The Value of Wilderness: A Hunter’s Perspective

Jason Splichal, photos by Jason Splichal

The author’s son, Tristan.
The author’s son, Tristan.

My son and I sit motionless in our tree – two shallow-breathing shadows – shoulder to shoulder above an invisible world. Bright stars move, as if pushed by a gentle breeze, across the inky black. Andromeda and Cassiopeia slip in gentle arcs; there are times when we can almost hear the earth rolling on its belly. Slowly, the stars fade, and the void before us gives way to silhouettes – phantom shapes of familiar trees and contours of land. Everything is covered in a crystalline blanket of frost. Light begins to seep in around the soft edges of everything; shadows glow before they melt into things we recognize. Watching morning arrive from our deer stand is kind of like watching Bob Ross paint; you just can’t look away.

Then, it happens. Tristan’s grip on his rifle shifts. “I’m starting to feel it,” he whispers.

“Me too,” I whisper. Truth be told, the air started to shimmer for me about 30 seconds back. Things seemed brighter. The hairs on my arm stood up straight. My skin tingled a little. It means deer are close by. The more time you spend in the wilderness, and the more you open yourself, the easier they are to feel. It’s a sixth sense of sorts, like an early warning system, and this one runs in the family. “Be ready,” I whisper.

Several tense minutes pass. The river coursing through the middle of our land is silent. Its roiling movement is almost imperceptible at this distance, in this light, but a living thing that massive has a gravity all its own. I can feel its weight in my pulse. Months of scouting have led us to this location, this morning, this now.

A twig snaps behind the tree we are in – the kind of snap only a hoof can make.

Tristan slowly shoulders the stock of his Sig. I shift my weight and lean a little into my Browning. The air is charged with electricity. Then, there is a rustle of leaves so close, it’s almost directly below us. Neither of us dare to move a muscle.

In this moment, as animals who can predict and plan, we are at our finest. As hunters, we have already been successful, and hunting is 99% of what we do. What either happens next, or does not happen next, is the remaining 1%. That 1% is the difference between life and death, meat and no meat. We’ve done this long enough to know that the opportunity to kill – and ultimately feed our family with the life we take – is a gift; that 1% is our reward for having worked so hard at the 99%.

I’ve had enough hard life experience to know that you can learn how to kill just about anywhere. Learning how to hunt well, on the other hand – how to track, stalk, be patient, be still, and be one with the land – requires wilderness. The famous hunter and filmmaker, Donnie Vincent, insists, “Hunting and fair-chase are synonymous concepts, because pursuing animals in anything besides a truly wild environment is not hunting at all.”

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” 
– The Wilderness Act of 1964 (Pub. L. 88–577)

But what is wilderness? What is wild? The federal act responsible for protecting wilderness for current and future generations of Americans – The Wilderness Act of 1964 (Pub. L. 88–577) – is straightforward and oddly poetic in its definition: A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

In our family, we believe that good hunters neither “dominate,” nor “trammel,” nor “remain.” Wilderness is capable of teaching all hunters these lessons, simply because it will not be tamed. When hunters are forced to conform to the land, instead of forcing the land to conform to them, they quickly realize how much the “life” they live outside of their tree stand or duck blind has actually tamed them. This realization invariably makes hunters seek wilderness even more. Why? Once you’ve been shown the world as it truly is – stripped of all the egocentric convenience-driven distractions, all the incessant social media chatter, and all that is managed and manicured – you want more of the real thing. You want more of real life. Wilderness is the gateway drug to understanding what it means to be human again. Hunters and non-hunters have both experienced this epiphany, and both parties have become staunch advocates for, and protectors of, wilderness over the years.    

