The ABCs of LTEs: Writing Letters to the Editor

“Brave words are brave acts.” –David “Elkheart” Petersen[1]

Renowned trad bow elk hunter David Petersen (a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) founded the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers chapter—the first BHA state chapter—in 2005, not long after Mike Beagle (a former U.S. Army field artillery officer) called together a group of hunting-angling friends (the “Gang of Seven”) and stood around that prophetic campfire in southern Oregon where BHA was born during March 2004.[2]

In the foreword of David Petersen’s book Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality and Wildness in America, Ted Williams wrote, “Hunting and writing are pretty much the same thing … You do both by watching, listening, learning, exercising patience, acquiring humility, and always trying to get it exactly right. You pursue the elusive word as you would the elusive elk.”[3]

Considering the inherent difficulties and uncertainties of elk hunting, I’ll add that there are (IMHO) two types of writing/writers: 1) Utilitarian—It’s not necessarily pretty, but it gets the job done and is discussed herein; 2) Prose-driven—Think David Petersen, Jim Posewitz, Edward Abbey, Ernest Hemingway, etc.[4]

Utilitarian writing is less like elk hunting and more like small game hunting. It’s not fancy, but it’s all you need to know to write letters to the editor (LTEs). However, as we all know, few truly worthwhile endeavors come easy. Even small game hunting requires perspiration and dedication to put meat in the freezer.

Why write an LTE?

“Media is an important tool to influence and educate officials, agencies and fellow citizens,” former BHA campus outreach coordinator, Sawyer Connelly, wrote in the Spring 2018 Backcountry Journal. “BHA state chapters frequently publish letters to the editor (LTEs) and opinion-editorials (Op-Eds) regarding state and local issues. This is a way to elevate our voice and share our views with a wider audience.”[5]

Writing LTEs and Op-Eds is how I first engaged directly on BHA issues. David Petersen quickly took notice and lassoed me into being his chapter co-chair.[6] Lesson learned: show any inkling of drive and initiative (via writing or otherwise) and before long you’ll be part of a BHA chapter leadership team, which has stretched out to going on fifteen years (and counting) for me.

Many BHA members also follow Randy Newberg—of “Fresh Tracks” and “On Your Own Adventures”—and know what an accomplished elk hunter and dedicated public lands defender he is. Randy said (in the 8/2/19 Outdoor News): “I live in a great place for elk and hunted my first six years without firing a gun at an elk.”[7]

Although writing your first LTE will initially take some time and effort, it’s not nearly (again) as challenging as elk hunting. Regardless, it’s an apt metaphor. “When I quit looking for shortcuts, it suddenly seemed like elk were everywhere,” Randy adds.[8] Hard work and worthy endeavors, whether hunting elk or writing LTEs, always go hand-in-hand.

Tips & Techniques

There are some techniques (not shortcuts) that can improve your odds of getting LTEs published, including:

1.) First, reference the BHA Chapter Manual (Appendix H): “Tips For Writing Letters To The Editor.” This is a good starting point. Then, write about issues/subjects that are currently in the press. Review your local/regional news sources and BHA stories, blogs and other posts for ideas. Also, be aware of word limits. Each paper/publication limits the numbers of words in LTEs, which can vary from 150 to 500 (200 to 300 words is common though).

2.) It’s helpful to explain why you care about the issue/subject. Let’s use, for example, keeping public lands in public hands. “I’m a lifelong hunter-conservationist and I hunt and fish on public lands.” “I want my kids and grandkids to have the same public lands hunting and angling experiences that I’ve been privileged to enjoy.” “I’m a hunter-conservationist and member of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.”

3.) Include a quote from someone who is an expert (or close to it) on the subject/issue that supports what you’re saying:

  • Randy Newberg summed it up when he said, “The idea that we should sell them, or the idea that we should transfer them to the states is an anti-hunting idea, it’s an anti-camping, anti-hiking, anti-recreation … anti-American idea.”[9]
  • “Keep our national public lands under national ownership and open to all Americans,” former U.S. Marine Corps officer and legendary trad bow elk hunter David Petersen said.[10]

4.) Include some facts/figures regarding the issue you’re writing about. Consider using footnotes to document the sources, as I’ve done for the facts/figures below. Although footnotes are generally not included with published LTEs, they show editors that you’ve done your homework:

