As I finished up my first year of the Bard CEP program this May, my policy tool-belt seemed full. I knew all this new wonky policy jargon, I understood basic regression analysis, and could tell you a few things about some of the major environmental statutes. I felt prepared to hit the ground running at my internship in Washington, D.C. at the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CFS), a 501 (c)(3) dedicated to advancing hunting, recreational angling and shooting, and trapping. After arriving on Capitol Hill, I soon discovered how very different learning about policy and politics in academia is from the reality of D.C. politics, and I began to understand the value of the internship component of the CEP program.
Walking through the doors of CSF I was not handed a syllabus outlining precisely what lay ahead. Instead, I was given a thick binder full of issue briefs and was told to sit and read. As I thumbed through the pages and read about issues ranging from public land access problems, ocean policy, off highway vehicle management and motorized game retrieval, shooting range protection and gun control, I realized just how much I didn’t know. Two months ago I would have guessed that Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson were two guys from south of the Mason-Dixon line whose parents liked the double name idea. Come to find out, those names are attached to the two most important pieces of legislation that are the underpinnings of state fish and wildlife agencies, and they collectively create the unique American System of Conservation Funding that’s been in place for 76 years.
After a month of familiarizing myself with the organization and the immense number of conservation issues it’s involved in, I am just beginning to make sense of how sportsmen’s interests are inserted into political discourse and what the relationships are between legislators, bureaucrats, and special interest groups here in D.C. As I listen to the conversations happening all around the office and take on more projects, I realize how much policy work is based off one’s senses. I watch and hear my superiors making decisions, communicating with policy makers, strategizing with partners, and it becomes apparent that navigating the rough political seas of D.C. requires incredible feel at the helm. This feel for the policy process comes only with time and immersion, two things that cannot be achieved in a classroom. Like a sponge, I sit and absorb as much of the policy experience as possible. The insights offered by my colleagues in combination with the dynamic office environment are fueling my professional development on a daily basis.
As I track legislation, research state fish and wildlife agency operating budgets, and draft donor reports, newsletter pieces and op-eds, I often find myself thinking about how I could structure a thesis around any number of conservation issues that have significant environmental implications. However, it is the lexicons associated with “conservation” and “environmentalism” that I find most intriguing. The two words have come to signify much different things and elicit much different political responses, despite the fact that the people who identify with them strive for many of the same goals. What I had not pondered prior to coming to CSF was that I was a conservationist the first time I stepped into the deer blind with my dad at five years old, far before I would have self-subscribed to any ethical school of thought. Environmentalism is often associated with preservation and protectionism nowadays; however, it was this nation’s hunters and anglers who were our nation’s conservationist pioneers in that they were the ones to first recognize the need to conserve fish, wildlife, and their habitats, ultimately leading to the “user-pays public-benefits” funding mechanism we currently operate under.
This unique American System of Conservation Funding has produced numerous public benefits including: abundant fish and wildlife populations, access to public lands and clean waters, improved fish and wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, wetland protection and its associated water filtration and flood retention functions, improved soil and water conservation, shooting ranges, and boating access facilities. This internship has reaffirmed my pride in the hunting and fishing traditions and reminded me of the connection between those activities and the multitude of environmental benefits subsequently enjoyed by everyone whether they themselves are sportsmen or not.
This connection between our nation’s sportsmen and women and conservation funding is a fundamental precept of CSF. The Foundation provides lawmakers with objective scientific and economic advice on issues affecting the hunting and fishing community and the American System of Conservation Funding, and acts as a link between America’s sportsmen and their government. It does this via bipartisan caucuses that have been established at the Congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislature levels. These caucuses are comprised of elected officials committed to conservation and the advancement of our nation’s sportsmen’s traditions. CSF works to build a sense of solidarity within the caucuses to elevate conservation issues onto the political agenda. Achieving a unified voice around conservation issues is not easy, but CSF strides forward with the conviction that advancing our sportsmen’s traditions is paramount to maintaining abundant fish and wildlife populations, and healthy ecosystems.
In the end, it’s not about being a conservationist or an environmentalist; it’s about being a pragmatist and realizing that the fish and wildlife we hold in such high regard are products of rich, healthy, and diverse environments that need the support of all who enjoy them. Whether you are hunting tidal wetlands, waiting for the next flight of ducks to drop in to your decoy spread, or you are there to take in the beauty of a Great Blue Heron stalking the marshland edges for its next meal, both experiences are afforded by the rich conservation heritage and funding structure that generations of sportsmen and women have been supporting for nearly a century.
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