Over the first nine days of February, thousands of hunters, fishermen, gun aficionados, and other outdoor sports enthusiasts poured into an annual central Pennsylvania event: the Great American Outdoor Show. Prominently sponsored by the National Rifle Association, this sprawling exhibition features high-power firearms showcased by hundreds of national and international vendors—along with, to a lesser degree, standard hunting rifles, bowhunting gear, fishing tackle, and backwoods outfitting—and is explicitly billed by the NRA as celebrating “hunting, fishing, and outdoor traditions treasured by millions of Americans and their families.”
As the child of parents who both hunted and fished, I began attending this outdoor sportsmen’s show in the 1970s, when it was known as the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show and when the NRA was still an organization primarily dedicated to actual hunters. That annual exhibition, which ran from 1956 to 2013, was one of the largest of its kind in North America, contributing substantially to the local economy in Harrisburg. As someone who grew up in central Pennsylvania, I was lucky to be able to attend it year after year. But in 2013, in reaction to the rising epidemic of mass shootings, the event’s promoter and organizer, Reed Promotions, announced that it would no longer permit “modern sports rifles” (colloquially known as “assault weapons”) to be exhibited there. Because the wholesale elimination of assault rifles from the show would significantly impact its attendance, hundreds of vendors promptly dropped out, forcing the postponement (and likely cancellation) of the show.
Seeing a golden (and lucrative) opportunity to market itself, the NRA, which by then had long since devolved into a pro-assault weapons juggernaut operating on behalf of the arms industry, promptly stepped in.
The “outdoor sporting” nature of the event is now overshadowed by the sheer volume of sophisticated military-style weaponry on display, most of which bears no relationship to hunting or fishing, but is instead very clearly geared toward collectors and users of assault rifles and handguns.
As a result, the entire event now resembles a huge gun show, although significant space is still reserved for those who care about more traditional outdoor sporting activities such as hunting and angling … if they can get there. The main building—where all patrons are required to enter—is chock-full of guns, guns, and more guns, plus friendly NRA representatives hawking memberships at the door. An NRA country concert and NRA promotional contests and raffles are also scattered throughout the entire Farm Show Complex and Exposition Center. And while the overwhelmingly right-wing political stance of the NRA is not blatantly on display, the visible sentiment is now solidly conservative, Republican, and pro-Trump. The only “typical” gun show items conspicuously missing from the Great American Outdoor Show were reams of vitriolic anti-Hillary Clinton merchandise—which I suspect has simply been recycled in preparation for the next Democratic presidential nominee.
As someone who is not particularly interested in assault rifles, I was struck by the way traditional outdoor pastimes such as hunting and fishing now seem to be necessarily merged with the collection of high-powered weaponry. At first glance, the audiences for these two distinct interests appear nearly identical: The attendees of this exhibition are overwhelmingly blue-collar, white and male, some sporting MAGA hats and other pro-Trump attire, cheerfully hawked by vendors alongside row after row of automatic and semi-automatic weapons—including AR-15s, handguns, silencers, ammunition, gun storage, and protective clothing. All that Trump merchandise, however, was hardly present at all in the bowhunting and fishing sections of the show.
Why? Precisely because these groups’ interests are quite distinct: Many of those reveling in assault weapons aren’t actual hunters or fishermen, and vice versa. From a political standpoint, that makes a difference.
The Trump administration has spared no effort in pandering to the fears and insecurities of blue-collar white men, laying special emphasis on a common cause with gun aficionados, who often—but not always—overlap with sport hunters and fishermen. Aided by the NRA, which claims to stand for the interests of both groups, Trump and friends seem to assume, carelessly or not, that pandering and fearmongering to those whose concept of manhood revolves around an ability to brandish a powerful assault rifle will mesh just as well with those whose outdoor sporting pursuits don’t require amassing an arsenal of high-tech weaponry.
Whether or not that assumption is valid, the administration knows which demographics led to its electoral victory in 2016. It has touted its support for hunters and fishermen through the same visceral types of appeals, often steeped in “rugged individualism” rhetoric. Opening up—with great fanfare—previously protected or public lands to new hunting and fishing interests is one way the Trump administration tries to burnish its “outdoorsman” credibility. The cultivation of right-wing media fave Donald Trump Jr. as some type of “conservation” advocate and fellow hunter is another … at least for yacht-based trophy seekers who fork over thousands of dollars to kill animals indiscriminately on pricey guided tours.
