By Ambassador Todd Waldron
If elected officials from both sides of the aisle tend to represent the interests of their most influential and important constituents first and foremost, then is it possible for hunter conservationists to learn how to influence their ‘influencers’ effectively – the people, forces, money and powers that are ultimately driving decisions & policy? This is a complicated, fragmented matter with no easy path forward - but it’s entirely necessary to think about this question if we are going to consolidate our voice and find the ‘big stick’ that is needed to maintain America’s great outdoor heritage for future generations.
I started contemplating all of this recently upon coming across a piece written by Tim Mahoney in Patagonia’s Toolkit for Grassroots Activists. If you’re not familiar with this book, it serves as a ‘best practices’ of sorts gleaned from Patagonia’s famous biennial conference. Hunter-conservationists can learn a lot from their playbook. In short, this book is an incredible and worthy read – its full of practical advice on getting organized, funded, focused and effective - regardless of whether you self-identify as an environmentalist or a conservationist; an activist or an advocate.
Mahoney’s advice about lobbying is built upon decades of experience and includes some great information –focusing on developing long term relationships with staffers and legislators, developing partnerships, being a credible & trustworthy voice, and understanding the representative’s decision-making process, political considerations & concerns. All great advice.
Here are some themes from the book and some considerations that are worth our further attention and discussion:
As conservationists, we already know it’s important to engage our representatives, to be respectful, to maintain credibility and to speak up - to communicate with our officials and to bring our voice, tell our personal stories, express our concerns, write letters, make phone calls, show up to meetings, send emails and ask them to vote for outcomes that are favorable to our values and beliefs as public landowners and conservationists. This is grassroots advocacy at its heart. Moving forward, we will always need to maintain a full court press on this front.
There’s an old adage that says that the US Congress is a ‘nameless face’ – how true! It’s the individual officials, their individual staff members and their individual supporters that we need to engage and understand. They’re all people who have real lives, real stories, constituents, concerns, desires and responsibilities.
Elected representatives want to get re-elected. All elected officials, red and blue alike, want to get re-elected and they know who brought them to the dance. Its logical for them to make decisions based upon the interests of the most influential constituents or forces that put them and keep them in office. These interests may or may not align with our values and direction.
It’s not always easy to understand what forces, people or organizations are the biggest ‘influencers’ of the representative you’re trying to influence - but it’s critically important to try. The author Stephen Covey had it right over twenty years ago – seek first to understand. If key constituents, party agendas, committee ties or political considerations are influencing an official to vote a particular way that doesn’t align with our ‘ask’, there isn’t much of a chance that we’ll get our way in the short term unless we can influence the opinions, perspectives and decision-making of the people or forces that are informing that official.
A long-term advocacy mindset that includes and addresses how to influence the ‘influencers’ may help us on our path to finding a big stick – When the hunter-conservationist community is organized enough to influence public opinion and the people, movements, economic forces and stakeholders that put and keep our politicians in office, we can make lasting progress.
On a broad level, we know that the current threat to public lands and conservation is being funded by hundreds of millions of dollars and backed by powerful interests – in other words, big money. This threat is big and its entirely real. At first glance, it seems naïve to think that average hunter conservationists can influence ‘big money influencers’ to effect meaningful change. They are organized, rich, powerful, and hell-bent on their misguided notion of putting their immediate economic interests first and categorically dismantling conservation protections and public lands.
So, what might it take to create a long-term path toward a big stick under these circumstances?
For me there are still more questions than answers, but here are some thoughts:
- Develop a ‘long game strategy’ that, in the words of Lois Gibbs, changes “the climate of public opinion”. Gibbs, who was the instrumental leader in western New York’s Love Canal movement in the late 1970s, sums this concept up well – “Every victory, no matter how small, adds a voice and power to changing the climate of opinion, and when we change the climate, we change the world”. In other words, when getting to the point where we shape public opinion, we can shape policy direction.
- Maintain and enhance relevancy and acceptance within mainstream society – We can’t go it alone. There are approximately 13 million hunters nation-wide and 45 million anglers who fish each year – a small portion of mainstream America but a force nonetheless. Consider that there are many more millions of Americans who like to occasionally camp with their friends and family, ride mountain bikes, hike, rock climb, kayak and visit National Parks. Proactive initiatives that allow us to connect with all public landowners, provide thought leadership, frame the conversation and build broad-reaching support are critical.
- Start with partnerships on a local and district, grassroots level – build relationships at home and in our districts, with our non-hunting friends and neighbors, county commissioners, business people - partnerships that are built around non-partisan, universal values and messages that represent the public good – clean water, quality of life, sustainable economies. Policy happens in state capitols, Washington D.C., and agency offices, but conservation still happens on the ground and at a local level.
- Develop a culture of listening to learn and understand – listen carefully and take the time to determine who’s really driving the bus, how the process works and how we can collaborate toward solutions.
- Continue to support national conservation groups who are leading the way – the work that conservation groups like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and others are doing with their partners is an incredible step in the right direction. These are the professionals that are in trenches and working hard on our behalf every day. Support them as much as possible.
Todd Waldron is a 23-year forestry professional, a life-member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and a Hunt To Eat Ambassador from New York's Adirondack Mountains.