Finding and empowering more chapter leaders should be among the top goals of all Backcountry Hunters & Anglers chapter leaders, which goes hand in hand with being “the voice for our wild public lands, waters and wildlife.” With more dedicated chapter leaders engaging more boots-on-the-ground members (and others) in support of our great public lands estate, we’ll collectively be more effective hunter-angler-conservationists.
Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA)—the first BHA state chapter (2005)—was founded by David Petersen, a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot, renowned trad bow elk hunter and acclaimed writer. “You don’t inspire volunteers to action by decree from on high,” David said. “Rather, you give them minimal direction and maximum freedom to do their own thing, within the realm of the group’s charter.” Words to live by for all BHA chapter leaders.
Currently, the Colorado BHA chapter has a 35-member Chapter Leadership Team (CLT) and nine regional “Groups.” Although we also have an Executive Leadership Team (ELT)/board (8 of us), our regional Groups are where most of the heavy-lifting takes place. Each Group is headed up by a Regional Director (or Co-Directors) along with Assistant RDs and other positions, as deemed appropriate by the RDs.
Colorado BHA History
Rehashing some Colorado BHA history will help explain how this chapter structure evolved. I first met David Petersen while attending a public meeting of the Colorado Roadless Areas Review Taskforce in Pueblo (on January 6, 2006). David was on the 13-member taskforce appointed by the state legislature. Later, David asked me to join the Colorado BHA chapter leadership team, which consisted of just him at the time.
On July 22, 2006, I was anointed as Colorado BHA’s Front Range Director and started laying the groundwork for a Minnesota (my home state) BHA chapter, serving as de facto chairman. During January 2007, David also recommended I serve on the BHA North American Board, a stint that started on January 11, 2007, and lasted over eight years. I served on the Minnesota BHA Board until September 2018 (stepping down after 11-plus years) and continue to serve as a Colorado BHA chapter co-chair, along with co-chair Don Holmstrom, who is also our chapter Habitat Watch Volunteer (HWV) program director.
During the fifteen or so years that I’ve held BHA leadership positions, I have seen more than my fair share of BHA board, Colorado BHA and Minnesota BHA chapter leaders come and go, with too many stepping down due to burnout. Over the years I’ve concluded that some (maybe most) of this burnout can be avoided.
Hence, the Colorado chapter has opted to put a number of burnout-avoidance ideas into practice. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “The country needs and … demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it, if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
Traditional Governance Model
Most BHA state chapters have likely adopted some variation of the traditional board-committees structure governance model, where a Board of Directors consisting of some eight-to-twelve (or more or less) members are each given two (maybe more) committee assignments along with serving on the board. Collectively, the board-committees combo oversee all the activities and operations of the chapter.
This is basically how the BHA North American Board operated when I was serving. Although this model worked, it also resulted in burnout-driven turnover by piling too much work on individual board members. And once those leaders left, they rarely returned. As a result, we permanently lost valuable leadership knowledge and skills. Burnout, it turns out, seems to leave a bad aftertaste.
Most chapter leaders I’ve worked with have one or two areas of interest or talents they prefer to work on or utilize as volunteers, but with the traditional board-committees structure they inevitably end up working on multiple committees and overseeing projects/initiatives that neither interest them nor utilize their talents. Result: volunteer duties become a second (unpaid) job.
Next step: burnout. The key to avoiding this quicksand scenario seems simple. Chapter leaders only do what they’re good at and/or enjoy with no extraneous duties or committee assignments to dilute their energy and enthusiasm. If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. That’s rarely true in the world of paid employment, but it should be the norm for non-profit volunteers.
Another Way (Avoiding Burnout)
The Colorado BHA chapter has endeavored to create a chapter structure and culture that empowers as many leaders as possible to do whatever they want with no extra duties assigned. We have no standing ELT committees and have empowered our Groups/CLT members to engage on, as deemed appropriate, many of the issues and initiatives board committees traditionally tackle.
