidential candidates who have forgotten the love affair America's hunters and anglers have with the land. Environmentalists too have allowed occasional conflicts with hunting organizations to obscure the profound debt our wild places owe to sportsmen and sportswomen.

That tradition of stewardship started with Daniel Boone and his brother Squire, who lobbied the pre- revolutionary Kentucky legislature for bills to protect wildlife habitat and grazing lands. It was hunters who persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court that wildlife, even when it is on private property, is owned by the public, and should be managed for public purposes. In 1937, hunters lobbied Congress to pass the Pittman-Robinson Act, an 11 percent tax on hunting equipment which, combined with license fees, now provides $700 million a year for protection of wildlife habitat on public lands. And Ducks Unlimited alone has conserved an estimated 7.2 million acres of waterfowl habitat.

My grandfather, Ben East, was a hunter, as well as a prime mover in the creation of Isle Royale National Park and several key state parks in Michigan. "Hunters and urban conservationists need each other," he cautioned me when I started out in the environmental field. "Never let that alliance break down."

Sadly, however, that alliance has broken, even though both groups share common goals. While both hunters and non-hunters want to preserve wild areas from development, for example, we have sometimes quarreled about whether to protect these areas as preserves, where hunting is allowed, or parks, where it isn't. While environmentalists seek to return large predators like wolves and grizzlies to their rightful place in healthy ecosystems--and many hunters admire and respect the role that their fellow predators play in healthy wildlands--other hunters want to tip the scales in their favor by "managing" ecosystems for more deer--even by such strategies as declaring open season on mountain lions.

And while hunters and non-hunters alike share a love of quiet places you can only get to on foot or by horseback (an outraged hunter in Grand Mesa, Colorado, recently overturned an all-terrain vehicle and set it on fire), they are often divided by motorcycle and ATV companies who equate hunting with off-roading in an attempt to open new areas to motorized recreation.

Real disagreements over basic conservation principles are actually infrequent. More often, mostly urban environmentalists and mostly rural hunters are divided by philosophical and cultural differences that are clearly tangential to conservation goals: animal rights, for example, or gun control. While the Sierra Club takes no position on either issue, perceived differences have often translated into mutual distrust and wariness, to the detriment of all concerned.

But whatever disagreements we have are now overshadowed by the assault from our common antagonists: timber and oil companies, big mining conglomerates, and developers. Our real opponents see a wild trout stream as untapped kilowatt hours, a Delta hardwood bayou as a cheap dumping place for oil-drilling wastes, and an ancient grove of Douglas fir as undercover two-by-fours.

The gravity of the assault is renewing the old alliance between urban and rural conservationists, hunters and non-hunters, who are finally reaching out to each other and winning victories together. One of the best working coalitions between environmentalists and sporting interests has been in the battle to save fisheries, particularly salmon, in California and the Pacific Northwest. For years, the Sierra Club, California Trout, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations have worked together in a common struggle against efforts to weaken the Clean Water Act.

In Arizona, the Sierra Club and hunting organizations worked to turn out our respective members to hearings on the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf; hunters then organized their own rally to pressure the Arizona legislature to protect elk habitat in the state. Here is my grandfather's lesson in action--hunters and conservationists together recognizing that they need to support wild lands, that habitat is the key to both biological diversity and good hunting, and that predators are a necessary part of the wild world.

Leading the way in the sporting community are its publications. These days, BASS Times and Sports Afield read like environmental-activist newsletters, alerting readers to the assault on wetlands, water quality, and wildlife habitat by the 104th Congress--and to the necessity of raising these issues in the current election campaign. The winter issue of Field and Stream was devoted to an extended defense of embattled public lands. "At a time when federal lands appear to be under siege in Congress and elsewhere in the nightly news," the editors wrote, "it seemed appropriate to celebrate those lands that touch all of us in special ways."

Unlike corporate resource exploiters, sporting interests are dependent on strong, permanent wildlife populations, and sporting dollars depend on careful stewardship of the land. When goose populations on Maryland's Eastern Shore plummeted, last year's hunting season was canceled, and the region's second- largest industry shut down. Hunters bore the closure with good grace, for the most part, because it was necessary and they knew it. When hunters speak, rural America listens, with its pocketbook as well as its heart.

Maybe if Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole spent a little time in the field with hunter Dave Rosseau, he wouldn't be so quick to jettison regulations that protect wildlife habitat. And Bill Clinton might not have signed "logging without laws" legislation if he had talked to fly fisher Peter Soverel.

Sportsmen and environmentalists need to spend some time together too. Alliances, like marriages, require work on both sides. In order to build the broadest possible movement for wilderness and wildlife, both sides will have to agree to disagree on some issues. For the wild places we all treasure, our ability to overcome our differences and work together is a matter of survival.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


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