Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why The Outdoors is for Everyone and How We've Failed to Provide it To Them

Kids gather at the Delaware Ducks Unlimited Greenwing Event

This topic, a challenge by the Outdoor Bloggers Summit, is an easy one for me. People who know me, come afield with me, or work with me will roll their eyes, because whenever I have an audience, this topic comes up - it's on "heavy rotation," they would say.
Let's get right to it. "The Outdoors is for Everyone" is a rallying cry for the recruitment and stewardship of new outdoorsmen and women in our generation and the next generation. And in every sport in which I participate, the greatest source of resistance for "new participants" is surprisingly, from those people who are involved in the sport already - or so they say. How could this happen? How could we let this happen? What's really at risk? What can we do to make sure that the outdoors is for everyone? Why is it essential?
Pour yourself a drink, because it's going to take awhile to tease this all apart.
So, first things first. Let's look at regionalism. The nation's population, and our political representation, is not equally distributed across all 50 states. Most Americans are represented by suburban politicians who themselves may have spent a few weeks of their childhood on the old family farm, but their own children have not experienced this (because the farm has been subdivided by that generation into 5 acre lots). I don't believe that rural people are disenfranchised in our political system, the Farm Bill and homeland security funding being obvious evidence of the contrary, but rural acres are certainly disenfranchised. What does that even mean?
Our natural resources agencies, at every level, face a dilemma every day. That dilemma is whether they utilize funds to protect, restore, or manage rural lands; or whether they utilize funds to increase public access. And this is where it gets contentious. In populated areas, public access almost always wins out. Since I use public lands, I can appreciate this. However, we've got to evaluate, what "access," is this, really? I believe I could conclusively argue that expenditures on trails, boat ramps, and other infrastructure associated with the "green" or "outdoors" experience, are down, while the purchase of "ambiguous urban open space" is up. Mowed, open fields. Not really set up for sports. Just mowed, open fields. The planners believe that if this flat, green space exists, it's equivalent in value to a football field, a forest, or a beach.
I'm not here to make the same, tired old argument that state DNR funds should be used in the rural areas, "where the resource" is, and not in urban and suburban areas. The Chris Orlet contingency obviously feels this way, but since he makes his living by writing exciting fictional pieces about interstate roadkill (now that's an outdoorsman! Hot Damn!), I'll leave him alone. In fact, I'm here to argue strongly against that old argument. How could I? Go back to the population argument. If we do not have green infrastructure (ponds, boat ramps, trails) for people in suburban and urban environments to become involved in fishing and hunting, who are we going to recruit? This is where Chris Orlet comes in (sorry): "We don't want THOSE people out in the field." No retort is needed.
I'll lay my primary reason out first, instead of making you work for it - we have no choice. Do you understand? If we falter on this, the consequences will be dire. You, the 55 year old primitive archery hunter. You, the 23 year old falconer. You, the 36 year old fly fisherman. As I've laid out in painful detail above, the country has changed. As of 2008, fewer than 10% of Americans hunt (some surveys show 5%). Fewer than 20% of American go fishing. There are over 250 million people, millions of them voters, in this country who have never spent a day afield. And they never will, because we can't reach them. Why not? Because 80% of teenagers watch over 4 hours of television a day. Because 95% of teenagers have not taken hunters education or gun safety courses. Because most of these kids have no one to take them hunting or fishing, since over half of their parents are divorced.
You may be like the old fellers, and argue, "Hell, it's more deer for me." This is where you're woefully wrong. The next time there's a firearms ordinance on your local ballot. The next time the state asks voters to pay $3 million for a bridge that connects a county road to the best fishing lake in the state. The next time voters are asked, "House Bill 363984, to abolish hunting within the limits of the county." How can outdoorsmen and women possibly succeed without recruiting new hunters and anglers? And how will your recruit more anglers, if the only fishing access you support is at least 2 hours away from the suburbs, near your "honey hole?"
There's an amazing bright spot in all of this. How? While public involvement in hunting and fishing is critically low, public support for hunting (70-85%) and fishing (85-95%) are at their highest level in my lifetime. This means that the conservation message has gotten through. What seemed like an impossible task a few decades ago - ensuring that hunters/anglers always act as conservationists, and convincing the public that we are conservationists - has actually worked. This remains an area where we need to be active though - the "green" education that most kids are receiving in their schools now doesn't actively oppose hunting and fishing - but it doesn't mention them either.
Another bright spot is the result of the equal rights and civil rights movements. Again, the old timers will cringe, but I think you're starting to see my logic. The absolute retardation of public statements like, when taking a woman on a hunt, "smart men are likely to make the trip as unpleasant as possible" are only going to help us push ourselves into cultural extinction. Women and minorities have rapidly embraced sports and pursuits from which they were excluded for decades or longer (depending on your opinion). More importantly, women and minorities (who, together, make up somewhere around 75% of our population..and rising) have been excluded from the outdoor culture. Intentionally for years, and more recently, out of a lack of initiative on the part of us - the white guys. Why the hell would we not bring these folks into the fold? Just a thought.
I don't ask any of you to take a new hunter or angler afield just because it feels good or because your favorite conservation organization asked you to do so. I implore you to take new folks afield because otherwise your grandchildren, if not your children, will see abrupt and unilateral closures of land to public access, including passive uses. It costs our government a lot of money to manage licenses, land, and wildlife. There are plenty of folks that would like to see wildlife habitats permanently closed to human beings. Don't think it can never happen. For the sake of our traditions and our love of the outdoors - please share these special places and special times with someone else.
I have a feeling Chris Orlet is going to give me ammunition for months! Thanks buddy!


Jon Roth said...

Here, here Swamp. I couldn't agree more and wrote as such in a post this morning. Great post!

tugboatdude said...

It's very true what you say Swamp.Very well written and I feel your pain.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Nice work swampy,and very astute commenting on Orlets piece. I particularly liked the sopranos is SITC for guys. Good call.

Anonymous said...

Very well done piece. I think you're exactly right, the only way to preserve the outdoors is to get more people involved in it.

Thank you for participating in the challenge.

me said...

Great post.

Part of your message reminds me of a saying attributed to Martin Niemuller. He said, "When Hitler attacked the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore, I was not concerned. And when HItler attacked the Catholics [ . . ] Hitler attacked e and the Protestant church--and there was nobody left to be concerned. 1968

Good reading, Swamp.

Unknown said...

very good post!!!

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