  • According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, 72 percent of sportsmen and women depend on access to public lands for hunting and fishing.[11]
  • According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 11.5 million Americans participate in hunting, spending more than $26 billion a year on the activity.[12]
  • In an increasingly crowded and pay-to-play world, America’s 640 million acres of public lands have become the nation’s mightiest hunting and fishing strongholds.[13]

5.) You know the old saying, “Opinions are like #**holes, everybody has one.” Just spend some time on Facebook for confirmation. If you can show an editor that your opinion is based on solid facts, preferably backed by experts in the field and shared by others, you’ll increase your chances of publication significantly while leaving the ranting Facebook (or bar stool) “experts” in your rearview. “In writing, fidelity to fact leads eventually to the poetry of truth,” Edward Abbey said.[14]

6.) Endeavor to end strong, with a call to action including a link to additional information:

  • America’s public lands are not something to be sold off for a quick buck. They are, in the words of Wallace Stegner, “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Let’s embrace that.[15] For additional information see: www.backcountryhunters.org
  • In the words of World War II/U.S. Navy veteran Bill Sustrich: “In the simplest terms, without suitable habitat we will have no game; without game, we will have no hunting; without hunting, a precious heritage of our past will be lost forever.” For additional information see: https://www.backcountryhunters.org/bha_maps_hunting_opportunity_in_at_risk_national_monuments

7.) Once your LTE is almost done, set it aside for a day or two and then reread/edit. Chances are you’ll find spelling or grammatical errors that were initially overlooked. You may also come up with different ideas or facts that might work better than your original thoughts. Revise as needed, then you’re ready to submit.

“When one arrives at the Pearly Gates, Saint Peter does not look you over for medals, diplomas, and awards, but for scars.” –Jim Posewitz (1935-2020)[16]

Your LTE is Written, Now What?

1.) Send it to multiple news outlets/papers to increase the odds of publication. Check their websites (look for the “contact” or “opinions” links) to find out how they accept LTEs (e.g., via email or a webpage form). Here’s an example of a webpage form: https://trib.com/forms/contact/letter_to_the_editor/

2.) When your LTE is published, post a link to it on your personal social media and BHA chapter social media to increase exposure. The more hits the LTE gets the more likely it is that the paper will consider publishing more of your letters.

3.) Expect criticism from those opposed to BHA’s mission, but ignore 90% (or more) of them. If they had something truly relevant or coherent to say, they could write their own LTEs. As Winston Churchill said, “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” Take such condemnation as a badge of honor, but learn what you can from the 10% (i.e., know you enemy).

In fact, if you’re not raising the hackles of a few adversaries you may not be challenging assumptions or changing minds. Said another way, “If you’re not pissing someone off, you’re just pissing in the wind.” Theodore Roosevelt adds, “There are many occasions when the highest praise one can receive is the attack of some given scoundrel.”[17]

“I’m accountable to public-lands advocates and not accountable to any politician or political party,” Randy Newberg said. “Some people don’t like that so I find myself in the crosshairs a lot. I keep a running tally of people who say they’re going to kick my ass. It’s up to 44, and I’ve invited all of them to follow-up in person. None of them have shown up.”[18] Last word(s) here goes to Edward Abbey: “Beware of the man who has no enemies.”[19]

4.) Expect rejection. Consider it a challenge and learning opportunity. Also, be aware that publications/news outlets generally don’t tell you they’re not going to publish (or are going to publish) your LTE. Either it hits or it doesn’t. Just assume that it won’t, then you’ll always be surprised when it’s published.

5.) Press on. Published or not, move on to the next issue and write/submit another LTE. Randy Newberg didn’t quit elk hunting during those six years that he didn’t fire his rifle. Keep at it and before long (think weeks or months, not years) you’ll have LTEs published routinely. In the words of BHA member Pat Dorsey, “Knowledge is power, and educating yourself and others is part of being an ethical hunter.”[20]

Parting Shot

In David Petersen’s book, Writing Naturally: A Down-To-Earth Guide To Nature Writing, H. Emmerson Blake wrote: “To feel strongly about something is one thing; but to give that feeling to another person, and bring that feeling alive in another person’s mind and heart, is an entirely different kettle of fish.”[21] Although he’s primarily aiming at prose-driven writing here, you get the idea.

