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The New West: Hook and bullet group stands up against sell-out of federal public lands

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CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

He packs a bellowing voice, stout frame, red beard, and penchant for wearing flannel shirts. Land Tawney exudes the presence of an old-style lumberjack.

At age 40, he also leads one of the fastest-growing wildland conservation organizations in America, a group headquartered up the interstate in Missoula. While many groups struggle to maintain membership and connect with millennials, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is steadily gaining a following among outdoor folk young and old. Its list of supporters reaches beyond those who cast and blast.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers boasts members in all 50 states. Even though numbers of U.S. hunters are declining nationwide, as the population turns more urban, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has individual state chapters springing up in every region.

People are attracted to the mystique of the backcountry, especially in its purest, uncommon form—the roadless wilderness, Tawney says. Hunters and anglers know that safeguarding healthy habitat for wildlife on public lands is essential if hunting and fishing traditions are going to persist.

He points to huge frustration welling up among citizens. Many conservation-minded Americans are dissatisfied with environmental and sportsmen’s organizations perceived as being too meek or more interested in raising money and playing politics than rising forcefully in defense of public lands. Tawney doesn’t name names but he hears complaints every day.

“We aren’t beholden to any special interests and we aren’t worried about alienating donors who might be offended by our advocacy,” Tawney says, noting that the mission of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is simple. It’s committed to keeping public lands in public hands, science-based wildlife management, the public trust doctrine which established that wildlife belongs to the people, and protecting the character of the backcountry so it remains unspoiled and accessible for future generations.

Detractors, and there are a few, claim the group isn’t as vigilant as it ought to be.

During the armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon initiated by the militant sons of jailed renegade rancher Cliven Bundy, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers was the first—and one of the few—conservation groups that showed up on the scene to vocally condemn the action.

The group also has, very publicly, watchdogged Western legislators such as Congressmen Rob Bishop of Utah, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, and others who support selling off and/or transferring federal public lands to states, voting to strip funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and favoring the interests of resource-extraction industries on public lands over wildlife habitat protection.

Tawney says hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and all manner of outdoor recreation and conservation flows through his blood. The fifth-generation Montanan has a degree in wildlife biology and grew up in the Bitterroot Valley. His late father, Phil, an attorney, was a longtime lawyer for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The wild American backcountry is under siege by constant threats. Still young people see it as a place for inspiring adventure; older hunters and anglers understand it’s a last haven for big game species and other wildlife. What makes the idea of the backcountry powerful in the imagination, Tawney says, is when Americans discover that the public land wilderness belongs to them, no matter whether they live in a city or outpost in the middle of nowhere.

“I hear it all the time, that outdoors people feel lost, that they believe their voice no longer registers with politicians,” Tawney explained to me earlier this year. “We remind our members that everyone’s voice counts in standing up against the radical forces that are willing to destroy our public land heritage.”

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers started a reward program that pays people $500 if they report illegal ATV trespassers into wilderness and wilderness study areas. It’s a constant problem. “We gave away more reward money last year than ever,” Tawney said.

The organization favors reforming the 1872 mining law so that companies pay a royalty for gold and other precious minerals extracted from public lands. It also supports having a small tax applied to the sale of all outdoor recreation clothing and equipment—supplementing the tax already imposed on hunting and fishing gear— with the proceeds going to cash-strapped federal and state wildlife agencies.

Whenever there are rallies for public lands, Tawney takes his young daughter and son along to remind politicians what the next generation looks like and teach his kids they have to stand up for what they love.

New West columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” featuring photos by Thomas Mangelsen and only available at Wilkinson penned a profile of Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk that appears in the summer 2016 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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