Real sportsmen don't vote Bush

Worried there won't be any wilderness left to hunt or fish in, increasing numbers of American sportsmen are tuning out the NRA and turning to Kerry.

By Kevin Berger

Published November 1, 2004 6:28AM (EST)

New Mexico native Alan Lackey is disgusted at how "George Bush's energy policies are running amok" and degrading the natural splendor of his state and its bounty of elk and deer. A former hunting guide, Lackey, 46, and his family have been Republicans for generations. An industrious, middle-class businessman -- he, his father and brother now own a car dealership in Raton, N.M. -- Lackey has always identified with the socially conservative GOP.

In 2000, Lackey voted for George Bush and Dick Cheney, who were endorsed by the National Rifle Association, as they are this year. At the time, like many hunters, Lackey was swayed by the NRA's party line that gun owners' Second Amendment rights were going to be stolen from them in the middle of the night by liberals in black ski masks. Which Lackey now realizes is a crock. Indeed, Sen. Kerry supported the Brady Bill, which placed some common-sense new restrictions on gun registrations; and like President Bush, he backed a ban on assault weapons. But Kerry has stated countless times that he supports the right to bear arms and has no intention of undermining it.

"I'm a life member of the NRA but now I'm ashamed to admit it," Lackey says. "They say they're trying to protect hunters' rights. But there are two things that go along with hunting: the firearm and the game. And the NRA is so focused on the Second Amendment that everything else is undermined. I guess I let their propaganda get to me last time. But it turns out we were duped. Because President Bush, right after he was elected, promised an energy plan that would be environmentally sensitive and would protect our resources. That wasn't true at all. They had no intention of doing that."

There are 40 million sportsmen of voting age in the United States -- nearly a third of the entire vote -- and they heavily populate swing states New Mexico, Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida. Most voted for Bush and Cheney in 2000 but an unprecedented number of them would rather sell their pickups than do so again. They feel betrayed by how the duo has sold out the American wilderness to their compatriots in the oil and gas industry, whose derricks and wells now taint the countrysides and streams where they hunted and fished since they were kids.

Out of their anger and rage, and it's deep and true, sportsmen have mobilized in rural America and roused a sleeping giant to side with Sen. John Kerry. But even if impassioned sportsmen don't make history by pushing the Electoral College toward the lanky New England Democrat, their efforts in the past year underscore why the two good ol' boys in the White House, often photographed with shotguns and fly rods in hand, are now seen by many as serious posers, neither in tune with sportsmen nor the wild spirit of the country.

You might imagine Republicans have corralled the country's hunters, who, according to a recent bipartisan survey, are superactive voters and plan to turn out at the polls in record numbers -- 80 percent, to be exact. But Dubya and company have not sewn up the outdoors vote and they know it, which explains why they have invited more than 40 hunting and fishing groups to the White House and the president's Texas ranch, and why Bush and Kerry each gave lengthy interviews to Field & Stream magazine.

"Without question, the reason we landed those interviews is because no one can really count on the sportsmen vote," says Sid Evans, editor in chief of Field & Stream. "This is a passionate group that does not vote along party lines."

Lackey has lent his energy to an unlikely coalition of New Mexican ranchers, hunters, environmentalists and Native American tribes -- all striving to halt Bush and company from erecting hundreds of natural gas wells in Valle Vidal, a 40,000-acre basin of grasslands and meadows, spread out beneath the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where thousands of elk graze in winter. Lackey appreciates the irony of a car dealer striving to block further energy development but insists he is concerned less with immediate profits than with the prosperity of New Mexico's wilderness and wildlife for his kids and theirs.

"You might think, as a patriotic American, this is what we need," Lackey says. "Fossil fuels support the lifestyle we're accustomed to. But is it worth destroying our last wild areas for?"

Immersing himself in the Bush energy policy, he says, spurred an awakening in him. "What you find," he says, "is our government has become a government by the money and for the money. This energy policy and blatant raid on our public resources is indicative of what's going on in Washington. That's why I'm voting for Kerry this year. I can't support the party that I belong to because it's become the party of arrogance and greed."

Lackey's love for America's wild lands and antipathy toward Bush and Cheney are shared by countless Republican sportsmen. How many is impossible to tell, of course, but they represent a rising tide, says Trout Unlimited's David Stalling, who for the past year has crisscrossed the country more times than he can remember, talking to thousands of hunters and anglers. "They're up in arms about this issue," he says, savoring the pun. "They know the policies going on right now are destroying the places they hunt and fish." Stinging evidence of Republicans in revolt came in 2002 when conservative Wyoming -- Cheney's home state -- elected Democrat Dave Freudenthal over gas and oil executive Eli Bebout for governor.

