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Meet Land Tawney, the face of young, passionate conservation group [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) :: BC-OTD-CONSERVATIONGROUP-QA:MS]

MINNEAPOLIS - Land Tawney, president and chief executive officer of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, headquartered in Missoula, Mont., delivered the keynote address at the Department of Natural Resources' annual roundtable for key stakeholders.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) was founded by a small group of hunters and fishermen around an Oregon campfire in 2004, with a mission of protecting the nation's 640 million acres of public lands.

Tawney, 42, a fifth-generation Montanan, worked for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the National Wildlife Federation before taking the reins of BHA in 2013.

Tawney and his wife, Glenna, live in Missoula with their son and daughter and two Labrador retrievers, Turk and Tule.

Q: How does BHA benefit public lands?

A: We're a membership organization that works collaboratively with many other conservation groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Pheasants Forever and others.

But our niche is a strict focus on our wild public lands and waters. We want to ensure access to those places, and ensure as well the habitat on those lands is retained. These lands belong to all of us. Their establishment didn't happen by accident, and it won't be carried forward by accident.

Q: Though still much smaller than wildlife groups such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, BHA is growing fast, and the group's members are relatively young.

A: We more than doubled our membership in 2017, from 8,000 to 17,000, and our goal in 2018 is to double it again. Hunters and anglers make up the majority of our members, but we have other members who hike or otherwise use public lands in other ways.

Q: Your approach to raising money is also different. You don't hold fund-raising banquets but instead host "Pint Nights," "Brewfests" and "Story Nights."

A: To engage our members and prospective members, and to raise funds, we often meet our members in urban places, three-quarters of whom are under 40. The Pint Night we had here in Minneapolis was well attended, and gave members and prospective members a chance to have some fun while meeting others of like interests.

We also hold Brewfests and Story Nights. In Seattle recently, we had a couple of great Story Nights in which eight of our members recalled good times they've had on public land.

We also have significant corporate and foundation support.

Q: How did you personally develop an appreciation for public lands?

A: I was with my dad in a duck blind or on a trout stream from a very early age. It helped also that my parents were very conservation-minded. My dad was a lawyer, and he and my mother were the first full-time conservation advocates at the Montana Legislature. My dad also helped write the bylaws of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and was their lawyer for the first 10 years of their existence.

Q: Why are public lands important?

A: We live in a time where we can be connected to a phone 24/7. Wilderness and public lands in general allow us a chance to separate from that, a chance also for solace, and for challenge.

When traveling in wilderness, or in back country, whether you hunt, fish, backpack, mountain bike or canoe, it's up to you to carry yourself forward, to show resolve and grit. In many ways, this self-reliance, this grit, is what America was built on. In that respect, as our public lands go, so goes America. Additionally, public lands are the nation's cornerstone of clean air and water.

The outdoors economy, which is dependent on our public lands, is the nation's third-largest, at $887 billion, behind the financial and medical sectors. By preserving our public lands, we can sustain, and even grow, our outdoors economy.

Q: Public-lands conflicts have gained significant media attention in recent years.

A: The takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016 was one such conflict. Another occurred when Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz introduced a bill to sell more than 3 million acres of public land, a bill he later withdrew after an outcry from hunters and anglers, among others.

Q: President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have said they don't intend to sell public lands. Yet these lands seem evermore threatened by increased oil and gas exploration.

A: We applaud the administration's promise not to sell public lands, because once you sell them, you don't get them back. Keeping these lands in the public trust is, you could say, our Second Amendment.

That said, the issue now is not so much the sale of public lands but the selling out of those lands. You can have all the public lands you want. But if there is no habitat on them, the losses are significant.

Q: President Trump has said he wants to emulate the conservation achievements of Teddy Roosevelt.

A: Roosevelt was our greatest conservation president. But what we've seen in the first year of the Trump administration is very troubling.

Q: Mining proposals are advancing near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, an issue Minnesota's BHA chapter is concerned about.

A: Preserving public lands, particularly the boundary waters, is critically important to Minnesota and to the nation. Mining is also a threat to salmon fisheries in Alaska and the Smith River in Montana. Also in Minnesota, some counties have said they want no net gains of public lands, which obviously is a concern to hunters, anglers and others who want to enjoy the outdoors.

The threats are in fact national. We had protection of temporary wetlands and intermittent streams in this country, but that protection has been scaled back. We had an excellent compromise plan that was years in the making to conserve sage grouse. Now that plan is being disbanded, despite protests from hunters, ranchers and elected officials.

All of these things have a thread: big industry. And, unfortunately, big industry has the ear of President Trump and Secretary Zinke.

Q: Is it a crisis?

A: We have the public resources we have today because people stepped up to protect them when threats arose. Sport hunters stopped commercial hunting in the early 1900s, when wildlife populations were being wiped out. In the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, duck hunters passed the Duck Stamp and founded Ducks Unlimited. In the 1960s, when rivers were on fire in this country, Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring," and a few years later we had clean air and water legislation.

Now these environmental and public-lands threats are arising again. Is it time for us to do our part? Absolutely. And I'm confident people will.

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