I count myself as an environmentalist, even though I grew up surrounded by dead animals. My dad was a hunting guide for 50 years, and he ran a successful taxidermy business in Anchorage for more than 20. Game killed all over Alaska moved through our shop, the largest of its kind in the state. One of my earliest tangible memories is the sight of rows and rows of bear hides, salt-cured, air-dried, rolled up and stacked like cordwood awaiting shipment to the tannery.
I've hunted all my life, and God willing, I'll hunt until the day I die. But I think my indifference to trophy hunting is a product of this family business into which I was conscripted at the age of 12.
One of my more onerous jobs, one I utterly despised, was steam-cleaning bear skulls. We used a giant diesel-fired machine that blasted hot steam from the tip of a long metal wand, something like what you might see at a car wash. I worked in full raingear. I'd prop a skull against a pile of cinder bricks and try to keep my feet out of the way as the pressurized steam blasted away chunks of cooked flesh, eyeballs and cartilage. The worst part was getting the brains out. I'd place the tip of the wand into the foramen magnum-the hole in the base of the skull where the spinal cord enters-and fire away. Gooey cooked brains flowed out through the sinuses, but plenty of it blasted back at me from around the wand.
Trust me, it only takes a few facial shots of rotten boiled bear brains for a young writer to know exactly what he does not want to do for the rest of his life. But as bad as cleaning skulls was, it was ten times worse to be trapped indoors listening to the hunters and the shop staff bitching about environmentalists.
When I started college at University of Alaska-Fairbanks, I took an immediate liking to the anthropology classes open to me. After 12 years of being bored shitless by public education, it was quite a change to be able to study something that actually interested me. In those lectures, however, I was surprised to discover that the trophy hunting world I had grown up in was, in fact, evil. At least, that's what my professors claimed, though not in so many words. They were fond of pointing out that many of Alaska's rural indigenous residents see trophy hunting as silliness at best, and at worst an outright insult. I can still recall one graduate student instructor saying there was no room for trophy hunting in the new global environmental consciousness.
Yet all through my college days I lived as a hunter and gatherer. I mean this in the literal sense. I skipped the whole frat-party dorm scene and moved into a cabin on the edge of town. Instead of partying, I spent my spare time in the woods. I fed myself by shooting moose, caribou, and waterfowl in the fall, grouse in the winter, and picking berries in summer. I was-in the ungainly parlance of Alaskan hunting politics-an urban subsistence user, though my participation in that lifestyle had just as much to do with my inability to talk to girls as with my desire to live close to the land.
Nonetheless, my direct reliance on hunting for my evening meals changed my attitudes toward the natural world, and many of the things my lefty professors said began to make a lot of sense. As I watched Alaska getting warmer and warmer, my thinking gradually expanded to include an appreciation of environmental issues-much to the disgust of the hunting guides and taxidermists with whom I'd spent my youth.
It's a little-appreciated fact in today's world that the environmental movement owes its existence, at least in part, to trophy hunters. One of the sadder themes in American history is that our much-celebrated westward expansion spawned a mind-set where wildlife existed only to be killed. The vision of manifest destiny was one of wheat fields and grazing cattle, with no room for wildlife. Deer, turkeys, passenger pigeons, elk, bears, moose, ducks, geeseŠ you name it. These were viewed either as food, free for the taking, or as vermin to be exterminated.
In frontier areas, market hunters operated on a staggering scale, slaughtering game for the tables of miners, ranchers and merchant-bankers alike. Not surprisingly, by the dawn of the 20th century, the country's wildlife populations were approaching dangerously low numbers. Deer and turkeys had been virtually extirpated from the East Coast and the Midwest. Wolves were almost a memory in the Rocky Mountains. And we all know the story of the American bison.
Simultaneously, the last decades of the 19th century saw the rise of a sport hunting subculture in Western Europe and the Americas. These new hunters were generally men of means who could afford to travel the world, including Alaska, in pursuit of their passion. They killed game not for food, but for the thrill of the chase, and many of them wrote quite poetically about that thrill.
Yet these hunters could also see what was happening to the populations of the animals they loved and the habitat that supported them. Their concern and their desire to do something about it became the naissance of the conservation movement. Conservationists recognized that humanity simply could not continue on with the kill it-drill it-spill it-mill it attitude that had characterized the Euroamerican invasion of most of the world up to that point.
This was, of course, not entirely something new under the sun. Hunting and foraging societies around the Earth have understood this principle for millennia. Still, the conservationist argument was revolutionary in its day. The world's trophy hunters banded together with powerful political allies like President Teddy Roosevelt and his chief of forestry Gifford Pinchot. They advocated for the creation of National Forests and National Parks. They pushed legislation to enact hunting and fishing regulations and helped establish the world's first public game reserves.
Meanwhile, here in Alaska, market hunting was as prevalent as ever, largely because livestock such as cattle, pigs, and chickens are difficult to raise in the far north. Meat had to be procured from somewhere, and that somewhere was the territory's vast herds of game. The Alaska Game Laws of 1912 and 1925 finally put a stop to market hunting. These laws established hunting seasons and bag limits. They created a licensing system for trophy hunters from Outside, and required those hunters to be accompanied by a registered hunting guide.
