Bad Blood Occurs Within Outdoors Writer Ranks

If you’re the average sportsman who enjoys picking up an occasional hunting or fishing magazine you likely haven’t noticed it.   If you have a favorite outdoors newspaper writer who has been a staple at the publication for years…maybe you haven’t noticed it here, either.   Even if you tune in weekly to some outdoors radio or TV show you likely haven’t seen any big changes…but let me tell you…they’re slowly happening right before our eyes and ears!

What’s all the fuss?   It seems outdoors writing as a profession is going through a metamorphosis and many in the business feel quite threatened by the prospect of a “greener” future.   Like it or not, there seems to be a definite trend in the world of outdoors writing to focus on subject matters away from the traditional “hook and bullet” audience.   To a large number of writers this realization is very disconcerting.

It was in the late 80s when I attended my first Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) Conference down in Des Moines, IA.   I was fresh out of college and for me attending a conference of 800+ outdoors communicators was like a dream come true.   Walking the halls were some of my longtime boyhood idols in the outdoors world…folks I not only admired but deeply respected.   I used this new connection as further motivation to hone a new craft I was learning – to become an outdoors communicator.

I was an Active Member of the OWAA for about 8 years when I eventually dropped my connection with the group back in 1996.   At the time, my life was changing and I no longer was actively writing for a living.   You see, to be affiliated with this professional group you must earn the privilege to belong and you must maintain credentials as an active writer, photographer or broadcaster throughout the life of your membership.   Since dropping my membership almost 9 years ago, I have lost touch with most happenings at the OWAA.

Today, however, if you do a simple Google search and use the term OWAA you will likely see reference after reference of a controversy that has unfortunately given this group a black eye.   It seems many individuals feel this once well-respected organization is now on the verge of imploding…why you might ask?   Quite simply…there’s a big wedge being driven between the traditional “hook and bullet” crowd and the folks who promote a kinder, gentler appreciation of the outdoor world.

So why should any of this matter to the average sportsman?   Think of it this way.   When you send your child off to school you don’t want them to come home with books and materials that educate on values that are contrary to what you believe and teach.   It’s the school’s role to educate by stating the facts…and not insidiously promoting some garbage that will taint young, developing minds.   Yet, this happens all the time and responsible parents need to be diligent.   School book and materials publishers are able to influence developing minds even if it’s done in the most subtle manner.

Much the same is going on with OWAA.   This organization is apparently being infiltrated by groups who intend to negatively influence the thought of the outdoors writing community and while some good can certainly come through free expression and thought, it seems to me this is like dancing with the enemy.   On one hand maybe it is wise to have the opposition at arm’s length so you can keep tabs on what they are doing…on the other hand; when the dancing’s done will your cause be furthered by having been with a partner who’s at such great opposition to you?

As I recall these changes were first starting over 10 years ago with the OWAA when, if memory serves me correctly, the Humane Society of the US (or possibly PETA) wanted to become a paid Supporting Sponsor.   At the time there was such outcry and upheaval within the ranks that essentially the welcome mat was quickly removed.

But oh, have the times changed.   Today with the likes of the Sierra Club heavily involved within the ranks as Supporting Member of OWAA, this affiliation has apparently caused a mass exodus of many notable writer members.   Much of this stems from a controversy last summer between the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Sierra Club who got into a verbal confrontation over issues and stances on the environment and policy. (Remember, last summer we were also embroiled in the heated rhetoric of an election year.)

The upshot is that OWAA has now lost many of their fine writer members and dozens of strong supporting members over this flap.   Once you get beyond all the finger pointing it’s hard to argue against the fact there’s been definite erosion within the Association’s ranks.   In time, this degradation of the once strong OWAA will begin to show up pervading outdoor communication as a whole.

Just glancing at an old 1996 OWAA membership directory I see several supporting member companies/organizations missing from today’s roster.   A few of the bigger names include:   Federal Cartridge, Winchester, Remington, Birchwood Casey, Buckmasters, Browning, Colt, Daisy Manufacturing, Hunter’s Specialties, Leupold, Mossy Oak, National Wild Turkey Federation, Safari Club International, Ruger, Whitetails Unlimited, and Wildlife Forever/North Am. Hunting & Fishing Clubs, to name but a few.

