A Progressive Approach to the Outdoors

Recently I was honored to join the Board of Directors for the new Kentucky chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. The national group is dedicated to the conservation of wild places in the United States. Their mission statement contains the following language and ultimately this is what led to my joining their efforts:

It’s time for national conservation groups from all corners of the continent to set aside differences in philosophy or politics. It’s time to shake hands. It’s time to get something done. The continuation of the very things we love – hunting, fishing, wild places, wildlife – depends upon our ability to move forward.

As many readers know, I have written for many years about my love of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive movement. Many of my favorite American institutions and accomplishments were brought about by Progressive reformers on both sides of the aisle working together towards a common cause in the first half of the 20th century. My work with BHA represents my third board membership experience and in the previous two cases, with other organizations, it was immensely rewarding to collaborate with others I didn’t agree with initially.

My little corner of the outdoor community has that Progressive spirit. I often jokingly refer to them as ‘hipster outdoorsmen’ because they combine a love of the outdoors, a love of high cuisine, a preference for microbrews and a tendency to dress a little more trendy than the proudly-redneck hunters I grew up. We don’t talk a lot about our politics when we get together. There is also a nearly religious belief in ‘trailhead diplomacy’ where we try to build relationships with other outdoor enthusiasts that may not carry guns of fishing poles into the woods, but love the land as much as we do.

BHA has doubled its membership every year for the past five years and currently sits at 24,000 members nationwide. Recently they surveyed that membership about their demographics and the results were heartening for their diversity and the youth of this movement:

  • 68% are age 45 or younger;
  • 33% identify as Independent, 23% as Republican, 20% as Democrat and 16% as ‘none of the above

That second statistic, with membership divided so closely between R, D and I is what makes me excited. It’s that diversity with a common goal that embodies the Progressive spirit. It also makes me wonder what other big issues like ‘public lands’ are out there waiting for a diverse group of individuals to join together on. I would encourage readers to share their ideas below. My goal is finding that common ground with each of you.


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Mike Dwyer is a former writer and editor at Ordinary Times.

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33 thoughts on “A Progressive Approach to the Outdoors

  1. Really like this piece. I grew up in the outdoors and it was very true that people with other differences, especially politics and religion, tended to talk a lot of hunting and fishing at get togethers. I’ve long talked about and advocated for environmentalist to get past what (some of them) have as an issue with firearms, because in the responsible hunter and outdoorsman you have some of the most dedicated natural conservationist there are and what should be natural allies. Much common ground if honestly approached.

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    • The anti-hunting environmentalist is one of the most self righteous of breeds. I can see arguments against trophy hunting*, but other than that, they are a pain.

      *Of course, most trophy hunting supports efforts to save the rest of the population. I rarely see people who are against trophy hunting donating their own money to help keep the animal population growing.

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      • I realize I had a unique experience, but around where I grew up everyone was a Democrat, most of them union members, all of them hunters and outdoorsmen, and would beat your tail for defacing the woods and waters for no good reason. It’s willful ignorance for those extreme environmentalist to think such folks are the problem.

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          • Human attitudes towards animals are very self serving, pretty much across the board.

            How we regard the dignity and worth of animals depends largely on what we want to do with them.
            If they are tasty, they are mere cogs in an farm-to-table machine;

            If they trigger our fantasies of dominance over nature, they become wall decorations;

            If they evoke our Edenic ideals of God in nature, they are sacred and not to be defiled.

            It becomes apparent if we, like Ghostbusters, cross the streams of thought.

            Like, go out hunting stray cats;
            Or building an industrial ranch to raise, slaughter, and mount elk heads for mass consumption.
            Or building an industrial scale pen for veal puppies.

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          • On a more urban note, feral cats. The colony near where my son’s girlfriend lives has eradicated the small bird/mammal population in that entire neighborhood. The local authorities have admitted that “trap and euthanize” is untenable because of public opinion. He and she have spent a lot of time doing fund raising and doing trap, sterilize, and release, but it’s a losing battle. Recently, I have been authorized to design and build something that will shoot rubber or ping-pong balls at the cats who use her back yard as a latrine at night. (Shoot hard enough to discourage them, but not injure them.) The computer vision packages that have been ported to the Raspberry Pi appear to be good enough to do the targeting, so I’ve started working on a small PVC air cannon. The auto-load mechanism will be the tricky bit.

            (Last time I talked to the girlfriend, she asked if it could be smart enough to distinguish between cats and raccoons and crank the pressure up for the raccoons.)

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        • From an outdoor recreation perspective, most of us would prefer the feds continue to own the land. They manage it better and our required to maintain it for public use. On top of that, the outdoor recreation industry is on track to reach $1 trillion annually soon. That’s a lot of money that gets spent in those places.

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  2. Just wanted to chime in to say this was a great piece. It’s good to hear about affirmative efforts like this, and it gives me hope that maybe our divisions aren’t as unbridgeable as they can seem.

