The opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy. The opposite of a republican is not a democrat, it’s an anarchist. The opposite of a beef farmer is not a vegan, but rather someone who couldn’t tell you what a hot dog is made out of.
As you’ll note after reading Mike Freeman’s lyrical evocation of boyhood days on the trapline in the essay on page 43, the opposite of an environmentalist is not a fur trapper. And yet one could have been forgiven for suspecting as much when The Sierra Club – a 1.4-millionmember national environmental organization – recently issued a policy statement affirming that it was against trapping, and sportsmen’s groups across the nation rose to the bait and decried the act. It should be noted that The Sierra Club has made notable strides in the recent past in reaching out to the hunting community, and so this missive came as a surprise – and a disappointment – to those of us interested in spanning the divide. Anyone who’s been to Yosemite is grateful that John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, went ahead and met with Teddy Roosevelt on their fateful camping trip in 1903, despite the fact that Muir was on record as rooting for the animals over the hunters and Roosevelt had a pronounced Ernest Hemingway streak.
Northern Woodlands is a magazine inspired by naturalists like Roosevelt and Muir, and so when it comes to the modern rift between environmentalists and sportsmen and women, I often feel like the child of divorced parents, trying to bridge the divide. Sometimes I keen for what are, in my mind, former glory days, when nobody at The Audubon Society thought it was weird that George Bird Grinnell was an avid hunter and editor of a hook and bullet magazine, and nobody at Forest and Stream magazine thought it was weird that their editor, George Bird Grinnell, was the founder of the first Audubon Society.
In my more analytical moments, I can’t help but try to figure out where the trust fell apart. Through history’s rosy glasses, we see sportsmen and naturalists working together for limits on game seasons, to end market hunting, to protect watersheds, to create and fund state fish and wildlife agencies, for clean air, and to preserve open space, among other things.
So what happened?
For one, the environmental movement changed. While there has always been tension between conservationists and preservationists, the landmark environmental legislation of the early 1970s – the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act – spawned a whole new crop of environmental advocacy groups who shifted the focus of the movement from the town hall to the courtroom. These national environmental groups have undoubtedly raised the standard of living for all Americans, but the centralized model has also unwittingly turned the environment into a partisan issue, while alienating many rural Americans (who, not surprisingly, didn’t and don’t like the idea of activists, lawyers, and lobbyists from away dictating the stewardship of rural lands).
The bigger culprit in the rift, though – call it the affair that ended the marriage – was the alignment of the environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s with the more aggressive wing of the animal rights movement (PeTA, et al.), which put sportsmen directly at odds with some greens. Certainly fur is no different from leather or down or gelatin or glue or red #40 or any of the other non-meat uses humans have for animals, and it would be hard to argue that sustainably harvested fur from the woods is less environmentally sound than plastic fur produced in a coalfired factory. But this objectivity has been lost in some quarters, as fur became murder and, by default, trappers became murderers. The fact that some trappers responded to this by becoming more insular – by writing off the whole environmental movement as out to get them – hasn’t helped anything.
Today, sportsmen and women – particularly trappers – and environmentalists find themselves at a curious point in history. By joining forces in the early parts of the twentieth century, they were able to change the world. And yet today, the groups often find themselves in opposition, and both are in decline. Polls indicate that today the majority of Americans are opposed to trapping. Polls also indicate that when Americans are asked if they consider themselves to be environmentalists, the majority will say, flat out, “no.” In 1993, 78 percent of respondents answered “yes” to the same question.
The opposite of an environmentalist is not a fur trapper; it’s someone so tuned out from the natural world that they fail to notice the roadkill on the road to the mall. Most of my friends, who include a large number of sportsmen and greens, want nothing more than a simple, low-impact life on a healthy planet. So why not a future where trappers’ associations partner with conservation commissions to fight the spread of invasive plants in wetlands, or monitor mercury deposition, or advocate together for open space and working forests and farms? Our national discourse may still be colored by the dorm-room battles of the 1960s and ’70s; we may all be, figuratively speaking, the children of divorce. But this doesn’t mean we have to make the same mistakes our parents did.