By Geoffrey Wingard
On Monday, Jan. 1, the Bangor Daily News published a commentary by V. Paul Reynolds titled “Baxter deal a disaster for sportsmen.” In fact, Reynolds, the editor of eminently useful and interesting Northwoods Sporting Journal, expressed a profound misunderstanding of the future of sporting activities in the North Woods and throughout Maine. The changing demographics of hunters in Maine and throughout the nation and changed patterns of land ownership in the North Woods make the extension of protected lands in the Baxter State Park region a necessary and beneficial initiative for both sportsmen and conservationists.
Nationally, and in Maine, the number of people purchasing hunting licenses has been on the decline for many years. Yet despite their declining numbers, hunters, through their economic contributions to local communities and taxes dedicated to conservation, remain one of the most important constituencies supporting Maine’s rural communities. The most recent issue of Ducks Unlimited magazine cites a report from the Outdoor Industry Foundation which states that hunters generate $34 billion in economic output annually, a sum that supports 21,000 jobs nationwide.
However hunters today, in Maine and across the country, are not the same people who took to the woods a generation ago. Hunters as a group are more conservation-minded than ever before. Those who have become hunters in the past three decades are also more likely to be college graduates than in the past and women comprise a larger segment of the hunting population than ever. This is a continuation of a national tend that was initially documented by Stephen Kellert, a researcher who published one of the first surveys of hunters’ motivations and ethics at the 43rd North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in 1978. Kellert concluded that nearly 18 percent of all hunters at that time were “nature hunters,” men and women who were motivated to hunt by a desire to experience a connection to the natural world through ethical sporting. In the nearly 30 years since Kellert published his findings, the number of nature hunters has grown to levels approximating those of trophy hunters and table hunters while the number of weekend warrior, so-called slob-hunters, has thankfully decreased.
This is a positive trend for the sport of hunting and for those among us who are concerned about the future acceptance and re-popularization of America’s sporting traditions. Those who choose to hunt today, who devote significant time and resources to the perfection and preservation of their sport, are more invested in conserving the resource than ever. It is critical that this trend continues because land ownership and access patterns in rural America have changed drastically in the past decade.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Maine’s North Woods. While Mr. Reynolds’ commentary cites the bogeymen of the Appalachian Mountain Club and environmentalist Roxanne Quimby, a much bigger threat to Maine’s hunting tradition is posed by sprawl and subdivision carried out under the direction of the forest products industry, not protection of Maine’s wildlands.
In fact, most lands protected in Maine by conservation easements, through the work of environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and managed by sporting groups like Ducks Unlimited are open for hunting. In the face of industry sponsored subdivision and sprawl, Maine’s sporting population desperately needs more national wildlife refuge land, more conservation acreage and more lands that are maintained in near pristine conditions, not less.
Some of the fastest growing hunting constituencies in the country today support groups such as the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Association, the American Hunters and Shooters Association and the Izaac Walton League of America. The days when Maine’s sportsmen could look at industrial forest use as a white-hat industry and vilify environmentalists as black-hat bad guys are long gone.
It is my hope to hunt and fish Maine’s woods and waters with my children for many years to come — I have more faith that I’ll be able to do that with sound environmental management (including protected wildlands reservoirs) than if we allow the commercial managers of Maine’s forests to determine the fate of Maine’s sporting traditions.