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U.S. Sportsmen must vote gun rights next week

[A version of this essay was published by the American Thinker at https://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2020/10/american_sportsmen_must_vote_gun_rights_next_week.html ]

It is not news to anyone who cares about American liberty that guns of every sort, caliber, style, color, and design have been in the crosshairs of anti-gun activists for decades. It is no stretch to describe these anti-gun activists as totalitarians-in-waiting, because their ultimate goal is complete civilian disarmament, which results in only one thing: Tyranny. Yes, even black powder muzzleloading rifles are targeted by gun grabbers, even though the last time an American was hurt by one was when someone took one off the mantel and dropped it on their toe.

Anti-gun activists are especially seeking “universal background checks,” because that process would allow them to build up the kind of individual firearm owner database they need now to do the door-to-door gun confiscation they dream of later on. But on this subject they keep running up against a political and legal buzz saw from the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America, Firearms Owners Against Crime, and various state rifle and pistol associations. And so now gun grabbers are going after the one chink in the gun owners’ armor, what they see as the weakest link in the gun owners chain, and that is America’s sportsmen.

Sportsmen are an unusual demographic group of mostly political moderates, super-voters who cherish clean waterways, support land trusts and coastal conservation organizations, and who also cling strongly to their often basic hunting guns. Sportsmen are mostly not the AR15 “black rifle” tactical crowd, and that has made them especially interesting to the gun grabbers.

And so an effort is afoot to convince American hunters, trappers, and recreational fishermen that the most important issues they must vote for and about next week are the environment and public lands. And we all know how that mantra goes: Republicans are bad, and Democrats are good, which translates into Trump Bad, Biden Good. Never mind that most environmental groups are partisan Democrat Party activism centers who use the environment as their excuse to make war, now there are fake sportsmen’s groups and fake gun owner’s groups.

When you dig just a bit under the thin veneer of these groups’ “we are wholesome sportsmen and gun owners just like you” message, what you find is no surprise. They are each just yet one more phony, politically partisan, anti-gun concoction that camouflages itself as something else. Several anti-gun groups in particular are targeting sportsmen with deceptive behavior. The Union Sportsmen’s Alliance and Gun Owners for Safety are chock full of people professing to be ardent gun owners, but who nonetheless inevitably cite the same garbage anti-gun “studies” and who inevitably promote draconian  anti-gun policies as “fair,” and “common sense” etc. These fake groups are as easy to spot as phonies as is a pheasant breaking thirty yards out against a clear blue Fall sky.

But a third group that is really gaining traction among sportsmen is Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and they much more carefully, perhaps artfully, straddle the natural mix of environmental quality and gun ownership interests that sportsmen have. And BHA is strident this year about voting on environmental issues alone, to the exclusion of gun rights. Its president, a guy actually named Land Tawney, has a long association with Barack Obama and Democrat Party activism. BHA is partnering with Patagonia clothing company, which has underwritten and promoted a movie called Public Trust: The Fight for America’s Public Lands. This movie is the centerpiece of BHA’s get-out-the-vote efforts this year.

Public Trust is done in a documentary style, narrated by Hal Herring, a long-time writer for Field & Stream magazine. The movie is masterful and has great cinematography. But it is not always accurate, especially in claims about so-called climate change and hanging every environmental problem and cause around the neck of – you guessed it – Republicans and the Donald Trump Administration. Public Trust also plays the usual environmentalist game of presenting false choices. For example, water quality concerns about the proposed Twin Metals copper mine in Minnesota could be addressed through posting a sufficient cleanup bond, but that would negate all the opportunities for political drama that liberals want.

If President Trump’s political opponents forget to mention that he signed the Great American Outdoors Act just a few months ago, allow me to remind them. The GAOA funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the first time since human-caused “climate change” was just a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. GAOA funded national and local parks and forests operations and maintenance backlogs, infrastructure needs, and a host of other conservation and public lands needs from sea to shining sea. Trump is not an evil anti-environment boogey man, but Joe Biden certainly is an ardent gun-grabber, and his inner circle is a constellation of anti-trapping and anti-hunting groups.

Next week, American sportsmen cannot afford the luxury of voting for anything but Second Amendment rights. Without our guns, there is no sporting tradition, period, so vote for President Donald J. Trump. See you in the field afterwards!

Patagonia clothing company has this confusing message posted on its website. See, to me, a “climate denier” is a “science believer” and a human-caused climate change proponent is at best a gullible fool hyped up on a political cause that has no science in it, behind it, around it.

Who knows where Patagonia got this smokestack city photo, but if it is in America, the white emissions are probably steam. Which is water. Which is not a pollutant. To try to sell this as a picture of commonplace industrial pollution, Patagonia and BHA want viewers to believe we are really living in 1968.

A greedy white man in a suit, carving up parts of America for dinner with his cruel, bloody chef knife. A part of my experience tells me there is a grain of truth to this propaganda, because it is true that America’s natural resources have been utilized for three hundred years. Including now by the Crow Indian tribe on tribal lands, thanks to President Donald Trump.

Trump Great American Outdoors Act hits Conservation Home Run

Conservation is where I have spent my entire career, and it is where my heart resides day in and day out. So it is with great happiness that I see President Trump sign into law the Great American Outdoor Act, which will do the nuts and bolts environmental protection America needs, without the regulation that America does not need.

