Please Sign In

Please enter a valid username and password
  • Log in with Facebook
» Not a member? Take a moment to register
» Forgot Username or Password

Why Register?
Signing up could earn you gear (click here to learn how)! It also keeps offensive content off our site.

From Alabama to Montana, a Revealing View of the Sportsman's Nation

Recent Comments

Categories

Recent Posts

Archives

Syndicate

Google Reader or Homepage
Add to My Yahoo!
Add to My AOL

The Conservationist
in your Inbox

Enter your email address to get our new post everyday.

January 22, 2013

From Alabama to Montana, a Revealing View of the Sportsman's Nation

By Hal Herring

At dawn on a January morning, the countryside around Stuttgart, Arkansas is an impressionist painting, brooding flooded hardwood bottoms fading without banks into slow gray rivers, harvested rice fields in colors of light butternut and yellow, turned black Mississippi Delta earth. Perfect clouds of snow geese, mallards, Canadas, teal, and wood ducks show dark and beautiful against the leaden winter sky. We--my son and daughter, wife, Lab pup, and I--saw it all not from a duck blind, but from Interstate 40, on the return to Montana from a 5000 mile-driving odyssey to visit family in Alabama, friends in Mississippi and Louisiana. We were towing a 14-foot aluminum boat, bought cheap from an old friend, so we traveled home slowly, not like on foot or horseback, but slowly enough to look at our country, to marvel at its wonders, to ponder its troubles.
 
I first made this drive 23 years ago. The cities are much bigger now. The farms are bigger, too, and what used to be called “plowing it fencerow to fencerow” is no more--nowadays, there are few fencerows, just a sweep of monocultured earth from horizon to horizon. It stands to reason--when I first drove through Stuttgart on my way to Montana, the U.S. population was 244 million. It is 311 million now, plus an estimated 10-15 million undocumented immigrants. The planet held 5 billion in 1988, now there’s seven billion.
 
Those giant farms are no accident. There are a lot of hungry people out there, and more being born as I write this.
 
I’m an optimist by nature and, I believe, by dint of paying attention. Those clouds of ducks and geese make my heart leap, both as a hunter and a conservationist, in part because it means that we as a people have done something right, honoring the vast arteries and swamps of the Mississippi River Basin, the prairie potholes of the nursery heartland. On New Year’s Eve, a buddy and I made a cold and windy run through Chef Menteur Pass in the marshes near New Orleans, passing the half-sunken hulks of boats and houses tossed like Legos by Katrina. We cast swim baits in the shadows of new flood control walls, within sight of the New Orleans skyline and the steaming, smokestack-intensive industrial might of southern Louisiana. Although we ended that freezing day fishless, those marshes often hold some of the finest redfish and speckled trout fishing in the world. The 1972 Clean Water Act helps to keep the managers of those crucial industries honest. The 1996 monofilament gill-net ban, so bitterly contested by some commercial fishermen, has proved its worth, economically and ecologically.
 
Back at my boyhood home in Alabama, my nephew showed me his Christmas-gift trail camera, which he’d set out below our little catfish pond. A fine whitetail buck attacked a rub tree on the video, then turned to the camera, eyes wide and suddenly suspicious in the darkness, and walked backward exactly the way he had approached the tree. We cheered the genius of his caution, and remained glued to the device as the video showed a succession of smaller, less wary bucks, approaching the rub tree, sniffing it, giving it a tentative shove with smallish horns.
 
There was room, and time, with shells bought cheaply from Wal-Mart, to shoot a new Remington 870 from Santa Claus at clay pigeons thrown, poorly, from a hand-held thrower.
 
There were wild turkeys in the woods, feeding on the acorns from the chestnut and red oaks that we carefully left when we cut some of the timber in 1982.
 
The bragging board at the Gander Mountain store in Huntsville is replete with photos of happy hunters and fishermen, big blue catfish, turkeys, big bucks, strings of crappie and bedding shellcrackers, big frog-busting Lake Guntersville bass hoisted from beneath the milfoil—all this a wondrous testimony to clean water and hardwood forests and rich land and human beings who care enough to make sure it all goes on.
 
