Land Tawney with his son and daughter posing with their waterfowl harvest
Tawney with his son and daughter

Preserving Our Conservation Legacy: An Interview with BHA’s Land Tawney

Some of Land Tawney’s earliest memories are of fishing from his dad’s back, being carried across streams, sitting in a duck blind watching the birds descend — not yet old enough to carry a gun.

“When I started to get a little more mobile, I was going with my dad elk hunting. I still couldn’t carry a gun because I wasn’t old enough,” Tawney recalls. “I was literally walking in his footsteps up steep mountains [because] we were in two feet of snow.”

It was experiences like these that helped shape his appreciation for the outdoors in general and hunting and fishing in particular. But perhaps more than that, Tawney’s parents instilled in him an understanding of the generations’ worth of work that went into providing such opportunities and the need to continue that effort.

“From a young age, I was kind of immersed in it. I didn’t think about it as anything but this is what we do,” says Tawney. “With that, came an appreciation of the outdoors and the understanding that all the things we were enjoying as a family didn’t happen by accident.”

“With that, came an appreciation of the outdoors and the understanding that all the things we were enjoying as a family didn’t happen by accident.”

Both full-time conservation lobbyists at the Montana State Legislature, his parents played key roles in getting legislation passed and helped get several organizations off the ground, says Tawney. “My father was the first lawyer for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation,” he says. “He wrote their bylaws and articles of incorporation.”

His parents’ role in conservation policy laid the foundation for Tawney’s own legacy. Driven by a desire to preserve and protect nature, wildlife and access to quality hunting and fishing opportunities, Tawney has worked for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and, since 2013, as president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA).

“[The outdoors] has been a part of my life since the very beginning and continues to be a part of my life today,” he says. “I think my dad and mom helped inspire some of that.”

In between hunting, fishing and fighting for our public lands, Tawney took some time to chat with us about the importance of America’s conservation legacy, BHA’s efforts to protect public lands and waters and the need for all outdoor recreationists to work together.

Did your parents’ involvement in the policy side of conservation inspire you to get involved in that aspect as well?

In a perfect world, yes. But I think a lot of that was by osmosis. I was a young kid, playing sports, chasing girls; that stuff was important to me, but I didn’t necessarily know it yet. Then, my father passed away when I was 20 years old. That was the most significant moment of my life.

I was out in Seattle going to school and was kind of monkeying around. His passing helped me center myself and figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. That was kind of when I decided to do what I’m doing now. That’s the silver lining of his death.

When you graduated with a degree in wildlife biology, was your hope to work for organizations such as TRCP and NWF?

I had the great opportunity to work with some wildlife biologists who were doing amazing work, … but I started realizing that I wanted to do broader-brush conservation policy. That was right when Bob Munson was running the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Alliance — that was before it became the “partnership” — and I decided to start volunteering for him. I volunteered with the organization for a couple of months, then got a part-time job there, [which turned into] a full-time job. After three and a half years, I was running their national grassroots program. That all just kind of happened organically. I feel very lucky to have had that opportunity at a really young point in my career.

I use wildlife biology quite a bit, but it’s not something I use every single day. The stuff I’m doing on a daily basis now, I’ve learned on the job since I graduated college in 2000.

So, how did your experience with TRCP and NWF help shape your ambitions? How did you first get involved with BHA?

TRCP was such a young, small organization when I was there, so I had access to the leaders of [so many] organizations: Howard Vincent at Pheasants Forever, Jeff Crane at Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. I got to know them and was inspired by them as leaders. At that point, I didn’t think that I would be running an organization one day, but I knew that I wanted to contribute more.

Going over to NWF, I think that the opportunities I had there to grow, to eventually [oversee] their sportsmen programs and run a couple campaigns, led to a lot of skill building for me — learning how to manage people, learning how to effectively influence policy.

When I took this job at BHA, I was happy at NWF; I was not looking for something else. I was approached about coming to work over here at BHA, but at that point, the organization had a half a million dollar budget and a couple part-time staff and couldn’t really hold a candle to NWF as far as the amount of influence it could have.

