Hunting, land, and a moral failure of American capitalism

Hunting is expensive. Non-resident elk tags in the lower 48 run between 500 and 1300 dollars, when all costs are included. Deer tags are generally a fair bit less. Any other big game species (bear, moose, mountain goat, sheep) is generally quite a bit, or exponentially, more expensive than elk. Sheep tags cost between 1300 and 10,000 or so dollars (the later figure being the mandatory guiding provision in Alaska). These figures are for me shocking, coming from a background of fair-means human powered recreation where the cost of the activity in question is usually (outside National Parks) zero. The only exception is road-accessed wilderness rafting, which I’ve grown to regard as not exactly fair means, and along with backpacking in National Parks provides a decent means of comparison.

IMG_0919Bob Marshall forky; in 2014 a resident Sportsman’s License (which includes deer, elk, and bear) cost 85 dollars.  An 8 mile hike gets you off trail and into deer which only rarely see people.

Rivers like the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, Selway in Idaho, and Smith in Montana all have permit systems because left unregulated too many people would do the float during prime season, the result being excessive impact on camp sites and wilderness experience. Popular National Parks and National Forests, places like Glacier, Grand Canyon, and most of the Sierra (including Yosemite) demand a quota system for the same reasons as the aforementioned rivers. Most people don’t like having to jump through these hoops, especially when a prime August permit in Glacier or October permit to float the Grand might take years to get. At the same time, I recall no reasonable objections to the spirit or goal of these regulations. No one wants to see abundant poop under rocks in alpine meadows or desert beaches, nor profligate side trails through the precious vegetation in such locations.

Similar things can be said for hunting; any sane hunter wants to be able to spend a day or week out in prime terrain and never see another human, as well as plenty of well-fed critters. If hunting licenses and tags did not exist, or didn’t bring enough restrictions with them, neither of these things would ever be possible. There are just too many people on earth.

Spotted_Dog_WMA_Map_smThe Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area, Montana.

My quarrel with contemporary river and hunting regulations is that they cost too much money and don’t provide enough opportunity.  The cost is of course partly to further limit the number of people who are interested in any given year, and partly to finance the permit system itself.  Paying to play on public lands may be a necessary evil, but as the years have passed I find it no less offensive that things like running a given river or hunting a given species requires years, perhaps decades, of planning and waiting.  With the way sheep preference points are heading, someone who only starts building points today may never have more than a couple thousands of a percent chance to hunt in a given location.  As a country whose wildlife model values access and was specifically founded against the kind of European lands regime which spawned Robin Hood, this is simply unacceptable.

Answer to the river access problem is obvious; shut down the roads.  Demolish the Lee’s Ferry road and make everyone carry their stuff down a goat trail from the highway.  Close the Magruder road to motorized traffic and cease any maintenance which isn’t human-powered, forever.  Give the Salmon River road a similar treatment 10 miles downstream from North Fork.  Democracy of opportunity does not mean opportunity of mode, and in this day and this age experiencing true Wilderness should require hard work and sacrifice.  Boat-rampers have the Lochsa, Payette, big pieces of the Green and Colorado, and countless others.  As a general rule, today we need less access, not more.  More opportunity, measured in time and impulse, not less.  More quality, in every conceivable respect.

Hunting should be the same way, though the variegated nature of the discipline makes the management issues more nuanced and challenging.  Broad guidelines should seek to maximize the range of opportunities available for hunters, as measured by economics and range of opportunities.  Tag prices need to go down for non-residents, and for the more esoteric species for everyone.  At the same time, to control numbers without requiring more draw-only units, road access needs to be severely curtailed.  The Henry Mountains in south-central Utah is managed as a trophy unit for Mule Deer, both in terms of antler size and experience.  The odds of drawing a rifle tag there last year were .0007 percent.  If you get such a tag you will be mostly alone, and unless you drop dead or go blind you will shoot a big deer.  How popular would the unit be if all the roads between 24, 95, 276, and the Notom-Bullfrog were closed to any form of non-human powered travel (including stock)?  I think such an approach would go a long ways towards maintaining the integrity of the experience while providing proper opportunity for just about anyone who cared to cultivate the proper skills and fitness.

A few basic ground rules would have to be put into wide application to make such a system work nationwide.

First, close a bunch of dirt roads, as mentioned in the example above.  Bomb out culvert, bulldoze in trenches and rocks, enact laws which mandate the confiscation of any ATVs caught where they shouldn’t be.  This is the most contentious and most essential step.  It will necessarily lead to less pressure and more integral habitat, which will in turn necessarily lead to more robust populations of sensitive species such as mule deer, elk, moose, and sheep.  (Whitetails are the rats, or more charitably coyotes, of North American big game.  We couldn’t get rid of them if we tried.)  Which will lead to more hunter opportunity.

