Modern causes honor ghosts of conservation past


I had the honor of speaking to the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance banquet a few months ago. After the event, several friends who attended suggested that I post my comments online. OK, here they are….

I’ve got some good news and bad news. The bad news: I’m going to make you uncomfortable. The good news: I’ll try and keep it to 12 minutes.

A gentleman, Richard D. Taber, passed away in January; it didn’t get many headlines. Anyone know who that is?

Taber died in Missoula, Mont., at the age of 95 and he was the last graduate student of Aldo Leopold, the father of modern wildlife management and founder of the nation’s first wildlife management program – at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Leopold had 26 graduate students under him – 25 men and one woman. I was lucky enough to meet a few of them, Richard McCabe, Joe Hickey, and of course many of us here knew the great Art Hawkins.

I bring this up because it marks the end of an era. The generation that laid the foundations is all but gone. Harvey Nelson, Lenny Samuelson, Art Hawkins, Al Farmes, Frank Schneider, Jr. That old guard that held a hard line in Minnesota has passed. Would you believe Art died 10 years ago? March of 2006.

Seems like just yesterday and they were here with us.

I miss those guys.

Look around. The crowd at MOHA is getting smaller. The number of legislators here has shrunk. And I’m seeing the same faces at this event year after year. Truthfully, folks, it’s become challenging to find fresh nominations for our Outdoor News Man of the Year.

We don’t hear many unapologetic, dyed-in-the-wool conservationists like the men I mentioned earlier anymore. Fist-pounders who tell it like it is. Jim Martin of Berkley Institute gave a speech like that at the Roundtable in January, and it was shockingly refreshing.

Conservation is not part of the public discourse, and that’s disappointing. For all the election coverage and nonstop debates, how often do you hear the environment come up? Some global warming denials and that’s it.

It’s not a priority.

Even in this room, do we too often shirk the big problems and focus on the noncontroversial ones? Youth mentoring is important, and we talk a lot about youth recruitment. A lot. Because it’s easy.

We in this room have a responsibility to address the hard environmental and conservation issues. We’re it. We’re the reasonable, sensible centrists whom the politicians listen to. We need to be unified on the big issues necessary to improve natural resources discourse in the state and country. But we have a bit of an identity crisis, maybe because we’re victims of our own success.

I spoke at Muskies, Inc. leadership forum in Minnetonka last week. There’s an organization wrestling a bit with its mission for its second 50 years. They’ve been tremendously successful promoting catch-and-release and stocking muskies across the northern United States. Muskies are in a lot of places now, but who is Muskies, Inc., going forward?

Remember Geese Unlimited? Butch Bakken, who also passed away 2006, used to be present at banquets like this. What happened? We have unlimited geese! That group worked themselves out of a job.

Who is MOHA? Who are we collectively in this room?

We’re a group that’s had some great successes: Amendment 2 in 1998. Other states following suit. I see Kansas is about to pass a Right to Hunt & Fish amendment, and if so, they’ll be 20th state. There were only two when Minnesota pulled it off, and it’d been years since states one and two. Look at how many states have fallen in behind Minnesota since we accomplished that.

The sales tax dedication. Maybe the greatest conservation coup of my lifetime. I hope we can eclipse it with something even bigger someday. Other states are trying. Iowa passed an initiative though they’re having a tough time spending it. A semi-similar North Dakota effort sadly went down in flames.

Let’s not stop aiming big. Put aside our squabbles between spearers and anglers, dog owners and trappers, ATVs, and aim big year after year.

I have some simple causes:

• Public lands. We have a remaining presidential candidate on record – Ted Cruz – as wanting to sell off federal public land holdings. (Rubio did, too, but he’s out now.) Trump for all his issues, isn’t one of them. Talking with Outdoor Life editors at the SHOT Show, he defended public lands, though we’ve seen some waffling on public lands from people within his campaign.

Again, we talk about recruitment. You want hunting recruitment? I give you America’s public lands. I bet every person in this room has some link to being recruited to hunting via public lands. My family certainly does.

You don’t need to be a millionaire to hunt in this country. You don’t need two nickels to rub together to have hunting access in America.

At our Outdoor News Deer and Turkey Show, Tony Peterson presented a seminar on hunting public lands in the West in other states. His seminars were jam packed and not just with young people who can’t afford private land access yet. They were middle-aged and older folks who want to try elk hunting without mortgaging their home.

• We have an opportunity with Gov. Mark Dayton. I’ve been an outdoor writer for Minnesota governors. Has anyone been more in tune and offered us a blank check the way Dayton has? We have two years to go with this governor, so let’s think big and demand a legacy from him. For starters, let’s double down on the Pheasant Plan.

• Third, look around the room at faces in this room… the aging white faces. Ten percent of this country’s citizens weren’t born here. What are you doing to reach out to those folks and make them part of our conservation community? We need them to care and be invested in this country’s natural resources.

• Finally, help me honor those doing it right. Please submit nominations for three programs we have at Outdoor News: our Man/Woman of the Year, the Clam Outdoors Youth of Month, and our Outdoor Leaders Award.

We’re doing a lot of things right in Minnesota. Jim Martin considers our conservation engagement the envy of the nation. We frequently remind ourselves that it’s worse elsewhere, and our buffer protection law is an example. It got watered down this year, but at least in Minnesota we argue about water quality. In other states the concept of a 50-foot buffer is laugh-aloud.

But don’t get too smug. We don’t have the corner on the conservation market. I’ve had the opportunity to travel the country and see big projects in other states, too.

To the politicians in the room, I recognize that I get to be the purist, the scold. Elected representatives here deal with a caucus and constituents that prevent you from being purists like me. You walk a fine line – I get that.

Here’s MOHA’s Mission: “To protect and guarantee the right to pursue the time-honored traditions of hunting, fishing, and related activities for every Minnesota citizen, in perpetuity, through legislative action, public awareness and education.”

Live that mission. Seize the opportunity that exists now, because time passes and they may not exist tomorrow. My son is a senior in high school. I can’t believe the fatherhood opportunities that have slipped away the past 18 years. Don’t allow conservation opportunities facing us right now to slip away.

The men who laid the groundwork are gone. It’s up to us to maintain their momentum and continue crafting some legacies of our own. Forty years from now, I hope the people attending this banquet will recognize the things we did to make this state livable for them.

I don’t think any of us care about adoration. But I think we do care about leaving Minnesota’s outdoors better than we found it.

Categories: Rob Drieslein

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