That said, BHA had about 1,000 members at that point, and … through my role at NWF, I would always include people from BHA because they were very passionate; they knew their place and they could effectively communicate that. They might not have been as big and powerful as NWF, but they definitely had something to offer. So, one morning I woke up after being constantly recruited to this job and was like “Man, that car is built over there, and I have all these skills. It’s a huge risk, but let’s go try it out.” As soon as I made that decision, I didn’t look back. It will be six years this spring that I’ve been with BHA, and I’m very proud of the work that I’ve been able to accomplish with the team here.

We had two part-time staff when I took over, so I like to say that I was the second full-time employee, and now we have 32 staff members. We had a membership of 1,000, and now we have more than 30,000 members. So that ride has been awesome.

I was going to ask you how BHA has grown since you’ve been leading it, but I guess you just answered that question.

I think the one thing I would add is that we had a handful of chapters in the West when I first started, and now, we have chapters in 39 states and two Canadian provinces. We just brought on Iowa of all places. They don’t have much public land there, but they’re passionate about what they have and want to grow that plot. We have folks coming on in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey and up in the Yukon. That growth has been absolutely awesome.

I thank the volunteers on the ground. Our ability to do things now nationwide and North American-wide is much different than when I first started because we have a ton more people on the ground.

In a couple sentences, how would you describe what BHA is and does?

Our slogan is, “We’re the voice for wild, public lands, waters and wildlife.” We want to make sure you have access to public lands and waters and fish and wildlife habitat when you get there. It’s one thing to have access to the parking lot outside, but access doesn’t matter at that point. We also want to make sure you have quality hunting, fishing and wildlife habitat when you get there, so we do that from a local level all the way out to Washington, D.C.

Why is BHA’s work more critical now than ever?

I think this work is critical all the time.

When Roosevelt helped set our conservation legacy into motion, he did that under duress. … There were many people who didn’t want him to set this legacy into motion. At that point, [there were] folks who wanted to rape and pillage our forests for short-term gain versus sustainably harvesting them so that we would have wood products and fish and wildlife habitat for future generations. Those pressures have remained throughout history. It’s less about timber and more about oil and gas extraction at this point, but I think those same pressures have always been around.

“It’s less about timber and more about oil and gas extraction at this point, but I think those same pressures have always been around.”

One critical piece that is different right now is that we, as sportsmen and women, are enjoying some pretty great times. We have whitetails all over this country that are doing amazing. [There’s] goose dung on every golfer’s shoe in America because there are so many damn geese. Turkeys are back. The National Wild Turkey Federation has had to change its mission a little bit. It’s not about putting turkeys out there anymore; it’s more about habitat improvements and access. So, besides maybe pronghorn antelope and mule deer, we’re living in some pretty good times.

But we’ve become complacent a little bit, so that is, I think, an essential piece that we’re trying to [focus on] at BHA — really looking at our conservation legacy. … We’re trying to teach where that legacy came from, that it didn’t just appear out of nowhere, that there were the Roosevelts and the Muirs and the Aldo Leopolds and the Rachel Carsons — the list goes on — to help us get to where we are right now.

[It’s important to] know where that legacy came from, that it happened with sweat and toil and that it’s not going to be carried forward without that same kind of sweat and toil. It requires recognizing [that], not being complacent and knowing that we have to continue to stay engaged. That’s a vital role that BHA is playing, that education piece and then spurring people to action so that we can … keep these best of times into the future.

What are a few of the most critical issues BHA is currently working to address?

There’s the constant conversation about the transfer and/or sale of public lands. That’s been around since Roosevelt, and I think it will be around as long as we have public lands, because there are folks who want their own private honey holes or who want to exploit public lands for short-term gains. The sportsmen community has stepped up in a big way, so that issue is more simmering than hot right now. It’s not over, but it’s always kind of under the surface.

Wetland protection is another one that’s huge right now. The administration is talking about rolling back protections for temporary wetlands and intermittent streams. Temporary wetlands are basically the duck factory of North America — North Dakota and South Dakota — but they also act as a natural filter for our clean water.

Intermittent streams are those that only really run in the spring when we you have runoff, and they’re important for trout in particular, so that’s an issue we’re trying to engage people on. There’s a rule-making process going on right now, and we’re trying to make sure that sportsmen and women’s voices all over this country are heard. And, hopefully, we will not see the rollbacks that are being proposed.

Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota

On the positive side, there’s the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA). This would take offshore oil money and put it back toward non-game species — not the animals folks chase but those that enhance our experience out there. [We] want to improve their habitat partly so that they don’t end up on the endangered species list. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: It’s a lot more expensive and there are a lot more rules and regulations if a species does become endangered.

RAWA [would also be] another pot of money for the species we do like to chase around. It’s not like those are separate habitats, so the work we’re doing for non-game species also benefits the species that we like to chase around.

Personally, what do you think is the most pressing issue facing conservation today?

I go back to that complacency thing. I think that’s changing a little bit because of the leadership by Steven Rinella, Randy Newberg, Remi Warren and others as well as organizations like BHA, but I still encounter people all the time who are like, “Man, this is awesome; it’s always going to be this way.”

“I love hunting on private property, … but if we get to that place, does that start to squeeze out people who don’t have that opportunity?”

[Access is also] a big issue, especially as you look to places that have limited public land opportunities. I love hunting on private property, … but if we get to that place, does that start to squeeze out people who don’t have that opportunity?

So I think access is a big issue, but complacency, to me, is probably the number one issue.

BHA has been called a “green decoy” by a group that claims the organization doesn’t in fact exist for the benefit of sportsmen and instead is a front for “the radical liberal foundations” that fund it. What has your response been to these allegations?

Great question. The first thing I would say is look who is behind this campaign — and it is a campaign. It’s a K-Street lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Richard Berman is the principal. He’s been called “Doctor Evil” by 60 Minutes, and The New York Times did a big exposé on him. He plays dirty, and I think what he’s trying to do is create confusion and hurt credibility and, at the same time, cause extra work for us. So, the first thing I would say is look at who’s behind this. I think that indicates that this is a smear campaign plain and simple.

The second piece is that I went duck hunting with my daughter on Monday; she’s 10 years old, and I guarantee you she had more blood on her hands just that day than those K-Street lobbyists [ever have]. Part of their tactic is [to spread this idea] that we’re fake sportsmen, sportsmen in name only. But the 30,000 members we have at BHA are doing the exact same thing that I did with my daughter on Monday. They are the most hunting and fishing folks I’ve ever met, and I’ve been in this space for 20 years.

The third thing I would say is look at our body of work: Everything we’ve done has been for the benefit of fish and wildlife habitat and hunting and fishing opportunities, so I let our work speak for us. People may have different ideas about management, but no matter what, at the end of the day, we care about the resource first and then the hunting and fishing opportunities that come along with that. Our body of work is what I’m most proud of and, I think, tells the best story.

What do you think they’re trying to achieve with this campaign?

They’re trying to drive a wedge within the sportsmen community.

When I first found out about it, I was quite agitated. They were calling me out in particular and … that was painful to me. But then I realized that it is a smear campaign, and they wouldn’t be creating a smear campaign unless we were being effective. It’s part of being in the arena; this comes with the territory.

We wear it more like a badge of honor now than anything. We have green decoy shirts. I have a green decoy that some of my dad’s friends made me back in the day that’s hanging up in my office. We’ve kind of embraced it.

A recent BHA meeting

There seems to be a lot of animosity between hunters and those who call themselves “non-consumptive users” of the outdoors (i.e., hikers, backpackers, climbers, etc.). Why do you think this is, and what impact do you think we could have if we all came together for what is largely a common cause?

I think there’s been a conscious effort to divide those who pull the trigger and catch fish from those who don’t. Part of the reason there’s been an effort to do that is because there is so much commonality between those two groups, and if they work together, conservation stuff gets done, period.

Through efforts that are happening through BHA — but also outside of the organization — I think that is changing, going back to that shared experience and shared vision for the future. We might disagree about pulling the trigger or bonking a fish on the head and eating it, but I think that idea of having big, wide-open landscapes and public land that’s open to everybody and fish and wildlife habitat when you get there, that’s one of those concentric circles where we meet in the middle.

With that common ground comes power. Once you build some trust and a working relationship, you can have those conversations. One big thing that’s happened in the last five or six years is the foodie movement — folks who are growing their own vegetables deciding they want to kill their own meat. They don’t want to get meat from a grocery store anymore. That’s been a huge, positive thing.

