I got a email recently from a BHA member and a veteran in the south. I thought this could be a good opportunity to answer it for the larger BHA community so everyone can benefit from this great question.
I guess I’m just confused on what AFI does. Why does it seem to be set up as a different organization?
Is this going to be the business model of BHA moving forward to attract different segments of society?
Excellent question, thank you for reaching out.
In 2018 during the BHA annual survey, we learned that 12% of BHA’s membership was part of the Military community, (active duty, reserves, guard, veteran, Goldstar family) That was an interesting discovery because depending on which statistic you read the general U.S. population is only 4-7% military. Digging into to this stat in 2019 we also discovered that of that 12% military membership, over half of those members were serving in a leadership role within BHA, organizing events, leading trail or river cleanups, etc. This led to the formation of the Armed Forces Initiative as a program to stand alongside BHA’s other programs of college clubs, and R3 Hunting for Sustainability initiatives. The thought process was if we are striking such a chord with the military community on accident and as a result we are double the national demographic, what could we do if we focused on this group.
In 2020 we started the Armed Forces Initiative as an official BHA program. Our mission is:
The Armed Forces Initiative is the BHA program focused on getting the military community into the backcountry to create more conservationists in this essential demographic. At BHA we have always seen our best leaders both as volunteers and staff members come from a military background. We know the value of these individuals to the conservation community. We believe that by engaging with this group we can not only help members of the military community through the transition from military to civilian life but also greatly increase the proficiency and talent within the conservation community.
What we do as a program is take members of the military community into the backcountry with the goal of accomplishing three tasks:
- Short term medicine – We know as a country that being outdoors, hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, bike riding, etc has a positive effect on transitioning veterans, or anyone experiencing symptoms of PTSD. We have known the correlation between time spent outdoors and reduced stress, feelings of depression, and anxiety for the past 20 years or so to the extent that recently congress passed the Accelerating Veterans recovery Outdoors act to help analyze and fund veterans outdoor adjunct therapy groups. Our first goal is to take these members of the military community and show them an amazing time outdoors while teaching them about conservation and public lands.
- A Tribe – We know another issue being faced by the military community is a lack of a community or tribe. By introducing our event attendees to more people with the same life experiences who also like hunting and fishing we can ensure that our events are not simply a one-off event, or a once in a lifetime experience. Upon leaving our event each candidate should have the skillset to repeat the experience and a peer group to recreate outdoors with. We like to say, we don’t do once in a lifetime experiences, we create a lifetime of experiences.
- A Mission of Conservation – The last piece to this puzzle is the most important, conservation. We know from surveys and outside studies that having a cause bigger than oneself is a hugely important piece to the military community. Its why most of our members chose to enlist in a time of war. They wanted to serve a cause bigger than themselves. Fortunately, with hunting and fishing there is a bigger cause than catching a fish or harvesting a bull elk, conservation. It's ensuring that that experience that meant so much to that person is there for generations to come. We want everyone who leaves our events to understand not only how to recreate outdoors, and to have a peer group to recreate with, but also to become so passionate about their chosen pursuit that they cannot help but get involved in the conservation conversation.
What does BHA get out of this:
Great question, other than the obvious benefits to the military community there must be a benefit to BHA to commit their energy to a program like the Armed Forces Initiative.
- The first reason is mentioned above, Our Military BHA members have proven to be the most likely members to take on leadership roles and conservation projects at the chapter level. Having more members willing to get their hands dirty for conservation is obviously a huge benefit to BHA.
- The second reason is a little more subtle, but the Military community has a very powerful card to play in policy. To put it gently, there are few politicians who reputation can afford to be seen as anti-veterans, especially not anti-veterans’ adjunct therapy. An example of this can be seen in the recent boundary waters win. The standard form letter response to folks writing their elected official opposing the sulfide mine in the boundary waters wilderness area was that the mine was critical for national defense. This was strange in that the mining company was from south American and the contract to sell the goods mined was with China. It was a big help to be able to say, “yes senator/congressman the boundary waters are critical to national defense but not in the way you think”, then show how these natural areas help the military community work through he last 20 years of war. To put it bluntly, when you stand up at a natural resource meeting and say as a tax attorney I think X, it doesn’t carry the political weight of someone standing up and saying as a veteran, or as an Active-duty Navy Sailor I think X. We have one card to play so we might as well play that card in favor of conservation.
Where’s the Proof this works?
Another Great Question, we pride ourselves on data. We have pre-event surveys and post event surveys along with hundreds of recorded interviews intended on understanding what we are doing wrong vs. what we are doing right. After two years of operation and 1700 members introduced to the backcountry, we still don’t quite have the sample size I would like but so far, we have found that:
Currently over 40% of BHA members are associated with the military community.
Within 6 months of an event our participants spend an average of $1000 on outdoor gear for their personal use. Indicating continued hunting or fishing events after we have taught them how.
99.8% of participants say that our events left a positive impact on their physical and mental wellbeing.
34% of participants leave our events to get involved with their local BHA chapters and lead more of these types of events. This is one of the reasons for our rapid growth across the country.
Other relevant information:
The AFI is financially independent, by which I mean we don’t need funding from the state chapters, that said if any states would like to fund an event, we would love the support and would love to work together but I don’t want any states thinking we are taking money from them.
The AFI is active. We hosted 102 events in 2022 introducing over 1700 members to the backcountry. In 2023 our aim is to take out over 2300 attendees.
AFI is BHA. We are not a separate organization just a group of BHA members who share a life experience that allows us to join in on BHAs mission and work for the collective good of the organization.
Any BHA leader is welcome to come to an AFI event. Seriously we would love to have you, to ask you questions, to understand how your state can put us to work, to learn how we can connect with the state chapters…
I hope that long email answered your questions and convinced you to buy a Military BHA membership for yourself or a friend.