By Nick Simonson
If the recent pandemic and its social distancing requirements have taught us anything, it’s the importance of having a place to go outside. Whether it’s to blow off steam with a trail run, wet a line on a local river, or hike the hills with a good hunting dog, public places provide an opportunity unique to America and the country’s long-standing traditions of hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation. Growing in recent years to more than 40,000 grassroots members, the group Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) has positioned itself on the leading edge of promoting and protecting public lands and waters across the U.S. and the upper Midwest. If you hear BHA President & CEO Land Tawney tell the tale, you’re more than certain of the group’s origins.
“In 2004 there were some folks sitting around the campfire in Oregon and they looked at the playing field with Ducks Unlimited, the [Rocky Mountain] Elk Foundation, Pheasants Forever, Mule Deer Foundation; all these organizations doing very awesome work, but nobody was really laser focused on public lands and public waters,” Tawney references to the organization’s beginnings, “the first eight years of the organization was all driven by volunteers, then started getting some part-time staff, then when I came on seven years ago, the organization was ready to explode and that’s what happened since,” he recalls.
With the groundswell of members across the country, the organization has worked to maintain and improve entry to and enjoyment of public lands and waters through on the ground efforts such as clean-up programs, signage projects and legislative lobbying and positioning through communication with lawmakers at the state and national levels in the 45 U.S. states, two Canadian provinces and one territory. With the pandemic and its restrictions, however, those on-the-ground efforts had to stop and the halt on legislative activities across the country and in Washington D.C. put a pause on efforts to promote the organization’s advocacy for public lands.
Despite having to cancel banquets and other events which impacted the organization’s fundraising efforts during this spring, BHA has engineered ways to connect with its members during the last few months of isolation. Whether it was a virtual turkey calling contest with the winner decked out in full-on Tiger King regalia doing his best parody of the popular Netflix series star while wowing the computer-based crowd with his life-like mimics of the big upland birds, to turning the annual BHA Rendezvous into a virtual get together with contests, presenters, story tellers and symposia, the organization has adjusted and is prepared to get back to work as the country opens up and lawmakers return to their duties.
“This week there’s movement on the senate bill that would give full and dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Tawney said of the billions of dollars that would be locked in and allotted to improving public lands from city parks to national grasslands that are funded by the program, “those projects are shovel-ready, they can put people back to work on our public lands and waters [which] are places that people are finding solace from everything that’s going on and reenergizing themselves and getting their minds right,” he stated, connecting the bill to the betterment of a struggling economy and a re-emerging populace.
As BHA members get back into the field, a number of projects will be underway nationwide. With a focus on keeping areas clean, and having open spaces for hiking, walking and non-motorized traffic, the organization is working on the wide open prairie as well. Through recent signage efforts, the North Dakota chapter of BHA has helped mark those foot-traffic only areas to preserve open spaces, primitive access and the backcountry feeling that many people seek in their hunting, fishing and outdoor activities.
“In North Dakota, our chapter has been heavily involved in the grasslands to curtail illegal ATVs,” Tawney states, “we’ve got members that use ATVs, I drive my truck to the trailhead, but there’s these places where you can go and amble across the prairie that everybody covets, and so when people break the rules not only do they break that code of ethics a little bit, they’re also causing weed damage, and putting ruts in the ground,” and that signage project is where the ND chapter has led the way for BHA.
Protecting and advocating for those places will help continue to give people of all stripes access to places that soothe their souls and promote well-being. As BHA gears up for the restart in the back half of 2020, Tawney recognizes the importance of those spaces to all citizens, regardless of background or belief following these times of turmoil, and knows that the members of the organization will work toward keeping them there and open to all.
“Those public lands don’t care what political party you come from, they don’t care how much money you made last year, they don’t care what color your skin is – they’re a place we’re all on equal footing,” Tawney finishes.
Featured Photo: A Piece of Public Heaven. Wildlife Management Areas and other public lands are important to hunters, wildlife and providing people with a place to go and enjoy the outdoors. In the back half of 2020, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers looks to advance legislation and projects across the country to protect and improve public access to hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation. Simonson Photo.