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  3. In most regions, outdoor recreation (hunting, hiking, camping) remains whiter than Pat Boone making a mayonaise sandwich on Wonderbread in a North Dakota snowstorm. People have dug into the reasons, and in large part only white people associate having no vehicle, no stockpile of food, no electricity, and no running water with wealth and leisure instead of grinding poverty.

    It would perhaps make an interesting post. The federal government keeps statistics on it, breaking down recreational area use by race, gender, and whatnot, and some of the outdoor suppliers and organizations also track such data. I’ve also seen some fascinating discussions at the African American Hunting Association, which somehow isn’t listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. ^_^

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  4. Brandon Berg: This isn’t about selling off all the national parks; it’s about making the Federal government not be the majority landowner in the West.

    Actually the federal government in that context is the property manager – the actual owners are the American people. Those lands are held in public trust for all to enjoy, Hikers and campers use them, as do hunters. Cattlemen graze on them; oil is drilled from under them. If they are sold off then some or all of those joint uses can and likely will be denied. And thats what Roosevelt – and for that matter Mike and me – fight against.

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    • There is still a certain amount of resentment in the West, particularly among the political classes, about the policy change that happened around 1905. Prior to that, policy was to turn public land holdings over to either individuals (eg, the various Homestead Acts) or to the state. Post, the Easterners decided that they weren’t about to let all those lovely and valuable resources go into the hands of the latecomers, and would — because they dominated Congress — retain control for themselves and eastern business interests. (Side note: it is not a coincidence that around that same time western states put initiative and recall provisions into their constitutions — eastern business interests had discovered just how easy it was to buy some key votes in western state legislatures.) The ownership part was finally put into statute in the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, when the feds announced that they would retain control “in perpetuity.” This Act was incredibly unpopular in western state legislatures, and they still hold a grudge.

      The legislature-level resentment is not going to go away, at least as long as authority that eastern state legislatures take for granted — taxation of resources, eminent domain for public use — are denied to western legislatures for large parts of their states.

      Just sayin’.

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      • Couple of things:

        1) The western states were all gifted public land at statehood and a LOT of that has been sold off. In hindsight, doesn’t it seem like a good thing that the feds held on to it?

        2) I’m not very savvy on tax law but the common complaint I hear is that the states don’t get to tax all of that federal land so they get screwed out of tax revenue. But are they actually responsible for anything that happens on those lands?

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        • 1) So the early settled states get to have the bulk of their land privately owned just because they were there first? Tell you what, let’s start having the feds use eminent domain to return land in Eastern states to federally protected wilderness/parks until the percentages are more balanced across the country.

          2) Not for what happens on the land, but poor land management practices by the feds often have effects that spread to surrounding areas (e.g. wild fires). The states often eat a lot of the costs associated with those effects, both long and short term.

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          • 1) The eastern states also don’t have huge tracts of land that the public can use, so I would say it’s a net loss for outdoorsmen. As for tax revenue, sure, but our states are also much smaller. Let’s say 50% of Utah is federally owned and that makes Utah effectively the size of Indiana. Is that problematic?

            2) Wildfires are a real problem and I know a lot of outdoors groups are advocating for fires to qualify for FEMA money as a way of alleviating that complaint from western states. It would also help though if the Left would be more tolerant of logging on federal lands.

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            • 1) Sure they do, but first you need to take them away from the current owners. As for the size of states, think about infrastructure. Highways aren’t cheap, and when you have to run a highway from point A to B and through a federal reserve, then the cost of maintaining that falls (TTBOMK, unless it’s an interstate, the feds don’t kick in a lot of money) on the populations of A & B, because you can’t have any populations along the way. Sometimes this is unavoidable, because the geography just won’t allow for significant populations along the road, but there are a lot of places where it’s just flat, empty land. People can live there.

              The thing is, the western states aren’t interested in having access to all the federal land. That’s a huge cost for them to eat, and the parks and wilderness are often a draw for tourism. From what I hear, often enough the feds won’t even have a conversation about the land the states really would like, areas that could support population growth. They’ll offer some stuff up every year, but what they offer doesn’t always align with what is useful to a state.

              2) Wildfires is just the most visible, but not the only way those impacts are felt. And the effects of a wildfire are felt for years after it’s out.

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            • 1) Other than the statelets in the Northeast, nonsense. Iowa is 36 million acres — at the typical rate of federal land ownship in the West, plenty for all of a 2 million acre tall-grass prairie national park, a 2 million acre national grasslands that allows hunting, and a 6 million acre tall-grass prairie wilderness preserve for the bison, wolves, and all the rest of the ecosystem. Iowa and Colorado got roughly the same deal in their admission treaties — disposition of the public lands was at the discretion of the federal government. In Iowa they gave it away; in Colorado they held on to it.

              These days, much of the resentment isn’t about taxes, but about land use at the margins. The population in the western states — hence the state legislatures, eventually — want much, much more renewable electricity. To do that will require the addition of bulk transmission capacity, and some new long-haul transmission routes. Until very recently, any of BLM, USFS, ACE, and some other federal acronyms could veto state plans. (It got somewhat better under the Bush II administration — FERC can, if it decides to, overrule the other acronyms on utility corridors.) For the most part, the federal acronyms weren’t involved when Texas decided it needed to build a few hundred miles of transmission to tie West Texas wind power to the population centers in the eastern part of the state.

