By Ed Carroll
Forged around an Oregon campfire by a group of hunting buddies in 2004, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers organized around a simple but novel response to the challenges facing the friends’ outdoor pursuits. Rather than another conservation group devoted to a favorite quarry or habitat type, BHA would advocate for access and quality opportunities on public lands for all. Since then the idea has taken off, and less than 15 years later the Missoula-based group has become arguably the fastest-growing sportsmen’s organization in the country.
BHA’s stated mission “ . . . seeks to ensure North America’s outdoor heritage of hunting and fishing in a natural setting, through education and work on behalf of wild public lands and waters.” According to Communications Director Katie McKalip, BHA leaders want to organize a broad coalition to include everyone with an interest in the conservation of public lands. “The thrust of our work at BHA focuses on education and building an army of sportsmen-advocates who can speak to the need for sound, balanced natural-resource policy and defend equal-opportunity access to our public lands and waters,” McKalip said.
BHA’s advocacy for public lands has intersected trends among outdoor-sports enthusiasts at a sweet spot. Today younger sportsmen and -women are taking up more active, human-powered outdoor recreation with an appetite for experiencing wild, open country, and a burgeoning field-to-table movement has placed a value on harvesting wild food. “All of these things are intersecting in BHA,” said Ryan Busse, chairman of BHA’s board and the vice president of sales at rifle manufacturer Kimber. “And the thing is just a rocket ship.”
When fifth-generation Montanan Land Tawney became president and CEO of BHA in 2013, the group had fewer than three full-time staff; when McKalip started in 2015, there were about 2,500 members. According to Busse: “We now have 32 staff members and almost 32,000 members, and we’re growing quickly every month. And the events are like rock concerts.”
BHA leadership is especially proud of the group’s success gathering a membership that is far younger than most sportsmen’s groups, more active and essentially nonpartisan. In early 2018 a survey revealed that 68 percent of members are younger than 45, 57 percent are both hunters and anglers, and 71 percent of members’ time afield is spent on public lands and waters. Party affiliation is 33 percent independent, 23 percent Republican, 20 percent Democrat and 16 percent “none of the above.”
State and regional chapters cover 40 states and two Canadian provinces, with more chapters expected to start soon. Advocacy on national issues recently has included permanent reauthorization of a fully funded Land & Water Conservation Fund and opposition to rollbacks in national monuments and mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region and near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. More local issues, McKalip said, often come up from the grassroots and state levels, like the prospect of the privatization of access to Catahoula Lake, in Louisiana.
BHA also has worked to conserve the sage steppe and keep sage grouse off the endangered species list while maintaining hunting opportunities and protecting habitat critical to a long list of game and non-game species.
At the state and local level BHA members get involved with everything from advocacy before state legislatures and agencies to “Women in the Woods” recruitment efforts, outdoor mentoring and game-preparation workshops, to volunteering for habitat watch programs and public lands work days.
In addition to the well-made quarterly Backcountry Journal, for members, BHA reaches a wide audience with a dynamic website and frequent social-media and e-mail campaigns. “There’s no political agenda for us,” Tawney said, “except that political party of conservation. That’s how we make our decisions every single time: Is it good for the land, and is it good for the opportunities that follow that?
“That’s the unifying thing about public lands—it’s hard to find someone who’s against them.”
Mining, energy extraction, timber harvesting, grazing and development all have a place on the shared resources of public lands, McKalip said, referring to the multiple-use system that overlies public land management. “There will always be interests that push to get more and take more and develop those resources in ways that are focused on profit and not informed by conservation,” McKalip said, “and that’s where BHA can play a valuable role as a balance, to advocate for those folks who don’t work in those industries, who have different priorities. We’re giving the sportsmen and -women and the recereationalists a voice.”
This mix of youth and enthusiasm and the appeal of BHA’s mission over political allegiance have attracted thousands to the annual North American Rendezvous, to be held this year in Boise from May 1 to 4, with events that include a brew fest called Beers, Bands and Public Lands, a Public Lands Filmfest, a Wild Game Cookoff and a program called Campfire Stories. Corporate-partner support for last year’s event came from across a spectrum of new and old outdoor brands, including Filson, First Lite, Kimber, Leupold, onXmaps, Savage Arms, Sitka, Under Armour, YETI and Weatherby.
Busse, who grew up on a ranch in western Kansas, said BHA has been an exceptionally good fit for him. Living in Kalispell, where Kimber is based, he travels extensively with a pair of big-running Brittanys and a German wirehaired pointer. “I like big country and bird dogs . . . . I collect [A.H.] Foxes and have for a long time. I like old shotguns and bird dogs and big country and public lands.” (You can read more in his essay “The Sharptail Caucus,” on mouthfuloffeathers.com.)
“These things are not like something that I do. It’s not a hobby. It’s become a part of who we are, owning bird dogs and shotguns and sleeping in some bird camp and running over ridges with pointing dogs . . . . Those are almost as natural as breathing or heartbeats.
“I’ve worked for a long time in the firearms industry—25 years—and I’ve been disheartened about the way that even conservation, which I always thought was a kind of nonpartisan, centrist issue, has become intertwined with some of the divisive politics of our modern world.
“For a long time I sought a home where an organization would just be what it says it is. Not about electing this person or helping that party—just being about its mission. I really wanted to make [BHA] a powerhouse that stood up for the resource—just did what we said we were going to do all the time, every time, and let the chips fall where they may. It’s been really refreshing to see that.”