Our nine Groups are essentially regional committees with enthusiastic volunteers utilizing their innate talents and interests on behalf of wildlands and wildlife, engaging on far more issues and initiatives than any board could hope to, no matter how many committee assignments are heaped onto overburdened board members. The primary function of our board/ELT is to support our Groups/CLT members in any way we can.
As we’ve codified in our Colorado BHA Strategic Plan, “Our ultimate goal is to inspire, empower and inform (IE&I = Motivate) our boots-on-the-ground members and chapter leaders to help them do whatever it is they want to do within the broad parameters of BHA’s wildlands and wildlife protection mission.” And as I’m prone to say, “all of us are smarter than any of us” and “when we all do a little, we accomplish a lot.”
- The traditional board-committees structure governance model lends itself to volunteer/chapter leader burnout (i.e., too much work is concentrated among too few chapter leaders).
- The best leaders endeavor to empower others to get work done with minimal (or no) supervision, then the mission completes itself (i.e., spread out workload/responsibility by recruiting/empowering more chapter leaders).
- “The greatest leaders build more leaders.”
- “It’s critical that CLT members are pursuing their ‘passion projects’ that fit within our mission … there is no one way to host a successful event, strengthen the chapter, or advance our mission.” –Brien Webster, BHA Program Director
- “Like stalking deer or casting for steelhead, playing the conservation game takes patience and perseverance.” –Mike Beagle, BHA founder and former U.S. Army field artillery officer
- For the most part, Colorado BHA chapter leaders have generally followed the path of: 1.) Telling us what they want to do or (alternatively) asking us where there is a need. 2.) We (the ELT/CLT) determine how best to support them. 3.) They do it … repeat. 4.) We make them a chapter leader.
- Colorado BHA (Strategic Plan) Purpose: Inspire, Empower and Inform (IE&I = Motivate) our Chapter Leadership Team and Colorado BHA members.
- Colorado BHA has developed an in-house “Regional Directors/Group Leaders Guide” that is available upon request (from [email protected]).
- “Empowering Leaders: It’s In BHA’s DNA.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/7/21.
- David “Elkheart” Petersen (founder of the first BHA state chapter, in Colorado, and a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) books: www.davidpetersenbooks.com.
David Lien is a former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation.” During 2014 David was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation” and during 2019 he was the recipient of BHA’s Mike Beagle-Chairman’s Award “for outstanding effort on behalf of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
 www.davidpetersenbooks.com; In 2010, David Petersen was honored as Sportsman-Conservationist of the Year by the Colorado Wildlife Federation. In 2012, CWF added to that honor with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2013, Petersen received the BHA Chairman’s Award for outstanding service to the group. From the press release for that honor: “David Petersen is a hunter-conservationist who has been actively involved in BHA since the first year (2004) it was formed. David’s many books and other writings related to hunting and conservation form the ethical foundation of BHA.”
 Ed Dentry. “Backcountry Power.” Rocky Mountain News: 9/5/06.
 Mike Beagle. “Reasons or Results.” Backcountry Journal: Fall 2006, p. 1.
 Editor(s). “Changing of the Guard.” Backcountry Journal: Spring 2015, p. 4.
 “Colorado BHA Adds Habitat Watch Volunteer Program Coordinator, Volunteers.” AmmoLand.com: 2/14/17; Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA). “Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Appoint Chapter Vice Chair.” Colorado BHA: 6/28/18; “Colorado BHA Habitat Watch Volunteer Program History & Training.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/6/20.
 Editor. Quotations of Theodore Roosevelt. Bedford, Massachusetts: Applewood Books, 2004, p. 16.
 Ronnie Muhl. “Robin Sharma Wisdom.” Inspiration at Work newsletter: 3/2/16.
 Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA). “Protecting North America’s Backcountry.” Conservation Northwest: Summer 2010, p. 17.