Look at these big hitters most of whom are the names that many of us consider as representing the outdoors in our minds.   Each of these members were supporters of the OWAA back in 1996.   A decade later these, and many other recognized names, no longer publicly support the ideals of the OWAA through membership.   Personally, I’m troubled by the trend and I think it’s time the OWAA works harder to gets its house in order to gain back some respect and involvement with its lost members.

Many folks much closer to this situation than me will blame it all on the spat last summer between the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club.   I even hear many of these same individual members going so far as to blame the NRA for creating the whole mess.   To do so only fails to recognize the deeper and more serious underlying problem confronting outdoors writing today.   Change is definitely taking place for all of us and current trends are not necessarily looking good if your shtick is the shooting sports.

I’m trying very hard not to take sides against the OWAA as I have long believed it to be a very professional and quality organization.   Still, now that its house seems to be divided, I hear members making excuses why it’s not such a bad thing or even “cathartic.”   To this I shake my head in amazement.

When the companies and conservation groups I support with my money and kind words no longer feel welcome in an association, it seems this absence is perhaps making the biggest statement of all.   How did the outdoors communication profession, as largely represented by the OWAA, become so splintered and diminished due to the likes of the groups who oppose hunting and the shooting sports?

It just goes to show you how certain groups who oppose hunting and guns are using creative means to promote their philosophy of conquering by dividing.   Chalk up another victory for the “bad guys” who’ve found yet another way to influence policy and push their agenda by creating controversy within our ranks and thus weakening our important message.

© 2005 Jim Braaten.  All Rights Reserved.   No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

What’s Fair Is Fair

If you’re an avid reader of this blog you will likely know that last Friday (Tax Day) I chastised the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) for promoting the donation of furs hanging in the closet and converting them into a ridiculous tax deduction.

Well, I recently came across another news tidbit that is equally as appalling, and in the spirit of being fair…this time I must chastise members of my own sportsman community.   Or at least certain individuals who have found a sneaky way to abuse the system.

It seems that recently there were some ads appearing in the Safari Club International (SCI) publication that promoted African big game hunting and using current IRS regulations to “hunt for free.”   Essentially it was promoting the practice of offsetting the cost of say an African hunt by donating the trophy animal to a museum.   The cost of bagging a lion, a bear or some other trophy animal could be easily appraised at a level that would reduce or completely offset the expenditures that a hunter may have incurred for the trip and taxidermy.

Now certainly I’m not opposed to animals being donated to museums if there is a definite need for the specimen…but I am deeply bothered by a hunter experiencing the thrill of a big game hunt half-way across the world and then finding a loop-hole to do it for free.   It’s just not right and it seems as though some members of Congress don’t think so either.   Expect to see changes in IRS regulations soon.

Responding to an article that appeared earlier in the Washington Post, John Monson, president of SCI offered the following letter to the editor (on April 16, 2005) to that same publication:

"Big-Game Hunting Brings Big Tax Breaks" cited Safari Club International as the leading proponent in Washington of the hunting tradition. However, any attempt to connect SCI with improper use of the tax code is incorrect.

Although Safari Club International’s organizational purposes do not include tax advice to its members or anything else connected with the subject of the article, when the group became aware of the change in the IRS approach on valuation of donated wildlife specimens a few years ago, several of the club’s officers researched the issue and in the SCI newspaper advised members of the change. The trophy appraiser mentioned in the article is no longer allowed to advertise in SCI publications.

Safari Club International operates its own natural history museum and, from time to time, accepts donations of wildlife specimens. Other natural history museums, including the Smithsonian, also use specimens donated by hunters to educate the public about the animals with which we share the planet. Safari Club does not condone the violation of any laws, including the tax laws. It promotes the tradition of hunting and its associated values of ethics, fair chase and wildlife conservation.”

