I was asked to spend the weekend at a conference an hour and a half away by an involved member of a local conservation organization. A conference I’d only been to once, fifteen years ago, for a conservation organization I was only tangentially involved with. It was the sort of organization I’d tended to support indirectly all my sporting life- they do great work, and I was happy to mail them fifty bucks a year to in support. The in-person meetings were another story: you had to register, you had to get a hotel room (which as a broke undergraduate meant finding one or two or three more people your age, interested and available and willing to pay for the weekend). If I could drop a couple hundred bucks hunting or fishing, or I could drop a couple hundred bucks to talk about hunting and fishing- the choice was obvious.
Plus, The Old Guard wanted you to wear dress shoes, they wanted you to wear a sport coat, they wanted you to attend The Banquet, where folks thirty or forty years older would either ignore you entirely or treat you as a novelty- and I was a twenty-something white kid. If you were a woman, or minority, interested in the outdoors? You might as well be from outer space.
No one really elaborated as to why I was asked to show up this weekend until I was there, sitting in a room with two dozen other folks under forty. The Membership Chair stood up and thanked us all for coming, then got to the point: membership had dropped off precipitously over the past couple years. The biggest factor?
Hunters and anglers skew older, whiter, and male-er than the general population. Add to that they tend to live in parts of the country most impacted by COVID-19. While the parent organizations of groups like Trout Unlimited and Pheasants Forever may still be able to attract passionate employees into the nonprofit sector, those organizations depend upon boots-on-the-ground volunteers for everything from developing habitat conservation projects to keeping up with state legislatures. After two years of global pandemic- many of those local advocates, they’re gone.
Because they’re local, because they’re made up of constituents, many of these chapters are one of the few conservation advocacy organizations state legislators take seriously. Special interests know that, and lobbyists- corporate agriculture, extractive industries, and all the rest- are eager to fill gaps on executive boards and committees with sympathetic ears.
I left the meeting having applied for a couple standing committees on topics I’m conversant in and passionate about. Several of the two dozen folks in that room did, too. If you believe the outdoors should be more diverse and inclusive- here’s your chance. If you believe we should be stronger advocates, better educators, better messengers- now’s your chance to help inform the agenda.
If you’ve been turned off by these groups in the past, consider giving them another shot.