As we approach the culmination of another painful election cycle, it has become increasingly clear that many national conservation and sportsmen organizations have found it necessary to choose sides and align more closely with one political party over the other. It’s not a coincidence our collective voice as sportsmen-conservationists has been weakened in recent years as a result of this trend.
At one time, most outdoor enthusiasts joined and supported state and national organizations for the purpose of advancing their issues and did so on a nonpartisan basis. Skilled tradesmen and UAW members joined forces with other hunters and anglers who may have been their managers or employers. Their common bond was clean water, clean air, abundant fish and wildlife, conservation law enforcement and the ability to use and own firearms.
Although the politicization of many of our national sportsmen’s organizations has seemed to increase incrementally in recent years, the roots of this probably date back to the beginnings of the environmental movement of the 1960’s and a time when many of our nation’s first conservationists (hunters and anglers) seemed to be willing to surrender those issues to others who were different from themselves.
For the next few decades, this divide between the environmental community and many hunter-angler organizations was clear and, in some instances, accentuated by their respective leaders. From their very beginning, most national environmental organizations were actively engaged in party politics, and were seen as having a clear party preference. This was unlike many traditional sportsmen’s organizations which tended to avoid those issues which could cause separation in their memberships which included Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
Today, we find ourselves in a time when most who closely follow such things can catagorize nearly every national sportsmen’s organization, and even some wildlife species-based habitat organizations, as primarily being either “red” or “blue.”
There are many reasons for this transition. Much of it has been driven by a need to raise funding from sources other than membership dues which have been in a state of general decline for many years. The reality for many in the not-for-profit community is that the best way to drive fund-raising is to hoist the Flag of Fear. In some instances these fears are legitimate and, in others, have been intentionally exaggerated to advance donor appeal. Fear of anti-hunters, fear of habitat loss, fear of gun control, and fear of a society and culture that increasingly thinks that meat and fish come from a grocery store.
Another source of this change may be the general shift away from IRS-designated 501(c)3 organizations, toward 501(c)4 status or even Political Action Committees (PACs). The former of these categories are considered to be charities to the extent that donations are tax deductible. The trade-off for this status is that they are precluded from endorsing political candidates.
While many danced around these restrictions by campaigning for issues and not candidates, the alternative offered through 501(c)4 tax status or PAC’s has become increasingly attractive since no such political action limitation exists. The recent proliferation of the (c)4 category now means that many of these national conservation and sportsmen’s groups possess at least an organizational arm which operates under this status.
At a time when our nation seems to be more politically polarized than ever and when there is far more money being spent to fan the flames of these divisions, it would probably be naive of us to assume that OUR issues should be exempt from the politics of these extremes. This opportunity to use hunters and anglers as a political résumé-builder has been embraced by candidates and organizations on both sides of the issues and legislative aisles.
The point in all of this is that as sportsmen-conservationists we will all be losers if this organizational trend toward defacto party preference continues. There is nothing to be collectively gained when issues like public land use and ownership and conservation program funding such as that contained in the 2013 U.S. Farm Bill is held up as a result of partisan politics.
Although our economic challenges are understandably the top priority for most individuals and families, we should not be willing to set aside much of the conservation achievements which have been accomplished in the past 100 years as a reaction to the events of the 2008 Financial Crisis and the carnage left in its wake.
In fairness to some of these organizations, many have been driven to political preference because of the seemingly extreme views which are held by elements of both parties. Having said that, no single political party ever gets all of these issues right and it is for this reason that no one party should hold the view that they “own” this constituency. In fact, we are far better served if both parties have an interest in courting sportsmen-conservationist support through the shared advocacy of these issues.
So, what should we do? We need to urge those organizations whose declared mission is advocacy on behalf of conservation values and hunter-angler interests to do so on a non-partisan basis in an effort to build the largest coalition possible. Further division within an already fragmented environmental-conservation-sportsmen community is merely one step closer to those aforementioned fears actually being realized.
We should support those organizations which have done the best job of blurring these partisan differences and have also sought to honor and recognize legislative leaders on both sides of the political aisle for their contributions to these causes.
One group that is doing a great job of getting news and information out on a non-partisan basis is Sportsmen Vote. Their website can be viewed by clicking on http://www.sportsmenvote.com/