I think food is a way to have those conversations with different communities, and there’s nothing more natural, organic and wild than wild game. That’s been a huge opportunity, and in the hunting community in general, it’s not just about steaks and burgers anymore.

I also think that we as hunters have gotten a little away from the grip-and-grin, that vibrato around just the head. Now it’s becoming more about the solitude, the challenge, the adventure that led to that — the experience — and then the eating of the animal afterwards. It’s less about this big trophy up on the wall. All of those things point to a better working relationship with folks outside of the hunting and fishing community.

The photo — captured after a successful hunt — of a hunter displaying his or her harvest has come to be known as the “grip-and-grin.” While those who hunt understand these images as a celebration of skill, perseverance and respect for the animal, they have begun to cause a stir outside of the hunting community. Some have even leveraged such photos to rally people against the sport.

Hunting is facing a significant decline in numbers, which is notably leading to a decrease in funding for conservation. Is BHA engaged in any efforts focused on hunter recruitment?

Absolutely. I think that that foodie piece is a big one, so we’re doing a program called Hunting for Sustainability across the country where we basically bring folks in who have never hunted before. [They learn] hunter safety, the rules and regulations that go along with hunting, the habits of some animals, and then [we] get them shooting guns and actually breaking down an animal. I think that’s one of the bigger barriers — how to break down an animal — so we help them with the butchering process and then sit down and eat some before they leave.

We’re doing the same thing with our college club programs. We have almost 40 across the country. Those are basically trying to capitalize on folks who have never hunted before and have moved, for instance, to the University of Montana and see a bunch of people doing it and want to learn. It’s also for those who grew up hunting but are now in [another state] where the regulations are different, the animals are different. They’re starting at zero, so we help them.

We’re also hosting a Women in the Woods program in Colorado, which we’re doing in conjunction with New Belgium. … It’s a first-time event.

What our Hunting for Sustainability [program] is trying to do is give participants the tools so that it’s not just a one-time thing; they can actually go out and do it by themselves. That’s kind of how we’re structuring Women in the Woods as well. The idea is to try to follow that up with mentors who can be getting them into the woods.

What lies ahead for BHA? What are your personal hopes for the future of public lands and wildlife?

We have a membership goal this year of 50,000. It’s pretty aggressive, but we were at 17,000 at this time last year; we’re now over 30,000. So I think it’s doable. [We] continue to grow membership so that we have more people who are getting engaged, not just sitting on the sidelines.

By 2020, I want chapters in all 50 states and all 13 Canadian provinces and territories. That’s a huge goal, and that’s where we’re going. Our volunteers are the heart and soul of BHA, and with some staff additions, they’re able to throw gasoline on the fire that we already have burning.

We now have 40 college clubs. Is 200 that big of a stretch in a couple years? I don’t think so.

“This great thing that we have that we all enjoy today didn’t happen by accident.”

I also think continuing to grow this relationship with the “non-consumptive users,” as you said, is important. Part of that is really thinking about how they contribute to conservation as well. I think it would be a huge win to think about something like the Pittman-Robertson Act … for the outdoor industry, whether that’s [a tax on] backpacks, hiking boots or optics. Those are things that hunters use, but we could definitely grow that pot with different constituencies. The future is really about trying to find alternative funding sources for fish and wildlife conservation.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I said it earlier, but I’ll say it again: This great thing that we have that we all enjoy today didn’t happen by accident.

A lot of people think their voices don’t count in this country anymore. They’re disconnected from the political system, and I would say, yeah, your voices don’t count unless you use them. You might not get everything you want when you use your voice, but something I say all the time is, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

We have to be at the table. Again, we might not get everything we want, but we have to stay engaged. That’s the parting thing I will leave you with, that we the people need to stay engaged and continue to make sure that these things that we all love carry over to future generations.

Alexandra Vollman
Alexandra Vollman is an experienced writer and editor with a passion for the outdoors — especially hiking. As the co-founder and editor of Modern Conservationist, she oversees editorial management for the site. She has a bachelor’s degree in media communications and a master’s degree in writing and publishing. Alexandra enjoys using her knack for reporting and storytelling to instill in others a better understanding of and appreciation for nature.

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