McKean Minute: A Recipe for Local Conservation – Pt. 1

We had a party last Saturday night here in my hometown of Glasgow, Mont. A couple hundred folks showed up at the Catholic Church gym. We ate tasty prime rib roasted by members of the Knights of Columbus. We drank beer, including a smooth amber ale from our local brewery, the Busted Knuckle. Glasgow High School students and their parents served food and cleaned tables to help fund this spring’s trip to Washington, D.C.

This wasn’t just a small-town social event, though. We were gathered with a purpose. It was the third annual fundraising banquet for the Hi-Line Sportsmen, and on a night when the west wind howled, blowing around a foot of drifty snow and sending temps well below zero, inside the warm church, we raised a trove of money by auctioning or raffling guns, homemade knives, donated hardware, and even leftover prime rib.

If this sounds like the backdrop for a Ducks Unlimited banquet, or a fundraiser for the National Wild Turkey Federation or Whitetails Unlimited, you’re not far wrong. Dinners and auctions like ours are standard tools to raise money and awareness for what we call “critter groups.” Only we weren’t raising money for any specific species on Saturday. Instead, we Hi-Line Sportsmen were raising money for them all, including the species most in need of our management: humans.

ORIGIN OF HI-LINE SPORTSMEN

Next week, I’ll talk about all the ways we put the funds we raise at our banquet back on the ground, but for now I want to talk about the origin of Hi-Line Sportsmen, and the risks and rewards of handmade conservation.

Nearly everyone who’s involved in our group is an alum of a critter organization. The majority of us started working together in our local chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. We have a few folks who came over from Ducks Unlimited, and others from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. If you live in a small, rural town like Glasgow – population 3,400 – you are on the circuit of most critter groups. We’re large enough to host a banquet and find people to volunteer, but we’re small enough that there’s a ton of competition for a beer-fueled gun raffle on any given Saturday night.

Like most species-specific fundraisers, we sold an NWTF core package of framed art, special guns, and other merchandise that was shipped to us from headquarters in South Carolina. We were guided by a paid regional director whose main job was to maximize banquet revenue. And then we sent most of the money we raised down the road, to be used for essential habitat and species-restoration work elsewhere. And to pay for that fund-raising infrastructure.

I loved my time as an NWTF volunteer, and rose through the Turkey Federation ranks to serve as Montana state president for many years. Together, we put tens of thousands of dollars on the ground for turkey-related conservation. But our local committee often talked about trying to hold back funds to accomplish all the local conservation work that we saw all around us. So, four years ago we decided to leave the NWTF and start Hi-Line Sportsmen. Our tag line: “Keeping Conservation Local.”

It wasn’t an easy decision. For starters, there was the reality that there was no organizational safety net. It would be just us volunteers and the good will of the community. Second, we wanted to be clear that we intended to distribute all our funds annually to good causes, so we had to develop a structured way of assessing needs and awarding funds (more on that next week).

And we had to keep our promises that we would make good use of the funds raised, that we would not beg merchants for donations, and that we would throw a helluva party. We’ve kept all those promises, and Saturday’s banquet showed that the community is behind our work.

In some ways, our leap into the future is really going back in time. Local conservation is an old-fashioned idea, dating back to the proliferation of rod-and-gun clubs that were the first conservation organizations in most American towns. Many sprang up after World War II, when veterans returned home with a desire to improve their communities, military-surplus gear was widely available, and veterans longed for a place to safely practice the shooting skills they developed in the service.

For Hi-Line Sportsmen, and I’m guessing this is the case for most of you reading this, there are a huge number of small and large conservation needs all around us. We love critter groups, and most of us are members of Pheasants Forever, NWTF, Ducks Unlimited, RMEF, Delta Waterfowl, and Mule Deer Foundation. We recognize and respect the wide-scale regional and national work that they do, and their ability to double or triple local funds allows them to accomplish some huge and critical tasks.

But we also think there’s a need for truly grassroots conservation, for funds to be spent on small but meaningful projects right under our noses. Next week, I’ll talk about some of the ways we’re accomplishing those problems. For now, I’m going to go clean up the church and eat some leftover prime rib. It’s even better a couple days on.

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