December 27, 2007

Thirty years of outdoor writing


Outdoor News Service

To the best of my recollection, I’ve been doing this column since the latter 1970s, thirty-something years. I know there are some of you who’ve been reading nearly the whole time because when we bump into each other somewhere, you remind me of a column from years ago.

I know you’ve been reading a long time because you talk to me like we are old friends (or old enemies). How you can recognize me from the little photos that have run with the column for decades, I don’t have a clue, but you don’t have to tell me I look older than in those photos. I am older, but so are you.

You usually mention a column about my family or dogs, the personal ones. I think they hit close to home for you and resonate. Talking about the importance of family and marriage, and hunting and fishing, is increasingly the antithesis of everything that is politically correct.

But we know that the fundamental breakdown in American society today relates to the breakdown of the traditional family, about the inability of anyone to take responsibility, and the distance we’ve moved away from the land. It’s not complex at all, but there are whole agencies whose sole purpose is to cloud issues.

We desperately hope our children don’t make up the last generation that understands personal responsibility and the thrill of catching wild trout from a beaver pond on a fly rod. The two go hand-in-hand because there comes a point when you have to decide if you’re going to eat the trout or let it go. It’s like so many choices in life: simple but wrought with consequences on so many fronts. Frankly, I don’t know how I’ve gotten away with writing about it so long.

When this column first began, Southern California newspapers often had two or three pages devoted to traditional outdoor sports -- fishing and hunting. Some of the smaller daily newspapers are lucky to have that much space for an entire sports section today, thanks to newsprint and ink costs and corporate ownership that would rather squeeze more blood from the publishing turnip than actually serve, inform, and entertain readers. We are among the last generation of newspaper readers anyway. The demographics of those who read print versions are gray.

When I was a kid, Sunday morning meant an early trip to church, and then crepe-thin pancakes made by my dad, stacked up five or six deep, and slathered with peanut butter and syrup. It meant all of us sprawled all over the living room reading different sections of the Sunday newspaper, passing them around, and a day together.

Our house transformed from the bustling train station that it seemed every other day of the week into a lounging, luxury resort of reading, discussion, ideas, and games. The television was only allowed on for three things on Sunday, Dodgers’ baseball, that wonderful old American Sportsman show with Curt Gowdy, and The World of Disney. Sunday was what I imaged every day of a cruise would be like. The newspaper was the centerpiece.

Some things have changed a lot over the past 30 years. There are more political threats to hunting and fishing than ever before, and there is a growing contingent of politicians who believe guns are intrinsically evil and want to do away with them, but most of the outdoor things I like have not changed much.

Depending on the weather, more than anything else, I still get to miss my share of doves and upland birds every year. Public land hunting in California still ranks up there as some of the best in the nation when we have wet winters. Unless we put wind turbines on all our public lands, I don’t imagine this hunting will get much worse, either. Here’s the asterisk to that comment: The former superintendent of the Mojave Preserve, Mary Martin, probably did more in one year to reduce quail populations in our deserts by removing cattle water than all of the development in the desert has over the past 30 years. And her move was more damaging to those of us who hunt and watch wildlife because it was all on public land, where we all have access. We have to remain vigilant for these kinds of threats.

Deer populations are at the bottom of the barrel throughout Southern California because biologists still believe deer are at carrying capacity of the land. Maybe. But we can increase K, as they call it. But no one has any interest in management, so fire is the only positive influence we have on the herds. Things can only get better for deer, and they are right now -- but that has come at a huge cost in homes and human lives lost or disrupted. I blame the Forest Service and environmental groups that sue over every tree cut down in the woods. Both of them can’t tell good management from bad management, the forest from the trees, any longer. This long slippery road to the bottom was well underway when I first started writing about deer in the 1970s, and it doesn’t look like it will get better anytime soon. The “managers” are to the point they don’t even try to improve things. It’s a shame I find myself pulling for fires to burn up canyons where I know it will help the deer. That hasn’t changed.

I’ve watched bighorn sheep populations yo-yo up and down, but the long term trend has been upward thanks -- mostly -- to volunteers who keep fighting their way through the red tape to build new water sources in desert mountain ranges. Every new water source is like turning on a fountain the pours more sheep back into our deserts where they were extirpated by livestock diseases, drying up of springs through groundwater pumping, and development. But there are still some who want to shut off the sheep restoration by shutting down the water developments. I have less and less patience for those people.

We’re stupidly moving into a management program for ocean fisheries -- the marine reserve program that locks sport anglers out of vast areas of ocean -- that has proven a failure on land for birds and mammals. We still have vast “game reserves” all over the state under the guise of acting as pools of wildlife that will spill over and keep areas outside the reserve restocked with fish and game. They never have and never will work as envisioned. But no one has the political courage to say the experiment has failed and do away with them. You’d think this lesson should be applied to the marine reserves, which should only ban commercial exploitation of fisheries and allow recreational users. We can fish in national parks. Why shouldn’t we be able to fish in marine preserves? We can hunt on state and federal wildlife areas. Why not marine preserves? It’s the “lock out humans” mentality that is so pervasive today in management of public lands and resources. They forget: We belong here, too. We belong as much as the cougar or kangaroo rat or the vermillion rockfish or yellow-legged frog. We belong here more.

Today, I feel like a lone voice pointing out that simple fact. When I started doing this, there were a lot of us. Laughing and talking with an old editor friend of mine this week, he said we were dinosaurs. I corrected him: Dinosaurs are extinct. I told him I thought we were more like fire-belching dragons. My fear is that new fire-breathers won’t come along, that no one will believe in us much longer, and then we will simply disappear. Like dinosaurs.