Meet the Resistance: The Hunters Fighting For Public Lands

 Photograph by Chis Douglas


Missoula, Montana never suffers a dearth of pickup trucks, but the number of jacked-up 4x4s rises dramatically in late April. That’s when Backcountry Hunters & Anglers gathers for its annual three-day Rendezvous, with camo-clad history lessons, camp cook-offs featuring meals like Arizona javelina, and lectures on the finer points of field-dressing an ungulate. At a standing-room-only seminar titled “Use the Whole Animal,” topics range from elk tongue preparation (parboil it) to whether brain really tastes like sausage. (It does.) 

The crowd here is a mix of biologists, military vets, TV hunting personalities, former hippies, and ardent Trump supporters. All are dedicated to one issue: the preservation of America’s wild public lands. Many are wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the phrase public land owner, a rallying cry for the nonprofit group. During an awards luncheon, a muscled guy from Wyoming says he’s skeptical of climate change but nonetheless opposes the state’s Republican congresswoman, Liz Cheney, on account of her support for transferring federal lands to the states. At an outdoor wild-game feast, I run into a blue-eyed 33-year-old woman named Lauren, who says she got into hunting because “I thought it was important to take responsibility for meat-eating, karmically.” Now she’s hooked on killing. Her entry in the cook-off is a cougar pinwheel roast stuffed with morels.

Across the tent, a reddish-blond man in a blue shirt and camo vest yucks it up with a handful of brawny guys drinking beer. Land Tawney, BHA’s 42-year-old president, is a ruddy-faced, fifth-generation Montanan who calls creeks “cricks” and could fit a pen in the gap between his front teeth. He owns more than 20 guns. In an era when much of the GOP is intent on transferring or selling off vast swaths of public land (mostly in the West), Tawney represents an aggressive line of defense for America’s wild places. Since he took the reins in 2013, BHA has grown tenfold, largely because of Tawney’s ability to create this bipartisan coalition.

One of his more charming habits is a tendency to compare politicians to dogs. “The dog understands the stick,” Tawney says, “and so do politicians.” Recently he has been using the stick to great effect. This spring, Tawney took on former Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz — who resigned in the summer to take a job as a political pundit at Fox News — after the representative introduced a bill to “dispose” of 3 million acres of federally managed public land. Tawney countered by mounting a fierce grassroots response: At a rally at Montana’s capitol organized by his group, a thousand protesters in cowboy hats and camo crammed the corridors, denouncing the bill.

BHA helped launch similar efforts in Idaho and New Mexico. Chaffetz eventually stood down, and shortly thereafter, in a combative press release, Tawney issued something of a warning: “[Chaffetz’s] fellow lawmakers should take note of the ire and rapid response by hunters and anglers. We aren’t going away.”

Tawney’s role at the Rendezvous includes greeting his tribe, meeting with BHA’s 24 nationwide chapter chairs, and managing his full-time staff of 14, who oversee the event. Throughout the weekend there are plenty of VIPs to glad-hand, among them Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, bigwigs from sponsors including Yeti, and hook-and-bullet celebrities like Randy Newberg, a TV host on the Sportsman Channel. But Tawney appears most focused on the next generation, listening in on a session about millennial recruitment and introducing himself to BHA’s younger members. The Rendezvous’ most popular event is story night, essentially organized fish tales, during which Newberg tells a Garrison Keillor–esque yarn about his uncle throwing a treble hook into his dad’s crotch. Then a 10-year-old girl takes the stage. Her name is Lola, and she’s from Wisconsin. Along with her parents, she screens a simple film that consists entirely of her catching fish. Every time she hooks up, the crowd roars. At the end of the film, she takes the stage and says, “My name’s Lola, and I’m a public land owner from Wisconsin!”

At that, Tawney stands up, pumps his fist, and howls thunderously. 

