Stay in the Hunt
by Nathaniel Hoffman
Jim Posewitz, executive director of Orion: The Hunters' Institute, is a passionate spokesman for hunting and a scholar of American conservation history. He is also something of a preacher to the congregation of hunters.
His trilogy, Beyond Fair Chase, Inherit the Hunt and Rifle in Hand, has become a key component of hunter education programs across the country, teaching young sportsmen and women that hunting is more than just blasting away at four-legged or feathered creatures.
Posewitz urges the hunting public to think about North America's wildlife and how it came to thrive despite over-hunting in the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution, and the rampant development of today.
"Here in North America things are different," Posewitz writes in Inherit the Hunt. "Here, at the close of the twentieth century, a very common hunter can still feel a physical and a spiritual linkage to a Stone Age hunter who left an arrow point on the shoulders of a Montana mountain."
Nathaniel Hoffman met up with Posewitz after a talk he gave at Boise State University earlier this year. The interview cut into Posewitz's planned walk along the Boise River. And his beer time.
HIGH COUNTRY NEWS: You write about how generations of American hunters took responsibility for bringing back America's wildlife. How is hunting still relevant today?
JIM POSEWITZ: Well, it's important because it was at the core of how our culture got this conservation ethic. It was passed through our society by virtue of the presence of these people who value these things.
One of the things (Aldo Leopold) said was that this idea of conservation is a matter of perception. And wanderlust and trigger itch are merely the raw materials out of which perception is built. ... When a guy goes afield and aspires to be a hunter, you're looking at the world in a very different fashion. You are walking beyond the trails. You're walking into the habitat, the environment. You know you're going to a certain place. ... and you start viewing the landscape with a level of intensity that is higher than if you are merely in a tour bus going by, awestruck by the grandeur of the place. ...You are no longer exclusively a supermarket-sustained voyeur. You are a participant. And if you live in places like Idaho and Montana, that can be 80 percent of your red-meat intake in a year.
In the process of getting there, you look at a lot of marks in the snow and the mud, and you look at nips off of twigs and branches, and it all means something to you. And when those components fall apart, you're the first to know that the animal is not there anymore - and that's why the hunter was so important ...
HCN: If the notion of saving the land and forests for their own sake didn't turn Americans into conservationists, what did? Was it just the perseverance of Teddy Roosevelt?
POSEWITZ: No, the thing that did it is embedded in so many people like him and like myself and like all kinds of other people in our society: This desire to engage, this desire to participate in the natural process. But that's kind of in the species. ... When Roosevelt starts creating these opportunities for restoration, gets the commercial people out of it, the immediate action was to throw up protected places: The refuges, the parks. They lobby Congress to send the army into Yellowstone to keep the poachers from taking the very last of it. And succeed. And then ultimately he sets aside 9.9 percent of America and then brings all the governors into Washington in 1908 when he's leaving the presidency, and lectures them on the need to create natural resource agencies or wildlife protection agencies.
HCN: A lot of colleges and universities have an environmental track and a natural resources track. Are those paths diametrically opposed?
POSEWITZ: Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir got along fine. ... Roosevelt writes, "To the extent that some of this made some good economic sense, some of it was simply for the beauty of life and the joy of living because we were not to be a nation without these assets and without these resources."
HCN: But, ideologically, these are different ways into conservation. You talk about hunter conservationists and you talk about a land conservationist. What common ground have hunters and environmentalists found?
POSEWITZ: The one common ground is ... you have to start putting protective arms around the environment, the habitat, the land that produces this stuff. The hunter has ... been doing that from the start. We understood that. And that wetland that produced the duck that we wanted, well, that great blue heron, he lives out there, too, and that muskrat lives there, and there's some frogs out there and some toads. And while we don't swoon over that reality, we are plumb aware of it and you know, you can't produce the animal without strengthening the ecosystem that produces him.
HCN: Let's go back. You talk about the 1930s and this profusion of activist hunters and grassroots organizing. That doesn't exist today. ... What happened?