The place where I learned to shoot doves at age 12, and went on night missions to a hidden and private catfish pond, is now a vast subdivision. It’s old enough to have shade trees growing among the houses. The approach to the land my father bought in the mid-70s, then corn and cotton and soybean fields, with fencerows for rabbit hunting and still a lot of bobwhite quail, is a subdivision, too, and the creeks that once wound down to the main Hurricane Creek are ditches, straightened and dutifully denuded of all vegetation by herbicides. The red earth is gutted by erosion that has filled up much of the old creek where we fished for bass and brim, redhorse and bullheads. I once watched my hunting buddy make a “watch this” long-distance shot on a whitetail doe here. Today, a half-dozen houses stand where that 7mm bullet passed.
 
The pasturelands along the creek are abandoned and grown up thick with green ash, Chinese privet, and sweetgum, not because cattle prices are not good, but because all of that ground floods too frequently and violently now. Channelizing and spraying tributaries--let’s call it what it is: the destruction of environmental capital through ignorance--has tremendous costs. We scratch chiggers on New Year’s Day, which has never happened before, do the St. Vitus Dance to the ankle bites of fire ants that did not exist here in 1977, worry about Lyme and other diseases from the armies of ticks that, like the chiggers, never seem to go to bed anymore. There are armadillos now, more coyotes, fewer whip-poor-wills, and it’s very hard to get access to any kind of hunting or shooting land unless you have a lot of money, or already have it in your family.
 
As Charles Dickens wrote in "A Tale of Two Cities," of the years leading up to the French Revolution, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….” Driving 5000 miles, putting that credit card in that gas pump and feeling the cold sweat trickle down your spine as the numbers rack up and up, is a luxury unheard of in most countries, or in history. From what I saw on this trip, American hunting and fishing has never been so good, and never, I believe, have so many people been so joyously pursuing it, while buying boats and tackle and guns and ammo and tree stands and top-level clothing and boots. And yet I got the clear impression from the urban sprawl, the intensive agriculture, the endless energy developments in the West, that we stand at a crossroads. We cannot be the bread basket and energy source for the planet if we hope to keep what we love in our outdoor heritage, or at least we will not keep our fishing and hunting and freedom if we try to feed and heat the world while operating on the same models, the same assumptions, that we take for granted now.
 
While eating lunch in Amarillo, next door to the store that sells Somalian groceries and phone cards for immigrants, I read in the Globe-News that the Ogallala Aquifer here fell 2.6 feet in 2011. The water in the Ogallala is 2 to 6 million years old. The annual rain and snowfall around Amarillo averages about 19.7 inches. The world’s population is insatiable, and our environmental capital--that which produces our fish and wildlife, in addition to our basic food, water and air--is finite. Tow an aluminum boat through Denver traffic at 6:30 p.m. on a weekday and you cannot help but feel that we are running out of wiggle room, that decisions about our natural resources today have far more immediate and more dramatic consequences than they did when our population, and the population of the world, was not so high.
 
In many ways, it is the best of times. What we need to do is explore the ways we can keep it that way. A start is to read this new report on the future of America’s forests and rangelands, smartly compiled by the U.S. Forest Service, and this excellent story, written and photographed by native son and sportsman John Pollmann, on what’s happening to upland bird and waterfowl habitat in South Dakota in the face of record agricultural production.

Comments (17)

Top Rated
All Comments
from ALJoe wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

Very well written. I like the comment about pulling a boat through Denver traffic. In 2005 my father and I were pulling a 16 foot trailer loaded with two four-wheelers through Denver during rush hour. He made almost the same comment when he looked at me and made a comment about how fast our population is growing and how fast our open spaces are depleting.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Dcast wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

Great article Hal! I agree the agriculture has destroyed more land and habitat than any other man made disaster. Our land and waters are constantly carpet bombed by insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, etc... More poison is dumped on our land every year with no end in sight. We can stop this by not feeding everyone all over the world and subsidizing farmers. Yeh we are our brothers keeper but not when it is a disaster waiting to happen keep our food for the USA not some desert land in some far off country some dictator rules. Finally water(raw) like soil is not a finite material it is constantly being recycled and remade. We or atleast I was taught in school that soil takes millions of years to be made which may or may not be true regardless it didn't stop being made a million years ago as is water. I only state this because it is a common falsehood kids are taught at a young age and many adults still believe.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from hermit crab wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

Dcast:
What's false about it? By your logic, we'll never run out of fossil fuels either, as it's still being produced naturally.

In many areas, the rate of production is far less than the rate of consumption. Yes, soil is still being made. Is soil still being made in the middle of a monoculture cornfield? Not as fast as it's running off the land. Is the Ogallala aquifer recharging? Yes, but is it recharging as fast as it's being depleted? Of course not.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from hermit crab wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

"What we need to do is explore the ways we can keep it that way."

