Partners for Habitat—Land&People

Lieutenant Eivind Forseth was nervous. As an army ranger with the 82nd Airborne, he had been trained to tread cautiously in Iraq—and even so he had discovered the horrible reality of what can go wrong. Standing now beside Beaver Creek, near Frederick, Maryland, the strapping soldier hesitated as he dipped a toe into the stream, then sighed when he found a solid foothold on its cobbled bottom.

He has little sensation in his lower right arm; an IED (improvised explosive device) detonated along a road in Mosul took care of that. “Following my combat injury,” he says, “I had been very apprehensive about ever trying to fish again. I was afraid to fail at something I loved. So I retreated into myself.”

What brought the traumatized Montana native back to the water was gentle nudging from a friend, Ed Nicholson, who told him that he would need to fish again if he wanted to teach his own son the skill. Gripping the flyrod with his good hand, Forseth attempted to cast, then fumbled to mend line using partially paralyzed fingers. Slowly, his grace of motion returned. Moisture gathering in his eyes, he thought of childhood experiences of angling with his father beside the Stillwater River, a rugged fishery that is born in the Beartooth Mountains and slices through Custer National Forest.

“In Maryland, the first time I hooked a trout after being in Walter Reed [Army Medical Center], it was electric,” he says. “Fishing turned my attitude around. It made me believe that I can be fully human again.” Because of experiences like this, Forseth has joined Ed Nicholson and a growing group of veterans in an initiative called Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, which has helped hundreds of wounded warriors recover from their physical and psychological injuries through fly fishing and fly tying.

Nicholson, a retired navy captain, who started the project in 2005 to work with patients at Walter Reed, officially incorporated the nonprofit in 2007. Early on, he recruited for his board of directors veteran Tom Sadler, a dedicated fly fisher and professional fly-fishing instructor who is also director of program development for The Trust for Public Land’s federal affairs office in Washington, D.C. Nicholson also reached out to organizations such as Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Fly Fishers. Those groups now supply instructors and trip leaders for the program, which has expanded to eight VA hospitals nationwide.

“Many of the men and women at Walter Reed had been outdoorspeople before they were injured,” Nicholson says. “Whether it’s getting past physical barriers or breaking down emotional ones, hunting and fishing are therapeutic pastimes.”

But the return to fishing after his injury revived something else in Lieutenant Forseth: his recognition of the transformative power of nature and the need to preserve special places for future generations. “Whenever you are in a miserable situation for long stretches, as we were in Iraq, you grasp onto memories of experiences and natural settings that brought you pleasure,” he says.

“Coming from the West, I guess I took for granted all of the public land, but I realize now that some of the special places I knew gave me something to live for.”

Hunting, Fishing, And Conservation

For Tom Sadler, what happened to Forseth and other Healing Waters veterans reinforces the powerful link between enjoying the land as a fisherman or hunter and recognizing the need to conserve it. As of 2006, some 40 million Americans—about one in ten—pursued recreational hunting and fishing. And while Sadler understands that one doesn’t have to be a sporting man or woman to appreciate America’s bounty of natural resources, he believes that there is a unique magic in the way anglers and hunters treasure their relationship with the outdoors. For some veterans, it is worth fighting for.

“Many folks in the armed services have made a conscious choice to defend the American way of life,” Sadler notes. “And for many of them that way of life includes the outdoors. They appreciate that conservation is also a kind of fight for the outdoor experiences they value so much.”

Anglers and hunters have been an influential and engaged constituency in the conservation movement since President Theodore Roosevelt helped bring into being our national system of parks, forests, and wildlife refuges. Roosevelt cited his days spent afield in the Dakotas as foundational to his conservation ethic, and he founded a thread of conservation interest in the Republican Party that survives to the present.

“Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of . . . unborn generations,” Roosevelt wrote. “The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.”

Anglers and hunters were the original conservationists, notes U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who previously served as governor of Idaho, U.S. senator for the state, and mayor of Boise. Kempthorne counts himself among the recreational legions that don waders and camouflage on weekends and says that, when he contemplates stewardship decisions, he thinks of his best days outdoors. “The things I remember even to this day, as I sit in an office in Washington, are the smell of the pines, the whiff of autumn you get as you walk across a field that has just been harvested, and the sounds a brook makes as you fish it,” he recalls.

Anglers and hunters “know how important it is to give back,” Kempthorne declares. “When wetlands need to be restored, they put on their hip boots. When trees need to be planted, they pull out their shovels; when wildlife refuge managers need volunteers, they roll up their sleeves; and when money needs to be leveraged, they open up their wallets.”

Indeed, hunters and anglers have been the largest contributors to government wildlife conservation programs, which raise funds used to protect habitat for game and nongame species alike. Collectively, sporting men and women have contributed more than $10 billion to conservation and annually provide more than 80 percent of the funding for most state fish and wildlife agencies.

For example, the Federal Duck Stamp Program, initiated as a self-imposed tax by bird hunters, supports the National Wildlife Refuge System and has raised more than $700 million to purchase more than five million acres of habitat (equal to two and a half Yellowstone National Parks) for game and nongame species. Hunters also pay a federal excise tax on sporting gear, which has generated more than $5.3 billion since 1939. In addition, by paying taxes on gas used in watercraft, boaters pump $570 million annually into conservation of coastal wetlands and fisheries.

These federal taxes, along with state game license fees, have resulted in the protection of 15.4 million acres of habitat—a boon not only to wildlife but also to clean air and water, flood control, and preservation of scenic open space.

Partnerships For Conservation

Besides their important work in generating conservation funds, sporting groups are essential partners in mobilizing public and political support for conservation projects. Groups like Trout Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, and the Federation of Fly Fishers all work closely with TPL, government, and other conservation groups to protect and restore habitat.