POSEWITZ: It's reconfigured. In the interim, lots of things happened. One of the big things that happened was Earth Day. Rachel Carson comes in and finds this horrendous problem with pesticides. She writes Silent Spring. It gets lots of people's attention. The energy crisis of the '70s aligns exactly with the generation of Earth Day. In Montana, we have a brief period of years, '69 to '74, when our adversaries are catching on to the fact that this "earth thing" is going to interfere with commerce. All of the new (environmental) groups and the hunter groups were of one mind then.
And so we rewrote all of Montana's natural resource law out of this political juggernaut of landowners, the new enviro-greens, the hunters and the anglers. The labor unions were in because of in-plant health issues and because they were hunters. And we rewrote the entire resource law in the state of Montana with the Fish and Game Department right smack dab in the middle of all that activity.
So what happens? They start breaking down the coalition in the late '70s. They take the Fish and Game Department, they go through executive reorganization and they align the director up under the governor so they can work it through the political machine.
The corporate interests ... fly their attorney to every ag meeting in the state of Montana to tell the aggies that the greens are going to take their land. And they split the agricultural interests out of the coalition, with the property-rights scare tactic. The unions fade as hard-rock mining diminishes. The agency gets lined up under political control and ... the influence of active minorities working through the political system begin to try and reverse that conservation ethic that the people were carrying when that coalition was intact. It's been defense ever since.
HCN: The timber wars in the '80s were a further extension of this wedge politics and turning hunters and greens against one another.
POSEWITZ: They're doing it to the Forest Service now. I mean, the neo-con philosophy is to wither all forms of government. And so we have the Forest Service budget year after year after year being diminished, ever since they took political control. Fish and Wildlife Service is going through the same thing. In this current administration, three different attempts were made to sell forest lands while they diminish the custodian's capacity to take care of the lands.
HCN: Why are so many hunters across the country aligned with the Republican Party and the resource-extraction industries?
POSEWITZ: Because they're easily deceived, unfortunately. And the gun issue is like the abortion (issue) of hunting. They holler, "They're taking your guns!" And it's just as emotionally charged as "They're slaughtering babies," even though neither one of those things is true. It's a wedge tactic that is worked on and invested in by people who are willing to exploit the resource. They're trying to create political cover for the Bushites to slash through the national forests. ... I mean, Machiavelli is serving this administration. He just got a shorter name.
HCN: In your book, you talk about great occasions. (Teddy Roosevelt held that one could not be a great statesman without seeking out a great occasion). Is there a great occasion now, in the 21st century?
POSEWITZ: Yeah - we're cooking the planet, how's that? The science of that is becoming undeniable. Who will find ways to address that? Theodore, he went looking for a great occasion and it was his idea that you cannot be a great statesman unless you have a great occasion. ...
You don't want to be a defeatist, and conclude, "This one's too big, we're not going to be able to handle this baby," and so how do you deal with it? Wendell Berry said the environmental problems that are impacting this planet reach such a proportion that they become abstractions, because we don't quite know how to deal with them or even describe them. And he said, what happens next is the hero of abstraction rides in on his white horse and falls off in front of the grandstand. And he went on to say that our wish to save the planet must be reduced to the humble wish of saving all of its humble households and neighborhoods. Find something within the range of your competence. That's what the hunter did.
I mean, if you looked at the collapse of our wildlife resource, that was a pretty great occasion. That was a pretty monumental problem, and I think - given their resources and the condition of the society of the culture in the dirty '30s - it was an insurmountable problem. How the hell are we ever going to emerge from this? And what do the hunters do? They go one pothole at a time, within the range of their competence. One timber sale at a time. One wilderness area at a time. Just stay in the hunt, and you just keep plugging. And so, I can't solve global climate change, but I can protect the roadless land I hunt on - and I'm going to do that. And because I'm a hunter, I'll know what the little mark in the mud means.
We have to find a way to nurture this ethic in (hunters), and I don't know of any way to nurture it more than to tell them the story of where they came from and how important that was to our society, to our culture, to our planet.
Nathaniel Hoffman is an independent reporter in Boise, Idaho. He edits PaleoMedia.org.© High Country News