Like just about every other 9-year-old boy in rural America in the 1960s, I received a Crosman BB gun as a Christmas gift. That present sent me down the trail of a lifetime of hunting, although I don’t remember killing a living thing with it. I did fire at a mouse once, while I was walking in a stand of tall corn as the grown-ups were shooting pheasants, but it was an excuse-me shot and did no harm.
When I got to be 11, my dad took me down to the river bottom and taught me how to shoot his 20-gauge shotgun, a Winchester Model 12. That was my ticket to the big-time, hunting pheasants in southeast Iowa with dad and Uncle Jerry and occasionally some of their buddies. Because none of us owned a dog, the dog’s job fell to me. I walked through and often under some of the thickest brush and beat-down corn a person could imagine, flushing birds left and right.
One shooting sports association states that each hunter spends $1,896 annually on hunting. Even adjusting for inflation, somebody else was spending a heck of lot more money than we did. Not counting the gasoline in the old Jeep, our hunting purchases included a bag of doughnuts (eaten on the ride to the farm), a box of Fanny Farmer chocolates (for the farmer’s wife) and a few paper shotgun shells, most of which were older than I was.
The farmer, who was Mennonite and didn’t hunt, paid us $1 for each pheasant hide; he gave his wife the feathers for hats and pillows. It seems possible that some years we made a profit on a hunting trip, although possibly not, what with the lousy gas mileage from the Jeep.
None of us had heard the term “environmentalist” back then. Today, scholars would probably call us “natural resource conservationists.” We were not that much different from proto-environmentalists like Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson or Horace Kephart, all of whom liked to wet a line or fill a snow goose full of holes every once in a while.
Somewhere along the way, natural resource conservationists began evolving into environmentalists. But many of them did not expand their interests beyond parks, fish and wildlife, while some environmentalists came not from a natural resources background but from the feminist, anti-war or anti-nuclear movements. Many of these new recruits had never fired a Crosman BB gun, much less a 20-gauge Winchester. Those diverse histories are part of the source of the problem among lovers of the outdoors that we see today.
In parts of the county, including Appalachia, the word “environmentalist” became an epithet, or at least a mild rebuke. In other areas, hunting seemed an anachronistic form of socially sanctioned violence. Blaze-orange and green became opposite colors in the ecological spectrum.
The dispute has roots in an urban-rural divide almost as old as the country. Environmentalists (or at least their organizations) tend to come from the city, while hunters and other outdoorsmen often wear boots at work as well as in the sporting field. Hunting has deep roots in Appalachian history, as it has in the narratives of all rural or formerly rural areas of the United States. Two-thirds of Southern hunters come from small communities or farms. Skills are passed on from parent to child as folk knowledge; guns are family heirlooms, like old guitars or sewing machines.
The greatest source of conflict, in my mind, is based on economics as well as geography. While the environmental movement gained power in the 1970s, the country went through a series of agonizing recessions that left many rural communities and family farms devastated. Some did not recover. Faced with a Hobson’s choice of economic growth or environmental protection, locals chose the economic answer nearly every time. What often followed was a lawsuit, a protester chained to a tree, or government bigfooting, which led to even more acrimony.
Politicians call this a wedge issue and they and their pressure groups – on both sides – have been quick to exploit it, raise funds, recruit members and increase their power. A few old-line groups, notably the Izaak Walton League, attempt to appease both constituencies, but they are in the minority. In a political system fueled by conflict, rather than consensus, it may seem there is no going back.This acrimony pollutes the legacy of founding environmental giants like Leopold, Olson, Kephart, T. Gilbert Pearson, Teddy Roosevelt and others – people who appreciated sports afield but recognized the need for environmental stewardship.
Hunters, anglers, bird-watchers, hikers and even those on the fringes like the NRA or PETA have more in common than they care to admit. Acid rain affects not only the forests that the bird-watchers enjoy hiking through but also the trout streams in which anglers like to wade. Global warming alarms environmentalists but also affects hunters alarmed by species migration.
Hunters and anglers have a historic and legitimate place in our culture. Environmentalists deserve credit for helping protect the lands and waters that sustain everyone. Those 9-year-old boys receiving BB guns for Christmas can grow up to be adults who appreciate field sports as well as the need to protect the environment.
Mark Neuzil is an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., where he teaches journalism and environmental studies.