The fact that so many political appointees within the Trump Administration were cheerleaders for the GAOA says a lot about the political tenor there. So many people accuse the Trump Administration of being some kind of radical “right wing” blah blah, and the fact is that the entire administration is loaded with middle-of-the-road professionals, who hold a mix of political, philosophical, and ideological views. In past Republican administrations, there were plenty of appointees who would have blocked GAOA, or held it up. GAOA is a signature achievement for President Donald Trump, and it is a huge win for Americans.

GAOA fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the first time in a zillion years. It provides adequate funding for federal and state parks infrastructure updates, operations, and maintenance costs. These are the costs that are always deferred in every administration. It is a subject I wrote my master’s thesis on at Vanderbilt University, and it is a subject that has never gone away, until now: Federal recreational infrastructure has been woefully underfunded for decades. Many state parks across America are in even worse shape than that National Parks.

For example, in 2016 my teenage daughter and I hiked half of the Northville Placid Trail, which runs through the Adirondacks. At the end of our ninth day, as we waited out a looming thunderstorm in a rustic but comfortable lean-to deep inside designated wilderness, on a hike in which we had encountered only a few other people, my daughter sat looking at her dead iPhone. Like Gollum looking at The One Ring, only my daughter looked more disgusted and glum than happily mesmerized.

“I have to get out of here. I want to talk to my friends. I want to know what is happening in the world. We need to go,” she said, and picked up her backpack, jumped down onto the grass, then shouldered her backpack.

Oh, I tried to persuade her to spend the night and stay out of that coming downpour. But she would have nothing of it, and she set off by her own teenage self, going somewhere, maybe anywhere, and I was standing there watching her pick her way into the forest.

Hours later we emerged at Moose River Plains, what maps describe as a rustic New York State recreational area tucked away deep in the Adirondack wilderness. What we found was a boarded up main building, boarded up out buildings, no gate, and no official staff. Instead, a bunch of locals who regularly camp there had taken over the official duties of park rangers. Even the land line phone system was not working. It was a very kind local who drove us, each drenched to the bone and with sodden packs, to the closest village, where we could contact our driver and get back to our own vehicle parked at a Baptist church in Northville, so my daughter could get home and talk with a zillion friends simultaneously.

Turned out that Moose River Plains was victim to a New York State budget that prioritized funding illegal aliens, but not state parks.

The Moose River Plains experience was worse than our visit the year before to Saratoga National Battlefield, by far. But seeing Saratoga National Battlefield, where the brave fight for American freedom and independence was won, in such terrible disrepair and threadbare means, was frankly shocking. One expects the National Park Service to do so much better. And when we spoke with a park ranger there, she was clearly hurt, personally, as she explained the money constraints that park faced. NPS just could not get the job done.

All of this is to say that finally, money floweth in the right direction. The need out there for public infrastructure is almost beyond compute. It is about time that America invested in our national parks and forests, state parks and forests, local and county parks, and the myriad other adjunct little recreational areas, like Moose River Plains, so that Americans might enjoy our public outdoors.

And about that public outdoors thing: Public land is a public good. Public land is one of the very few things that government does pretty well. And even when government land managers fail, the outcome is almost always simple neglect; the land always remains, the wildlife habitat remains. Which means the opportunity for recreation, hunting, fishing, hiking, camping etc remains. It is not a real material loss when land managers screw up or there isn’t enough money to operate the park entrance gate house; just missed opportunities, and putting a frowny face on a public symbol.

Congratulations to President Trump for pushing hard for GAOA, for hiring the right kind of land management staff and public lands leaders, and for caring about our public lands at all levels – local, state, and federal. Trump understands Americans, and he knows how much we care about our public lands, our state parks. And he knows how important it is to constantly invest in those places, so that they don’t fall into disreputable disrepair, like Moose River Plains had fallen.

One of the parts of GAOA that is so very appealing to me is the public land acquisition funding. As development never sleeps, what were nice public spots to hunt or hike in suddenly find themselves cut off or surrounded or overrun by development. It is nice that states and local governments will finally be able to buy that ‘Mabel’s Farm’ the community always wanted, and could not afford.

There is going to be a lot of Mabel’s Farms bought with GAOA money in the next few years, a lot of Nature conserved, and a lot of communities and hunting places protected, as a result. Thank you, President Trump, conservationists everywhere appreciate your leadership on this important policy area.

With special people at Yosemite. Can we imagine America without Yosemite? It takes money to protect these special places.

My daughter at the unhappy lean-to. But still, it was a functional, dry lean-to next to clean water in the middle of ADKs wilderness

Our friends Mark and Amanda at Leonard Harrison State Park, overlooking the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon

My daughter at Cedar Lakes, a special moment that spurred her on to teach wilderness backpacking to kids. Now she can’t wait to reach the area of no cell reception

Response to PA Gov. Tom Ridge on Conservatives & the Environment

On April 22nd this year, Earth Day, The Atlantic published an opinion piece by former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, about conservatives and the environment (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/environment-gop-out-touch/610333/). The Atlantic solicited responses to Ridge’s essay, and so I submitted one to them, but received back no indication they would publish it. They did not publish it, because liberals like those at The Atlantic accept and publish only liberals, and reject conservatives.  So here it is, my response to Governor Ridge’s essay about conservatives and the environment.

