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Racial divides and the outdoors


A friend give me a bad time this week about not forcefully commenting on the speech given by Sally Jewell, the Secretary of Interior, two weeks ago. I wrote a pretty basic news story on what she said, leaving out most of the liberal, political-pandering, and focusing on the direction she thought we should take in over the next 100 years of public land management.

I did that because, after filtering through all the nauseating stuff, the actual meat of her speech called for three broad goals for the future of public lands. Of course I didn’t say it in the news story, but I happen to agree with the goals: Get more people outdoors, do more comprehensive management that keeps vast ecosystems functionally intact (like we’ve done with sagebrush habitats and sage grouse), and invest more in maintenance and enhancement of our natural resources. When I realized this, I mumbled to myself, “Can we find common ground?” (A link to the Jewell speech news story is here.)

We might agree on the goals. The problem is whether or not we can agree on a road map to get there.

To get to the main points of her speech, I had to gag my way through a lot of politically-correct poop of the bull. Jewell, the Obama Administration, and liberals in general look at the surface of an issue and think they need to fix what they see as a failing. It was clear to me they occupy a different world than the rest of us, especially when it comes to race and culture.

Since it was the 100th anniversary of the National Parks, a lot of the speech was about parks, but when she started decrying the lack of diversity in the outdoors and how we needed to reach out to the gay and lesbian community, youth, and blacks and Latinos and get them involved in the outdoors, I laughed out loud at the ignorance of the statement. Jewell pointed out a study that said most people who attend National Parks are “old and white.” I was thinking to myself, “come to my outdoor world and you will see diversity.”

I would bet that here in Southern California, Latinos make up a majority of the hunting community (especially big game), and that fishing licenses are sold to a pretty even demographic of our racial make-up. Come down to the Imperial Valley with me on the opening day of dove season and you will see people of all backgrounds, hunting together, heckling each other on bad shooting, and sharing tables in local restaurants. Jump on a half- or three-quarter day boat from a local landing along the coast, and you will look at faces that have cultural backgrounds from around the world. Sit on the jetty at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area this weekend, and if you are white, I guarantee you will be in a tiny racial minority of the anglers catching tilapia there – and English will be the second or third most common language being spoken. But we are all part of the community of hunters and fishermen where race has become pretty irrelevant.

What Jewell and her ilk don’t understand is assimilation and our changing culture. They think all things public -- from colleges to shopping malls to national parks -- should have attendance that is representative of our diversity, ignoring socioeconomic differences and culture.

For a lot of cultures that have become part of the melting pot of Southern California, the idea of national parks is alien. Many have rich, outdoor-based heritages, but frankly they see no value in national parks, especially where the only activity is “walking” or “looking.” But they understand fishing and hunting, and once they learn that our public lands (other than parks) are places where they can return to the food-gathering activities of their homelands, they begin to learn the ropes. Yet, many within our diverse racial and social communities have abandoned their outdoor roots.

We had a big influx of Southeast Asian immigrants during and after the Vietnam War, and I remember my game warden friends writing dozens if not hundreds of citations when these immigrants flooded our coastal areas, plucking tide pools clean, illegally netting fish, foraging along the coast. They didn’t understanding our conservation laws, protected species, and bag limits. They didn’t understand the idea of a fishing license. Some learned and embraced our conservation ethic, and they saw its effectiveness. Others (most?) simply abandoned the activities. Today, the problem is almost non-existent with this ethnic group now that we are a second and third-generation removed from that era, but the offspring of those immigrants who persisted are now legitimate lobster divers, avid ocean anglers, and gatherers of shellfish, part of the diverse sporting/foraging community.

Jewell doesn’t get this. She thinks that if we just do a better job of making parks friendly to other races and cultures, they will flock to all our national parks. She’s wrong. The diversity of hunters and fishermen in Southern California prove there are no race or ethnic barriers to outdoor use here. This is about assimilation. That can take a generation or generations. The old and white Jewell crowd just needs to get out into the real world more.

The real barriers to using the outdoors -- especially fishing and hunting -- are hurled up in front of all of us who want to participate in those activities, not just non-whites. The numbers of this big outdoor community are plummeting across the country, but especially here in California. Parks are expensive, fishing is expensive, hunting is more expensive, but the regulations are the biggest barrier. Rules about use of public lands -- especially rules surrounding hunting and fishing -- are a quagmire. Too many people have simply given up. (I quote the numbers so often I think you should all know them: California angler numbers have dropped from 2.8 million to around 1 million; hunter numbers have gone from 850,000 to less than 250,000 over the past 50 years.)

I could teach a four-unit college level course on “Hunting and Fishing 101.” The first four weeks would be devoted to just learning the criteria for getting licenses and tags, the next four weeks on laws and ordinances that impact where you can hunt and fish, and the final four weeks on public information on where it is legal to practice the sports.

The problem with the Jewell crowd is that they see the loss of the hunting and fishing community as a good thing.

While I might agree with Jewell on her broad outline of goals for the future of our natural resources, I don’t trust Jewell and her ilk with ushering in an era of better managed and funded public lands. Too many within their ranks are exclusionary. (Their way of solving the overcrowding problem at Yosemite and increase diversity would be to put quotas on visitation by race.) In her speech she admitted there may be federal lands where no public access should exist. How do you even consider that frightening conclusion?

If you are willing to exclude everyone from a patch of public ground, it’s really easy to exclude hunters or fishermen or other users simply because you don’t believe their activity is legitimate. That, my friends, is discrimination. And to what end? Hunted and fished species of wildlife are managed better than other species because there are decades of sound science that shows human hunters are no different than coyotes or wolves in taking surplus animals in any game population. Plus, they forget that hunters and fishermen are the golden goose. Through license and tag sales and excise taxes paid on the gear we use, sportsmen fund most conservation efforts federally and in the states. The greenie crowd contributes zip to the effort.

Jewell’s staff is like the upper management resource staff here in California: They think their new world view on resources and management is superior to the proven one we’ve used for over 100 years -- the one that has brought species back from the brink of extinction, the one that has recovered duck and goose populations in spite of massive wetland loss, the one that recognizes humans as part, sometimes the most important part, of the natural process instead of apart from it.

The sad part is this: While Jewell might have valid goals most can agree upon for the future of our nation’s natural resources, while she might talk about inclusiveness, she has no functional roadmap to reach those goals because she doesn’t even understand the barriers, who is impacted, and how they are impacted.


[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.]

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