State and local sporting groups play a major conservation role, as in Georgia, where the Georgia Wildlife Federation has partnered with other environmental and conservation groups to help implement Governor Sonny Perdue’s statewide Land Conservation Partnership, a nonpartisan approach to preserving the state’s at-risk natural and historic lands.

In Minnesota, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has been active with TPL, The Nature Conservancy, and funders in the Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership, a public-private effort to conserve that state’s Northwoods. “When you preserve hunting and fishing lands, you bridge the political spectrum and touch people from all walks of life,” says Bob McGillivray, a TPL project manager and avid fisherman who has been active in the protection effort.

Another sporting group, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), has partnered with TPL to protect nearly 10,000 acres in Montana, 1,500 acres in the Cache Valley of Utah, and more than 11,000 acres in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming—to mention only a few of the group’s projects together. Founded by four hunters from Troy, Montana, in 1984, the foundation works to ensure the future of the elk, other wildlife, and their habitat. “Hunting” and “Conservation” appear as side-byside links on the home page of the organization’s website.

“Hunters and anglers translate their love of the land into support for conservation,” says M. David Allen, RMEF’s CEO and president. “Our core mission statement is all about permanent land protection. If it is good for elk and other wildlife, the odds are that we’re in favor of the project.”

TPL and RMEF’s work in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains was in response to an increasingly common problem facing anglers and hunters—loss of access to wildlands. A few years back, the owners of the 11,000- acre Devil’s Canyon Ranch abruptly closed off access across their property to more than 20,000 acres of Forest Service land. In addition to popular hunting and fishing areas, this part of the Big Horns contains spectacular scenery and a Native American religious site known as the Medicine Wheel. Also in the area are caves where scientists have found ancient fossils of American cheetah, dire wolves, short-faced bears, and other prehistoric creatures.

RMEF campaigned hard to protect the land, which was eventually conserved in a TPL-facilitated transaction. It didn’t hurt either that the late U.S. Senator Craig Thomas was himself a sportsman and had fished and hunted in the Big Horns from the days of his youth. Senator Thomas was an ardent conservationist who recognized the problems that can occur when fragmented ownership carves up wildlife habitat, threatens water quality, and causes friction between public and private property managers over issues of access. He also was a strong advocate for local economies and for limited federal landownership. In the end, he successfully achieved a balanced approach that included protection of the land by the Bureau of Land Management, paid for in large part by a $4 million appropriation he secured from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Similarly, Trout Unlimited—the nation’s leading organization dedicated to the preservation of trout and other cold-water fish species—has partnered with TPL to help conserve land as varied as a 330-acre former private school property in Connecticut and a 28,000-acre Idaho working forest. To the group’s members, conservation and fishing—sport and species protection—go hand in hand. “We look to groups like TPL to provide leadership in engaging local communities and pursuing projects that have profound conservation dividends and deliver benefits in the most productive way possible,” says Chris Wood, the organization’s vice president of conservation.

The importance of sporting groups to conservation got a boost in the 1990s with the founding of the national Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), which claims support from more than 90,000 sportsmen and sportswomen and more than 1,400 affiliated state and local sporting clubs and organizations. Founded with a grant from the Turner Family Foundation, the partnership provides a collective voice for sporting groups in Washington. It works to preserve the traditions of hunting and fishing, expand access to places to hunt and fish, conserve fish and wildlife and the habitats necessary to sustain them, and increase funding for conservation and wildlife management.

“There’s a growing understanding in America that sportsmen can, and in fact must, be engaged as leaders in land and water stewardship projects,” says TRCP chairman James D. Range. “As active users of our fish and wildlife resources, sportsmen bring to conservation initiatives a unique understanding of how natural processes function. And as their presence and clout on Capitol Hill continues to grow, they bring a solid understanding of the inner workings of the political process.

“The most effective conservation groups have figured out that they need to involve America’s hunters and anglers as integral parts of their efforts. TPL is one group that has figured out this reality and incorporated it into its everyday work.”

Sustaining the Base

Even as sporting groups reinvigorate their conservation ethic, the absolute numbers of U.S hunters and anglers are declining. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of anglers decreased 10 percent between 2001 and 2006, while the number of hunters was down 4 percent. “In the span of a single lifetime, we have gone from having a country in which 60 percent of us lived in small towns and farming communities to today, when 80 percent of people grow up in cities and suburbs,” says Trout Unlimited’s Chris Wood. “We are stepping further and further away from our physical relationship with the land and water.”

The survival of hunting and fishing depends on the survival of habitat, and the survival of habitat depends on whether sporting and conservation groups can continue to work together for its protection.

TPL’s Tom Sadler believes that one key to a positive future is introducing new people to sporting pastimes. When teaching at his friend Dusty Wissmath’s flyfishing school, Sadler’s first priority is not necessarily instructing students how to catch fish, but training them to absorb everything that is happening around them as they open their senses to the fishing experience.

“Students get to turn over rocks and see the life beneath them,” he says. “When you hook someone on fishing, you’ve given them a reason to be interested in the world around them, and you’ve hooked them as a conservationist for life.”

Not everyone will come to a place where stepping into a rushing trout stream is a step back toward health and life, as it has been for Lieutenant Eivind Forseth and other veterans. But many of us carry with us a deep connection with the outdoors. And working together, across interest groups, we can protect the natural lands that nurture us, heal us, and feel like home.

Montana-based writer Todd Wilkinson writes for many national magazines and is a western correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. His story on Newark’s park renaissance appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Land&People. He is currently writing a book about Ted Turner.