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Rising to the challenge: BHA President and CEO Land Tawney talks backcountry hunting and fishing and the future of America’s public lands

Rising to the challenge: BHA President and CEO Land Tawney talks backcountry hunting and fishing and the future of America’s public lands

 

Talk a little about Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and what’s happening with BHA right now.

BHA is the most dynamic and fastest growing sportsmen’s organization in North America focused solely on conserving our public lands and waters, sustaining and expand our ability to access them, and upholding the principles of fair chase and our outdoor traditions.

BHA members like wild country. We relish the solitude and adventure. We love the sweat and toil. We seek the challenge. We are committed to handing down our traditions to the next generation.

We’re a young group – BHA was formed 12 years ago, in 2004 – but the energy driving us forward becomes more apparent every day.

2015 marked the year when BHA came into our own. Our reach as sportsmen-conservationists vastly expanded. Our ranks grew exponentially. Our members stepped forward as informed, engaged, passionate advocates for our public lands and waters. And never has there been more urgent need for our voice.

 

Why the growing need for sportsmen to be backcountry advocates?

Land in DC, courtesy BHA

Land Tawney in Washington, DC

In short, we aren’t making any more of it. Backcountry is vastly different from Vermont to Montana to Alaska, but what unifies us is our thirst to protect those places where we still can experience the same adventures that Theodore Roosevelt and even those before him did. Our backcountry landscapes are the last bastions of public land where we can go and be inspired by nature in its purest form.

Our public lands harbor a wealth of resources, everything from oil, gas and timber to drinking water and wildlife habitat. Over the past year, a new movement to seize them has gained momentum – this is a scheme perpetrated by well-moneyed interests committed to undermining our public lands system in the long term.

BHA is committed to stopping that movement through the growing force that is public lands sportsmen. In 2015, we organized sportsmen’s rallies at state capitol buildings across the West. Attracting thousands of attendees, the events united our community in support of America’s public lands – and prevented passage in those states of legislation referencing the sale or transfer of those lands.

Over the past year, BHA redoubled our efforts to strategically protect important lands and waters. BHA had a seat at the original table when 275,000 acres in central Idaho were proposed as wilderness. In 2015 the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness, home to crystal clear trout streams and high alpine meadows full of elk and mountain goats, was signed into law. BHA also worked to secure places like Browns Canyon in Colorado, which was designated a national monument in 2015.

Sportsmen are uniting under the BHA banner to support our nation’s public lands legacy. And we are achieving great things in the name of our lands and waters, fish and wildlife and hunting and fishing.

 

2016 started with a bang as a group of anti-government militants staged a 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, calling for an end to public ownership of public lands. How did BHA respond?

When extremists Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their crew took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, BHA was quick to understand the implications. Not only did the occupation challenge America’s unique system of public lands and those who value them, including sportsmen; it also emboldened other, more powerful interests who would see this system abolished. While early media coverage framed the story as disgruntled ranchers against the federal government, BHA told the deeper, truer story: one more particularly ugly episode in an ongoing attack on America’s public lands heritage.

On Monday, Jan. 4, BHA released the first statement from a national sportsmen group condemning the public lands takeover and calling for both patience and restoration of law and order. True to BHA’s “boots on the ground” philosophy, our local membership sprang into action. BHA volunteers placed a series of op-eds and sportsmen-focused columns. This framed the story as a national sportsmen’s issue, not to be dismissed as an isolated band of misfits and malcontents.

Then we took the fight to Malheur. BHA members Brian Jennings, Ed Putnam and Mark Heckert traveled to Burns to report on the scene firsthand. A video of Heckert tearing down a tarp used by the Bundys to cover refuge signage went viral. They shone the spotlight on the damage being done to prime public fish and wildlife habitat at the expense of sportsmen nationwide.

BHA consistently punches above its weight when it comes to focusing attention on priority issues for our community – and effecting positive change for sportsmen and conservation. Other sportsmen groups signed on to letters. We planted our flag.

 

BHA’s work focuses equally on issues of conservation, access and fair chase. Give an example of a key conservation issue BHA has tackled.

Here’s just one example of BHA’s conservation work: Our efforts to on behalf of sage grouse habitat –to sustain populations of the bird and the hundreds of other species that depend on the sagebrush steppe – have had far-reaching impacts. BHA state chapters collaborated with a range of diverse stakeholders to help the grouse and important species like elk, mule deer and pronghorn. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faced a September 2015 deadline to render a decision regarding listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. By advocating for the implementation of proactive management plans, BHA helped avert the need for an ESA listing.