Second, private landowner rights must be significantly reshaped.  A good first step would be regulations requiring private holders to provide thru-access to public lands, so this and this will never happen again.  Abolishing the ability of landowners to sell ther landowner tags for anything beyond the cost of a standard tag is another step which, frankly, should have taken place 40 years ago.  Eventually, the rights of the most extensive landowners to limit public use of their land, including hunting, will need to be curtailed.  Perhaps anyone who owns a parcel more than 5,000 acres would have to give out 2 free access permits per 1,000 acres each hunting season.  This last is of course a long way off.

It goes without saying that raffle tags, Governor’s tags, and anything of that sort will disappear never to be seen again.  State wildlife agency funding will be divorced from tag revenue.  Again, how do we live in a country which does this?  (Answer; Lehmen Brothers, Goldman Sachs, the demise of Glass-Steagall, etc.)

Third, abolish for-profit guiding on public lands, and any requirement that a non-resident must have a guide to hunt certain species (AK and WY, you should be ashamed).  I have no issue with the disabled hiring logistical assistance, but guiding in modern American has come to mean, more than anything, that folks with lots of money can buy their way into better opportunity.  If you want to hunt wilderness the only honest way to earn it is with skill and work, things which can be cultivated largely apart from economic opportunity.

IMG_0836Let the cost of the camera and spotting scope be determined by a truly free market, and the cost of the walk in to and out with a goat be divorced from anything but sweat as far as is possible.

The big picture here, and the reason why so many people find these ideas so offensive, is that American capitalism has for it’s whole life equated monetary success with merit.  If you make a lot of money you must be a good person.  Good people deserve more hunting (etc) opportunities, ergo tags and hunts which cost a lot are fine, in fact probably a good thing for society.  As Abbey said of those engineers staking out the Arches entrance road; this is a powerful and historically weighted argument with centuries of cultural inertia behind it.  It is also utterly insane.  Anyone who looks at the last twenty years of American history and sees a direct correlation between virtue and affluence, does not see wealth in adulthood as given mostly by historical privilege, who does not in short see many compelling reasons for a 100 percent estate tax on wealth beyond a few hundred thousand dollars (certain businesses excepted), is a fool, a willfully, blind, fool.

Outdoor recreation, including hunting, is as good a metaphor as any for the health of our nation moving towards the twenty-second century.  The way we will generate spiritual, intellectual, and economic capital will have everything to do with the things beyond humanity we managed to not screw up, and little to do with GNP and the CPI.  Put another way, we’ll finally figure out that happiness is only created by money insofar as basic needs plus 20% are met, and given all the potentially happy things left in this country, hopefully as a culture we won’t figure it out too late.

23 responses to “Hunting, land, and a moral failure of American capitalism”

  1. Yes! Although, realistically what are the chances of this ever happening? I can’t imagine the majority of the general public being too happy with limiting access.

    1. Not much gain in limiting ourselves to whats realistic, eh?

  2. I’ll go along with you. Among other things, the idea of leasing public land to outfitters really bothers me. Selling or leasing assets is indicative of a government that is desperate for money, but can’t or won’t figure out sustainable ways to generate the income. When the assets are gone, the cash flow dries up, but the assets are no longer there to be used. I suppose that lotteries are the only fair way to distribute limited tags, but the lottery itself shouldn’t be a general revenue source. I’m in favor of restricting vehicle use and of requiring land owners to provide access to public land. I don’t see it as a failure of capitalism as much as the result of corruption and ignorance.

  3. When you post things like this – it makes me hope that some day you get some serious injury that impedes your freedom of movement – and you then gain some humility and wisdom about access.

    You’re the one that told me long ago – if people can’t get there, and see it, they will never care about protecting it. And while I disagree with that sentiment, I wonder how your belief in it informs these ideas of yours. How many advocates for wildlife protection do you lose when they can’t get any good hunting anymore.

    We’ve seen this effect people’s views of wolves… the Elk patterns change and they’re too lazy to work harder to find them, and next thing you know there’s a huge anti-wolf lobby. Think through the real world implications of your suggestions :)

    1. Hopefully I’d take it with a modicum of grace, esp as you wouldn’t be able to carry me too far.

      1. I think the fundamental flaw in the argument for access is the associated belief that humans are the peak of creation so to speak and that we are different from everything else in nature. When in fact, we are anything but and that we are the most prevalent species on the planet is pure chance. Why should everyone have access? Humans do not deserve anymore access than a tree, a beetle or a wolf. Furthermore, access isn’t eliminated or taken away completely, it just presents itself in a different form. As Dave said, people will have to work towards where they want to go, by developing skills and moving under their own power. I don’t think that’s too much to ask of humans, for the massive potential upside that lays in return.

        1. It’s not about people deserving the access, it is about it being in everyone’s best interest that more people experience more of nature. It will make them into defenders, and it will, in the end, be the savior of all wilderness.

