The mountains, woods and rivers where those friends loved to hunt and fish were being lost to mining and oil drilling, pollution, development and other intrusions.
Since those campfire beginnings, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers has grown across the continent, with chapters in 48 states and three Canadian provinces, more than 40,000 members and a growing presence across the Northland.
It is in part like a dozen other conservation groups — throw in Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Trout Unlimited — composed mostly of people who hunt and fish and who are passionate about their outdoor endeavors and the places they do them. But, rather than focus on a single species or a single type of habitat, BHA has evolved as perhaps the most vocal group nationally advocating for public lands as a whole. That means everything from million-acre wilderness areas, like the Bob Marshall in Montana or Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, to 80-acre state wildlife management areas.
The group’s motto is simple: “The Voice for Our Wild Public Lands, Waters and Wildlife.” Without wild places, ample habitat and public access, the group says, the future of hunting and fishing in the U.S. is doomed.
Northern Minnesota members
“I grew up deer hunting and grouse hunting in the Chippewa National Forest and state and county land around it and I never really knew what land we were on,” said Chance Adams, who serves on the state chapter board of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. (The group’s organizational system uses a single state chapter rather than local chapters.)
Adams, 38, who grew up north of Bemidji and now teaches high school social studies there, said northern Minnesotans shouldn’t take their vast tracts of public land for granted.
“Not everyone is going to be able to afford their own land. … I shot my buck this year on public land. I do all my turkey hunting on public land. I grouse hunt on public land. … And my favorite place to be is in the Boundary Waters. … I think I spent 25 nights up there this summer,” Adams said. “Public lands let me do what I love to do.”
Chance Adams, of Bemidji, caught this smallmouth bass while in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. One of the reasons Adams became active in Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is the group’s strong support for keeping public lands undeveloped and open to the public, including the Boundary Waters.
Contributed / Chance Adams
The group espouses the advice of Theodore Roosevelt who once advised the nation to “preserve large tracts of wilderness … for the exercise of the skill of the hunter, whether or not he is a man of means.”
While the group is apolitical (a recent internal poll found 28% of BHA members consider themselves independents, 23% Republicans and 18% Democrats), it does rate elected officials on how they vote on key conservation issues. And the group takes strong stands on some controversial issues, including opposition to proposed copper mines near the Boundary Waters.
“When I saw how active the group was on that issue, that’s one reason why I joined. The Boundary Waters are my favorite place and we see that it (copper mining) isn’t worth the risk, that there are some places you just shouldn’t put a mine,” Adams said
Adams also likes the faces he saw at BHA events: mostly young, with 70% of the group’s members under 45, and passionate about conserving land and water. While many other groups worry as their members age out of the outdoor endeavors they love, BHA is among the fastest growing conservation groups in the country.
Jordan Wolf, of Duluth, wanted to be part of that picture. A Duluth native and University of Minnesota Duluth medical student, Wolfe, 27, said she grew up hiking and backpacking on wild, public lands. But she also got into fishing and hopes to take up hunting once she gets her medical degree.
She likes to fish for brook trout in the Superior National Forest, steelhead in Wisconsin’s Bois Brule River (which winds through a state forest) and smallmouth bass in the wild upper St. Louis River (that winds through state land) and has hiked the Border Route Trail across the top of the BWCAW.
“I don’t think you can grow up in Duluth and not have the outdoors be part of your life. It’s why I stayed here. It’s just a big part of who I am.” Wolf said. “And I saw (BHA) as the perfect group to get involved with to help preserve all that.”
Wolf serves on the state chapter board tackling communications for the group, from social media to newsletters. The all-volunteer operation depends on volunteers like Wolf.
“I love the fact we have people from all walks of life and all ideologies,” Wolf said of the group. “But everyone appreciates and wants to protect our wild places.”
Mark Westphal, of Cloquet, tagged this wild turkey on public land in Carlton County where he works as a forester. Westphal recently completed a stint on the board of the Minnesota chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
Contributed / Mark Westphal
Mark Westphal is a forester by trade, working for the Carlton County Land Department. He has been a lifelong hunter and angler and now is most into bowhunting. But he’s also passionate about gathering — mushrooms, wild leeks, just about anything edible in the woods.
“I’m a gatherer junkie,” Westphal said, noting he does a lot of his searching for wild foods on public lands. “It’s a great way to get kids outdoors.”
What Westphal likes most about Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is the group’s push for conservation without stepping too far into the partisan world of politics.
“I like their focus on conservation. It stays out of some of the weeds I don’t enjoy,” said Westphal, who just completed a year on the Minnesota chapter’s board of directors. “I’m a forester. I support sound science and so does the group.”
Westphal strongly feels that engaging people to become more active in the outdoors, to become hunters and anglers and use the backcountry, is the key to the future of saving public lands into the future.
“If people use it and value it, it becomes more important to them and then more important to society,” Westphal said.
To that end the group also serves as a mentoring center for younger adults who may want to experiment with the consumptive outdoor sports, fishing and hunting, maybe as part of the growing locavore movement for people to have more control and connection over where their food comes from.
“I enjoy sharing my passion for conservation and public land with like-minded individuals,” Westphal said. “Seeing other young adults enjoy the same adventures is “extremely rewarding. It’s fun to share what you love with people who understand why you love it.”
On Dec. 1, the Minnesota state land exchange board approved the sale of 80 acres of western Minnesota farmland owned by Jo’s Family Farm LLC to the state Department of Natural Resources to increase the size of a wildlife management area open to public hunting. The board’s vote ended a three-year battle by the landowner to sell his land to the state of Minnesota.
The DNR and the farmer reached an agreement on the land’s sale in 2018, but the Lac qui Parle County Board of Commissioners voted in February 2019 to block the sale. The farmer appealed the County Board’s decision in Lac qui Parle County District Court, and won a ruling allowing the farmer to bring the matter to the state Land Exchange Board.
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers provided both written and oral testimony in support of the sale and expanding the state wildlife area, a small but important victory for hunters who use public lands, especially in agricultural areas where so much wildlife habitat has been plowed under.
The Minnesota chapter of BHA also has been active in the battle to keep chronic wasting disease out of the state’s wild, publicly owned deer herd. They have testified in favor of a state law to close all deer farms, buy out the farmer’s herds and then ban the movement of tame deer which many wildlife officials blame for the rapid spread of the fatal disease.
Mark Westphal poses with his son, Linden, and daughter, Olive, with a stringer of fish caught in the Superior National Forest. Westphal is an active member of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a national group that works to protect and expand access to public lands.
Contributed / Mark Westphal
“We have this fantastic public resource in the whitetail deer population that is beloved by thousands and thousands of people, yet we are letting a coupe hundred deer farmers risk the entire thing,” Adams said.
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers also has taken a strong stand for protection of the BWCAW, opposing copper mining projects that could impact the wilderness in any way.
“I did a grouse hunt and duck hunt in the Boundary Waters this year, it’s the first time I tried it and it was a blast,” Adams said. “I’m going to make it an annual thing now. We absolutely need to protect that place.”
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at [email protected].