by Whit Gibbons

November 20, 2016

John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey and Carl Shoemaker – three of these names are easily recognized by anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the history of environmental protection in the United States.

The fourth is seldom even mentioned in ecology textbooks and is certainly unknown to the general public. Yet he made a greater, albeit behind-the-scenes, contribution to conservation and environmental protection than many a noted environmentalist.

Carl Shoemaker was with the Oregon Fish and Game Commission when he took on the unenviable task of drafting the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, or Pittman-Robertson Act, which was signed into law by FDR in 1937. The bill arguably resulted in the perpetuation of more native wildlife than any prior federal legislation. The soul of the P-R Act was the protection of natural habitats across the country, which would benefit hunters who wanted wildlife refuges and habitat enhancement for game mammals and birds, and restoration of those with declining populations.

Many environmentalists are puzzled that habitat protection for wildlife is so heavily weighted toward hunting interests. Conservation efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state natural resource agencies have historically focused on hunter preferences. But consider this: The wildlife beneficiaries are not just game species like deer and turkey, which by the way are more abundant and widespread than a century ago, but also the thousands of species of non-game animals and plants that thrive because their natural habitats continue to exist.

Some environmentalists decry that funding is directed toward such concerns as target practice and hunter safety training. Hunters’ interests are clearly placed ahead of bird-watching, ecotourism and nature photography. The reason is as simple as counting money. Hunters pay a lot to hunt.

Taxes from hunting activities go to the states and the federal government for enhancing wildlife habitat, managing and maintaining parks and wildlife refuges and conducting surveys and research to determine the status of game and a few nongame species. Ultimately the P-R Act levied an 11 percent federal excise tax on hunting equipment, including ammunition, rifles, shotguns, bows, arrows and later on pistols. Those taxes benefit natural environments and all the plants and animals that inhabit them.

Because wildlife in the context of environmental protection is mostly synonymous with game species, controversy often arises about whether a habitat is being restored for the benefit of select species without regard for other native fauna and flora. But vast areas of habitat controlled by the Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service remain undeveloped and in a natural state because of their association with hunting.

In addition to paying taxes dedicated to habitat protection, anyone who hunts invests financially in equipment, including supplies for camping, boating, hiking and so on. That corporate sponsors of such activities are in favor of protecting natural areas should come as no surprise. Some commercial organizations that make their money from hunters strongly support the protection of natural habitats for game species, including wetlands for waterfowl.

Protecting wetlands, as I have noted time and again, are critical for maintaining the country’s environmental health. That shooting animals is good for America’s natural environments is a paradox difficult for some people to embrace. Environmentalists should make an effort to do so. Some preservation groups may even want to develop partnerships with the hunting community to achieve the common goal of saving entire habitats. The gain for environmental prosperity from protecting natural habitats is more important than the loss of a small number of game animals each year.

History, of course, is a patchwork of unacknowledged heroes. One of them is Carl Shoemaker, who should be lauded by hunters. Nearly 80 years ago he drafted an important piece of environmental legislation for habitat preservation. Hunters and game species were the target beneficiaries. But virtually all native species in those same habitats benefited as well. Perhaps Carl Shoemaker should be the environmentalists’ hero, too.

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