I felt compelled to respond to Governor Ridge’s essay, in part because I worked in his administration, and in part because I have met few Republicans who can articulate a truly conservative view of environmental policy, which Governor Ridge failed to do. I was also afraid of being seen as attacking someone I hold in high esteem, and I need to say that while I may disagree with Governor Ridge’s essay and some of his recent public stances, like supporting PA governor Tom Wolf’s covid19 lockdown, I remain impressed by Governor Ridge’s high character. I am proud to have served in his distinctively excellent administration.

Governor Ridge’s  essay slightly opens a doorway that I am both pleased and also reluctant to push all the way open. But it needs to be opened, all the way, because for far too long establishment Republicans have claimed to be conservatives, while acting like liberals.

Governor Ridge writes his essay “as a conservative,” and despite boldly leading by example in placing highly competent gays, women, and minorities in senior government positions literally decades ago, long before most Democrats followed suit, Governor Ridge was, in fact, a true conservative. His achievements in conservative policy are legion, including Pennsylvania becoming a shall-issue concealed firearm carry state and his administration’s brownfield land recycling program.

Nonetheless, the emphasis today is on he “was.”

Governor Ridge was a conservative, and by today’s standard, he is not. This is not because Governor Ridge has changed, but because what now defines a conservative has changed so dramatically since the time he was governor. The same holds true for liberals, by the way, in their own way (we see the Democrat Party now a totally, openly, violent, racist, anti-America Marxist organization).

And like so many, if not all other political elites, especially Republicans, and most especially establishment Republicans from the hide-bound, bunker-mentality Pennsylvania GOP, Governor Ridge has not changed with the times. Governor Ridge was a conservative, and today he often speaks like a liberal, and sides with liberals on policy disputes. He is not alone in this, but each Republican who does so still causes pain to us conservatives in the political trenches. It is frustrating as hell to experience a former Republican appointee or elected official try to speak with authority as some sort of representative of conservativism, when in fact, they are simply liberals. Or RINOs for short (Republican In Name Only – not conservative).

Probably the biggest indication that Governor Ridge is out of synch with today’s conservatives is how he encourages us to adopt a laundry list of liberal environmental policies in his The Atlantic essay. This means that his solution for conservatives to succeed is for us to adopt liberalism. Even though most of the “environmental” groups are simply employment offices for Democrat Party operatives pushing Marxist, partisan policies. Very few environmental groups today are even seeking solutions, because they are busy dreaming up new problems.

Most of the policies pushed by environmental groups today are by definition Big Coercive Government, Small Defenseless Citizen, anti-Constitution, disregard for private property rights, mountains out of mole hills, and so on. These groups are not about the environment, they simply use the subject of the environment as another avenue to push Marxism and the Big Government necessary to force it down our throats. Governor Ridge should know this, of all people.

What Governor Ridge failed to address is: How can we conservatives embrace the very same failed and inferior liberal policies that drove us to becoming conservatives in the first place? If we adopt liberalism, then we are abandoning conservativism, and failing as conservatives.

Every single environmental policy recommendation that Governor Ridge lists in his essay directly contradicts core conservative principles, like small government, less intrusive government, less spendy government, less activist government, less regulatory government, accountable government and accountable taxpayer-funded government employees. Literally every single policy he lists requires the government to intervene in a big, coercive way, often over trifling differences or demonstrably false premises.

Governor Ridge’s environmental ideas are not conservativism; they are quintessential big government liberalism.

Perhaps the centerpiece of his essay is that conservatives must concede at least a bit on “climate change.” Yet, for conservatives, this particular issue, more than any other, highlights the distinction between us and liberals. For conservatives to agree with the Marxist, disproven, and notoriously phony climate change religion would be to abandon basic, solid, conservative principles altogether….like Capitalism 101, solid math and science, and transparency. Again, we are unpersuaded the climate warming-cooling-change-whatever issue even exists, let alone that a government solution consistent with America’s Constitution could be found.

Governor Ridge writes “The Republican Party has largely abandoned environmental issues.” To which I and a host of other conservatives would respond, No, but many Republicans have abandoned the citizen voters and the forgotten taxpayers of America. Many careerist Republicans have embraced popular culture and its feel-good-now bubblegum policies. For Republicans to respect openly partisan “environmental” groups and embrace liberal nonsense like so-called ‘climate change’ and similar policies would only be one more betrayal in a long line of policy and political betrayals committed by the Republican establishment. Conservatives have perfectly sound environmental policies based on perfectly sound, all-American principles. If you but ask us, we will explain them. We conservatives didn’t abandon environmental issues, nor did we leave the Republican Party. The Republican establishment abandoned us.

Josh First is president of Appalachian Land & Conservation Services, LLC. He has worked at the US EPA in Washington, DC, The Conservation Fund, the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, and was Director of Environmental Education and Information at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources in the Governor Tom Ridge administration.

It’s that time of year again

Plenty of things have gone to hell in a hand basket over the course of the last four or five decades, and I would only be living up my highest and bestest reputation as a grouchy curmudgeon if I ticked them all off here as a laundry list of petty grievances. But other writers and commenters have already done all that, much better than I can, so I am going to mention just one frustration. And it must be credited to that mild mannered conservationist Aldo Leopold, who first put his finger on this, on the very beginning of what ails us Americans today.