We need to achieve a sustainable lifestyle, but it'd require a lot of sacrifices to our current way of life. Our current model of an ever growing economy is, by definition, unsustainable. We need to live more frugally, in all aspects of our lives. This includes our profits, material possessions, and lifestyle.

I'll likely get a lot of negativity from this, but of all those crops we grow, an awful lot go to ethanol and livestock instead of directly to human mouths. Cutting down on our meat consumption would free up an incredible amount of land for crops to feed our growing population. It would also allow a lot of that land to revert back into the fence rows and prairie pothole habitat that wildlife need in addition to buffer zones that will help keep our waterways cleaner.

Until we change our values as a culture, we're going to continue down this path. It's not so much of a stretch though. Outdoors men and women tend to value the natural environment more than material wealth anyway as we're already the ones willing to open our wallets to help foot the bill for a lot of conservation measures.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from labrador12 wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

I drove to Ak from NY for the first time in 1970, 43 years ago. The Cuyahuga River was catching on fire, the bald eagle was extinct south of the Canadian Border and east of the Mississippi River,the US population was 150 million and the environment was thought to be swirling in the bowl. Hal says today we are on the cusp of disaster though he says its the best of times. Hal says hunting and fishing has never been so good. He's right. We can recover from hugely polluted water, we have. We can recover from the near extinction of species like the beaver, the bald eagle, the Canada goose, we have. Let's not over react to short term inconveniences. We have recreated a great hunting and fishing legacy in the US. We can have a great economy and a great environment, but we must not over concentrate on our fears. It has been a heck of a lot worse. and we know how to make things better.

-1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Dave Hurteau wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

Great stuff, Hal.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from rock rat wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

There are worse things in the world than to read a Hal Herring essay before I even make the morning fire.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Dcast wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Hermit Crab, I'm saying exactly that. The amount of soil, water, and fossil fuels, are being made or replenished at the exact same rate as they were millions of years ago. The thing is no one knows exactly how to calculate this. Water is an infinite source that continually changes volume, shape, mass, etc... but it never decreases. People believe this but it doesn't it can move from one place to another but globally it is always the same. One year you may have floods and the next severe drought but it doesn't mean there is less water on earth, it means the jetstream screwed you! And that is another subject tying to AGW. I understand sustainability, but false statements like the one I pointed out is the kind of crud people use to persuade others things are going to H3LL. Also you can't think small you have to think in a bigger scale.

Can someone tell me why Labrador is given a -1 for stating a fact? Is it because you don't like his views/stance?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from hermit crab wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Dcast, I'm not sure I understand where the flaw is that you're referencing. I think the scale you're thinking in may be too large. In regards to water, on a global scale, levels are basically the same. On a smaller scale that's more relevant to our lives, the resources are being depleted in many areas. I don't think farmers would feel any better if their crops have dried up recently if you tell them that overall, the water levels of the earth aren't really changing at all.

I don't know who or why someone gave lab a -1, but I'd wager it likely has to do with his statement about knowing how to make things better if we screw them up. Doing something wrong and then fixing it (or trying to) isn't the same as not doing it in the first place.

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mike Diehl wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

The bald eagle was never, I repeat, never, "extinct south of the Canadian border," nor was it ever, I repeat ever, the sole indicator of the health of an ecology. That "hugely polluted water" is *still* hugely polluted. In 1787 you could eat fish from any American lake or river for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In 2012 you can eat one fish per month from a Great Lake without courting mercury toxicity effects.

Grow. The. Hell. Up. Labbie.

And stop spamming us with your damb "wheeeeee let's pollute everything because we can fix it all in a decade" commie agitation propaganda. Nothing you have said has any basis in reality.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mike Diehl wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

@Dcast. In point of fact, fossil fuel and soil formation rates are NOT constant. Just FYI.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from chadlove wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Ditto to what Dave wrote. Just wonderful writing, Hal.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from hermit crab wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

"From what I saw on this trip, American hunting and fishing has never been so good..."

I'm not sure I agree. Is there really anybody who wouldn't love to experience the outdoors in the early days of our country? Can you imagine seeing the sky blackened by millions of passenger pigeons? Or standing on a knoll in the great plains and seeing wild bison roaming freely? Think about what the wild salmon runs - Pacific AND Atlantic - must have been like two hundred years ago.

