Imagine a world in which your favorite hunting spot is sold off and covered with condominiums. I mean it. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine this scenario. See your place, hear it, smell it. Now imagine a condo over there and there and there. How does that make you feel?
Then, picture your favorite stretch of river or local lake choked out by a toxic algal bloom or slick with oil. Envision a future hike with your son or daughter and say to them, “Back when I was your age there used to be deer and grouse here. I wish you could have seen it.”
How do we ensure that some version of this imagined reality never comes to be? How do we fight back when the next batch of bad news inevitably knocks on the front door?
Quality habitat, open spaces, public access, well-managed wildlife populations, the right to hunt and fish, clean air and water—all of these are all critical to the outdoor way of life that we cherish. They’re also perpetually at risk. “Those crucial ingredients of any good day afield do not exist by accident,” Ben Long writes in his book “Hunter and Angler: Field Guide to Raisin’ Hell.” “They depend on conservation. And conservation depends on politics.”
Let’s face it, people of our kind tend to run away from politics. But, as I discussed recently with Ben on a Wired to Hunt podcast, this is a mistake. “If we want fish and wildlife to remain both abundant and available, we need to flex the political muscles granted in the U.S. Constitution,” he told me.
But how do we actually do that and do it well? That’s the question I recently posed to Ben and two other conservation professionals who have made it their life’s work to effectively use the political process to ensure a better future for hunting, angling, wildlife, and wild places. Their advice is a playbook for how we as individuals (or as collectives) can successfully raise hell for hunting and fishing and a how-to guide for ensuring we never have to tell our children that we wished they could have seen it “back then.”
“The single most powerful tool that someone has in conservation is their voice,” says Lukas Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters. Speaking up, speaking out, and making your position known are critical to any successful conservation campaign. But it’s also easier said than done. “Conservation advocacy is unique in that it is critical that you cater your approach to the specific issue you are working on and the audience you’re speaking to,” he said.
When advocating for your issue to a decision maker—be it a senator or a fish-and-game commission—through a phone call, in-person testimony, or in a letter, Leaf recommends leading with a personal connection to the issue at hand. “Always express why something is important to you. The personal angle goes a long way. Tell the legislator why you’re calling and why you personally support or are against what you’re calling about,” he said. I’ve been told by multiple professionals in this space that one personal email or phone call is worth ten templated letters or pre-scripted calls.
It’s also important to frame your request to a decision-maker in a way that speaks to their own values or interests. If you can find common ground or a connection between your issue and their stated positions, you’ll have a better chance of them considering your suggestions.
Finally, avoid the temptation to get angry or overly emotional. This will simply lead to your audience tuning you out. “There’s no reason to beat down a legislator when you make a call, sit in on a meeting, or sign an online action. That only creates more division on the issue,” Leaf said. “It’s all about finding common ground that both parties can relate to and then just having a civil conversation.”
By rallying the sporting community to use their voices in this way and by showcasing how real people value a pristine and protected Boundary Waters Wilderness, Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters and its partners were able to defeat the threat of a copper-nickel mine on the border of the BWCA when a twenty-year moratorium on mining adjacent to the BWCA was announced. This news was proof that our voices, when used effectively, can still make a difference.
Whether as an individual or as part of a conservation organization, it can be tempting to take on every new issue or threat that appears on the horizon. And there is certainly no shortage of those. But as the old saying goes, if you try to be everything to everyone, you’ll end up being nothing to anyone.
The more effective approach, Captains for Clean Water Co-Founder Chris Wittman says, is to “remain laser-focused on an objective or a limited amount of objectives that are going to provide the greatest benefit to whatever your issue or cause is. You can hypothetically chime in on hundreds of things but the impact of that, as an organization, is that it dilutes your resources, it dilutes your messaging, it dilutes the understanding from your audience of what you do or what’s important.”
Something similar could be said for an individual, too. Doing a little bit for a dozen different conservation issues or organizations might end up being less effective than picking the two or three causes you’re most passionate about and doubling down on those with a larger investment of your time, energy, and resources.
This focus on doubling down on an issue and committing to a comprehensive understanding is what separates the best individual advocates from the average, says Wittman. “The people who are most effective at getting involved and bringing more people in through a grassroots network are those who have invested time to have a better understanding of the problems and the solutions, so they can speak from an educated point of view to others,” he says. This is simply not possible unless you prioritize your time and focus your efforts in those few places that matter most to you.
This hyper-focus on a core issue, in this case educating and activating the public around Everglades restoration, has led to Captains for Clean Water having an outsized influence on water quality issues across Florida. Their success, in collaboration with their partners, has led to historic momentum for Everglades restoration, securing hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal funding for CERP projects, and the defeat of the bad-for-water SB 2508. If you want to have meaningful influence as an advocate, consider a focused approach to how you use your voice, develop your expertise, and exert your social capital.
“There are roughly 50 million people who hunt and fish in the U.S. But there are 330 million people in the U.S.,” Ben Long writes in his aforementioned book. “It’s pretty simple math. In a democracy, hunters and anglers don’t have the numbers to win alone. We have to work with others, we have to build alliances.”
In other words, if you want to win a political fight in defense of hunting or fishing or wildlife or public lands—yes, of course, rally your fellow hunters and anglers—but also consider building a bigger team. Fortunately, there is no shortage of potential teammates if you’re willing to look outside of our immediate communities and extend an invitation to others with shared interests—hikers, bikers, boaters, bird watchers, small businesses in tourist communities, the list could go on and on. We might not agree on everything, but if we can look past our differences and focus on our shared cause, we can achieve more.
This philosophy of coalition building is as important at the organizational level as it is at the personal. If you’re involved with a conservation organization, you’ll harness exponentially more power by partnering with other groups. And as an individual, if there’s a cause you care about, the quickest way to get an official or decision-maker to listen is to come to the table with diverse parties sharing the same concerns. A state representative will be far more likely to take note of a request if it’s echoed by a hunter, a small business person, and a mountain biker together rather than in isolation.
A perfect example of this was the years-long push to ensure the future of the Land and Water Conservation Fund(LWCF), a program that funnels a portion of royalties from offshore oil and gas development to pay for public land acquisitions in the form of parks, access sites, wildlife habitat, and more. It’s a program that benefits everyone from urban families to hunters and anglers.
Through his work at Resource Media as a journalist and with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Ben Long successfully helped educate and rally a wide coalition in support of the LWCF. “When you cut away the ideological rhetoric, LWCF provides very real benefits for everyone, from city parks to multiple-use, public land purchases,” Long said. “So it generated such broad-scale support that elected officials raced to get to the front of the parade.” The end result was the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 2019 and the securing of full funding, in perpetuity, as of 2020.
For more actionable advice for becoming a more effective conservation advocate, tune in to Wired to Hunt Podcast Ep. 651: How to Raise Hell for Hunting, Fishing, Wildlife, and Wild Places with Ben Long