If I read one more time the overused phrase “In a Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes…” I am going to scream. You are there and I am here on the other side of the screen, and we cannot actually hear one another, so it will sound like a silent scream, but rest assured, it drives me nuts and right now I am doing my best silent scream imitation about this. Sure, it is a testament to how inspiring Leopold was and still is that so (so) many people begin all kinds of talks and writings and poems with this opener, citing some comment or observation Leopold made back in the crusty 1940s Dark Ages that yet, surprisingly, has so much application and salience today, eighty years later. But it is so very much overused to the point where it is almost maudlin to hear it used yet one more time.

And then, when I think of those intervening eighty years, well, they have been both a blessing and a curse, haven’t they, and so I find myself in that recognizably similar frame of mind…

So what the hell.

In Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, he talks about cutting down a large oak tree with a crosscut saw, and how much history is gliding by as the saw blade traverses across the tree stem. For every few growth rings that are sawn, Leopold lists various wars and human milestones, scientific achievements as well as natural science moments, as the blade cuts deeper. Just that description alone is a pretty cool writing achievement by Leopold. It is a symbol and image that so many people have trouble forgetting.

But then at the end of the essay, just when the reader thinks “Yeah, I suppose cutting fire wood is more symbolic and meaningful than I thought it was, guess there’s a lotta history in those old oaks at Grandpa’s farm,” Leopold suddenly gets to the whole raison d’être of his history lesson (and I am closely paraphrasing here):

I knew Americans were eventually doomed to cultural rot and failure when we discovered that heat came from a small switch on the wall, and not from cutting our own firewood every year.”

Here in the middle of his gentle outdoor lullaby, Leopold lamented the ease of life that had arrived with then-modern conveniences and services. He saw them as a two-edged sword, cutting both ways, for and against, because working hard for something, especially for your own ambient heat in the dead of winter, is an important lesson about how all humans are in truth part of the natural cycles around us all the time. Participating in these cycles humbles us, brings us into the actual healthy swing of things around us, helps integrate us with the earth’s natural vibe, tune, and wavelength, each of which we ride every moment of every day, even if we are unaware of it. And thus, it helps us thereby appreciate the natural world that sustains us every day. Even if we are unaware of it.

Leopold was advocating for Americans living newly cushy lives devoid of physical challenges to get the hell off their asses and live in the real world, to take responsibility for their own needs and not outsource everything (like the Romans did at their end). Cut their own firewood, grow a garden, shoot a grouse for dinner or a catch a fish for lunch. The ability to be self-reliant is not only an American trait from our frontier days, it is innately tied to all successful human cultures at all times.

Mind if we switch here to someone on the other side of the spectrum from our mild naturalist and wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold, who nonetheless expresses much the same sentiment?

I hate luxury. I exercise moderation…it will be easy to forget your vision and purpose once you have fine clothes, fast horses, and beautiful women. [All of which will result in] you being no better than a slave, and you will surely lose everything.” — Genghis Khan (brutal conqueror of the entire known world in his time).

As that completely successful “mad butcher” said it, luxuries make humans soft and weak. Hard work makes us strong and successful. If there is a hallmark of modern America, it is that we are awash in luxuries and conveniences, to the point where the younger generations have no idea how we arrived here at this point, how much sacrifice was required to give them these fancy phones and coffees. Our younger people think that luxuries and easy comforts just fall like manna from Heaven.

So, to be the truest, best American you can be, why not cut some firewood?

Here in central Pennsylvania it is that time of year again, the time of year where if you have not yet stacked the last of your firewood in the woodshed, you damned well better get on with it. Ain’t no time to lose. Any week now Mother Nature can show up with a big old cold surprise, a major dose of early Winter, knock out the electricity to your town, and leave you at the mercy of serious cold temperatures. It’ll be nice if we have all of October to enjoy mild Fall weather, with no need to light the wood stove, but you never know what the future brings. Better to be prepared, right?

Funny how something so insignificant as cutting one’s own firewood can be synonymous with an entire culture’s success or failure.

Wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold smoked tobacco, owned guns, ate what he hunted, planted a garden every year, and cut his own firewood. If you have not read A Sand County Almanac, then get it, because a world of special delight awaits you there, and it will change your life.

This season’s supply of split firewood stashed in the old woodshed, which is due to be replaced in 2020

Thank you to wildlife’s friends, my friends

When I started writing for Eric Epstein’s Rock the Capitol about eight years ago, one of the first stories I related to readers was an experience two of my children and I had with two pitbulls let off their leashes.

The readership statistics on this one essay were off the charts. Very high volume, and lots of comments. When I asked why, Eric and his website manager, whose name I now forget, told me that news items and stories involving animals claim the biggest share of attention on the Internet.

Fascinating, right?

And we all kind of see this fact in the strange way people routinely show concern for an injured goat in the news by donating a million dollars so the goat can get its broken hoof fixed, and then a truly sad situation involving some news story about a poor unfortunate child whose abusive parents tormented her for years raises just five bucks to get her into a better home.

It is true that people care about animals, and that is a good thing. But this care seems to extend mostly, really overwhelmingly, to domesticated animals; animals that depend upon humans for care and shelter. A natural and healthy empathy is aroused when some unfortunate critter is seen hemmed in by wire or caging, unable to provide for itself and yet not being provided for by the humans around it.

The type of animals people have the least identity with is wildlife. Most Americans, being urban or suburban, simply mythologize wildlife.