"...never, I believe, have so many people been so joyously pursuing it, while buying boats and tackle and guns and ammo and tree stands and top-level clothing and boots"

This, however, I agree with.

Why do Texas deer hunters yearn so much to go elk hunting in the Rocky Mountains? Why does David Petzal drive up to northern Maine from his home state of Connecticut, despite his odds of harvesting a deer in CT being much greater than northern Maine? Why do Ohio bass fishermen want to go on northwoods fly-in fishing trips to Ontario?

We all do it because we value wilder places and experiences so much more than the more "managed" outdoor experiences we tend to get at home. You can't replace the eastern Elk, the blue walleye, and all the other animals that are now gone forever. I sincerely hope my grandkids will have the opportunity to hunker down in a blind in the marsh, with my 870 wingmaster that I started hunting with them, and shoot their first canvasback, bluebill, or pintail...

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from OMuilleoir wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Nice flow and writing style.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Pray- hunt-work wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Thanks for that Hal. Nice writing.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from wisc14 wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

fossil fuels are not really being made in this day and age. we are using up all the organic matter and nutrients through farming in most places. with the way this planet is today once fossil fules are gone they are gone

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from wisc14 wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

i think labrador gets a -1 because what he is saying is quite contradictory. he seems to be against spending for conservation programs and regulations regarding the environment. he brings up the fact that he sees bald eagles now. however he is missing the point, the reason he sees bald eagles is becuase of things such as the Clean Water Act

+1 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

from hermit crab wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Dcast, I'm not sure I understand where the flaw is that you're referencing. I think the scale you're thinking in may be too large. In regards to water, on a global scale, levels are basically the same. On a smaller scale that's more relevant to our lives, the resources are being depleted in many areas. I don't think farmers would feel any better if their crops have dried up recently if you tell them that overall, the water levels of the earth aren't really changing at all.

I don't know who or why someone gave lab a -1, but I'd wager it likely has to do with his statement about knowing how to make things better if we screw them up. Doing something wrong and then fixing it (or trying to) isn't the same as not doing it in the first place.

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from ALJoe wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

Very well written. I like the comment about pulling a boat through Denver traffic. In 2005 my father and I were pulling a 16 foot trailer loaded with two four-wheelers through Denver during rush hour. He made almost the same comment when he looked at me and made a comment about how fast our population is growing and how fast our open spaces are depleting.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from hermit crab wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

"From what I saw on this trip, American hunting and fishing has never been so good..."

I'm not sure I agree. Is there really anybody who wouldn't love to experience the outdoors in the early days of our country? Can you imagine seeing the sky blackened by millions of passenger pigeons? Or standing on a knoll in the great plains and seeing wild bison roaming freely? Think about what the wild salmon runs - Pacific AND Atlantic - must have been like two hundred years ago.

"...never, I believe, have so many people been so joyously pursuing it, while buying boats and tackle and guns and ammo and tree stands and top-level clothing and boots"

This, however, I agree with.

Why do Texas deer hunters yearn so much to go elk hunting in the Rocky Mountains? Why does David Petzal drive up to northern Maine from his home state of Connecticut, despite his odds of harvesting a deer in CT being much greater than northern Maine? Why do Ohio bass fishermen want to go on northwoods fly-in fishing trips to Ontario?

We all do it because we value wilder places and experiences so much more than the more "managed" outdoor experiences we tend to get at home. You can't replace the eastern Elk, the blue walleye, and all the other animals that are now gone forever. I sincerely hope my grandkids will have the opportunity to hunker down in a blind in the marsh, with my 870 wingmaster that I started hunting with them, and shoot their first canvasback, bluebill, or pintail...

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Dcast wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

Great article Hal! I agree the agriculture has destroyed more land and habitat than any other man made disaster. Our land and waters are constantly carpet bombed by insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, etc... More poison is dumped on our land every year with no end in sight. We can stop this by not feeding everyone all over the world and subsidizing farmers. Yeh we are our brothers keeper but not when it is a disaster waiting to happen keep our food for the USA not some desert land in some far off country some dictator rules. Finally water(raw) like soil is not a finite material it is constantly being recycled and remade. We or atleast I was taught in school that soil takes millions of years to be made which may or may not be true regardless it didn't stop being made a million years ago as is water. I only state this because it is a common falsehood kids are taught at a young age and many adults still believe.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from hermit crab wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

Dcast:
What's false about it? By your logic, we'll never run out of fossil fuels either, as it's still being produced naturally.