The Wilderness Act currently protects 109,129,657 acres. It sounds like a lot of land, but it’s actually less than 5% of our nation’s territory. It’s pretty much all that’s left of our country’s fully-intact ecosystems: The remnants of our land’s once-rich biodiversity. As a nation, it’s all that we can guarantee will be left of “the wild” to pass along to our children. For my friend of 20 years and I, that didn’t seem like enough. We wanted a wild place of our own to visit and leave – a place to hunt, fish, hike, camp, kayak, or canoe with our families – a place for our children to discover their humanity and rediscover their animal nature. Well, that ‘want’ eventually became a ‘need.’

Our wilderness is a remote 40 acre parcel of northwestern Wisconsin, and the Brunet River twists like the hips of some Greek goddess through its center. My friend and I own the land on paper, but, in reality, you can’t really own a place like this. It’s far too wild—far too powerful – for any of that nonsense. We understood, in our bones, when we first set foot on this land, that we wouldn’t be special here. We wouldn’t be in charge, and we sure as hell wouldn’t be guaranteed a spot on top of the food chain. We’d just be animals here, like all the rest of them. We pulled the trigger, so to speak, and ever since, we have been the land’s most regular visitors.

Aside from our families and our health, this wilderness is the greatest gift we’ve known. It is a place that calls to us at night when we dream and beckons when we work at our daily desks. It is a place that knows the names of our sons and daughters and knows what they need to learn about themselves whenever they arrive. It has forever changed how our hands feel in the hands of our wives. The only way in is the river; the only way out is the river. There is no electricity. There are no machines. We come for quiet – to observe and dissolve into the landscape. We come to test ourselves – to sharpen our senses and our skills. There are apex predators here, 200-year-old maples, and ferns as tall as any man. There are springs that feed swamps, swamps that feed a river, and a river that feeds everything. We come to risk, to become whole animals again. We come to know fear. We come to struggle. We come to be grateful. We come to be free.

We are hunters, and this time of year, we come for clean protein for our families.

Due to the hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and negative environmental impacts associated with industrialized factory farms – not to mention the horrendous suffering these animals endure from birth to death – our family tries hard not to buy much meat from the grocery store. I’ve always found it sadly ironic that many people who are critical of hunting don’t give a thought to the cellophane-wrapped meat they buy from big-box stores – or the fact that the genetically-altered animal it came from was never able to live free, never contributed to the greater good of any functional ecosystem, and most likely died a horrible death at the hands of some minimum-wage worker with a bolt gun or by the filthy, electrified hooks of some soulless machine.

In our family, every living creature deserves respect, but, as hunters, we know that any animal which can provide us with that much sustenance also deserves what we, as humans, always wish for ourselves: A free life, a good death, and someone to be thankful for us after we’ve gone.

The fact is, unless you’re a family rancher or a family farmer – unless you hunt, gather, garden, or fish – you don’t have any idea where your food comes from, how it lived, or how it died. And you aren’t alone. Most Americans don’t even think about it. Well, we think about it, and it matters a great deal to us. That’s why we hunt, and that’s why wilderness is important to us. That’s why our 99% is such a pleasure and why our 1% is carried out with such respect. If we are conservative, the steaks, roasts, ribs, and burgers from a single deer can feed our family of four for months. In our family, every living creature deserves respect, but, as hunters, we know that any animal which can provide us with that much sustenance also deserves what we, as humans, always wish for ourselves: A free life, a good death, and someone to be thankful for us after we’ve gone.

For better or worse, a hunter’s methods in the field – and attitudes toward wilderness – are learned behaviors, acquired at a young age, and modeled by the most influential folks in that person’s life: Family. Hunting is one of the few traditions passed on from generation to generation without regard to race, gender, age, religion, culture, economic status, or social class. Why? Everybody needs to eat. It doesn’t matter whether your preference is carefully tending a garden, braving a thicket of thorns to pick berries, standing knee-deep in a trout steam with a fly rod, hunting deer with a bow or bear with a rifle, the primitive desire to survive – and get good at surviving – is still strong in our brains. It has been reinforced by hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution …  without the influence of recent conveniences such as the supermarket and the vending machine. As Donnie Vincent says in his film, Who We Are, “Your relatives were successful hunters and gatherers; if they weren’t, you wouldn’t be here.” Hunters need to stop apologizing to non-hunters for how they get their protein, stop bickering with each other about methodology, and start joining forces with anyone interested in protecting the wild lands where that protein comes from.