Public land in America exists largely because of hunters. Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell formed the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887 in order to protect Yellowstone National Park from mining and railroad interests. The group was responsible for many of conservation’s early victories, including legislation allowing the president to set aside “forest reserves” — a crucial precursor to Roosevelt’s establishment of national forests and monuments.

In the latter half of the 20th century, however, hunters slowly ceded much of their political clout to the National Rifle Association, which mostly focused its efforts on fighting gun control. So protection of public lands often fell to big legacy organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, or left-leaning groups like the Wilderness Society, whose environmental concerns often clashed with those of locals dependent on extractive industries — oil and gas workers — as well as with ranchers and loggers.

Federal land is managed for “multiple use,” meaning the government’s supervision of it must plan for recreation and conservation in addition to drilling and grazing. But this has created a cauldron of conflicting interests that have occasionally come to a boil. The most recent land-transfer flare-up started roughly five years ago, not long before Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy mounted an armed insurrection against federal agents. It was also around the time when industry-friendly groups had started a campaign to persuade Americans that the government was botching the management of their land.

Their general argument is that states can manage the acreage more efficiently than the federal government. But states have a poor track record of keeping the land public: 70 percent of the roughly 200 million acres that were given to states upon their entering the union has since been sold or transferred to private interests such as landowners and companies. Much of the remaining acreage has been leased out to extractive industries that have limited or cut off access.

This is the nightmare scenario that Tawney envisions if the large-scale transfers that the GOP supports become a reality, and he’s turned the matter into his animating mission. “It’s not a political game for him,” says Kai Anderson, former deputy chief of staff for Sen. Harry Reid and now a lobbyist who works on the issue. “It’s ‘What’s the right outcome from a sports- man’s perspective?’ ”

Last summer, the Republican National Committee went so far as to add transfer of lands from the federal government to the states — a process called divestiture — to its platform. Now, under President Trump, pro-transfer Republicans are eager to carry it out, and environmental groups have about as much sway at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as Howard Dean. That leaves swing-voting hunters as the rare conservation-minded bloc with access to the administration.

“[BHA] is seen as more credible,” says Athan Manuel, who oversees public land issues for the Sierra Club. “We’re saying the same thing, but they probably do vote Republican more than Sierra Club members do.”

There are other conservation-minded groups trying to stem the land-transfer tide — among them Trout Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation — but few have had the effect of BHA. “Their political clout is all connected to the turnout, the energy they’re able to harness,” says Peter Aengst, who helps oversee public land issues for the Wilderness Society. “You know that saying, ‘The world is shaped by those who show up’? Well, BHA members show up.”

BHA now has a budget of $2.5 million and 13,000 members, a number that grows monthly. Recently, some high profile names have joined the cause, notably MMA fight analyst and podcast phenom Joe Rogan, as well as Donald Trump Jr., who became a lifetime member in 2015. “I was ready to be unimpressed,” Tawney says of Trump Jr. “But I was encouraged by his acumen and knowledge of conservation history. He passes the smell test.”

Tawney also suspects that Junior has had an effect on policy, namely with the ascendancy of Montana congressman Ryan Zinke, an avowed public lands supporter, to the post of secretary of the interior. “If you think about a litter of dogs,” Tawney says of Zinke, “he was the pick of the litter for sure.”

So far, in the early days of the Trump administration, Tawney has helped stall the most direct attacks on public land, including Chaffetz’s bill, but there are plenty of worrying developments — most notably a Trump-ordered review of national monuments, including Utah’s Bears Ears, which Zinke recently suggested shrinking. Utah’s congressional delegation, however, would prefer to do away with it altogether.

“The precedent of undoing a monument could have dire consequences,” says Tawney. “We don’t want that precedent set in any way.”

Following Zinke’s recommendation on Bears Ears, BHA issued a press release critical of the move and asked its membership to f lood the Interior Department with input on the monument review process, generating nearly 15,000 comments. But Tawney has yet to organize the kind of rallies that moved the needle on the Chaffetz bill — a sign, perhaps, of his choosing his battles carefully. “The minute you put your foot in Zinke’s ass,” he says, “you lose an ally.”