In many areas, the rate of production is far less than the rate of consumption. Yes, soil is still being made. Is soil still being made in the middle of a monoculture cornfield? Not as fast as it's running off the land. Is the Ogallala aquifer recharging? Yes, but is it recharging as fast as it's being depleted? Of course not.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from hermit crab wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

"What we need to do is explore the ways we can keep it that way."

We need to achieve a sustainable lifestyle, but it'd require a lot of sacrifices to our current way of life. Our current model of an ever growing economy is, by definition, unsustainable. We need to live more frugally, in all aspects of our lives. This includes our profits, material possessions, and lifestyle.

I'll likely get a lot of negativity from this, but of all those crops we grow, an awful lot go to ethanol and livestock instead of directly to human mouths. Cutting down on our meat consumption would free up an incredible amount of land for crops to feed our growing population. It would also allow a lot of that land to revert back into the fence rows and prairie pothole habitat that wildlife need in addition to buffer zones that will help keep our waterways cleaner.

Until we change our values as a culture, we're going to continue down this path. It's not so much of a stretch though. Outdoors men and women tend to value the natural environment more than material wealth anyway as we're already the ones willing to open our wallets to help foot the bill for a lot of conservation measures.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Dave Hurteau wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

Great stuff, Hal.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from rock rat wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

There are worse things in the world than to read a Hal Herring essay before I even make the morning fire.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Dcast wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Hermit Crab, I'm saying exactly that. The amount of soil, water, and fossil fuels, are being made or replenished at the exact same rate as they were millions of years ago. The thing is no one knows exactly how to calculate this. Water is an infinite source that continually changes volume, shape, mass, etc... but it never decreases. People believe this but it doesn't it can move from one place to another but globally it is always the same. One year you may have floods and the next severe drought but it doesn't mean there is less water on earth, it means the jetstream screwed you! And that is another subject tying to AGW. I understand sustainability, but false statements like the one I pointed out is the kind of crud people use to persuade others things are going to H3LL. Also you can't think small you have to think in a bigger scale.

Can someone tell me why Labrador is given a -1 for stating a fact? Is it because you don't like his views/stance?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mike Diehl wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

The bald eagle was never, I repeat, never, "extinct south of the Canadian border," nor was it ever, I repeat ever, the sole indicator of the health of an ecology. That "hugely polluted water" is *still* hugely polluted. In 1787 you could eat fish from any American lake or river for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In 2012 you can eat one fish per month from a Great Lake without courting mercury toxicity effects.

Grow. The. Hell. Up. Labbie.

And stop spamming us with your damb "wheeeeee let's pollute everything because we can fix it all in a decade" commie agitation propaganda. Nothing you have said has any basis in reality.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mike Diehl wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

@Dcast. In point of fact, fossil fuel and soil formation rates are NOT constant. Just FYI.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from chadlove wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Ditto to what Dave wrote. Just wonderful writing, Hal.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from wisc14 wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

fossil fuels are not really being made in this day and age. we are using up all the organic matter and nutrients through farming in most places. with the way this planet is today once fossil fules are gone they are gone

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from wisc14 wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

i think labrador gets a -1 because what he is saying is quite contradictory. he seems to be against spending for conservation programs and regulations regarding the environment. he brings up the fact that he sees bald eagles now. however he is missing the point, the reason he sees bald eagles is becuase of things such as the Clean Water Act

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from OMuilleoir wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Nice flow and writing style.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Pray- hunt-work wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Thanks for that Hal. Nice writing.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from labrador12 wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

I drove to Ak from NY for the first time in 1970, 43 years ago. The Cuyahuga River was catching on fire, the bald eagle was extinct south of the Canadian Border and east of the Mississippi River,the US population was 150 million and the environment was thought to be swirling in the bowl. Hal says today we are on the cusp of disaster though he says its the best of times. Hal says hunting and fishing has never been so good. He's right. We can recover from hugely polluted water, we have. We can recover from the near extinction of species like the beaver, the bald eagle, the Canada goose, we have. Let's not over react to short term inconveniences. We have recreated a great hunting and fishing legacy in the US. We can have a great economy and a great environment, but we must not over concentrate on our fears. It has been a heck of a lot worse. and we know how to make things better.

-1 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment