By now, most sportsmen with an internet connection know the results of some interesting recent polls: there are more people hunting and fishing in the U.S. than there were several years ago, most of those people want more environmental protections for the lands and waters where they fish and hunt, and the majority of those hunters and fishers identify themselves as conservative.
Even if it means putting up with some new people on our favorite creek, or running into a couple of orange-clad newbies in our elk country, the increase in hunters and fisher numbers is a positive for all of us. First it means more revenue for our state fish and game departments, many of which have been pretty well starved in recent years. That revenue translates into good biologists for better wildlife management, better law enforcement to keep fish and wildlife populations from getting hammered at a time when grocery store prices are at record highs, and commercial poaching operations are on the rise. The revenue can translate into habitat purchases, more and better public access, partnerships with private landowners to do everything from restoring wetlands to reducing the negative impacts of farming and logging, to creating blockbuster habitat for wildlife from bobwhites to whitetails.
Most of all, the increase in people hunting and fishing means a bigger constituency for protecting the resources that our forefathers fought so hard to restore. It means people who know what their woods look and sound like and what lives in them, know where their creek goes into their river, and know what it takes to make certain that what they have come to love will still be there so their children can love it, too. It doesn’t take Steven Hawking to figure out why people who hunt and fish make the best and toughest advocates for conservation: a big family picnic table laden with fresh-caught and pan-fried crappie, homemade cole slaw, hush puppies and hot ketchup will teach you most of what you need to know about the importance of clean water. A young person who has grown up watching the sunrise on the high plains of Wyoming, crouch-running the coulees to sneak on antelope and tasting the sage in a mule deer steak grilled on an open fire will have a deep understanding of what unlimited public lands energy development really costs us.
We’re it. Because the non-hunting and fishing, wildlife-loving citizenry of our country, God bless ’em, have not stepped up with any money. They are sometimes powerful advocates for environmental protection in the abstract, but they don’t have any real skin in the game. We have the wise men and women of Missouri and Arkansas, who have a tiny but powerful sales tax devoted to wildlife and their fish and game agencies. But for the most part, since the first three decades of the 20th century when the great wildlife restoration programs like Pittman- Robertson and USFWS’ migratory bird stamps were created, the non-hunting wildlife lovers have left us to carry the weight. And we carry it, and carry it well. That there are more of us now to share the weight and work for conservation is good news.
Who among us is surprised at the poll revealing that most of us consider ourselves to be conservatives? Hunting and fishing appeals to the most basic conservative value: a sense of self-sufficiency. Want a fast-food burger made of feedlot beef from some country unspecified? No thanks, I’ve got elk backstraps tonight, shot it in the White River National Forest with my .308, took me almost three days to get it all down. Cold? Man, it was cold, didn’t have a tent, just a bivy sack, best time I’ve had in years. How about a nice filet of tilapia from Vietnam? No, thanks, we’ve been running trotlines this fall, on the Apalachicola River, got blue cats, channels, a couple big buffalo. You need a couple of those? Self-sufficiency is a basic conservative value. So is reverence for the Bill of Rights, with the Second Amendment that guarantees the survival of the rest of the Constitution.
Are sportsmen all conservatives? No, but most of us don’t want to live in a liberal welfare state because there’s no example of a place like that where the citizens (or subjects, as the case may be) have the freedom to defend themselves, work at whatever job suits them, feed themselves off the countryside, and roam at will over a vast estate of public lands. Freedom demands taking a whole lot- an uncomfortable and sometimes stressful amount- of personal responsibility, and that, too is a conservative value. Ask anybody who has walked or horse-packed the length of the Bob Marshall Wilderness or the Olympic Peninsula, or gone offshore in the saltwater, whether they think self-sufficiency and freedom are not inextricably tied together.
I read somewhere that a society could be judged by whether or not its citizens follow laws or rules even when there is no penalty for not doing so- say, whether you stop at a red light in the middle of the night when there’s no traffic and no police officers around. Societies in which the citizens obey normal and reasonable rules when nobody is watching them are stronger and more free- they don’t need as many rules, nor as much enforcement, nor as much government or governing. Sound familiar? It’s a basic tenet of conservative thought. We all know that this kind of behavior is a critical part of the freedom to hunt and fish- American sportsmen basically made up their own rules to ensure that there would be plenty of fish and game, and here’s the key: most of us follow those rules even when there’s no way that we’d ever get caught breaking them! We follow the red snapper size restrictions in the middle of the Gulf. We don’t shoot the hen turkey in the middle of the Cohutta Wilderness or the Black Hills, or power-fill the cooler with rainbows from the Henry’s Fork. We’re free, because we impose limits on ourselves. We learned from what happened to the buffalo, the passenger pigeon, the burning Cuyahoga River, the “dancing cat disease” of Minimata Bay, Bhopaul, the Exxon Valdez, and the Deepwater Horizon. When we fail to take responsibility for our health, lands, wildlife and waters, we lose. We’re exceptional, yes, because we work at it, not because we’re magically endowed with it.
The $5,000 question, though, is why, if we are, in the majority, conservative, so-called conservative political leaders vote so relentlessly against our interests. There’s a strong basic answer, and it is that those who advocate selling off public lands, or privatizing wildlife, or repealing the laws that have given us clean water and healthy air, are not conservatives. They may be ideologues, or they may yearn for the world to be different than it is (a magical place that will not be harmed by pollution or where there is always plenty of wildlife, as in the old fairytale where the wise man gives the foolish lout a sack of gold that is never empty), or they may be in the service of some larger agenda, but they are not conservatives. It does not matter anyway, what they are. The fault lies with us. We listen to the talk of selling public lands and repealing environmental laws and say nothing, or vote for them anyway. Who can blame them for what they do after they are elected? We give them our permission with a vote. Eventually, we’ll pay for our failure to convince our elected representatives that we are serious about what we believe, that we sportsmen know what is at stake and that we will not surrender it. We’ll pay for that by losing it, because we thought that we’d always have plenty of land and wildlife and fish, even though we ourselves didn’t work hard for them. We left it to somebody else to carry the weight of what we loved. That’s a sad fate for a group that considers itself conservative and self-sufficient, isn’t it?
That’s what I learned from reading these polls. Maybe you will come away with a different message.