Earlier this year, all the president's men no doubt got wind of a USA Today story headlined "Conservative Sportsmen Turn Against Bush." It focused on fishing and hunting groups in Alaska that were speaking out against the Bush boys for rescinding a Clinton initiative to prevent logging roads from being carved through the Tongass National Forest. The article spawned a cascade of similar stories in a wide range of publications, all pointing out how Bush's environmentally nefarious energy plan was melting down his political base.

At issue is how the plan, overseen in 2001 by Cheney and hatched behind closed doors with a bevy of the vice president's pals from the petroleum biz, promotes oil and natural gas extraction at the expense of wilderness protection. Study the plan in detail and you will see that when it comes to preserving, say, the ancient migratory routes of elk and deer in Wyoming and New Mexico, or the ecological health of trout streams in Montana and Colorado, it's a disaster. Or, as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson describes it: "drill, drill, drill."

Particularly nasty is a directive to public agencies to buzz through environmental regulations and "expedite permits and coordinate federal, state, and local actions necessary for energy-related project approvals." At one point, sounding like the Sopranos, the plan states that agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, critical in approving leases to oil companies, damn well better find a way to get around niggling environmental laws and "avoid unintended and inordinate complications in energy production and supply." Which, as Stalling of Trout Unlimited, a leading opponent of the Bush energy plan, points out, is "like making a decision to protect bald eagle nesting grounds by making sure the decision doesn't have an adverse impact on the use of DDT."

Halliburton, BP, Chevron Texaco and their buddies in Washington, D.C., have claimed that if the United States is to achieve "energy independence," then, by God, it needs to tap its native lands. The thing is, 88 percent of public lands are already open to energy development. Apparently that isn't enough. As it stands, there are more than 110,000 natural-gas wells dotting public lands; the BLM has managed to approve 10,000 during the Bush reign alone. While geologists estimate that it will take up to 15 years to leech all of the natural gas out of public lands, the final supply will feed the nation for about two years. In New Mexico, for example, scientists figure that after the mesas have been scarred with wells for ages, the supply of natural gas will be exhausted by the nation in about two days.

Surely no Republican is more repulsed at Bush and Cheney than Montana native son Stoney Burk, lifelong elk hunter, Vietnam fighter pilot, and a lawyer in the Big Sky town of Choteau. Prodigal son of generations of loggers, Burk has voted Republican his entire life, including the last presidential election. He and his lumberjack brothers have never been able to stand weasely Democrats squandering arduously earned taxpayer money on social welfare programs.

But like Lackey, Burk has experienced a major social awakening himself this year, as he's watched the Bush administration try and bequeath the gorgeous Montana plains to oil companies such as EnCana and Exxon. "Now don't read this wrong," he says, "but it's like I was homosexual and coming out of the closet. I feel a real liberation in standing up for what I believe." What he believes is that Bush and Cheney should be drummed out of office if only for the sake of the elk, grizzly bears and wolves whose habitats will be decimated under their energy plan.

"Anybody who examines what is happening out West would turn their backs on the Bush-Cheney cartel in an instant," says Burk, who has become active in local grass-roots groups working to keep the oil companies at bay, and who plans to vote for Kerry. "When we elected Bush, we did not give him and Cheney and their oil buddies the right to invade our last remaining wild lands and destroy much of the heritage of the United States in the name of national security or oil and gas shortage. Hell, they spend more money in one day in Iraq than you would get out of all of the gas wells in Montana for 15 years."

What also fries Burk is to see Bush and Cheney pass themselves off as hunters, as politicians who understand the common man, the Montana timber worker. "You need to take a close look behind the mask and see what these people really represent," he says. "They're like the Wizard of Oz. If you peel back the screen, you'll see they don't even know what hunting is in the truest sense of the word. All they do is rub shoulders with the oil and gas elite who hunt on private ranches and shoot deer that have been planted there. That's their insidious way of proving to themselves that they are men. Ever seen a real hunter go to a $2,500-a-plate dinner? Not only no but hell no!"