From this more urban view, all bears are universally perceived as aggressively dangerous (they are not, though grizzlies are definitely more aggressive than black bears). Deer run out in front of our cars, eat our crops, spread ticks with Lyme Disease, and nibble our yard shrubs, dammit. Squirrels are nasty tree rats with fuzzy tails chewing on our yard furniture, eating the produce of our gardens and fruit trees, and diving our trash bins. And skunks, possums and raccoons are a bunch of rabies-ridden trashcan raiders. And so on.

Wildlife by and large is not greatly appreciated by the general public, unless it is a close-up photo of some baby raccoon or fox kit. And no, I am not talking about wildlife photographers or the insane Humane Society as representative of the general public. These two categories of people are far distant outliers of one sort or another, and no generality can be drawn from their presence among or about wildlife.

So thank God there are sportsmen out there; that is, hunters and trappers. These are the Americans who really do truly care for and about wildlife, and they prove it every damned day with their financial donations and back-breaking work on wildlife habitat projects.

There is no better advocacy group or aggregation of active people who love wild animals and the wild places they need to thrive than hunters and trappers. Time has proven this fact, though the foolish flatlander will claim, with a mouthful of gross stockyard beef in her mouth, that hunting and trapping are “cruel.”

Most of our public lands were first acquired by and for hunting and trapping, at the urging of hunters and trappers. They knew in the 1890s and 1920s that human encroachment into formerly wild areas was leaving no room for the most interesting animals on earth. Many of these animals are more interesting than most of the humans we will encounter in any given day, week, month, or lifetime.

This weekend I really enjoyed my time among a special group of people, the state-wide leadership of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists (PFSC), what until yesterday was known as the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs (PFSC). Most Americans no longer know that the word “sport” is about hunting, fishing, and trapping, nor do they know what a ‘sporting club’ is about. The lexicon has changed as the daily experience has changed. Meat is no longer acquired from a wild animal who knew it was hunted, but rather from a miserable creature tormented from its earliest days until its last moment alive and turned into a convenient styrofoam package.

The PFSC folks are the people who work every day for the benefit of wildlife, for wildlife habitat, for the defense and promotion of our state parks, state forests, and state game lands. These people do it humbly, quietly, generously, and usually all they get in return is some self-satisfaction from sitting back after a grouse hunt and, despite an empty game bag, intently watching a mysterious red Fall sunset streaked with white wispy trailing clouds sinking down behind shadowy trees shedding their colorful leaves. A deeply comforting stillness overtakes these people at these moments, alone or with companions, and when they go home that night, they know their decades of work fundraising for the latest land acquisition by the Wildlands Conservancy has paid off. It might be a relatively small nook in a big world, but it is a special nook nonetheless, where wildlife — wild animals unknown and unloved by most people — can call home until the next glacier comes through and re-orders the earth’s surface, as has already happened many times in the past.

Here is to you, a heartfelt thank you, my friends, my companions, my betters and my teachers among the outdoorsman fellowship. Thank you for your time and gift to me and to everyone and every living thing around me, whether they know or know not what you do for us.

PA’s Keystone Fund: Symmetrical Program in an Asymmetrical Political World

If there is one rule or overarching principle that taxpayers want applied to how their hard-earned money is spent by government bureaucrats, it is symmetry.

If taxpayers put money in, they expect to get money, or value, back out.

Gasoline taxes? Show me the newly paved highway! Etc. Real simple symmetry.

This is the most elementary social contract between citizens and their self-selected governments, and today ain’t Ninth Century Europe, where armed tax collectors come knocking and begin turning the humble home inside out in search of hidden wealth to take, er…collect.

Today, when the government takes your money by threat of coercive force, you grudgingly turn it over, expecting to at least see some benefit from it.

At budget time is when the legislature and the executive negotiate over how the collected resources of a state or nation are going to be spent. Right now it is budget time in Pennsylvania, and there are no guarantees. Neither the governor nor the legislature has my trust.

Both are up for re-election.

In the middle of it all we have the Keystone Fund, Pennsylvania’s conservation engine. The Keystone Fund is used to run most of Pennsylvania’s “Ranger Rick” – style conservation programs. State parks, state forests, land acquisition, new kiosks, etc. Good stuff. Worthy stuff. The kind of stuff that makes the taxpayer say “Hey, I finally got my money’s worth back!”

The Keystone Fund is funded by taxpayers, but also in large part by the net returns from timber and natural gas sales from public lands. There is an appealing, nearly holy symmetry to any government program that uses money from its own programs to pay for its own programs.

It is the way government should be run!

Now, the Keystone Fund is at risk because it is a symmetrical program living in an asymmetrical political world populated by career politicians who disburse public funds to win public favor, and votes.

Instead of returning the proceeds from timber and gas sales back into the very natural resources that produced them, we now see the likelihood that elected officials will use this income stream to buy off their favorite constituencies. So they can get votes, and get re-elected.

How sad to see one of the very few examples of good public policy, the Keystone Fund, fall victim to something so crass, vulgar and common as an elected official.

To quote Mark Twain: “I think I can say, and say with pride that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.” (Speech 7/4/1873)

Conservation vs Environmentalism

After decades of environmentalism, many Americans are burnt out on the movement’s constant sky-is-falling hype and never-ending Defcon 5 emergency messaging. Environmentalists’ craving for full control of our every motion and breath understandably scares the daylights out of normal Americans.

