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Wildlife conference misses its mark

Have you ever looked forward to an event that could be significant and life altering, but when the dust cleared, you questioned whether it was worth all the fuss?

In September, I wrote a column about the White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy, scheduled for early October in Reno. The conference was mandated by an executive order issued by President Bush.

The order called on federal agencies to facilitate the enhancement of hunting opportunities, as well as the management of game species and habitats.

The conference was billed as “potentially the most important meeting for the future of wildlife conservation and hunting.”

Hundreds of conference participants arrived in Reno, and under the watchful eye of what seemed like a battalion of Secret Service agents, we picked up our credentials while keeping an eye out for people we know in the outdoor industry. It’s always more fulfilling to share your ideas with someone you know rather than someone you don’t, and that sharing of ideas is what most of us thought we were there to do.

“While we’re not facing an immediate crisis today, we’re dealing with a growing crisis,” Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne said in his opening remarks. “Hanging in the balance is a future of hunting heritage and with it the … the health of our wildlife, the health of our land, our water, our forest, our wetlands.”

Kempthorne spoke of how Americans always set aside personal agendas and political labels when the country faces a crisis. Then he said, “Today, we’re coming together at this conference in the same way. We’re leaving the labels at the door. … First and foremost, we are Americans and we are here to work together to build a better America, a more beautiful and healthy America for our children and our grandchildren to inherit.”

After the opening speeches were over, the excited conference attendees reported to their assigned break-out session, in which members of a panel were asked questions and allowed to respond. Once they were done, members of the audience were allowed to express concerns about the future of hunting and wildlife conservation. But there was little organization to the discussions, nothing that would lead one to believe we were actually working to flesh out a plan of any kind.

What was presented by audience members seemed like little more than a simple laundry list of concerns or ideas as diverse in focus as the audience. The one exception was the breakout session in which Kempthorne served as facilitator. I have to give him credit because he actually led a discussion and asked for solutions to problems.

At one point, I shared my concerns about public-lands access and the rising cost of hunting licenses and big game tags across the West, but there came a time when the conference seemed like little more than window dressing. As I assessed the process, I began to feel as if the conference was held to gather a few quotes from members of the outdoor community that could be used to support a 10-year plan that had been completed by another group of people. A plan that has yet to be seen.

Once the conference was over, I spoke with others who wondered what it had accomplished. That remains to be seen.

Doug Nielsen is an award-winning freelance writer and a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column is published Thursday. He can be reached at doug@takinitoutside.com.

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