Most of Alaska's early guides were market hunters who had been put out of business by the new legislation. With no other trade to fall back on, they turned to guiding, and they soon became converts to the conservation message. In those early days, being a registered guide also meant being a deputized enforcement agent of the U.S. Government. Until the creation of the Alaska Game Commission in 1925, hunting guides were charged with arresting poachers and bringing them in to the authorities.
There was a time not so long ago when hunting guides-the very people vilified by my lefty professors-were among Alaska's most respected citizens, precisely for their intimate knowledge of Alaska's wildlife and their commitment to maintaining and defending it.
One might even say that old-time guides like Andrew Berg and Andy Simons were Alaska's first wildlife warriors.
There is no doubt that the conservation movement was a major step in the right direction with respect to how the Establishment viewed wildlife. Yet, conservationism had some serious flaws. On the most fundamental level, conservationists did not see humans as part of the environment; they assumed that humans (white males, in particular) were the masters of the Earth.
For example, despite all the good they did to scientifically manage Alaska's wildlife, the Alaska Game Commission placed bounties not only on wolves, but on seals and bald eagles. These last two were targeted because they were supposedly killing too many salmon, salmon that could have been going into the nets and fish traps of the salmon packing industry's canneries. The fisheries meant jobs, and that meant it was the salmon that were important, not the seals or the eagles. Never mind the fact that it was the overfishing of the corporate packing companies that had depleted salmon stocks in the first place.
With the kind of complex systems that make up this planet, you can only mess with the individual components so much before those systems start to malfunction. This is not eco-dweebery; it's plain old-fashioned common sense. If you don't change the oil in your car, the car may keep going for a long time, but it will eventually fail, most likely at the worst possible moment. Similarly, if we humans, say, dump toxic waste into the global water supply, the worldwide ecosystem is going to malfunction, and malfunction in a big way. If your car breaks down on the side of the road because you procrastinated about changing the oil, it's a hassle, but life goes on. But if the global ecosystem breaks down because there's no more large herbivores processing plant matter into compost, then the entire planet and all of humanity, including hunters, is in for a real shock.
You can always buy another car. Maybe even start riding a bike or walking. But the Earth is the only planet we have. That's a concept that right-wing hunters around the world need to start waking up to, regardless of what they think of Greenpeace and Defenders of Wildlife.
I consider myself an environmentalist now, because I want wildlife managers to understand how planet Earth works in its entirety, how the whole system fits together, in order to make informed decisions about how much game we can take and which species we can target. When you think about it, this is really just a logical extension of the scientific management practices that saw the establishment of national forests and wildlife refuges to begin with. But while early wildland management was compartmentalized and focused on preserving bits and pieces of ecosystems, the global perspective of environmentalism gives us a new paradigm to work with.
It is the bedrock principle of modern wildlife management that the animal populations-all animals, not just game-and the habitat that supports them must be maintained above all else. If global warming, industrial pollution and deforestation are diminishing habitat and in turn decreasing animal survival rates, then something must be done. Are hunters to sit idly by and let habitat disappear for the sake of jobs and corporate profits? Or because we refuse to listen to a bunch of smelly, dreadlocked hippies who have chained themselves to a bulldozer? The environmental writer Tim Flannery has likened this to madness, and I agree.
There's some old-fashioned pragmatism here in my stance. I don't want rainforests and boreal forests and deserts and tundra just because they're beautiful. These things must be preserved so that water, oxygen, nutrients, and carbon dioxide will continue to cycle through the global ecosystem in a way that maintains the conditions necessary for life. So that habitat and populations can be maintained. At the end of the day, I want a functioning planet so that I can continue to participate in the beauty of this system.
Sadly, environmentalism has become one of the bigger political dividers in America's culture wars. Basically, it comes down to rural right-wing trophy hunters against urban lefty tree huggers. Or so we're told.
Bob Marley once said, "I'll never be a politician nor even think political. Me just deal with life and nature." As a hunter, I think along the same lines. The Earth is what's important to me, and all its plants and animals, not the political sword rattling that comes from organizations like the Sierra Club and the Safari Club.
I'd hardly compare myself to Bob Marley, but I've always drawn inspiration from his words, even when I was a teenager copping facials of steam-cooked bear brains. Be they tribal nomads, effete Victorian sportsmen, or modern-day Alaskans hungry for moose meat, hunters have always taken the lead in the preservation of habitat. But now we're dragging ass.
The time has come for hunters to expand their consciousness to a global level and understand that if we don't have a functioning planet, then we don't have shit. Hunters need to understand that those smelly hippies might just have a valid argument. By the same token though, the hippies need to understand that the average hunter is really quite knowledgeable about the natural world, and cares about the planet far more than most people realize.
It's time for both sides of the environmental culture war to get over themselves and offer a handshake.
After all, we're more alike than we realize, regardless of what Fox News and the Disney Corporation tell us.