Though environmentalism is sold as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition by its proponents, the truth is that it represents an unnecessarily confrontational and expensive approach to environmental and public health, with misplaced priorities and unmeasurable outcomes.

Simply put, Environmentalism is the over-reliance upon government coercive force, command-and-control, one-size-fits-all sledgehammer policies to problems that might require a screwdriver, if needing anything at all.

The premise behind environmentalism is that mere daily acts of human existence are pitted against a static natural environment that must be defended at all costs, in the face of change being this planet’s biggest constant. Un-anointed humans are vermin in environmentalism.

Oh, sure, pollution and environmental destruction from human activity do exist: Over-fishing of the shared oceans is resulting in catastrophic population reductions of the most valuable fish (tuna, sharks, some salmon). Low-density residential development and warehousing goes up on our flattest, best, most fertile farmlands while national food security is an ever growing concern. Where will we grow our own clean food, if not on our best farmland closest to our largest population centers? Preventing water pollution is a constant effort. And certain chemicals were not vetted properly, with the burden of proof placed on the hapless citizenry before they were discovered to pose unacceptable health risks.

Republican President Richard Nixon said it best: “What a strange creature is man, that he fouls his own nest.” This is just being honest, though the very people most radicalized about environmental issues are also and equally fouling our collective nest with their own reliance on cars, iPhones, and hip clothing. They aren’t special. In fact the most “special” among them have their own personal jets and huge cars and boats with daily carbon footprints the size of small towns. Hypocrisy has a way of passively degrading and delegitimizing people, and that has happened with environmentalism’s biggest messengers, like Al Gore, Leon DiCaprio, et al.

Each of the real environmental health issues we face can and will be tackled with all of our best Yankee ingenuity. Not every day needs to be the summer of 1968, and not every environmental issue is Love Canal or will result in Planet Earth’s extinction if we don’t implement drastic policies right now. At its worst, environmentalism is virtue signaling and fake moral outrage.

A more measured, more adult approach is needed.

America is hopefully about to see a blossoming of conservation.  Aldo Leopold called it a “conservation ethic,” where a sense of stewardship results in concrete steps to protect natural resources for future generations of Americans.

Yet, conservation is mostly boring as hell. It lacks the screaming and yelling, the gnashing of teeth, the drama of environmentalism. It lacks the big demands for dramatic lifestyle changes and income redistribution that falsely substitute for self-examination, introspection, personal change.

By relying on market forces and free choices by people inside those markets, conservation empowers the very people environmentalists despise.  Conservation involves a lot of actual heavy lifting among and by people who care: Raising private money and judiciously spending public taxpayer money on carefully ranked projects that are of both great symbolic and tangible meaning to the citizens.

It involves natural resource management and planning, which environmentalists decry while using more than their fair share of those same resources.

While land conservation is the best example of conservation, there are plenty of successful, subtle, fish and wildlife management models and even agricultural management models (with pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fertilizer inputs). Back in 2002, I co-founded the Conestoga River Nutrient Management Project in Lancaster County, to use market forces to address waterway sedimentation finding its way to the Chesapeake Bay.

These are definitely not sexy policies. Conservation does not involve the glitzy rock star concerts, Hollywood celebrity interventions, and spectacular claims of imminent world-end that environmentalism has going for it.

Conservation is for adults, and now the adults are in charge. Hopefully the adults can teach the children to eat their vegetables, so to speak.

 

A Murder of Crows

My two greatest thrills in the outdoors are native wildflowers, like the trilliums and pink ladyslippers, and native birds, like grouse, turkey, woodcock, wood ducks, and various migratory songbirds.

All of these flowers and birds are under pressure under the best of circumstances, and in many places they are succumbing to that pressure because of artificial factors.

Native wildflowers are naturally browsed by deer, and increasingly collected by people who sell rare plants (and animals). If deer herds are balanced with the carrying capacity of the landscape and surrounding habitat, then the plant colonies can sustain the browsing. The collecting is usually illegal, involving sneaky trespass on private property and violating state law and regulation when done on public land. It is totally unsustainable.

When it comes to my favorite birds, the usual pressures of predation or hunting are hardly a factor in their population success. What is a growing factor is the impact of ground mammals on ground nesting birds, including all of my favorites above and others like more common ducks.

Ground mammals like raccoons, possums, skunks, fox and coyote have a natural place in the natural world, but humans have so greatly altered that natural world that some of these animal populations are disproportionately growing and having disproportionate impacts on other wildlife.

Exhibit A is low density suburban sprawl type residential home development, relatively large home lots in the one to five -acre range.

Low-density suburban sprawl residential development is now the ground zero for artificially high numbers of skunks, possums, and raccoons. Sprawl development provides perfect backyard habitat for these predators to breed and den, but these back yards are too small to hunt or trap effectively or legally.  So these burgeoning and unchecked predator populations keep pulsing out into surrounding farmland and forest. In those more stable habitats, these artificially high predator numbers wreak havoc on the other species who live there, notably my favorite birds, which happen to be ground nesters.

