How to Talk to Politicians About Conservation Issues

How to Talk to Politicians About Conservation Issues

It seems like every time something goes wrong in the world of conservation, somebody is telling you to “call your congressman.” I’m certainly guilty of saying it.

But nobody ever lays out how you go about doing that or what to say once you get on the phone.

It’s important that we get involved and talk to our local, state, and federal officials about what we care about. In local and state government, it’s pretty easy to get in touch with the person who can make a decision about something you care about. They don’t typically have offices full of staff, and you can typically get them on their cell phone (sometimes they’ll even text you back).

The U.S. Congress is a whole different beast.

Where Do I start?

The first thing to do is to get your head wrapped around the issue. First-year law students are taught to do this by organizing their thoughts, writings, and oral arguments into issues, rules, analyses, and conclusions. They call it IRAC, and pronounce it like the country. Generally speaking, it’s helpful to make sure you’ve got the whole picture before you pick up the phone.

If someone is asking you to make a call, they should give you a healthy head start. At the very least, they should be able to line up an issue with a rule and an active solution that will fix it. If they aren’t doing that, then it would be worth your time to call them and ask for a hand. Here’s how it works.

The issue is a problem that you are having, or seeing, on the ground. A real-life, bona fide threat causing some level of harm. The root of government is (or at least ought to be) to use public resources to solve problems the public is facing. Of course, sometimes those problems are being caused by the government itself, and those need fixing, too.

A rule is the policy that is affecting the issue that you’re up against. It’s important to give some thought to what level of government “owns” this rule, or who has jurisdiction over the issue (“juris” means law and “diction” is Latin for “saying,” so “jurisdiction” identifies who is “saying the law”). As you’re gearing up to call or send a letter to Washington, D.C., make sure that they can actually fix the problem. Usually, the problem you’re facing will be about policy or money (or lack thereof, on either account).

The closer you can get to clearly identifying the issue, the more effective your advocacy will be.

Analysis is the process you use to figure out what you want someone to do about the issue. It will be helpful to walk them through your thought process when you call. You simply need to show that you’ve thought through the issue and have considered the arguments around it. At this point, think about the options that the elected official is facing, and what they can feasibly do to help rectify your problem. If they have a seat on a relevant committee, then they might have more power to do something than other members of Congress. If there’s a bill that you like, they could cosponsor it. If a bill is up for a vote, they can support or oppose it. If there isn’t a bill introduced, they could write and introduce one.

Again, the closer you tailor your advocacy to something that your representatives can do right now, the more effective you will be.

The conclusion is simple and to the point. It should be one line that explains what you want the member to do. Again, the more specific you can be, the better.

When you make a phone call, you have a golden opportunity to help that person do their job—and help your cause—when you know where a decision can be made, who can make it, and what you want that decision to be.

When you’ve got all these ducks in a row, you’re ready to get on the phone.

Who to Call and How to Call Them

At any given time, you have two senators and one representative who you can call in Congress. For me, that’s Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, and Rep. Matt Rosendale.

Like most things these days, you can find the right phone number by Googling “representative so-and-so Washington DC office.” You could also use this handy list to find your senator’s office line, or call the House switchboard at (202) 224-3121 to be connected to your representative.

There are loads of platforms that can help you contact your members of Congress in writing, and they are very easy to use. Howl for Wildlife and Delta Waterfowl’s Duck Hunters Action Alert System are just the latest. These are great and show the size of our community; however, they just aren’t the same as picking up the phone and talking to someone in person.

Every congressional office in both the House and the Senate is staffed in much the same way. All offices have interns, staff assistants, legislative correspondents, legislative aides, legislative directors, communications aides and directors, and a chief of staff who all support the member of Congress. In that order, interns are at the bottom of the food chain and the chief of staff is at the top. All these people live and work in Washington, D.C., but that doesn’t mean that they are unreachable. Unfortunately, there are many gatekeepers in these offices, especially when it comes to making a cold phone call.

This isn’t necessarily because your senator or representative doesn’t want to talk to you directly —many of them would love that—but they have extremely busy schedules and have set up their staff to aggregate and filter huge amounts of information up to them. If you want your call to matter, you have to get through those filters.

The first filter will be whoever picks up the phone. It’s likely going to be an intern or a staff assistant, and they’ll probably sound like they’re fresh out of high school (many “Hill-terns” are).

Before you start talking about issues, rules, or actions, you’ll want to introduce yourself and let them know where you’re from.

Then, ask them if they’ll transfer you to the legislative aide who covers the policy you’re talking about. If it’s a bill in the natural resources committee, the “natural resources LA” will work, and the same for agriculture, firearms, taxes, or any other policy. Full disclosure: they might not even try to transfer you. They might say “let me check on that” and come back with “they’re not in right now, may I take a message?” Or you might get lucky and find yourself talking to the person who can make a decision on what you’re calling about.

If you wind up pleading your case to the intern at the front desk, that’s great, too. They likely won’t know as much as you do about the issue, so this is a great time to teach them about the policies and topics you care about. That information will eventually find its way into a report for the relevant legislative aide.

Congressional offices also typically have outposts in the state or district they represent. The people who work in these offices are there to help you too, but they’re typically further removed from the policy decisions going on in Washington. If you find yourself talking to a stone wall in the DC office, you might try touching base with local staff. Better yet, if you’ve got the time, go over to the office, and meet them in person. Sometimes, these folks hunt, fish, or trap (or want to), and talking to them about your latest adventure in the field can help your case.

When your members of Congress do something you like, be sure to call and thank them. That might not happen often, but it helps build rapport for the next time you talk to them.

Does it actually make a difference?

I’ll be the first to say that calls don’t always work. Sometimes, a pile of snail mail is the best way to get your message across. One of my mentors always liked to joke that nobody ever tripped over a bag of phone calls on their way into work.

While that might be true, strong relationships with decision-makers and the size of our community are our most powerful assets, regardless of whether we’re fighting a bad easement bill, trying to get more money for non-game wildlife, facing down chronic wasting disease, or keeping iconic big game safe from disease.

Every time you make a phone call, you’re one step closer to building a relationship. Remember, our right to participate in our government isn’t universal, and we owe it to ourselves and the natural resources we depend on to exercise that right.

If you want to get more involved, like traveling to Washington or your state capitol to lobby, get in touch with your local National Wildlife Federation Affiliate or your favorite national conservation organization and let them know that you’d like to help out. We can use as many hands (and phone calls) as we can get.

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