This interview with the National Wildlife Federation’s National Sportsmen’s Outreach Campaign Manager John Gale is part of OutdoorHub’s Leaders of Conservation series, in which we sit down with leaders of the North American conservation movement to learn more about the stories behind their organizations and people.
With over four million members across the United States, there is little doubt that the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is one of the largest conservation organizations in the country. Founded shortly before the Second World War, the NWF was one of the first organizations of its kind, and dedicated solely to the protection and enjoyment of America’s natural resources. The group was founded during the Great Depression in 1936. Two years earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had directed cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling to gather individuals interested in conservation matters. They met at the North American Wildlife Conference, where the idea of the NWF was born.
“It was a rallying cry,” said John Gale, national sportsmen’s outreach campaign manager at the NWF.
Over 2,000 people showed up at the four-day conference. Among them were sportsmen, bird watchers, gardeners, hiking enthusiasts, and just about anyone who had an interest in preserving America’s wildlife. By the end of the conference, Darling was elected president of the newly formed NWF and charged with creating common-sense solutions to the nation’s wildlife woes. The landscape of America 80 years ago was much different than it is today, and sportsmen at the time did not see the vast amounts of whitetail, turkeys, and other wildlife that we are privileged with today. In fact, those species were at risk. Worst of all, there was no organization on a national scale to even voice concerns about wildlife populations.
“Wildlife doesn’t vote and neither do conservationists,” Darling once said, referring to the fact that while many people cared about the plight of America’s wildlife, there was little in way of advocacy. Darling envisioned a grand network of like-minded individuals empowered to take up the cause, and that manifested in what we now know as the NWF.
Learn more about the NWF in the video below:
Despite its 80-year history, John said that not much has changed at the organization.
“What has changed is that sportsmen’s associations in particular migrated away from the traditional hook-and-bullet clubs and we have seen the advent of single-species groups,” John explained. “Hunters and anglers are now able to contribute to their favorite species like deer, trout, and elk—whatever it may be. So the NWF has adapted over the years to bring some of those groups into the fold with us and operate in more of a coalition-style than we once did.”
Working in conjunction with affiliates in 48 states and numerous other conservation groups, the NWF is at the heart of efforts across the United States, from Bristol Bay all the way to the Gulf Coast. But how does anything get done with such a large bureaucracy? John answered that while the NWF may seem like a behemoth organization, it is actually comprised of very focused, smaller parts.
“We’re certainly not without our bureaucratic moments but the NWF has done a really good job at empowering regional offices to be proactive,” John shared. “We have really nationalized our state and regional presence and put resources to help fish and wildlife habitat locally. There is a lot of latitude for our regional offices to engage in their campaigns and to work with our affiliates. I think that because we have been around for so long, and being thoughtful in how to structure ourselves, that came fairly easily. Our affiliates are strong leaders on the ground, and in many ways it’s about us following their lead in some of these places.”
This division of labor allows the NWF to focus on broader issues, while still keeping its boots on the ground.
“In recent years we have tried to change the way the NWF looked at the scale of conservation. We really shifted our focus from working on hundreds of smaller-scale projects that were very state-based, to the very important large-scale issues that stretch over much wider areas,” John said. “Now we are looking at the Great Lakes fishing and invasive species there, we have the Gulf of Mexico and campaigns to restore vital wetland habitat to those coastal zones—which comprise nearly one third of the wetlands in the United States—and we have programs dedicated to Chesapeake Bay and Midwest rivers and lakes. There’s a huge list.”
The NWF is even working on restoring bison in Montana. You can learn more about that effort below:
John’s role in the organization is to engage sportsmen and women and make sure they have a say in the NWF’s direction, as well as the overall direction of conservation efforts both in the field and in the nation’s capital.
“It’s really about taking that core group of anglers and hunters and amplifying their voices,” he told me.
After all, it was their efforts that ensured a healthy and diverse wildlife population in North America. John, who spent some time overseas during his stint in the Peace Corps, said that some other places are not as fortunate.
“I went over to Morocco where I worked with the natural resource projects there,” John recalled. “Working in a foreign culture on these issues had a profound impact on me, and certainly made me realize how much more we have over here. Other countries didn’t necessarily take good care of their natural resources, where they have incredible biodiversity and wonderful wildlife species that just weren’t managed adequately and were lost along the way. It was a really startling look at how we could act differently so we don’t make the same mistakes.”
John comes from a long line of Idaho farmers and ranchers, who taught him that if you take care of the natural resources at your disposal, they will take care of you in return.
“I paid my way through college by working as a river guide,” he shared. “I’ve always been fond of the outdoors, in my family hunting and fishing was like a spiritual experience. It’s really about getting your boots dirty and your soul clean.
“I used to joke around with my friends that I was born with a fly rod in one hand and a rifle in the other.”
Hunting and fishing are passions that John said he inherited from his father, and his father from his father stretching back for five generations. Now John wants to impart to same love for the outdoors to his daughter, but he stressed that the fate of North America’s wildlife is on the shoulders of everyone.
The NWF is dedicated in helping youth discover the outdoors. Learn how children and teachers are gathering at the Discovery Hill Outdoor Learning Center:
“The greatest challenge for the hunting and fishing community is to make fish and wildlife conservation a core American value again,” John wrote to me in a later email. “With people increasingly disconnected from the outdoors, we face the growing reality that Americans will no longer regard stewardship as an essential social value. We also need to implement more meaningful landscape-level planning policies that guide resource extraction, development, and management of our public lands and waters. Habitat fragmentation and degradation are immediate threats that imperil the future of fish and wildlife populations and we are compelled to defend our heritage of hunting and fishing by ensuring that the integrity of our public lands is not diminished or sold off to the highest bidder.
“We as sportsmen can’t do it by ourselves, we have to do it with others,” John concluded “Hunters and anglers are the first-responders, the sentinels on the ground that see things happening first, but we need help to protect wildlife and their habitat.”
We would like to thank John for taking the time to talk with us. For more profiles of leaders of conservation, please read our recent interview with Trout Unlimited CEO Chris Wood.