          If we take places with quotas and lotteries and make them harder to access, there won’t be more or less people getting out there, just fewer people getting there more, instead of more people getting in there less often. While the elimination of a lottery make seem like a win for access, it isn’t.

          The deepest places will only ever be access for the few – and the few will never have enough political or financial sway to save the places they love singlehandedly. We need the arm-chair hikers, and road drivers, and car campers, because in their enjoyment of the easily accessible they will know the worth of defending that which they will never see.

          P.S. Also – Jack – your attitude is exactly the one Dave likes to espouse and the one I strongly oppose. Nature is not just sitting there and anyone who wants to put in the effort can someday train enough to access any given spot if only they TRY HARD ENOUGH. This is equivalent to the Economic Boot-Strap attitude. There are plenty of physical, mental, economic and cultural issues that prevent some people from ever having the chance to get to some of these places. I’m not saying we should make everywhere accessible to everyone. I’m saying we shouldn’t begrudge people who are already at a disadvantage, the benefit of the access that already exists. If it’s any consolation, I think we should stop commercial guiding on the Colorado, and in that respect, how about banning commercial guiding on any public land. I don’t think any individual should make money directly off of our nation’s public lands. That will stop a lot of people from getting to run the Colorado River, and stop hunter’s from having guide’s on public lands – leave the rest of the access and the lottery system in place.

    2. One of the problems with that stance is that as more and more research are coming out about the effect of off-terrain vehicles on wildlife movements. This is especially problematic when everyone and their grandmother owns an ATV or snowmobiles nowadays. These days, disabled hunters are more likely to use quads and dirt-bikes when in the past they used horses, mules, bicycles and rafts.

      I remember how wildlife populations were before 15 years ago when only the affluent had quads and snowmobiles. But now that every house has both, one have to travel further and further away from the roads to find a deer.

      I have no problem with old-timers using horses or mules, and it’s not very expensive to rent them; but what I do have a problem with is all the young people and old people using motorized means.

  4. The founders of this country loathed the idea that the US could become a monarchy. They would be sad and disappointed to see that, even though America escaped becoming a true monarchy, the oligarchy that has developed into the driving power base here is actually worse. If you want to overthrow a monarchy you have to remove the power from the ruling bloodlines. Traditionally, royal families in monarchies are not necessarily financially powerful. Their true power comes from position and heredity. So kill them or just demote them to normal citizens.

    The oligarchy that has formed in the US has staggering economic power. Overthrowing that entrenched system of inequality is much harder, since you have to fight a group of people who have virtually bottomless economic resources. They lobby, they gate out the riffraff, and if push comes to shove they’ll be able to hire armies to protect themselves.

    And as you say Dave, in the last several decades that oligarch power has gone super critical. There are now families and corporations that are able to pass along dynastic wealth to following generations. As long as staggeringly huge fortunes are allowed to be passed intact to offspring, there will be fundamental inequality.

    Especially since they’ve managed to starve the beast, but surgically. Military and Homeland Security weren’t starved, but look at what’s happened to public higher education? Allow wealthy families to create a generational tradition of wealth, and then make it so that normal people have to endure extreme financial hardship to attain higher education. The American Dream disappears without so much as a puff of smoke.

    Public parks and wildlife management funding is restricted, so the money has to come from somewhere. Boost the fees. And damn the poor.

  5. A thought provoking piece, once again.

    I love the idea of more challenging but fair access which would provide more opportunity and quality the way we see it. But there also lies the major concern I have with this approach: “the way we see it”. Is the human powered, time consuming and expertise requirinq way the best (and thus in the optimal world the only way) to experience outdoors and do outdoor recreation? For me it’s the most appealing one for sure. But is it just a selfish view and thus not much different the rich peoples opinion of going money-first? This is no reason not to support the “less access” approach but it’s good to identify ones motivations.

    Also I think you hit the major point early in the post: “There are just too many people on earth.” I think that’s the true core of the problem and adressing it would enable more sustainable and higher quality living on this planet on the long run. But ufortunately I don’t see it happening globally any time soon…

    1. I try to ensure my elitism happens to go along with what is most socially responsible. ;)

      The simple fact is that to preserve wilderness (the value of which is axiomatic) access needs to be restricted. The above is the obvious least-worst way to do it.

      The important corrolary here would be to established programs, in National Parks and elsewhere, to encourage those who already visit the edges of wild places to get further from the road. I’ve written about that here While I’d like to see stock bridges in juridical Wilderness done away with, I’d also be ok for existing patrol cabins (which are legion) put up for occasional public use.

  6. Interesting ideas. Coming from a climbing background ito hunting, I, too, was shocked at the costs and limitations. I rcall being in Yosemite and thinking that 1 road and a pit toilet (zero amenities) would solve much of the overcrowding issues.