Tawney finds himself in a delicate position. To win his war, he must rally his bipartisan coalition of hunters, anglers, and other conservationists; convince gun lovers to criticize legislators supported by the NRA; and go to battle with land-transfer advocates who are backed by some of the most powerful industry groups and special interests in the country, including the Koch brothers’ network.

“There’s a lot of money behind that movement,” says Martin Heinrich, the Democratic senator from New Mexico, a lifelong hunter and prominent public lands supporter. “I don’t think it’s going to go away.” 

Tawney often wears muck boots and camo to his office, a brick-walled space where dogs roam freely. Fly-tying materials sit on shelves, and taxidermied ducks adorn the walls. When I come to visit, Tawney’s new puppy, a black Lab named Tule, romps around, and Tawney’s iPhone buzzes constantly. The ringtone is the call of a drake mallard.

Tawney is not shy about implying that he was born for this role. One afternoon, while taking me on a tour of his family’s property, in a steep canyon outside Missoula, he notes with pride that Jim Posewitz, the author of Beyond Fair Chase, a seminal backcountry hunting book, drove his mother, Robin, to the hospital on the day of his birth. “My dad was out fishing,” Tawney says, smiling.

Phil Tawney, Land’s father, was the first attorney for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and a prominent early Montana conservationist; he also served as executive director of the state’s Democratic Party. Land was named for Land Lindbergh, a family friend and the third son of the aviator Charles. Land shot his first whitetail at 14, Phil smearing blood under his son’s eyes after the kill, “almost like war paint.” When Tawney tells me the story, he notes, “Teddy Roosevelt had done that to one of his sons.”

As a high schooler, Tawney was, in his own words, “a punk kid,” interested primarily in soccer and girls. He went off to college in Seattle, but his father was soon diagnosed with leukemia, and after he died, Tawney moved back to Missoula, where he enrolled at the University of Montana to study wildlife biology. Soon thereafter, he met his wife, Glenna, while teaching soccer, and they moved into a log cabin with no running water that his parents had built.

Before his death, Phil had launched Montana’s first sportsmen’s political action committee, called Montana Hunters and Anglers. Land took over in 2009. He started on the state level and later moved on to national races, always supporting Democrats. At the time, Tawney was frustrated with the lack of moxie among hunting groups. “Hunters are complacent,” he says. “And hunters and anglers are conservative. Have they traditionally voted around the Second Amendment? Yes.”

Tawney claims he doesn’t identify as a Democrat or Republican — “I’m a one-issue voter,” he says — but for an independent, he has frequently leaned left. While he won’t criticize the NRA, he’s not a member, either. “The only thing that’s frustrating,” Tawney says, “is that there’s power there that could be used for conservation.”

In 2013, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers reached out to Tawney, and from the moment he took over, he focused entirely on sportsmen’s issues. This often meant sending out sleepy press releases about, say, the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act. But he also pushed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. In 2015, Montana Sen. Steve Daines voted for a measure to facilitate land transfer. BHA blistered him in the press, and, according to Tawney, “he’s been good on land ever since. He got educated.”

The more confrontational the group was, the more it grew. The first year under Tawney’s leadership, BHA’s membership more than doubled from 1,000 to 2,400. Around the same time, it gained some new enemies.

Though it’s most frequently associated with the Bundy family and the populist movement supporting them, the idea of transferring federal lands to the states has been mainstreamed by a couple of Washington, D.C., think tanks and advocacy organizations with extensive ties to the oil industry — most notably, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch Industries– backed group that pushes industry-friendly bills to state governments. Another Beltway nonprofit, the Environmental Policy Alliance, started a campaign in 2014 to label BHA, among others, as a “green decoy” — a front group for “radical environmental activists.” That year, the alliance’s director of research, Will Coggin, began publishing op-eds throughout the West attacking BHA. Coggin turned out to be an employee of Richard Berman, a notorious public relations executive who runs a series of think tanks, one of which received $57,250 from a Koch-backed nonprofit for so-called “hunting organization opposition research.” 

