I was the new guy… the one in the orange hat. For the first time in awhile, I knew almost no one walking into a conference the size of SHIFT.
SHIFT is an annual gathering of conservation-minded leaders from around the country. They gather in Jackson, Wyoming each year to tackle tough issues. In ways I’ve never been part of before in the outdoor industry, they work to build bridges across political and ideological lines – though it helps that the topic of this year’s SHIFT was Preserving our Public Lands, an issue that unites nearly every conservationist.
There are around 350 people here, and on the surface, you could draw the conclusion that many are “anti-hunting” or at a minimum, “hunting agnostic.” But, time and time again we’ve had great conversations about the role hunting plays in conservation. We’ve discussed what it really means to be a hunter, we’ve spoken about the threats a declining hunting population poses to the source of many of their budgets. I’ve explained the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation at least a dozen times to people who make their living in conservation. Almost every conservation has been concluded with positive takeaways.
There is very little camo here, and perhaps because of that, some really cool things happened. Here are some examples.
Upon my arrival, I sat with two women from Boulder, Colorado who described themselves as “not-anti-hunting, but definitely not hunters.” They asked questions. “Does the NRA represent all hunters? Do hunters realize the image they’re portraying to people like us when they brag about the size of the deer they shoot? I hear hunters care about conservation, but I totally don’t get how that can be true.”
Later on the first day, I was at a table discussion with a woman whom I think would consider herself “anti-hunting.” She voluntarily takes Hispanic families in the Pacific Northwest on outdoor adventures. And, she recently took a job with the Sierra Club. I came away thinking she was brilliant. She articulately shared her concerns, and we concluded that her perceptions of hunting and her concerns about hunting aren’t incorrect, but that perhaps they fall short of the whole story. Like nearly everyone I spoke with this week, I found her open-minded and willing to have a real conversation. I didn’t get the impression she’d ever personally become a hunter, but I absolutely believe she thinks of hunting differently than she did when she arrived in Jackson.
A man who works for the Wilderness Society went out of his way on a couple occasions to seek out a conversation with me. He was eager to tell me the Wilderness Society is absolutely inclusive of hunters. Though he doesn’t hunt, he wanted me to know that he feels his organization does important work that hunters don’t know about or give them credit for.
I heard an elk hunting story – a real, not-everything-goes-as-planned, pull-no-punches hunting story from a woman leading a new woman’s hunting organization from the National Wildlife Federation, called Artemis. It brought me to tears because I could relate, and it made me so happy SHIFT included her story in their event. For some of the over 150+ people in the room, I imagined it to be one of the first authentic hunting stories they’d ever listened to. There was some uneasiness as Iooked around, but as the storyteller said, “to a fault, we hunters tend to hide the feeling in our stories.”
I learned that diversity in the outdoor industry is actually a thing. There were brown people here – hunters, campers, hikers, climbers, bikers, and leaders. It was so refreshing to hear their perspective and to enter thoughtful conversations on hard topics with them. A woman from Japan taught us a Japanese gesture of reverence before a meal. It’s pronounced, “Ita-daki-mas” and there are no direct English translations, though it loosely translates to “I’m taking, and I don’t take it for granted.” As she described the word in English she perfectly narrated the way many hunters feel after they shoot a big game animal.
My notes from the conference are as follows:
- If we want to grow hunting, people participating in other forms of outdoor recreation are a great place to start. But, they often don’t think about it the way a traditional hunter might.
- We need to invite people who think differently to attend our hunting industry conferences. There are hundreds of them here. REI has 16 million members… just saying.
- Individuals inviting people is the only way we’ll create new hunters at scale.
- A yoga instructor told me hunting was just like yoga for her – meditation and relaxation. Haven’t heard that before…
- The Emerging Leaders program at SHIFT is something many other organizations and conferences need to think about replicating. They added a lot of energy, good ideas, and unique perspectives.
- On appealing to urban residents
- Make them aware they own 640 million acres of public land
- You gotta invite the family unit
- Treat urban access, likes parks and ponds like it’s part of nature
- Hunting dogs are a tremendous tool for appealing to urban youth.
- Inviting a young person from an urban family to do something once is a waste of money unless you invite their family or someone else who can help them go again
- Local protein has near-universal appeal
- You can’t say you want people of color involved, you have to go to where they’re at with opportunities designed around their lives
- All 4th-graders in the US Public School System got a free public lands and parks access pass – but I’ve never heard anyone talk about it – this is a great place to start a conversation with the family
- Many Latino people love the outdoors, but they’re scared to death of the government. Making them enter their social security number to get a license all but prevents them from doing it – a cultural truth for Latino people. Begs the question, why do we need a social security number to get a fishing/hunting license?
- Food sovereignty is a term I hadn’t heard before – and one that means a lot to lower-income urban residents. It’s the root of things like community gardens – and could be the basis for recruiting more hunters from urban areas
- On bridging the gap between left and right-leaning conservation organizations
- Avoid trigger words/phrases like global warming, herd management, long-range shooting, etc.
- We need to invite people who don’t look and think like us to our conferences.
- Focus on what makes us similar – love of public lands, clean air and water, wild animals, wild places and most certainly FOOD
- Ask more questions than you make statements
- Hunters need to know that what they put on social media informs the opinion of people who don’t hunt and/or don’t like hunting – be thoughtful about what and how you share
- Many environmentalists I spoke with talked about their respect for how well hunters know the animals they pursue and the land on which they hunt – What do we hunters respect about environmentalists?
- Many are really tuned into the political issues.
- Many use emotion in their stories I seldom hear from hunters.
- Many are intentional about inclusion and diversity.
PS – Remember the name, Robbie Bond. He’s 10, and he’s gonna be the face of conservation in this country inside of a year. You heard it here first!
Photo: Courtesy – Jared Frasier – 2% for Conservation
Photo: Courtesy – SHIFT