A voice for public lands and waters: Backcountry Hunters and Anglers CEO Land Tawney talks about the mission to keep public lands public
GRAND FORKS—Land Tawney is president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a Montana-based group focusing on public lands and waters with chapters in 35 states, including Minnesota, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.
A fifth-generation Montanan, Tawney, 42, worked for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and was a regional representative for the National Wildlife Federation before taking the reins of BHA in 2013. He and his wife, Glenna, have two kids, age 9 and 6, and two black Labs, Teller "Triple T" and Tule.
BHA recently held "Pint Night" events in Bismarck and Fargo to explore the forming of a chapter in North Dakota. Leading up to the events, Tawney talked about BHA and its mission with Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken. Here's an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q. Tell me about Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
A. We were formed around a campfire in 2004 in Oregon, and all good things, you know, happen around a campfire late at night.
There was a lot of good work being done by a lot of different hunting, fishing and conservation organizations but nobody was really focused on public lands and waters.
That's where the impetus was, and we try to make sure that you have access to public lands and water and then the fish and wildlife habitat once you get there.
Q. Sportsmen's groups and clubs in many areas are folding because they can't engage young members. Has that been a challenge for BHA?
A. We have quite the opposite. We're having Pint Nights all over the country, and those Pint Nights are attended by young folks and the older kind of sage crowd. We're combining the youthful exuberance along with that sage wisdom, and I think to me, it's because we're making things fun.
Across the country, we have 17,000 members. To put that in perspective, this time last year, we had 8,000. So we've doubled the last four years and plan to double again this year.
Q. Is a BHA chapter forming in North Dakota or is it still in the discussion stage?
A. We've got some leaders there. It's not like I decided one day we want to have a chapter in North Dakota. It's people coming to us and saying "Hey, we see the energy you guys have and we see some of the successes you're having down in South Dakota; we'd like to form a chapter."
It's more than exploratory. I'm meeting with them and trying to figure out how we can move forward, but this thing will happen, and I'm guessing there will be a chapter by our Rendezvous in April.
Q. What are BHA's main concerns and priorities right now?
A. There's a lot on our plate.The Clean Water Act is a really important one. There was a proposal to sell 3 million acres of public land this last spring put forward by Mr. Chaffetz (former Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz) from Utah, and we helped kind of spearhead a response there where that was put in a hole, and we really haven't seen any sale proposals since then. But it's something that is always lurking.
Sage grouse were very close to being listed as an endangered species in the West, and a decade of work between ranchers, oil and gas, hunters and anglers, other conservation organizations came up with collaborative plans, and those collaborative plans weren't really even implemented before this new administration came in and said "No, we're not going to do it that way. We're going to increase oil and gas development and just hope the birds are OK."
I think that's not only bad for the bird and the other 350 species that depend on that kind of sage ecosystem like pronghorn, like mule deer, but it's also really bad when you sit down across the table from somebody for over a decade and really have to come up with a compromise; that means you have to give something up.
And then, as we look at this idea of energy domination, I think we all think energy development should happen, and it is happening on our public lands, but we want to make sure that it's done in a responsible way so we can sustain the fish and wildlife habitat that we have, and then the opportunities that go with that.
Q. Have those concerns and priorities changes since Donald Trump became president?
A. That's a good question. I would say there's been changes more on the defensive front. There's still proactive stuff that we're working on, but there's things like we've talked about today that we weren't really anticipating because of some of the rhetoric before he took office and after he was elected.
And now, there's kind of an assault on our conservation legacy that Roosevelt helped start in place. There's people that have stepped up since Roosevelt—Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Ding Darling, the list goes on—and then there's a bunch of people we don't know about. But we have this legacy we have today because hunters have stepped up, and I think this is just another time that all of us need to step up. And if we don't, really this legacy we have could be gone in a generation.
C. That's a scary thought.
A. It is a scary thought, but you look at history, and I'm confident in the American people. When we've had major pressures on our landscape and our wildlife, people have stepped up. And I truly believe in the American people to do that today.
Q. What would you say to people who might think public lands are more of a liability than an asset?
A. My first response would be there's an outdoor economy that generates $887 billion each and every year in this country. And not only is that a huge number, it's third next to the financial and medical sectors,it's sustainable. It's something we can grow if we take care of these lands.
I think these lands also provide an opportunity to get away from that device and find that solace you really can't get anywhere else. Think about getting on a piece of water and what that does for your brain. Just the opportunity to be able to do that.
I think something we have to be careful of is this idea that it's always going to be there. If there's a big threat to our conservation legacy, it's that complacency because people don't know that it can be taken away.
C. You have an interesting first name for the position you're in with BHA.
A. One of Charles Lindbergh's sons lives in the Blackfoot Valley, and his name is Land Lindbergh and so my mom and dad named me after him.
A lot of people think I've changed my name or whatever, but I've had that since birth.
When I was younger, kids are mean and I got teased a lot, but now it seems to fit pretty well.
Q. Anything else?
A. I just want to emphasize that people should know that they own 640 million acres. That piece separates us from every other country in the world, and I don't think there could be anything more Democratic. It doesn't matter if you're a school teacher from Bismarck or an oil executive up in the Bakken field, everybody has the same opportunities on those public lands, and I think there could be nothing more American than that.
That, to me, is what's special about our country, and I think that's really the focus of BHA is trying to make sure that's around for future generations.
• On the Web: