Sportsmen Play An Integral Role in Conservation

Many of my fondest childhood memories are from early Saturday mornings with my father in the swamps and wood duck ponds of South Carolina. Long before I was able to hunt myself, Dad took me to a South Carolina Ducks Unlimited event to catch and band ducks. I learned a lot on those mornings. I learned how to set out decoys. I learned how to find the perfect spot for wood ducks and geese. I learned that a band on the foot of a duck could tell me where it came from, how old it was, and what its flight path was like. Most importantly, though, I learned to care for the land and I learned the importance of making sure it would always be available for people to have the same experiences I did. I didn’t know it then, but I had just been initiated into the long, rich tradition of the sportsman-conservationist.

Our hunters and fishermen have, perhaps more than any other group, a vested interest in the welfare of America’s oceans, wetlands, rivers, forests, and prairies. For the sportsman, these features move beyond the weekend hike or the vacation. They are a source of food and livelihood; in some cases, the primary source (according to a 2013 study by Field & Stream Magazine, 35% of hunters cite “for the meat” as either their primary or only reason for hunting). The welfare of our hunters and anglers is directly tied to the welfare of our lands and resources.

American sportsmen have long understood this connection, and have often been at the forefront of the conservation movement. In a 1910 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, famed outdoorsman and President Teddy Roosevelt said, “Of all the questions which can come before this nation… there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” This is the ethic of the sportsman-conservationist, and I believe it’s the lesson my dad was teaching me when he took me to that Ducks Unlimited event.

In today’s environmental conversation, with talk of a “Green New Deal” and dramatic overhauls to society, there is no shortage of loud voices clamoring for attention. One voice, however, has been conspicuously absent—the voice of the sportsman. Why is that? How did one of the oldest and strongest voices for conservation come to be absent in the great environmental debates of our time? It seems to me that the environmental discussion, as currently structured, has made it impossible for outdoorsmen, hunters, and anglers to find a place in the conversation. After all, do we really think a Georgia duck hunter feels at home in a discussion dominated by Al Gore and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

Any meaningful conversation about environmental issues in general, and conservation in particular, must include sportsmen. So how can we close the communication gap and reintroduce the sportsman’s voice into these important conversations?

First, we as sportsmen have to remind ourselves of the historic and deep commitment that we should have to our lands. We must remember that many of the great conservationists of American history—Teddy Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, John Muir—were also great sportsmen. Every one of them tirelessly advocated for the protection and preservation of the land, their source of joy and fulfilment, and often, their survival. Many of the most important conservation reforms in the last century were championed and spearheaded by sportsmen, initiatives like the National Parks system, sustainable game management practices, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 . The present conversation should be no different, and we as sportsmen must hold ourselves to this standard.

Second, we as sportsmen must work to educate policy makers on our place in conservation and environmental issues. We are all, in no small way, products of our experiences and this is reflected in the way we approach policy. It's unlikely that the authors of the “Green New Deal” considered sportsmen in drafting their resolution (and it’s also possible that they would dismissive of sportsmen’s input because they’re distrustful of the sportsmen’s motivation). But there are important environmental policy makers on both sides of the aisle that would almost certainly be receptive to the sportsman’s message, and it is incumbent upon each of us to ensure that we are actively and meaningfully engaging with them. When we as sportsmen see something in the news or our experiences that affects us, or we have an idea of what could be done better, we have an obligation to bring it to our representatives.

As sportsmen, we are the end users of America’s woodlands and wetlands, and we must be the first to stand up and defend them. That’s the lesson from those Saturdays with my Dad. It’s one of my fundamental commitments, and it’s one I hope other sportsmen, outdoorsmen, hunters, and anglers will join.