 

Thanks. Please address BHA’s efforts to uphold ethical hunting.

BHA staff on Montana's Smith River, by Sam Lungren

BHA staff on Montana’s Smith River

Upholding the principles of fair chase continues to drive BHA’s work, and our chapters have been instrumental in advancing this national movement in support of the ethical taking of fish and game. BHA is leading the way in advancing state legislation banning the use of drones in hunting or scouting in – so far – 12 states, including Oregon, New York and New Hampshire in 2015 and Wyoming earlier this year.

Emerging technology like drones gives sportsmen an unfair advantage in scouting and hunting. These and other fair chase issues require our vigilance and continued advocacy. We not only must abide by the principles handed down by Roosevelt and other sportsmen; we also must update and elevate those principles to address our rapidly changing culture and reliance on technology.

 

Finally, sportsmen cite diminished access as the No. 1 reason why they stop spending time afield. Shed some light onto BHA’s efforts to address this problem.

At BHA, we’re committed to advancing legislative and administrative efforts to secure access to quality hunting and fishing on our public lands and waters. Places that have become isolated, landlocked without legal easement or entangled in ownership disputes are prime targets; for example, more than 2 million public acres in the state of Montana alone are blocked from public access, surrounded by private lands.

This is why BHA has been a longtime supporter of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, our best tool for providing public access to public lands. Enacted in 1964, LWCF has helped sportsmen gain access in all 50 states, enjoyed bipartisan support, and helps drive the $646 billion outdoor economy each and every year. Unfortunately, the highly popular program was allowed to sunset in the fall of 2015. BHA doubled down and pressured elected officials to pass a three-year extension of LWCF in December of 2015. We’re continuing to advocate for permanent reauthorization and full funding of LWCF.

At the same time, BHA is engaged in informing sportsmen about and expanding existing access opportunities to hunt, fish and enjoy the backcountry on our nation’s waterways. Among anglers and waterfowlers, for example, access to streams and waterways is the most important factor in our participation in – and the perpetuation of – our traditions. Access, however, is far from guaranteed. Well-moneyed efforts are underway to change existing stream access laws, which vary widely from state to state, to bar us from fishing, wading, floating or otherwise utilizing these resources. In response, BHA has launched a new campaign, Stream Access Now, to create awareness of existing stream access laws, fight proposals that could limit stream access, and work to expand access opportunities.

 

Talk a little about your upbringing and how you developed your conservation ethic.

Land Tawney hunting

Land Tawney hunting

I’m a fifth-generation Montanan, and my conservation ethic was instilled in me from a young age during time spent in duck blinds with my dad, at the end of a fly rod with my sisters and my cousins, and chasing the wily wapiti during solitary moments in some of the wildest backcountry I’ve ever experienced.

I’ve led the charge at BHA since 2013 and couldn’t be happier being at the helm. I get to work each and every day with the most talented staff in our industry, passionate members and conservation leaders, and corporate partners who are dedicated to protecting our outdoor heritage. We are combining youthful exuberance with the sage advice of longtime advocates. Our members don’t just hunt and fish once or twice a year so they can talk about it at cocktail parties. For us, it’s a way of life. BHA’s connections to women, first-time adult hunters, and the locavore movement are unmatched in our industry. We have fun, energy, and a collective commitment to pass on our heritage that is infectious.

At the end of the day, this is what drives me, personally as well as professionally. I’ve spent my entire career building, energizing and activating hunters and anglers to carry on our outdoor legacy. And I spend my spare time on the stream, duck blind or chasing big game – ideally with my family by my side.

 

BHA’s annual convention drew a big crowd in 2016. Tell us more about the event.

Backcountry Brewfest 2016

Backcountry Brewfest 2016

The BHA momentum is growing, and seeing how it carried into our annual North American Rendezvous this year was nothing short of inspiring. The numbers speak to our success. We sold out our Saturday banquet; 550 enthusiastic attendees crowded the hall. At last year’s Rendezvous, 180 attended. More than 4,000 people came to the Backcountry Brewfest. Last year we had 300. And we more than doubled money raised in the name of backcountry conservation.

However, the numbers tell only part of the story. The energy was palpable. Founding BHA board member Mike Beagle said it best: “What we started 12 years ago around a campfire has grown into a forest fire. It’s time to break out the hard hats and fire retardant.”

I couldn’t agree more, though we ain’t putting this thing out anytime soon. BHA is on fire!

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