Tawney soon realized that he was in a messaging war. So in the fall of 2014, he organized a pro–public land rally at the Montana capitol, in Helena, giving out T-shirts that read #keepitpublic. When the Bundy brothers occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, Tawney was struck by how easily they were able to convince rural westerners that they were trying to “return” the land to the American people. “I was like, ‘It belongs to us,’ ” says Tawney. He commissioned a batch of hooded sweatshirts bearing the words PUBLIC LAND OWNER, which soon became something of a tribal identification item, the hunter’s equivalent of a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat. 

One of Tawney’s staffers began distributing them at “pint nights” across the West, where BHA gave away beer and preached the gospel of public land. “People are coming into the political process who are not experienced and maybe a little naive,” Tawney tells me. “But they’re psyched. It’s rad.” 

On the eve of the Rendezvous, BHA VIPs gather for a $350-a-head wild-game feast in a barn at the confluence of Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River, 20 miles east of Missoula. Outside, appetizers like chunks of seared elk heart sit on trays, and two mule-deer shanks lathered in bear fat roast over an open fire. Western-formal abounds — bolo ties and dresses — but Tawney wears a red checked shirt, a ranger hat, and cowboy boots, his favored footwear around politicians. “They give you an extra half-inch,” he says, “and it’s business time.”

Before dinner, Gov. Bullock addresses the crowd: “I’d like to say that there isn’t a war in the West going on, but there is.” He continues: “They ain’t coming for our Walmarts. They’re coming for our beautiful places. And the threat is real.”

Then everyone steps inside the barn to eat, gathering beneath the bleached and mounted skulls of three bull elk. Tawney sits next to the governor. I find myself at a table between two donors. Blake Fischer, a 38-year-old Idahoan and owner of an irrigation business, has well-coiffed hair and a snap-button shirt adorned with two roosters. Baker Leavitt is a brash and bald 41-year-old from Washington. The guys talk football for a minute, and then, inevitably, the conversation turns to bragging about recent kills. Leavitt produces his phone and pulls up a photo of piles of dead feral hogs, which he dispatched using night-vision. Fischer recounts a family javelina-hunting trip to south Texas.

When I ask about the public lands fight, Fischer corrects me, saying, “It’s not a fight. We own the land.” Leavitt, an enthusiastic Trump supporter, says he understands why some politicians find divestiture appealing. But, he says, “it’s like communism: sounds great in theory.”

“I’d like to see river guys and hippies and hunters unite behind a common cause,” Leavitt says. “It’s cool to pick up the ball and run with people you have nothing in common with other than your love for public land.”

Now Tawney starts to mingle, shaking hands and wearing his gap-tooth grin.

“They named him Land,” says Fischer, “and he’s the number one land advocate in the country. It’s his birthright! I don’t know what his middle name is — but I think it’s ‘Fucking.’” Leavitt finds this hilarious and roars approvingly: “Land Fuckin’ Tawney!”

Midway through the dinner, Tawney stands up to give a sort of keynote speech, and it’s about a recent bighorn ram hunt in Montana. He tells it as the main course is being served — osso buco with risotto cooked in the broth of the ram he shot.

The story stands out for what it lacks: the kind of chest-beating one might expect from the hunting crowd. Mostly, Tawney talks about failure. During his hunt he crashed his truck and missed one shot. He talks about family, noting how deeply he missed his wife during the hunt. And, mostly, he talks about the solace of the mountains. “Those places don’t exist in other parts of the world,” he says, “where you can go lose yourself on public lands and have those experiences I did.”

At the end, there’s a silence, then Tawney raises a glass. “A lot of people think we’re just doing this so we can shoot the next thing,” he says. “That is not even close to why we are all here.” Then he sits down to eat his kill.