Burk, Stalling and many sportsmen activists applaud the Department of Interior's recent promise to halt development of some natural gas wells along Montana's basin, or Rocky Mountain Front. Yet they maintain it is a crafty political move at election time and a diversion from gung-ho plans to erect hundreds of wells in Wyoming and New Mexico. Still, they can take credit for the recent ruling, ephemeral as it may be. Unquestionably, as activists, they helped spur nine out of 10 Montanans, of all political stripes, to side with the environment and oppose the Bush energy plan. And if that's not an indication of hardcore Republicans' change of heart toward the Bush cartel, Burk says, he doesn't know what is. "I'm telling you," he says, come Tuesday, "it's going to be a Republican meltdown."

Granted, a lot of angry hunters in Montana and Wyoming are not going to award the electoral votes in those states to Kerry. And, yes, some hunters are unregenerate reactionaries, political cowboys who spout the NRA's unconscionable nonsense. For these hunters the icon is Ted Nugent, who actually gives hilarious interviews about the primeval rush of spearing your own food. Of course, if he didn't define himself in such garish opposition to tree huggers, vegans and the like, our pal Ted would just be another bad guitar player.

But Burk's remark that Bush and Cheney don't speak for hunting in the truest sense of the word is about something deeper, more important and influential in this election. True hunting is a mindset and ethic shared by an unclassifiable and unquantifiable number of hunters throughout the country. They are the ones who've been roused by the activists, who've seen the curtain pulled back on Bush and envisioned the American wilderness as a vast land of industrial derricks and wells.

When my dad died 10 years ago, I got his cameras and my two brothers got his Bernadelli shotguns, beautiful works of craftsmanship, as exquisitely engraved as a sultan's jewelry. My brothers cherish the guns like nothing else they own, hunt with them and care for them with pride. Give them a break from work and they will hike all day through tall grass and wetlands, amid sagebrush and up mountain trails, along meadows and the rim of wooded streams. All the while they are looking for teal ducks or plump pheasants, waiting for elegant quail to skitter through the scrub and take flight through the manzanita trees.

Unlike my brothers, though, I get no kick out of toting a shotgun. They revel in the poise, skill and Zenful aim it takes to bring down the birds. I don't get a kick out of shooting at all. I simply didn't inherit the hunting genes. Yet I know they are the kind of conscientious hunters who will make a difference on Tuesday. They're out there in the millions.

And they couldn't be exemplified by a hunter with more humanity and character than Courtney Skinner, 67, proprietor with his five brothers of Skinner Brothers Outfitters in Pinedale, Wyo. A geologist by schooling and a Republican by temperament, Skinner has tracked and hunted elk and pronghorn antelope for himself and others for decades through every inch of his homeland Wyoming. In the early '60s under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, he helped scout and map the Antarctic. Sir Edmund Hillary taught Skinner the finer points of ice mountaineering. In fact, Skinner Peak on the Antarctic continent is named after him.

Skinner voted for Bush and Cheney in 2000 but not this time. "Bush and Cheney claim to be conservationists but they're not that at all," he says. "Cheney lives in an exclusive place in Jackson. He can see the Tetons from his window but I don't think they've ever affected him to say, 'God, I better not screw these up for the next generation.' He'll always be comfortable in his gun and fishing clubs. But this is not about him. It's about the single mom and her little kid with a K-Mart fishing pole not having a spot to fish. That's what's in danger of disappearing."

Wyoming is suffering the brunt of the Bush energy plan, which calls for over 65,000 new and ugly coal-bed methane wells, a particularly toxic curse on a state that is already scarred with 14,000 of the wells. Reluctantly, Skinner has joined forces with environmentalists, "the greenies," to battle the state's conservative politicians and prime employers, the big oil and gas companies. At town meetings and the barbershop, Skinner tries to rally his fellow sportsmen to his side -- and says he is succeeding. Take a recent elk hunting trip, he says, where he guided 13 hunters from across the nation into Wyoming's outback. Over campfire conversations, Skinner learned that six hunters were for Bush and seven for Kerry. "They all talked about their distrust of Bush," he says.

It's snowing in Wyoming and Skinner has to go close the doors on his barn. But he wants to leave me with one thought. He wants to say that it's not just people in the West, but across the country, who have so much to learn from sportsmen.

"When a hunter first starts out, taking the animal is the most important thing," Skinner says. "And once you catch your first fish, you're a fisherman. But then hunting and fishing just become reasons for the journey -- reasons to get out, lose yourself in nature, look at the stars and hear the river run. That's the way to confront a little bit of America's past and rejuvenate your soul so you can move forward to the future. That's the tradition we want to preserve. Those are things increasingly more valuable than all of the mines. Those are things we can't trust Bush and Cheney to protect."

Kevin Berger

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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