Genuine hunters and fishermen (as opposed to gun fetishists—there is a difference), who necessarily pay attention to the environment that sustains their pastime, know that the single biggest threat to their sport is not that their hunting rifles will be snatched from them by an imagined Stasi-type secret police. Instead, the greatest threat is the encroachment of residential and industrial development and pollution on formerly pristine natural areas used for hunting and fishing. Talk to any real hunter over the age of 50, and they will tell you that the areas available for hunting or fishing have dwindled drastically over the last several decades, to the point where fewer and fewer publicly usable game lands remain unspoiled or undeveloped. Fishermen in particular will point out that one of their biggest problems is finding unpolluted streams or creeks where uncontaminated freshwater fish—that can actually be eaten—can be caught.
In Pennsylvania, for example, more than a third of the lakes and a fifth of the streams are so polluted that they cannot be used for recreation, much less for fishing or as a source of drinking water. The primary sources of that pollution are agricultural runoff and residue from mining operations. Other causes of these freshwater “impairments” include urban road runoff and development. Pennsylvania is hardly alone. Back in 2013, when Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency was actually acting to fight pollution, that agency issued a report that found one-half of the nation’s waterways in “poor condition.”
So in an administration that has normalized the obscene, it was just another day’s work last week when Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (a misnomer if ever there was one) announced that it hadn’t bothered to calculate the number of streams and rivers that would be impacted by its latest middle finger to American citizens: a rule reducing the reach of the Clean Water Act. As a sop to the agricultural, chemical, and mining industries, which prefer to ignore the toxic havoc that their contaminated waste products wreak on nearby citizens’ drinking water, the administration decided it would simply change the definition of the types of waterways in this country that need to be clean.
In one fell swoop, according to a New York Times op-ed written by the former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under George W. Bush, the president of the National Wildlife Federation, and the president of Trout Unlimited, an organization that promotes trout fishing, the Trump administration completely removed pollution protections for one-half of the streams in the United States. One-half of the streams.
The impact of this simple rule change (or as the head of Trump’s EPA called it, “regulatory reform”) on the nation’s drinking water is obvious. Its impact on the country’s fish habitats—and consequently, on sports fishing in general—though less obvious, will be catastrophic. From the Times op-ed:
Trout Unlimited’s research suggests that more than six million miles of streams — half the total in the United States — will now be unprotected by the Clean Water Act, because they flow only after rainfall. More than 42 million acres of wetlands — again, about half the country’s total — will no longer be protected because they are not immediately adjacent to larger waters.
This will make it easier to pollute streams and fill in wetlands that safeguard our water supplies, reduce flood risks and provide for healthy fish and wildlife habitat. And it will make it harder to provide sensible oversight of oil and gas projects, pipeline construction and major housing development. The impacts will be felt nationwide.
Under the new Trump rules, the responsibility for maintaining these streams and other freshwater courses will fall to the states, many of which have neither the political will nor the taxpayer funds available to handle such a task. In Arizona alone, researchers note that 83% of streams will lose protection, along with 99% of lakes. Because the state does not have its own clean water protection laws, whatever the federal government decrees about its waterways is the default. The same is true in New Mexico, where long-banned PCBs from the Los Alamos National Laboratory continue to threaten Santa Fe’s water supply. In Virginia and West Virginia, this rule change will eliminate protections for 82 streams. Not coincidentally, streams in Virginia would be impacted by pipeline developer Dominion, which has donated heavily to both Democrats and Republicans to secure a 550-mile gas pipeline project.
Hunters and fishermen who really want to understand this administration’s attitudes toward their interests could also, if they chose, take a quick look at Trump’s proposed budgets. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which assists states and local governments in acquiring lands for parks as well as for recreational hunting and fishing, was zeroed out under Trump’s last budget. In August 2019, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt hinted to Outdoor Life magazine, an administration-friendly media outlet, that such funding, which enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, would be provided in the following year’s budget. Guess what? It wasn’t. Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for oil and gas companies, knew damn well it wouldn’t be.
Like all of this administration’s machinations, when you look beyond the pro-sportsman rhetoric, the idea that Trump somehow supports hunters and fishermen is a fraud, and a particularly cynical one. The truth is that this administration lies to hunters and fishermen all the time. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership summed it up well after the release of Trump’s 2017 budget:
Hunters and anglers would find less healthy habitat and more public access closures under President Trump’s proposed budget, officially released this morning. In fact, the ripple effect of major budget cuts at the agencies that oversee conservation in America would likely be felt most in the rural communities that thrive off outdoor recreation spending related to public lands and other hunting and fishing access.
New Mexico is a case in point. As pointed out by Chris Krupp, a public lands guardian with the Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians, despite all of the administration’s exhortations about opening up public lands in that state to hunters and fishermen, 82% of the oil and gas leases to energy companies in New Mexico since 2017 have been in big-game priority areas. Krupp asks (rhetorically, of course), “What’s the point of improved access to public lands that have been devastated by clusters of well pads and roads in mule deer, elk and pronghorn migration corridors?” The simple answer is that they don’t care one whit about hunting or fishing; they care about pleasing their huge corporate donors in the form of energy companies.