  7. After moving to Switzerland, the Alps became my playground. But what I soon realized is that there are virtually no valleys which cannot be accessed by mechanized means. While in the US one still may find areas not easily reachable by car, here in the Alps it is overdeveloped everywhere with numerous access roads and ski lift facilities (some of which are also operating in summer season to provide easy gateway to high alpine areas). I would even say that the idea of doing an approach is mostly absent in the local outdoor culture, as people would try to do everything to avoid it, judging by the unwillingness of my ski touring partners to do itineraries that involve even a short hike to get to skiable snow.

    So, initially, I had quite a radical stance on the issue of how easily accessed the mountains should be. My stance was that the goods should be earned, and if someone doesn’t want to get them by fair means, then mountains are not the place for them. However, over time changed my position quite a bit. While I still find the situation with overdevelopment and the absences of designated wilderness areas in the Alps quite grave, I think that those who want to have easy access to the mountains (no matter if the reason is their state of health or just the unwillingness to learn skills and do some effort getting there) should have it, provided they do not claim easy access to every corner of the mountain range. I would say that the issue, as I see it now, is not restricting mechanized access in general, but somehow partitioning the land into areas where mechanized access is allowed and areas where it is not allowed (of course such areas need to be big enough so that they cannot be crossed just in one day) and preserving them from further development. So that those who want easy access go to the developed areas at the cost of doing their outings in an overcrowded place, and those who want to get away from the crowds choose non-mechanized access areas at the cost of doing long (and probably multi-day) approaches.

    1. That is pretty close to where I seem to be landing in my approach. Part of it is informed by my interpretation of Browers model of land designation. I think intentionally tiering designation around “wild areas” in fashion that restricted access (like motorized travel) the deeper you got into them could be a sustainable model. I think such a system has a greater ability to create invested stakeholders and foster buy-in to lands less affected my human development. At this point I think we are pretty close to the ceiling of what most people are willing to accept as wilderness in the United States. We have definitely abandoned some places that meet the criteria but I think the easy targets were long ago designated. At the same time I think we could do a better job using the existing lands to foster better understanding of how ecosystems work and the recreational opportunities they provide. Until we do that I am not sure how expand upon the historical concepts and policies.

      Dave and I disagree on the conclusions he makes but I am also uncertain as to what the right proportion of restricted to unrestricted access would be ideal. My guess is its very dynamic and changes with time. I think the most ardent of wilderness organizations no longer have much efficacy with the models they are using though. At this point I think we need a new paradigm to get past the us-versus-them that seems to define modern dialog. I don’t actually know if we need to designate many more wilderness areas in the US but I do firmly believe we don’t stand a chance with the current approach. I also think most of us in the western US have enough wilderness to keep us busy for a lifetime.

      1. (I always use Wilderness to denote the official US thing, and wilderness to denote the more substantive concept; each often exists without the other.)

        Outside AK I’m not sure there are any more really meaningful Wilderness areas to designate. I think you could argue there haven’t been any since the mid 80s. I’d like to see existing Wilderness areas made more wilderness-y by expanding them, closing roads, etc and buffering them with Wilderness lite (e.g. the conversation management areas recently designated here in MT by the RMFront Heritage Act). Equally important is increasing the tolerance of rural US culture to non-benign species. There was an interesting article kicking around last month which talked about how well bears have been doing in Scandinavia b/c they don’t get shot so often the culture there has become quite tolerant of taking steps to live with them.

        This would be important to, for example, link the Yellowstone and Bob Griz populations. There are enough islands of habitat between the Lee Metcalf and Scapegoat to allow bear movement, we’d just need things like electrified chicken coops and calves put on the range later and fatter to make it less common for bears to take human-given snacks. And of course a change in attitude towards them.

        1. I think we overlap there. I know that was part of the dialog at the national conference. I would also say that joining those two areas into a Greater Yellowstone ecosystem could go a long way into catalyzing a new national dialog. The conversation is heating up in Utah as wolves are being discovered further south. The first official sighting accorded by a DNR officer this fall on the Cedar Mts here. When the pubic at large hears that it will be a good reading on where we are at generally with rural populations. A success story in the Yellowstone……that would change everything. But I am not sure how you help foster a new wildlife paradigm considering how heated the modern rhetoric continues to be.

          I think how we manage existing wilderness is more important right now. Not sure how that is going to happen though.

  8. This blog-post, I enjoy immensely, because too often I see hunters blame the decline on gun-control. The argument doesn’t make sense when gun-ownership is on the rise with urbanites and other countries with some of the most restrictive laws on the planet has much higher hunting participation.

    The elephant in the room is no one wants to talk about is the privatization of access and of wildlife. As soon this is touched upon, people start crying about Mao and Stalin.

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