Ground nesting birds are highly susceptible to nest disturbance and egg loss when they are surrounded by artificially high populations  of skunks, raccoons, and possums. In many areas ground nesting birds are experiencing dramatic population declines because they simply cannot nest long enough to hatch a brood of chicks, or the chicks cannot survive predation long enough to develop flight, so they can escape from otherwise slow moving predators like skunks and possums. Adding to the challenge for ground nesting birds is the dearth of brush and young forest which provide the best places to hide a nest on the ground. Most farms today are devoid of brush, and “select cut” high-grade logging has ruined most private forests, while anti-conservation activists decry aggressive forest management on public lands. Brush and young forests are nearly a rarity today, despite serving as nature’s best habitat.

Yesterday I got into one of those internet debates most normal people avoid. It centered on allegedly real photos of a flying mature eagle with a talon stuck in a foothold trap, posted on Lancaster Online. Lancaster Online is run by politically partisan legacy media staff, and it is a huge source of fake news and alternate facts. So when I saw there the photo of a completely closed foot hold trap, with not even a tiny jaw spread to accommodate the eagle’s foot, it looked like yet more fake news and I posted comments.

As you might imagine, a murder of crows of sorts descended upon the article, and upon me, and upon any other poster who either questioned the facts as presented in the article, or who promoted trapping.

Crows are natural enemies of eagles and other raptors. Crows are huge nest raiders, eating baby bird chicks whole right out of the nest. In the context of the Lancaster Online article, the crows took human form: Animal rights promoters, PETA advocates, anti-trapping and anti-conservation voices.

Like with a surrounding pack of crows (called a “murder”) wildly harassing a lone eagle in a tree, the loudly hysterical anti-trapping commenters immediately invoked emotional appeals, personal attacks, lies, advocacy for trespassing, leash-less dogs, and private property theft and destruction. None of them made any sense. None were based on fact, though it is true that occasionally an animal in a trap gets hurt (never mind that every single one of those hypocritical commenters has a direct hand in wildlife death and destruction).

I responded frequently there, and was answered by a surrounding murder of crows, loudly cawing, squawking, screaming, wildly flapping their wings and leaping from tree to tree. Pretty funny to watch, because not one commenter there debated wildlife biology, habitat, etc. Only emotional appeals mostly based on lies and fake news were presented. Lots of hysteria, not much reasoning.

And that right there is why I trap, dear reader.

There are too damned many cantankerous crows, skunks, possums and raccoons eating all of the really cool, cute, useful little birds I enjoy so much. I haven’t sold a pelt since I was a kid. Instead, today I trap to thin out the populations of the destructive ground predators so that the defenseless animals they eat have at least a sitting chance.

As for the eagle photographed flying around Lancaster County with its talon caught in the foothold trap, I have pledged fifty dollars toward its rehabilitation, if it is caught alive. And I want to personally inspect the trap rig, because what is seen in the photos makes no sense. One commenter, a trapper, noted it appeared to be an illegal trap specifically set to catch a raptor, like the eagle, in which case this subject isn’t about trapping, it is about illegal wildlife poaching.

But you’d never know that from the deafening screaming and cawing and flapping from the uncaring, unthinking, hostile, mob-like murder of crows.

UPDATE: 2/8/17 4:30 pm “Just received a call from PGC Director Matt Hough. Matt informed me that the eagle/trap incident was a true event. Fortunately, PA Game Commission officers were able to capture the eagle and remove the trap. There was no damage to the talon. The eagle was released and flew away with no impairment as a result of the incident. Matt did not have any information as to the individual responsible for the trap,” from an email sent to me this afternoon.

 

 

Our dear friend, Don Heckman

Don Heckman needs little introduction in the sporting circles of Pennsylvania and the East Coast.

A founding member and long time leader of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, Don’s cheerful, generous and kind personality and locomotive work ethic helped re-establish wild turkeys to Pennsylvania in the 1970s, when the conventional wisdom said it was impossible.

Don was also a powerful advocate for the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsman’s Clubs, the National Rifle Association, and many other similar groups to which he was a devoted life member.

He was a persuasive advocate for the continued success of the Pennsylvania Game Commission on the whole, and its land acquisition and science-based habitat management programs in particular.

Don was both an incredibly good hunter, and at times also exasperating to hunt with. This is because of his own unique standards: He refused to shoot a gobbler (male turkey), unless it was both strutting and gobbling at the same time. Sneaking toms, peeping toms, cautious toms, running or flying toms he would not shoot, no matter how close or in range of his gun. None of those were sporting birds, in his estimation. Only a completely unaware longbeard was worthy.

Don and I turkey hunted together a number of times over the years, mostly in the central Pennsylvania farmland we both love. While it would be easy to regale Don’s skill as a caller and hunter, two instances come to mind that sum up the attraction of having Don as your hunting partner.

First was his wry humor. He meant it with love, of course.

“Mmmmmm, uh huh. That sounds like a turkey,” was a frequent back handed compliment from Don as I was scratching away on a friction call, mostly slates.

He wouldn’t care that my calling had actually lured in a nice longbeard to within range. That was no inoculation against the compliment. For Don, it was important to remind me that my calling could always improve, whenever he had the chance. And he was right, of course, as much as I do not like to admit it.  That’s what good teachers are about. He was, after all, a many time champion caller whose skill I could only marvel at and never hope to replicate.

And just to prove his point by spiking the ball, Don might decide to stand up and switch locations even as the gobbler was determinedly marching across a cut corn field directly to us.

Watching the alarmed bird take wing and sail to the other side of the valley, the now standing Don said to my sitting figure, “Yeah, he must’ve seen you move.”