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  5. Mike Dwyer:
    2) Wildfires are a real problem and I know a lot of outdoors groups are advocating for fires to qualify for FEMA money as a way of alleviating that complaint from western states. It would also help though if the Left would be more tolerant of logging on federal lands.

    Really? Really?

    We ARE tolerant of logging and all the other uses. We AREN’T tolerant of logging that pollutes streams you want to fish, or wipes mountainsides clean so they slump down on adjacent towns in mudslides. We tolerate four wheeled off roading, but request the number be limited so you can enjoy the quiet while you are hiking. I could go on . . . .

    Much of the wild fire problem in the west comes from three sources – federal policies in the 1980’s-early 2000’s (across Democratic and Republican administrations) that were misinfomed about both the ecological need for fire, and how to remove flammable resources without doing additional damage; the increase in human settlement/expansion of cities and towns into areas that could and did burn in prior decades without problems (since there weren’t enough humans to be bothered); and (yes) climate change which we now understand is wrecking all sorts of havoc on fire ecologies usually due to shifting wind patterns, increasingly long and high dry periods, and changes in surrounding atmospheric temperature.

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  6. Oscar Gordon: 2) Not for what happens on the land, but poor land management practices by the feds often have effects that spread to surrounding areas (e.g. wild fires). The states often eat a lot of the costs associated with those effects, both long and short term.

    Not for nothing but as with so many federal services, you get what you pay for. Better land management requires more people, more science, and thus more tax dollars. Republican Congresses and Presidents seem to believe they can meet the needs with lower tax revenue and stagnant or decreasing investments in the science and people. Like so many other natural resource issues, that’s not the case.

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    • Republican Congresses and Presidents seem to believe they can meet the needs with lower tax revenue and stagnant or decreasing investments in the science and people.

      I disagree. I don’t think they believe they can meet the need, even if they claim they can. They are trying to defund those things so the lands will become neglected, thus making it easier to justify selling them.

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  7. Oscar Gordon: Agreed. That is another reason states would like to feds to sell off more land, because congress can’t seem to bring themselves to fund the required work. Although maybe that’s changing?

    States are in far worse shape to do the management since I believe all of them have balanced budget requirements in their constitutions. Which means they’d have to sell land, thereby restricting access, and depriving themselves of long-term revenue streams from season passes and hunting, camping and fishing fees.

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    • This isn’t a binary. The states want more say in how the land is used, up to an including what to release for public sale. There is more to the issue than just owning or selling, it’s management practices, rights of way for infrastructure, resource extraction, recreational uses, etc.

      As I said before, these lands don’t exist in pocket dimensions separated from the rest of the state. The decisions the feds make for those lands often impacts the rest of the state in negative ways, and the feds act as if it’s a non-issue, or that the economic impacts of tourism somehow make up for the costs.

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    • Just for the sake of argument… The enormous swaths that are national forests got by on their own for thousands of years just fine. At least in the Rockies, there is an arguable point that the forests are in much worse shape than they were when the federal government started “caring” for them 120 years ago. The natural ecosystem in that area is an open forest, maybe 200 stems per acre, largely in clumps with considerable space between them. Ground cover and downed branches burn off every few-to-several years. Instead the feds implemented 50 years or so of total fire suppression, with the result that there’s often 2,000 stems per acre — and the trees are stunted and sickly, and the fuel load is incredible, and when it burns, it often leaves a moonscape behind. If the feds were to turn things over to the states, there’s some hundreds of billions of dollars worth of mitigation that needs to be done first.

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      • Just for the sake of argument – The Forrest Service already contracts to do a lot of that mitigation as they have finally moved away from total suppression. They can’t do more of it however owing to that pesky Congressional appropriations thing that the Constitution mandates.Then there’s the issue of upkeep after the mitigation is done – and again states are less well financially equipped to do that then the feds.

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        • The bulk of upkeep for wilderness areas is, as Michael basically said, ‘stop touching it’. That costs a remarkably small amount of money (and the money you do spend is for patrols to make sure others aren’t touching it either).

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        • They can’t do more of it however owing to that pesky Congressional appropriations thing that the Constitution mandates.

          Still just for the sake of argument, this time with my state legislator hat on… Congress can’t seem to appropriate enough money to do forest mitigation in any sort of timely fashion; can’t seem to appropriate enough money to clean up the nuclear messes at the national labs; can’t seem to authorize finding a spent nuclear fuel repository within a thousand miles of the Eastern Interconnect, where the vast majority of reactors and spent fuel are. You think western state Congress critters are voting those down?

          I was ROTFL a couple of months ago when the Washington Post was outraged — OUTRAGED, I say! — that the US Navy would even consider storing the reactors from the decommissioned Enterprise in Virginia for a few years, and demanding that Congress appropriate as much money as it takes to ship them to Washington State instead.

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