A major news story this week got me to thinking about about the environment. It seems one of the largest hardwood flooring retailers in the country, Lumber Liquidators, got caught buying some wood from a Chinese distributor. That timber had been illegally harvested from restricted areas of Russia that contain the last 500 wild Siberian Tigers on earth. This endangered forest is also home to another endangered big cat, the Amur Leopard. I found this to be disturbing news, indeed. It begs the question, how common is this kind of thing? How often do we, as consumers, unwittingly participate in the destruction of important parts of our planet? I suspect we do so, mostly ignorantly, every day. I suppose it depends on where we draw the line between necessary consumption and irresponsible wanton waste.
One of my favorite books is by John McPhee. It is called Encounters with the Archdruid. In this book, written in the 1970s, McPhee travels around the country with legendary environmental activist, David Brower (Sierra Club), as he debates developers and dam builders in wilderness areas. Brower argues for the side of preservationists who claim that wilderness areas should be completely untouched, free even from access roads and such. The men he debated argued for responsible conservation, or managing the resources responsibly, using them sustainably and opening them for public enjoyment. The debates are fascinating to read and McPhee ultimately leaves it to the reader to pass final judgement on the merits of the arguments. I see both sides, as usual.
One thing I am sure of is that most of us remain blissfully ignorant of our carbon footprint. We guzzle fossil fuels because it’s what we do. We buy food that has been processed with chemicals that can be harmful to the environment because it is convenient and often cheaper. Some of us, apparently, floor our homes with wood from trees that once sheltered one of the most precious endangered species on our planet, the greatest of the big cats, the Siberian Tiger. The list goes on and on. I don’t know where to draw the line as a consumer, but I am beginning to be more aware that there is a line.
I love nature. I spend as much time in it as I can. I even consider myself a conservationist, but not the kind you probably think of when you hear that word. I see value in preservation. I like to think that there are places left untouched and unspoiled. But I also see the value in responsible conservation, that is to say, reasonable management and use of natural resources in a sustainable way.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me insert here that I am a hunter. That’s right, I hunt, kill, and eat, deer and turkey each year. Guess what…that makes a conservationist. That’s right. The most misunderstood aspect of hunting, to the non-hunters or anti-hunters is that no group does more for conservation than hunters. I would also argue that no group cares more about the overall health and well-being of the herds of game animals in this country than hunters do.
I hunt for many reasons. First and foremost, I hunt because…I am a hunter. When I hunt, I feel a deep connection with a part of me that lives in the ancient past. I don’t hunt because I enjoy the kill. Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of excitement at the moment of truth, a powerful surge of adrenaline so powerful that it almost hurts. But with each successful hunt, mixed in with the adrenaline and excitement, is a very healthy dose of respect for the animal and a real sense of sorrow at the taking of life. That moment connects me with my table fare on an intimate level. You can’t get that from a supermarket. And quite frankly, I am much more comfortable with the way my deer meat gets to my table than with the thought of what a cow went through to get to the grocery store beef aisle.
Please don’t confuse modern, ethical hunters with modern poachers or the unethical market hunters of the past.
In the 19th century, as Americans opened up the frontier of the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, market hunting (that is wide spread killing of anything and everything for the selling of hides) took a huge toll on the game populations. Large game species disappeared from much of their original habitat. Buffalo, elk, cougars, bears, deer, turkeys, and the like, which once roamed through much of the midwest and southeast, were completely hunted out of those areas. Market hunting is NOT the same as conservation hunting. Today, hunters are one of the most vital cogs in the machinery of the conservation movement. Founding fathers of the modern conservation movement such as Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold (all avid hunters and sportsmen) worked diligently in the early 20th century to change the face of hunting. The ugly practice of market hunting finally vanished and the sport of hunting took center stage as a conservation tool. It was the dollars spent by hunters that reintroduced deer, turkey, (and elk in some areas) to their original home range. Today, there are more deer and turkey in most of their original home range than ever before!
Yet, having too many deer is no small problem either. There simply aren’t enough natural predators out there to keep deer numbers in check. Nationally, deer cause more than 1 billion dollars annually in farm crop damage. Deer-car accidents kill about 100 people in the U.S. each year and cause more than 1 billion dollars in property damage. In fact, deer kill more people in the U.S. each year than sharks, alligators, bears, or rattlesnakes! Imagine how much those numbers would go up if hunters were not helping to reduce the numbers to manageable levels.
Hunters give resource managers an important tool in managing the game populations that might exceed the carrying capacity of their habitat and threaten the well being of their species, other species or, in some cases, damage human health or safety. In the process of killing a select few of the herd or flock, hunters play the role of improving the overall quality of life for the rest of the animals. Hunting reduces interspecies competition for food, water, and shelter, lessening stress and mortality among the remaining animals.
Hunters also are the key component in the government being able to allocate large parcels of land to be used for conservation and wildlife management. Each year more than $200 million in hunter’s federal excise tax money goes to state agencies to support their wildlife management programs. Since 1934, over $700 million dollars collected through Duck Stamp sales has gone to help the government buy and set aside over 5.2 million acres (8,100 square miles) of habitat for the National Wildlife Refuge System. That is over 8,000 square miles of wild land that will go undeveloped and provide refuge for all manner of wildlife, thanks to hunters.
In recent years, hunters have developed programs that provide a lot of food for the homeless and prisons as well. Programs have been put in place in most states where hunters can donate their deer meat to organizations which distribute it to those who need it most. Because of this successful program, tons upon tons of nutritious protein have helped millions of people who sorely needed it.
So where do we draw the green line? I don’t have the answer myself, but it is clear to me that we need to find common ground here in our own country, with the understanding that there are many perspectives and approaches to conservation, and find workable solutions in that common ground, somewhere in the middle. We also could do well to educate ourselves about where the imported products we buy are actually coming from. The Siberian Tigers, all 500 of them, would appreciate it.