Sportsmen on right trail with diplomacy



April 08, 2001|By CANDUS THOMSON

PINTAIL POINT - The talk was moderate, the tone moderated. Everyone was on his or her best behavior. I've been at PTA and church meetings that had more fireworks than the annual get-together of the Maryland Sportsmen's Association.

And that's a good thing.

For if hunters and trappers are to save what's left of their heritage, they're going to have to wise up, shape up and clean up. In other words, do what their opponents have been doing.

Over the years, the hunting and trapping communities have adopted a bunker mentality, lashing out at those who oppose them from an ever-diminishing circle of wagons.

Unsophisticated and undisciplined in their tactics, they have been easy pickings for the lobbyists from the well-funded Humane Society and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Typically, the sportsmen retaliate with "bumper-sticker warfare." You know the most famous one: "I'll give up my gun when you pry my cold, dead fingers from the trigger."

It's a defiant statement in the same mold as the New Hampshire "Live Free or Die" license plate that was on my car for 11 years. The problem is that neither slogan is much of a persuasive recruiting tool.

What to do? The MSA seems to have found the answer.

In his address to the membership, president Tim Lambert announced the formation of the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus and the Maryland Sportsmen's Foundation.

The caucus, patterned after the successful version on Capitol Hill, is bringing together lawmakers to protect the interests of sportsmen and women. The group is backed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

It is led by Sen. John C. Astle, a Democrat from Anne Arundel County, and Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, a Republican from the Eastern Shore. Also in leadership roles are Sen. John J. Hafer, a Western Maryland Republican, and Del. Katherine Klausmeir, a Democrat from Baltimore city and county.

In its first six weeks, the caucus has picked up 60 members.

The caucus will be supported by the nonprofit foundation, which Lambert said would serve as "the eyes and ears" of lawmakers, tracking bills and offering assistance in drafting legislation.

"In short," said Lambert, "we must work with the system ... and not against it. This does not mean we unduly compromise our position, but it means that we must always try to find the common-sense middle ground on divisive issues."

Three weeks ago, the chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, Ron Guns, called a summit of sportsmen's groups to lay the groundwork for next year.

Instead of simply working to protect their interests as they did this year, the groups were told they must push ahead. The message, said Lambert, was to set an agenda, hire a lobbyist and galvanize support around the state.

Will it work? Anything new rattles and sputters a bit. Bolts need tightening, belts adjusting. A bipartisan, across-the-state coalition such as the caucus is going to have more obstacles than usual. Members are sure to bolt on certain issues that would get them in trouble back home.

"How they react to the first big issue next year will determine a lot," said Bill Miles, an MSA spokesman. "It would be nice if the first few issues they face don't create conflict among members."

Miles said it's important for the MSA and the caucus not to get discouraged by early legislative defeats. "They may say no today, but they may say yes tomorrow."

Keep in mind, too, he said, that any pro-hunting, pro-trapping bill that makes it through both houses of the legislature is unlikely to be signed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Within the sportsmen's community, there is some resistance to playing by the rules. Distrust of government runs deep in certain quarters, and the MSA itself is only three years old, a relative newcomer in Annapolis.

Still, this clearly is the way to go. To do otherwise, as Lambert said, will mean disaster: "If we are viewed by lawmakers and state officials as temperamental, unyielding and down-right ugly in our steadfast position, our message will fall on deaf ears and we will undermine the interests of our fellow sportsmen and out organization."

As if to underscore the MSA's willingness to work within the system, the keynote speaker at the annual meeting was Sarah Taylor-Rogers, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.

Joking about her agency's sometimes unpopular stands, Rogers said she was afraid "some trapping device was set at the door" for her.

But, she quickly added, MSA has become "one of the most influential forces in shaping wildlife policy" in the state. "We respect what you say," she said. "Our hearts are in the right place, know that."

The agency used the annual meeting to present three awards to volunteers and organizations that are helping manage Maryland's resources.

Walter "Tinker" Johnson was honored for serving 15 years as the chairman of the Maryland Trophy Deer Contest.

The American Chestnut Land Trust won the "Maryland Wildlife Conservationist of the Year" award for its stewardship of 2,900 acres in Calvert County that it bought and preserved during 18 years.

The "Maryland Farmer of the Year" award went to Andelot Farm in Kent County for its work over the last decade in helping restore the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel.

The MSA gave its "C.D. "Hap" Baker Award to Edward Soutiere, a wildlife biologist at the 8,200-acre Tudor Farms in Dorchester County. Soutiere and farm owner Paul Jones have assisted with a wild turkey release program, paid for studies of migratory geese, arranged educational tours and allowed graduate students to study at the farm and provided them financial support.

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