By Brian Jennings
Mike Beagle has followed several paths in his life. Growing up, he hunted, fished and excelled at baseball and football in Southern Oregon. Graduating from Southern Oregon University, Beagle became a teacher and coach in both Portland and Medford. He also worked as a conservationist and regional manager for Trout Unlimited where he was instrumental in establishing new wilderness in Southwest Oregon. He is a father, husband, and a former Army officer and now Alumni Director at his alma mater. But hunting, fishing, a strong connection to the land, and backcountry values feed his soul. Because of his passion, leadership and vision he became the number one founding member of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
It was thirteen years ago that Beagle found himself in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at a conference on wilderness with fellow Oregonian and outdoorsman James Monteith. Over beer, a seed was planted when both wondered why there was no conservation group advocating for the protection of backcountry for hunters and anglers. Although it took three more years to germinate, this is how and when the roots of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers took hold.
The date was March, 2004. There had been numerous email exchanges and much discussion with like-minded sportsmen and women over the past few years. Beagle decided to make a move. At his Southern Oregon Cascade Mountain home, he hosted several like-minded backcountry hunters and anglers. Toward nightfall, famed Northwest conservationist, the late Tim Lillebo built a campfire and with a nudge and a bottle of Maker’s Mark the seven founding members of BHA gathered around that fire and made a decision. “We asked ourselves if we could really form an organization that represented our values for the backcountry. Could we really do it? Could we really put together a group that would be a first in terms of advocating for public lands protection with backcountry values built around hunting and fishing?” They did it, and in 2014 we have been celebrating our tenth anniversary as one of the fastest growing and most respected conservation organizations for hunters and anglers in the world. As Beagle puts it, “Because we are hunters and anglers connected to the land with backcountry values, we are conservationists, and that makes us unique.”
Establishing and growing a non-profit conservation organization is never easy and not without bumps in the road. Without the long hours of dedicated work by the founding organizers and a passionate grass roots base, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers would never have succeeded. But at the 2014 North American BHA Rendezvous in Denver I watched Beagle beaming with pride as he looked over the many exhibits and measured the crowd. Recently, chasing redbands on Oregon’s Crooked River, he would tell me “No way! This couldn’t have happened. We’ve got a great Executive Director in Land Tawney, a professional staff to support him and our mission, and I don’t think we ever envisioned we would get to that point. In fact, most non-profits that start out volunteer driven fade away and don’t exist. We’re still here after ten years. We’re tickled about that, proud of it, but humbled, as well.”
Beagle is clearly bullish about BHA’s future. “With our staff and growing network of chapters and volunteers, including British Columbia we’re excited about growing. But, to keep going forward we have to have momentum and keep it. You can’t sit back in conservation and rest. It’s very fluid and always moving. You’ve got to stay on top of things and I think our staff does that and I think they do a nice job of mixing with our volunteers and state chapters. But, we have to continue to do that. I think we could have 15-20,000 members eventually.” Beagle continued, “There are certainly a lot of people who haven’t heard of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, and that’s something we would like to work on and improve. That will benefit us, but most importantly it benefits the land, water, fish and wildlife, and our kids.”
Beagle is proud of the many achievements and conservation victories that Backcountry Hunters & Anglers has worked to achieve over the last ten years. Foremost in his mind is BHA’s grassroots spotlight on illegal abuse by off-road vehicles. “I think we have really helped put that in the forefront with management agencies whether it’s state fish and wildlife agencies, the Forest Service or the BLM. That’s huge and has to continue. We have members weighing in on travel management plans throughout the west.” Beagle continues, “Our members cherish and love public land like it’s their own. When they see abuse, they are pretty vocal. I’m really happy with that aspect of our mission, and it needs to continue.”
There have been other victories and achievements as well. Beagle cites passage of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 - which designated millions of acres for wilderness protection in nine states - as a major win for outdoor sportsmen and women. “Building coalitions with other conservation organizations, staying on point and on mission, educating the public and officials about what we stand for, that’s what I’m most proud of”, he says.
As an athlete, teacher, officer, and a modern conservation leader, Beagle gives credit where credit is due and that’s to the thousands of grassroots backcountry members. “We have a strong grassroots presence in Washington, DC, which is appreciated by elected leaders because they don’t always see that in their world of lobbyists and money. When we can get grassroots members back east, it’s very real, and I think Congressional staffers and members of Congress understand that and feel it when we meet with them.” He sums up BHA’s grassroots approach this way: “We might not have a million members, but they treat us with great respect because they know we know the land. We know it better than anybody.”
To those who don’t know about Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Beagle passionately makes the point that BHA is not about trophy hunting. “These are ethical sportsmen and women interested in harvesting organic meat and doing the right thing to conserve wild public lands, waters, and wildlife for future generations. They are hard-working people – some of the best sportsmen and women, hunters and anglers I’ve ever been around in my life. I think for elected leaders and the general public who learn about our values we’re a breath of fresh air.”
Beagle also stresses the balanced educational approach Backcountry Hunters & Anglers observes in its conservation advocacy, stating, “While conservation politics can be divisive, we take a non-political, middle-ground approach and educate people about our values. Our members are about freedom, challenge, solitude, family, and health. Those are all things that Americans cherish at some point in their lives. We get that from the backcountry experience. Whether it’s the American heritage of hunting and fishing or other outdoor experiences, once people get to know us they tell us we’re unique and special. We like that niche and want to grow more, but we must never lose our grassroots base or our boots-on-the-ground principles. Whether it’s pulling barbed wire from big game migration routes, restoring fish habitat, or other ways of working to hand down this heritage to future generations, we want to keep and build our base. That’s what keeps us real.”
Original founding member Mike Beagle and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers are real.
Brian Jennings is Oregon’s Outreach Coordinator for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He can be reached at email@example.com.