West Virginia takes a hard look at the future of outdoor recreation

ROANOKE, W.Va. — America has seen a steady decline in the number of people who participate in the outdoors over the last several decades. The trend was slow to hit West Virginia, but like most states the Mountain State is now caught up in the steady reduction as well and without some kind of change, the future of hunting, fishing, and wildlife in general is alarming.

“This is the single most important issue facing our group today,” said West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Wildlife Section Chief Paul Johansen.

According to information shared at a weekend summit on the matter, only 12 percent of the West Virginia population today hunts and only about four percent fish. As low as those figures seem, West Virginia is actually one of the stronger states per-capita in a country where the decline is stark everywhere. One of the most alarming aspects is such a decline threatens the future of the current North American Wildlife Model by which all wildlife species are protected. Agencies, like the West Virginia DNR and their equivalent agencies in other states, charged with management and protection of game, fish, and non-game species like birds, reptiles, and amphibians are funded almost entirely by the dollars of hunting and fishing license sales and by excise taxes paid on hunting and fishing equipment. With the rapid decline, the future in such a structure is unsustainable.

“The wildlife in America belongs to everybody, but only about 10 to 20 percent are paying for it. That’s extremely inefficient,” said Matt Dunfee, Director of Programs at the Wildlife Management Institute in talking about the matter in Saturday’s edition of West Virginia Outdoors.

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources assembled a national team to start attacking the problem and reverse the tide. The group includes Dunfee and the Wildlife Management Institute, Phil Seng of D.J. Case Associates of South Bend, Indiana, Stephanie Hussey of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, and Samantha Pedder Director of Operations for the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports.

Together the team is helping states muster forces in a new movement called “R-3” It’s a short term for “Recruiting, Retention, and Reactivation.” More specifically, “recruiting” new people to outdoor pursuits, “retaining” them after they tried it and keep them engaged in the outdoors, and finally trying to reengage those who may have formerly participated in hunting, fishing, and other outdoors pursuits, but stopped for whatever reason, and get them to come back. The idea has been in place for a number of years, according to Dunfee, it took while to realize what has happened and how to start a reversal.

“We had been doing a really good job of taking care of our base. We were taking our kids hunting and fishing, and our neighbors’ kids hunting and fishing, but the rest of the nation was moving on without us. It turns out the Baby Boomers were our solid core. We weren’t recruiting new hunters and anglers, we were really just making more of our own culture and America needed us to reach out to them as well,” he said.

Moving forward, the R-3 team has been able to develop better research techniques, improved data, and more specifically target who they need to be reach with the message of the outdoors.

“We did a study in 2016-2017 called the Nature of Americans and in it we validated the fact Americans have a deep and abiding love of the outdoors, but also realizing they are very disconnected from those things,” Seng noted.

The research revealed the targeting of outdoor pursuits could no longer be aimed at older, white men. Although that has long been the traditional outdoor consumer, it is no longer what America looks like. RBFF has already seen some success in the area of fishing and boating by going after an entirely different demographic. They are the ones behind the highly effective Take Me Fishing campaign in recent years.

“We need to target multi-cultural family outdoors activities. The country is aging, more urban, much more diverse, and the number of foreign-born people is on the rise,” said Hussey who helps state agencies adapt programs and marketing to the R-3 movement.

“More than a third of U.S. residents are interested in fishing, we have to get to them and explains the opportunities,” she said.

The massive influence of Millennials and their attachment to technology is also part of the game.

“We can’t expect them to come to us, we have to go to them,” said Dunfee.

The demographics nationally are one thing, the demographics of West Virginia are quite another. The specifics of West Virginia’s general demographic trends were carefully considered as the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources crafted a draft plan to bring the R-3 idea to the Mountain State. Saturday, the draft plan was rolled out to about 75 invited leaders of stakeholder groups in West Virginia.

Presidents, officers, and other leading members of the state’s largest conservation organizations like the West Virginia Bowhunters Association, the West Virginia Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, NWTF, the bear hunters, QDMA, the Hunter Education organization, and other associated collectives were presented with the draft. But also on hand were members of the Audubon Society, birding clubs, and West Virginia Master Naturalists.

The eclectic background of so many outdoor user groups represented in the same room, working toward the same goal, signified one of the most united fronts for an outdoors cause in anyone’s memory. On a more ominous note, it also underscored the true urgency and potentially dire consequences of failure.

“We need the help of hunters, anglers, and all other conservation groups. We truly want to hear what you have to say. How can you and your organizations participate? We truly need your help,” Johansen told the gathering.

The draft plan was based on five specific pillars: Hunting, Shooting Sports, Angling, Boating, and Wildlife Viewing/Diversity. Laid out in the draft plan by the DNR to the organizations were three overarching goals. 1. Increase participation in wildlife-associated outdoor recreation. 2. Create and maintain stakeholders for conservation. 3. Ensure the West Virginia DNR and larger conservation community remain relevant with West Virginia citizens.

Each of the pillars was broken out with associated goals and guidelines. Since it is a first offering, presenters of each pillar admitted some of the goals may be unattainable and in other areas the bar may have been set too low. Monitoring and adjustment along the way will be a key. Each organization was broken out into smaller groups during the summit to offer input about what they would like to see in a final plan of action. They also offered input on how their specific groups could help engage in the implementation.

The draft plan has been put together in a website and the DNR and its R-3 team are interested in feedback. You can review the plan and offer ideas here.

Marketing is a big part of the implementation, so it’s likely West Virginia will hear much more about “R-3” in the coming months and years. More likely, we’ll be exposed to its results with an increased emphasis on suggestions to make outdoor activities and outdoor recreation a bigger part of our day to day lives.

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