Movement is the biggest no-no of all in turkey hunting, and rookies move a lot. Even veterans get caught moving their eyeballs by wary gobblers fifty yards out. To attribute the alarmed and rushed exit of a wild turkey to a hunter’s movement is a gentle way of saying “Your hunting skill needs some work.” Even if it didn’t at that very moment.

And then there was that truly exasperating standard of his, the one where he would only shoot a gobbler in full strut AND gobbling. That performance is like looking up in the sky and seeing the sun and moon align, because a longbeard gobbler that is both strutting and gobbling is completely in the moment. He feels no fear or wariness that usually accompanies most alluring hen calls by hunters.

As I am not ever going to approach Don’s skill as a turkey hunter (he has racked up more annual grand slam turkey hunts species-wise and across multiple states than anyone else I know), I feel fortunate to shoot any gobbler, strutting or not.

And it is a fact that my poor skill as a turkey caller usually results in birds sneaking in, peering in, or darting in for a quick look before running like hell to get out of Dodge, or “putting” (turkeys make a putt-putt alarm call when they are suspicious enough to flee) from 40 yards out, so that most of the gobblers I have killed were shot mid-stride to the next county.

Not in full strut AND gobbling, like Don would have.

One morning in Dauphin County about four or five years ago, Don and I were lying in a field while I called to turkeys below us. They came well within range, but the lead gobbler, a huge bruiser boss bird, stopped gobbling and was “only” fanned out and puffed up, strutting. Such an impressive performance was insufficient to move Don’s trigger finger backwards, despite my harsh whispers of expletive-laced encouragement.

Nope. Instead, Don stood up in plain view of the flock, maybe thirty yards away, with his shotgun trained on the head of the strutting gobbler, and he began simultaneously calling with his mouth diaphragm call.

Wild turkey hunters know that at the sight of a man standing up within two hundred yards, let alone thirty, wild turkeys scatter like dust in a hurricane. They are gone in the blink of an eye.

Not these birds. Don’s calling was so good, so realistic, so enticing that the entire flock turned to look at us with concern for the grossly misshapen hen addressing them, and then they calmly walked away.

Don never shot, though he would have easily bagged any of the gobblers there. He just said “Oh, well, let’s go try another spot.”

Don is now in another spot, a turkey chaser’s dream spot, I am sure. He was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor in late January this year, and he rode it out with the help of his devoted wife, Sandy, for the next few months, until he died on the night of May 17th, in the central Pennsylvania region he loved so much.

Like all of his friends and acquaintances, I will miss Don Heckman enormously. Sitting in a turkey blind I cried yesterday, thinking about his loss. Don died way too young, barely into his retirement, and not in time for me to prove to him that really, I can get a gobbler to strut AND gobble in range. But that is what I will continue to do, to aspire to, in Don’s memory, as representative as it was of one of the last great generational wildlife conservation leaders in Pennsylvania and in America.

Bye, old friend, boy do I miss you.

 

Hunting licenses, 1976 and 2015

Since my first hunting license adorned my back way back in 1976-1977, a lot has changed in the Pennsylvania landscape.

For example, wild game then so abundant that you could go out and shoot a couple for dinner is now practically extirpated.

Why pheasants and quail disappeared from Pennsylvania is a big debate with no clear answers. Loss of farmland to sprawl, low density development is one. Changes in farming practices is another; fallow fields had the best habitat. A plethora of winged and four legged predators cannot be discounted. Successfully rebounding populations of raptors like hawks and owls for sure ate a lot of plump pheasants. But why a sudden and dramatic crash?

Conservation successes since 1976 are plentiful and say a lot about wildlife biology. Wild turkey populations, fishers, bobcats and other animals once thought completely gone are now firmly in our lives, whether we see them, or not.

An interesting dynamic is playing out at our hunting camp. This year we have a virtual carpet of oak and hickory seedlings unlike anything we saw over the past 15 years we’ve owned it. Why?

Conventional wisdom is the deer population is low, and it’s true that it’s lower than it has been in 15 years. That is, deer are known eaters of acorns and tree seedlings. Fewer deer means more of both.

However, another factor seems to be playing out with these newly abundant tree seedlings. Where we once had an incredible overload of tree rats, aka squirrels, the new fishers have eaten them all. Like all of them. Not one tree rat remains in our carefully cultivated forest of white oaks. We see fisher tracks. We neither see nor hear squirrels.

As squirrels are known eaters of acorns and hickories, it stands to reason that their absence means more acorns and hickories hatching into baby trees.

Add a long icy winter that appears to have crushed our local wild turkey populations, also known for eating nuts, and the right conditions emerge to help a forest rebound and grow some new stock, a huge challenge we aggressively tackle every year.

So, my son getting his first hunting license yesterday is now entering a landscape that in some ways is just as dynamic as the one I began hunting so long ago.  What a difference these landscapes were and are, and who would’ve guessed the fishers would be responsible for oak and hickory forests regenerating?

A lot has changed in our wildlife landscapes, and yet not much has changed in my lifetime. Different animals, same kind of population changes, variations, pressures. One thing I keep reminding myself: It’s all natural, these changes. And while some are painful to see, like the loss of pheasants, other opportunities open up. Never would I have imagined in 1976, nor would any PA Game Commission staff, that in 2015 my son would get a bobcat tag and a fisher tag with his license.

Totally different opportunity than chasing pheasants in corn fields, but still good.