This interview with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Executive Director Land Tawney 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.
For many, the word “backcountry” invokes a deep, somber image of untamed wilderness and clear waters. For those who love the backcountry, it is a symbol of freedom, self-reliance, and strength tempered by an undercurrent of ever-present danger.
“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open,” Theodore Roosevelt once said. “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm.”
Yet North America’s wilds are at risk of being tamed and torn down for development. It has been this way since before Roosevelt’s time, and it is the work of great conservationists that keep the backcountry and its wild denizens protected. Yet things have changed since the days when Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold walked the wild lands. About a decade ago, a group of like-minded outdoorsmen and women saw that the need to protect—and use—the backcountry was greater than ever. Over a bonfire under the starry Oregon sky, they formed Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA).
“We formed 10 years ago, and BHA was formed by men and women who were passionate about the backcountry. At the time there wasn’t really one organization focused fully on the backcountry,” BHA Executive Director Land Tawney told me. “Since then the organization caught fire and now today we have 17 chapters across the country and Canada, including New York and Pennsylvania, and just about every Western state.”
The organization’s goals are simple: protect the backcountry, preserve clean water, facilitate education, and prevent the abuse or harmful development of North America’s wild places.
Learn more about BHA in the video below:
Innovation is a big part of BHA, especially during Land’s time as executive director.
“I’m a big believer in trying new things and if it sticks to the wall, you do it more. If it doesn’t stick, you fix it or you throw it away,” he shared.
One of the things that BHA is running into with ever-increasing frequency is the role that technology plays into conservation. Like many other organizations, BHA is grappling with the reality of using new technology for the benefit of the environment, not to damage it. One of the issues that the organization has been heavily involved in over the past decade is curbing irresponsible ATV use. Unmanaged ATV use can be a great danger to the backcountry and cause anything from water pollution to stressed wildlife. At its worst, irresponsible off-roaders can even degrade wildlife habitat and ruin opportunities for others.
“One of our goals for the past 10 years is that we have been really trying to curb illegal ATV use,” Land said. “Proper use of ATVs is completely reasonable but when people abuse them, that’s where it becomes a problem.”
Another issue is the use of drones—unmanned aerial vehicles—for hunting. Several states have already banned the practice, which many sportsmen hold as being unethical. Use a drone to scout game animals can give a hunter vast advantages. Land said this is not only unfair to the animal, but also deprives the hunters themselves.
“Drones have become more and more prevalent. When BHA first started working on the drone issue, it was hard to find a drone below $2,500, now they can be bought for a few hundred,” Land recalled. “Drones take away the fair chase aspect of hunting and deprive the hunter of the challenge.”
Challenge is a big part of why sportsmen and women cherish the backcountry, along with the attitude to keep moving forward. Land said that the much of the organization was inspired by Roosevelt’s vision of the strenuous life—that great effort in work worth doing will always pay off.
“The reason we’ve had the success we’ve had lies in our mentality. There’s a lot of TV shows where you shoot something and you high five your buddies but it doesn’t really matter how you get that buck. We care, we care about how we harvest game and the challenge that comes with it.”
Ever wanted to learn how to bury a dutch oven? Watch the latest episode of BHA’s Backcountry College series:
Land himself grew up hunting and fishing with his family in Montana’s backcountry, which he said holds some of his best memories. He described himself as someone who never lost interest in chasing wapiti in the Cinnabar Basin, or fly fishing on a warm day. Those interests lent well to a career in conservation work, which he devoted the last 15 years of his life to, at one time or another working with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, National Wildlife Federation, and Vanishing Paradise. Land joined BHA last year with high ambitions.
“For me, when I saw a younger organization with a ton of energy—which is something you either have or you don’t—I was attracted to it,” Land stated. “There was a lot of opportunity for me to utilize the skills that I’ve learned over the years. We’ve grown quite a bit since I’ve been here. A big personal goal for me is growing our membership and chapters. The reason for that is not because of just numbers or even geographical range. It’s about what we can do with those numbers. The larger we get the more effective we can be.”
BHA is very well positioned to have an effect on the conservation community.
“For the first time in a long time, the numbers are in our favor,” Land said.
The greatest worry for America’s conservationists is the dwindling number of hunters and anglers. This is why so many organizations are reaching out to promote the outdoors to the next generation. Somewhat surprisingly, states found that within the past few years more people are putting on blaze orange, buying fishing licenses, and catching their own dinner. I previously spoke with Mark Duda, executive director of the research firm Responsive Management, who confirmed that the number of American sportsmen and women has increased significantly beginning in 2006.
Land noticed it too, and he’s hoping the trend will stay.
“When the economy’s down more people hunt and fish because it’s a great way to recreate and also get meat in the freezer,” Land explained. “Secondly, there was an increase in sportswomen, both in hunting and fishing. Lastly, there was the foodie movement where people not only want to grow their own vegetables but also kill their own meat. They want to know where that meat came from and that it’s not pumped full of hormones.”
Land also noted that the recruitment of women hunters also increased at a much higher pace. Like many other conservation leaders, he hopes that this change will breathe new life into how hunting is performed and perceived.
That is not to say that tradition is not important. Land said he’s still a bit old-fashioned in some ways, especially when it came to his heroes.
“Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with the West hunting in the backcountry. What he fell in love with was the challenge and the thirst for life that you only get in the backcountry. I take solace in the fact that we are protecting the backcountry much like he did,” Land concluded.
We would like to thank Land for taking the time to talk with us. For more profiles of leaders of conservation, please read our recent interview with Responsive Management’s Mark Duda.
Image courtesy Land Tawney