Bart Semcer–hunter, angler, gun owner, and National Rifle Association member–delivered an important message to the Outdoor Writers Association of America at its annual conference in June of this year. He told them it was time for sporting conservation groups like Trout Unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to join hands with his employer for the betterment of fish, wildlife, and the habitat animals and humans depend on for healthy, happy lives.

“We’re natural allies,” he told his audience.

That simple statement was an attention-getter for one reason: Semcer is the Sierra Club’s representative for fish and wildlife policy in Washington, D.C. And his message was more than just words: It was backed up with a plan called the Natural Allies Initiative, which is designed to create partnerships between the Birkenstock set and the hook-and-bullet crowd. In fact, the 700,000-member Sierra Club was a cosponsor of a 2003 national symposium on the future of hunting, right alongside the Boone and Crockett Club and the Safari Club.

The reaction from the sporting world was an odd combination of relief and suspicion, a feeling of “it’s about time–but stay where I can see you!”

Kayne Robinson, the NRA president, forcefully rejected the overture in a controversial speech he gave to the OWAA, in which he sought to link the unrelated issues of conservation policy and gun control politics.

“Virtually every elected official [the Sierra Club] discusses favorably in their literature is dedicated to banning guns,” claimed Robinson. “We’re not taking part of this, ” he said. But spokesmen for other prominent sporting groups weren’t so eager to turn their backs on the enviros.

“It goes without saying that this would be one of the most positive developments in recent history for conservation,” says Paul Hansen, executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America. “To make it meaningful, however, the Sierra Club, and the rest of the mainstream environmental community, will have to be willing to listen to sportsmen’s concerns, something they haven’t been good at in the past. But this is long past due. At the end of the day, we’re fighting for the same goals.”

That could be surprising news for many sportsmen. For decades the common thinking has been that–unlike hunters and anglers who define themselves as conservationists–environmentalists are a bunch of tree-hugging radicals out to close public lands to hunting and fishing–and to take our guns. So when leaders of sporting organizations say, “Let’s kiss and make up, ” it’s only natural for sportsmen to wonder if they can trust the environmentalists.

The answer to that question lies in the history of the split, a story that the heads of sporting groups say reads like a romance novel: The two started out in love, but after listening to whisperings from jealous friends, they drifted into an estrangement fueled by mutual suspicion and ugly name-calling, all of which was kept alive by parties who didn’t want them to reconcile.

“The first environmentalists in this country were sportsmen, ” says Jim Posewitz of Orion, The Hunter’s Institute. “Teddy Roosevelt, John Audubon, Aldo Leopold, Gifford Pinchot–these were all people who hunted and fished. They were the fathers of the environmental ethic in this country, which became a model for the rest of the world.”

Roosevelt, the great hunter, was actually a close friend and admirer of John Muir, the father of the Sierra Club.

“They went camping together in Yosemite, for crying out loud,” says Posewitz. “These two men were of the same mind.”

In fact, for most of the 20th century, sportsmen were the intellectual, financial, and political forces behind what was the greatest environmental success story in history. Groups like the Izaak Walton League, the Boone and Crockett Club, Trout Unlimited, and Ducks Unlimited set out the idea that fish, wildlife, and wild places were part of the public trust and were to be protected by the government. Their arguments for landmark environmental laws were based not just on the logic that healthy habitat would produce more fish and game for sportsmen but also on the importance of untrammeled spaces to the quality of life for all Americans. And they convinced sportsmen-environmentalists to provide the funding that got the job done. In those years you couldn’t call yourself a true sportsman without also being an environmentalist.

But by the 1980s, calling yourself an environmentalist at many a hunting and fishing camp was like saying you were a member of PETA or Gun Control Inc. And by the 1990s it had become politically incorrect within the sporting community to use the word environmentalist at all. Hunters and anglers were told they were “conservationists”–and that there was a big difference between the two terms. How did this happen?

By the intrusion of partisan politics.

Martha Marks, the president of Republicans for Environmental Protection, dates the rift to the social unrest of the late 1960s. “Sportsmen tend to be conservative or moderate–and they tend to honor tradition,” she says. “So when sportsmen saw many of the same people who were carrying antiwar signs also carrying pro-environment signs, they linked the two, and a stereotype emerged. If you were proenvironment, you must be a long-haired, commie, pinko liberal. And if you were a liberal, you were against gun rights and for animal rights. That was absolutely not true: The greatest environmentalists in this nation’s history have been Republicans. But the label stuck.”

Of course, there was plenty of stereotyping on the other side as well. Membership in environmental groups like the Sierra Club swelled in the 1960s and 1970s, and many in its ranks were from suburban and urban areas and were unfamiliar with the sporting tradition. To them hunters were just redneck game hogs interested only in what they could take home.

“Where I fault the enviro groups,” Posewitz says, “is that they made no effort to educate these people to the long history of contribution to environmental protection that sportsmen had been making. All they knew is that hunters and fishermen seemed not to like them. It’s been a terrible tragedy, really, that these two groups haven’t been working together. We could have accomplished so much more.”

That’s because a union of the two interests could provide a powerful, bipartisan one-two punch in Washington. The worst nightmare for a politician preparing to vote with industry on a bill that could hurt the environment is to face an “environmental sportsman.” It’s easy for politicians–especially conservatives–to dismiss someone dressed up as a tree. But when a guy in a DU cap and camouflage shows up at a hearing, lawmakers listen.

“Look at the success sporting groups had getting President Bush to amend the wetlands policy to protect waterfowl habitat, ” says Marks. “And Bush has been very public in inviting a lot of these sportsmen’s groups to his ranch. You didn’t see any environmental groups invited.”

Chris Wood, the director of conservation programs for Trout Unlimited, says that Bush’s positive response to the input from sporting groups gives weight to the need for the two camps to join forces. “In a perverse way, that shows you how important the sporting conservation community is, especially in the current political climate,” Wood says. “If sporting groups can bring those environmental messages to the administration’s ears, that helps the same cause we’re all fighting for.”

Clearly, the Sierra Club realizes the potential political impact of new alliances. But Semcer says that his group’s initiative is also designed to serve its own membership, 20 percent of which consists of license-holding hunters and anglers.

“It became very clear to us that we had to recognize to our membership that hunters and anglers have been at the forefront of conservation efforts since the beginning and also have been among the most effective,” Semcer says.

What about the decades of mutual suspicion? What about claims by the NRA that the Sierra Club is anti-hunting and anti-gun?

“Our official policy is pro-hunting,” Semcer says, “because it recognizes sport hunting as a legitimate wildlife management tool. The same goes for fishing. And we’re not anti-gun. We have no policy on guns, and we stay out of that debate because there are other groups that specialize in that issue. Do we agree with everything that the sporting groups support? No. But we have much more common ground than we have serious differences.”

Both sides admit that there are real differences between the sporting groups and mainstream environmental organizations. Sporting groups say it comes down to a question of tactics and philosophy–that sportsmen are more willing to work out compromises.

George Bettas, executive director of the Boone and Crockett Club, says that the two factions have long disagreed on public land policy. “By that I mean they’re much more adamant about roadless areas, while we’re willing to see the need for some development,” says Bettas. But even those differences should not prevent the old romance between the sports and the greens from being rekindled.

“The truth is, with all the challenges our natural resources are facing, we’ll all have to work together,” says Bettas. “This is definitely worth pursuing, because there will be issues where we have common ground.”