In the past few years, the membership of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has exploded — from 2,000 members in 2013 to 20,000 last April and 36,000 today. And the group, which promotes public land access and conservation issues, has a plan to add more.
Part of BHA’s brand has been its mishmash of all ages, locations and backgrounds of its member hunters and anglers, hundreds of whom gathered in Downtown Boise this past weekend for the group’s annual Rendezvous conference.
Now the group is harnessing that reputation to bring an even more unusual demographic to its ranks: outdoorsmen and women who don’t hunt or fish.
Building on a background of diversity
Last August, BHA released results of a survey of its members. It found the group split almost evenly between political ideologies: 33% Independent, 23% Republican, 20% Democrat and 16% unaffiliated, bucking national trends for the general hunting and fishing population. (Eight percent listed no preference.)
“That’s about as bipartisan as it gets these days,” President and CEO Land Tawney told the Statesman in a phone interview.
Last week’s Rendezvous drew BHA members from each state in the U.S. and each province in Canada, Tawney said.
Samantha Flowers, who traveled to Boise with her husband, Brian, to attend the Rendezvous, lives in Washington, D.C. She said her local chapter of BHA embodies those bipartisan lines — but she was still surprised how the diversity stretched across the entire organization.
“When the demographic report came out, we were like, ‘Wow, we really are across the board,’ ” Flowers said.
The members’ backgrounds in the outdoors are just as diverse.
“We range from people that grew up hunting and fishing ... to part of our membership that’s brand new to it,” Tawney said.
And there’s room for more. Ryan Cavanaugh, co-chair of the Michigan chapter of BHA, said he’s welcoming backpackers, hikers, birdwatchers and other “non-consumptive” public lands users.
“I tell people don’t let the name mislead you, it’s not just hunters and anglers,” Cavanaugh said in an interview.
Tawney, the group’s leader, said there’s common ground for all outdoorsmen — literally.
“Hunting and fishing is in our name but I think we appeal to anyone who cares about public lands and public waters,” Tawney said.
At the BHA Rendezvous in Boise, each attendee received a lanyard proclaiming themselves a public land owner. It’s one of Tawney’s favorite points to make.
“Public lands belong to all of us, and those public lands don’t care if you’re an independent, a Democrat or a Republican,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much money your parents made last year or who you’re connected with. That piece that it belongs to all of us ... is a unifier.”
That’s true locally, too.
“We hear the same language about public lands being discussed when we’re in rural Idaho or Downtown Boise,” said Josh Kuntz, who heads the Idaho BHA chapter.
Members of BHA say that unity is driving real change — the organization was a champion of legislation that reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund when it passed in March. The fund helps preserve public lands and waters and promote land access. And though it was originally passed in 1964, one politician said he thinks BHA’s work made the legislation more of a household name than it’s been in previous years.
During a seminar at the Rendezvous, New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat and member of BHA, said the group increased awareness on the LWCF.
“I saw LWCF yard signs,” the senator said about his time on the campaign trail in 2018. “I was blown away.”
To BHA organizers, it’s a push to continue the work they’re doing and another reason to bring even more outdoors enthusiasts into the fold.
“When you have wins like we did with the Land and Water Conservation Fund, that doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Tawney said. “People get a win and want more.”
How can hunters, hikers and more get along?
In the hunting world, Steven Rinella is a celebrity. And his celebrity is bleeding over into the mainstream. His TV show, MeatEater, is on Netflix, and a live taping of his podcast of the same name was one of the major draws at the Rendezvous this year. Last fall, Rinella used his platform as contributing editor of Outside magazine to make a call for hikers to make nice with his “hook-and-bullet crowd.”
“From cold shoulders at the trailhead to outright hostility, the tension between these groups can be traced back to at least 1903,” Rinella wrote, citing barbs thrown between preservationist John Muir and conservationist president Theodore Roosevelt.
Those relationships are improving, Tawney said, but there’s still a gap between the groups today.
“There’s this idea that we shouldn’t agree,” Tawney said. “They may experience the woods a little differently (than we do) but there’s a lot more crossover that I think people can agree on.”
Kuntz said in Idaho, where many non-hunters know someone who hunts or fishes, consumptive outdoorsmen have had a largely favorable reputation. But as Idaho’s population booms, that may shift.
“Certainly we could see some changes, especially here around Boise as more people from urban areas come in,” Kuntz said.
BHA leaders like Kuntz, Cavanaugh and Flowers say combating that attitude is often a matter of education.
Recently, Kuntz hosted a BHA pint night at a brewery in Twin Falls, where he met a group of rock climbers who told them they don’t hunt or fish.
“We had a great conversation, and they realized a lot of their climbing spots are on public land,” Kuntz said. “I feel like it’s trending where the non-hunting and -fishing crowd is getting involved.”
It helps that many BHA members identify with hikers, bikers, campers and more. Flowers grew up in rural Oklahoma where she backpacked and rode horses.
“I’m not scared to educate (people),” Flowers said. “I think there’s a huge gap we need to bridge as hunters and anglers. We’re seen as hating nature. If we can display ourselves as members of the outdoors community ... I think that is one way to bridge that gap.”
Cavanaugh said he spends more time strolling with his German shorthaired pointer than hunting.
“I’m a public land dog walker if anything else,” he joked. “I think that surprises people.”
Like Kuntz, he’s also run into non-hunters and -anglers who share the same values. He’s happy to welcome outdoor recreators like ice climbers to the Michigan chapter, which started in 2016 with 65 members and now boasts 2,000 members.
“They’re like, ’I don’t hunt or fish but I use (the public land). I want to give back to it,’ ” Cavanaugh said. “Then they become members.
“We can’t have this fear of people from the nonconsumptive world joining in,” he added. “I think with us having that openness to everyone, they feel like they can come to the table.”
Outdoors could offer lessons to overcome political divide
Across the country, there’s little that Americans are able to agree on. So how has BHA rallied such a varied group behind its cause?
The organization’s CEO said he focuses on both talking and listening, and he recognizes that agreeing on 80 percent of issues could be as close as outdoor recreators get to a consensus. Plus, Tawney said, people are tired of feeling polarized, and the equal footing they find in their love of the outdoors may seem like an ideal spot to quiet some of the discord.
“We’re in some of the most politically divided times, and people are looking for reasons to come together,” Tawney said. “I think what’s happening in this space is finding common ground. I hope that permeates into other aspects of our lives.”
Flowers, who lives just outside the nation’s political epicenter, said BHA is leading by example when it comes to reaching across the aisle and starting friendships first with debates to follow.
“BHA is doing something that we should be doing as a country,” she said. “We’re all united with one cause. That is the beauty of the outdoors. It has that power to unite people.”
Special correspondent Rocky Barker contributed to this story.