One of the lead actors in this charade is William Perry Pendley, the far-right energy company lawyer whom Trump appointed acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for those same public lands and waters where all wild species—game or otherwise—are supposed to be sustained, for hunting, fishing, or simple existence in nature. Pendley spent the first 25 years of his career railing against the agency he would later head, claiming that all American public lands should be turned over to the states for “management.” This is, incidentally, the same philosophy used by Clive Bundy to justify his refusal to pay grazing fees for his cattle during his infamous 2014 ranch standoff. Pendley’s favorite target was the Endangered Species Act, which he considered a prime example of government overreach, saying it was created to “to kill or prevent anybody from making a living on federal land.” True to form, in August 2019 the administration announced plans to gut that act, which has helped preserve threatened wildlife species for decades.
The Department of the Interior under Trump has been equally hostile to real hunters and fishermen. An Associated Press review of social media postings by people appointed to the International Wildlife Conservation Council by Trump’s now-disgraced Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke summed up Zinke’s philosophy: It was that “the best way to protect critically threatened or endangered species is by encouraging wealthy Americans to shoot some of them.” This may be an acceptable philosophy for trophy hunters, but for anyone who actually cares about the sustainability of hunting, not so much. In terms of actually preserving wildlife populations, the administration’s attitude literally appears designed to encourage the killing of as many endangered species as possible. While this may appeal to the short-term voraciousness of certain hunters, and setting aside its total disregard for threatened species, its endgame is no hunting at all.
Then there are the instances in which the administration doesn’t even bother to hide its disregard for species conservation. In 2018 the Trump administration issued a new “interpretation” of (i.e., rolled back) the Migratory Bird Act, which, among other things, prohibited the mass killing of wild birds through construction or other industrial projects. As noted by Grist, this action was opposed by a bipartisan group of 17 former wildlife officials representing six prior administrations. “People were aghast at this announcement,” says Dan Ashe, who served as the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under Barack Obama. “It’s a complete giveaway, principally to the energy industry, but to industry writ large, at the expense of a resource that is precious and vulnerable.”
Finally, the administration’s nihilistic, policy-wide denial of the reality of climate change may be the worst news of all for hunters and fishermen. Todd Tanner is the president of Conservation Hawks, an organization made up of hunters and anglers that stresses the impact of climate change on outdoor sporting pursuits. Writing for Newsweek, Tanner spells out the willful stupidity of a public lands policy that purports to protect hunting and fishing without taking into account man-made global warming and its impact on wildlife.
Anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is the single greatest threat to our hunting and fishing, as well as to other popular outdoor pursuits like camping, boating, hiking, biking and skiing. When we purposefully try to eliminate climate change from the endangered species discussion, it’s like excluding cancer or heart disease from a conversation about public health. It’s ludicrous. In fact, it’s beyond ludicrous.
In January, the administration announced its intent to gut the National Environmental Policy Act, which would allow infrastructure projects such as pipelines, power plants, and highways to proceed without regard to their impact on or vulnerability to climate change. This rule change, like nearly all of the administration’s regulatory rollbacks, was a gift to the fossil fuel industry—at the expense of the public health and the environment.
According to a 2017 report from the Department of the Interior, over 100 million Americans participate in some type of wildlife-related activity, including hunting, fishing, or wildlife-watching, spending $156 billion per year while engaged in these pursuits. That’s a lot of voters. While it’s impossible to say whether the Trump administration’s efforts to paint itself as a friend to hunters and fishermen will have the same type of success that it has had with assault weapon devotees, it’s a mistake to assume that the people attending the outdoor show in Harrisburg this month are all cut from the same cloth—because they’re not. The interests of real hunters and fishermen are not same as the interests of the gun fans; the latter live in an imaginary NRA-drawn world where they fear Democrats will come for their guns, while the former can see their way of life being eroded almost every day by a president who has never spent a day in his life outdoors beyond playing golf.
What is clear is that anyone who believes this administration’s rhetoric about hunting and fishing must willfully ignore the damage it is consciously doing to the land and water where all species of fish and game must survive. You cannot hunt on barren, poisoned land, and you cannot fish in polluted streams. You cannot expect species to survive when laws ensuring their survival have been gutted or repealed outright, or when the areas that once allowed them to thrive have been developed, paved over, or mined. That’s just not the way that nature works.
Just a few months from now, we’ll find out whether all those millions of American sportsmen and women remember that elections have results, and vote Trump out.