Let’s face it…the average sportsman is not going to support peers within our community who abuse the tax laws and go on dream hunts that most of us will never experience.   Furthermore, most of us average sportsmen realize and recognize that if a trip is worth experiencing it is also worth the financial sacrifice that goes along with it.   Who among us hasn’t saved for several years just to afford a certain outdoor adventure – whether it be a Canadian fly-in fishing trip or a western big game hunt.   When you save and when you sacrifice (without expectations for reimbursement) it provides a certain appreciation for the overall experience that just isn’t going to be there if you hunt with the intention of finding a future tax break to recoup your costs.

I have a lot of respect for SCI and their continued strong support of our hunting heritage.   I also have no jealousy or ill-will toward any of its members who partake in far-away hunts for exotic wildlife.   Most of these hunters are very serious and responsible enough to not work the system for their personal benefit at taxpayer expense.

Still, I am frustrated and disheartened to learn that some members of our sportsman community have stooped so low as to use the same tactics as HSUS (see April 15th blog – last Friday).   It’s time to clean up our act and make sure that hunting exotic animals for pleasure is not also a tax benefit for those who can otherwise afford the experience.   To any non-hunters, hearing of this practice only gives the whole hunting community a black eye that we can certainly do without.

© 2005 Jim Braaten.  All Rights Reserved.   No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

Donating Venison For The Needy

I’ve always been a big advocate of using as much of a game animal as possible, but this year I am somewhat concerned about the new Minnesota Department of Agriculture rules that allow hunters to donate game to local food shelves.

Don’t get me wrong, helping out the hungry is always a worthwhile effort, but I have to wonder if there is a reason why some meat is being donated in the first place.

Back in the early 80’s when I was attending college at the University of Minnesota, I was largely undecided about my major so I took several classes in the area of meat science. By no means do I consider myself an expert, but the fundamental understanding I received about meat handling and processing was eye-opening, to say the least.

I soon discovered there is no substitute for proper meat handling, that is why the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 was signed by Theodore Roosevelt. Before certain standards of quality were in place, the meat industry was rampant with companies doing anything to save a buck, even if it meant putting the consumer at great public health risk. The primary motivating factor of the meat processors during the early years in this century was money, not the good of the public health. Thankfully times have changed and expectations of what we demand in quality meat have likewise been much enhanced.

One of the nice things about shooting and handling a deer yourself is the fact you personally know the meat’s history. You know if the eviscerating processes (or for those of you who are a bit uncouth – gutting) was done carefully, you know if the meat was kept at proper ageing (or denaturing) temperatures before processing, you know if dirt and moisture have been kept away from the carcass to prevent contamination. In other words, you know…or should know…if the deer is fit to eat.

When I go in to my local locker plant during deer season it amazes me how some hunters care for their meat. As someone who is ultra-finicky about the way my meat is handled I would venture to say that at least half of the venison carcasses in the cooler would be rejected by this discriminating sportsman. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of hunters out there who don’t know the first thing about handling a downed game animal. They’ve either learned poor techniques from their hunting elders or they never taken the time to understand proper game care principles.

I think if you would get most butchers to admit it, they would tell you that a large number of deer that come in for processing simply do not meet good meat handling standards. Problem is, are they going to turn away the chance to make money if they know they will not be eating it? I don’t think so…most will just trim away the worst areas and process the rest.

This brings me back to the reason why a hunter might want to donate his deer to a local food shelf. If the family doesn’t like wild game and all the hunter wants is a stick of sausage, that is one thing. But what concerns me is if the hunter is simply passing off the meat because deep down he knows it isn’t fit to eat, well…that is quite another story. Even with meat inspection it can be difficult to determine if the meat is truly fit for human consumption. It’s not like inspecting a hog or a beef animal that has hung in a temperature-controlled cooler since slaughter.

I do think that hunters should have the ability to donate venison to the needy, but it should be done under some different guidelines. First, the hunter should have to pay for the processing so it is truly a donation (out of pocket). Second, the hunter should not be allowed to donate the entire animal so there is still the incentive for the hunter to practice proper handling techniques because he/she is keeping some of the meat.

Indeed, whether you donate Hides For Habitat (a Minnesota Deer Hunters Association Program) or choose to donate venision to the local food shelf, both causes are noble. My only hope is that the meat donation is being done for the right reasons.

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved.   No Reproduction without Prior Permission.