“When submitting comments in person or through writing, remember that even though you might not have a Ph.D. in biology, your personal experiences are valid,” Sawyer Connelly adds. “Use your stories to inform your comments. Don’t be overly emotional, but rather use emotions effectively to appeal to the compassion of decision makers. Be concise and respectful in your comments.”[22]

Reference/Resources

  • BHA’s Public Comment Guide.
  • BHA Chapter Manual (Appendix H): “Tips for Writing Letters to the Editor.”
  • Two of my books, Hunting For Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation and Hunting For Experience II (http://outskirtspress.com/huntforexperience), consist mostly of published letters to the editor (LTEs) and opinion-editorials (Op-Eds).
  • David “Elkheart” Petersen (Colorado BHA founder) books: www.davidpetersenbooks.com

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress … Power concedesnothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”–Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)[23]

David Lien is a former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. In 2014, he was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”[24] During 2019, he was the recipient of BHA’s Mike Beagle-Chairman’s Award.[25]

[1] David Petersen. Writing Naturally: A Down-To-Earth Guide To Nature Writing. Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books, 2001, p. 187.

[2] David A. Lien. “Where Hope Lives: A Brief BHA History.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/30/20.

[3] David Petersen. Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality and Wildness in America. Durango, Colorado: Raven’s Eye Press, 2000, p. xi.

[4] Hal Herring wrote (in Fall 2020 Backcountry Journal): “At the time I was reading Jim’s book Rifle in Hand and I’d discovered a technique called ‘reading level analysis,’ which evaluates the clarity of prose; it showed that Ernest Hemingway, writing The Old Man and the Sea at the height of his powers, had attained the skill to write one of literature’s most powerful novels at a level that could be understood by the average fourth grader. Read any of Jim’s books and you’ll see what I’m talking about.”

[5] Sawyer Connelly, former BHA campus outreach coordinator. “Civic Engagement Made Simple.” Backcountry Journal: Spring 2018, p. 60.

[6] David A. Lien. “Empowering Leaders: It’s In BHA’s DNA.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/7/21.

[7] Rob Drieslein. “A quick chat with Randy Newberg.” Outdoor News: 8/2/19, p. 7.

[8] Rob Drieslein. “A quick chat with Randy Newberg.” Outdoor News: 8/2/19, p. 7.

[9] Dan Born. “Theft of your public lands is a ‘cold dead hands’ issue with Randy Newberg.” WideOpenSpaces.com: 5/27/16.

[10] David Petersen. “Keep public lands in public hands.” Email: 7/2/14.

[11] Shane Mahoney. “The Benefits Of America’s Public Lands.” Sports Afield: July/August 2017, p. 34.

[12] Ryan Richards, Jenny Rowland-Shea and Mary Ellen Kustin. “Trump Administration Is Selling Western Wildlife Corridors to Oil and Gas Industry.” American Progress: 2/14/19.

[13] Hal Herring. “Public Lands Transfers Threaten Sportsmen’s Access: Part Two.” TRCP Blog: 7/1/15.

[14] David Petersen. Writing Naturally: A Down-To-Earth Guide To Nature Writing. Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books, 2001, p. 181.

[15] Whit Fosburgh. “Public Lands for All Americans: The Best Deal Going.” Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP): 8/23/17.

[16] Editor(s). “Posewitz, Jim: March 6, 1935–July 3, 2020.” Helena (Mont.) Independent Record: 7/7/20.

[17] James M. Strock. Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership: Executive Lessons from the Bully Pulpit. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001, p. 201.

[18] Rob Drieslein. “A quick chat with Randy Newberg.” Outdoor News: 8/2/19, p. 7.

[19] Edward Abbey. A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (Vox Clamantis in Deserto). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989, p. 15.

[20] Pat Dorsey. “Is CWD An Ethical Issue?” Backcountry Journal: Summer 2019, p. 31.

[21] David Petersen. Writing Naturally: A Down-To-Earth Guide To Nature Writing. Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books, 2001, p. ix.

[22] Sawyer Connelly, former BHA campus outreach coordinator. “Civic Engagement Made Simple.” Backcountry Journal: Spring 2018, p. 61.

[23] Scott Kirkwood. “Renaissance Man.” National Parks: Spring 2013.

[24] Editor(s). “David A. Lien Recognized by Field & Stream as ‘Hero of Conservation.’” AmmoLand.com: 7/2/14

[25] Katie McKalip. “BHA Bestows Top Honors at Rendezvous: Hunters, anglers recognized for contributions to North America’s public lands, waters, wildlife.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/21/19. https://www.backcountryhunters.org/bha_bestows_top_honors_at_rendezvous

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