Partisan politics, talk radio gas-bags, ‘reality’ TV shows, and industries that exist solely to sell products which allow folks to externalize some shallow sense of identity through brand loyalty, are all invested in having you believe that conservation-minded hunters and non-hunting environmentalists are archenemies. But when you disconnect from the pretend-world of Facebook ideologues who constantly armchair-quarterback everyone’s lives from the safe distance of their computer screens, you find that the opposite is true … and has been for quite some time. “Us” vs. “Them” is largely a recent artificial division that’s been created as a wedge by those who benefit economically or politically from having two groups – that used to be one group – forget their common roots and their common purpose.

The first environmentalists in our country were also hunters and anglers. President Roosevelt, John Audubon, Wisconsin’s own Aldo Leopold, and William J. Long were all people who hunted and fished. They were fathers of the western environmental ethic. Roosevelt – the great hunter – was actually a close friend and admirer of John Muir, father of the Sierra Club and icon to environmentalists. The two men often went camping together and influenced each other greatly. They both saw, in the ruin of wilderness, the ruin of our nation. When Roosevelt became president, he enacted the most sweeping environmental legislation the world had ever seen. “When he entered the White House in 1901, the idea of conservation had not yet found its way into the public mind,” writes Jim Posewitz, author of Rifle in Hand: How Wild America Was Saved. “When he left office in 1909, he had implanted the idea of conservation into our culture and enriched our future prospects with 230 million acres of designated public forests, wildlife refuges, bird preserves, parks, national monuments, and game ranges.”

Bob Marshall, writing for Field and Stream, explains what came next. “For most of the 20th century, sportsmen were the intellectual, financial, and political forces behind what was the greatest environmental success story in history. Groups like the Boone and Crockett Club, Trout Unlimited, and Ducks Unlimited set out the idea that fish, wildlife, and wild places were part of the public trust and were to be protected by the government. Their arguments for landmark environmental laws were based not just on the logic that healthy habitat would produce more fish and game for sportsmen but also on the importance of untrammeled spaces to the quality of life for all Americans. In those years you couldn’t call yourself a true sportsman without also being an environmentalist.”

Today, hunting and fishing groups like Ducks Unlimited, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Pheasants Forever, and Trout Unlimited, frequently work with environmental and conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy, The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and The Sierra Club. While they may not see eye-to-eye on every issue, what connects them is an understanding that healthy ecosystems mean healthy habitats, and the most successful groups set aside their differences and work toward the common goal of protecting wild lands from development and misuse, while keeping it open to low-impact activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, bird watching, and tent camping.

The Nature Conservancy, to date, has been responsible for protecting 20 million acres, much of it open to hunting and fishing. In fact, of the more than 26,000 acres that the Conservancy owns in Wisconsin today, 97% are available for hunting. Ducks Unlimited has conserved more than 13 million acres of waterfowl habitat throughout North America, and they have been critical in the fight to save wetlands from the irreversible damage of development and fossil fuel extraction in the Midwest. “Different groups come to the same landscapes for different reasons and at times with different motivations,” says Tom Cassidy, the Nature Conservancy’s director of federal programs, but “we have a common objective of conserving habitat.” He adds, “I can’t imagine not working with hunters and anglers – our shared values are too great.”

This morning, as that rustle of leaves below us shifts to my son’s side of the tree, I am reminded of Tom Cassidy’s shared values. Slowly, with a delicate confidence, a small doe emerges from the long shadow of our tree. She is only in Tristan’s field of fire. He turns his head slightly, and our eyes meet. Mine betray nothing. This is his call to make. He returns to his sights without hesitation, lines up the shot, inhales, exhales, and at the bottom of his exhale … removes his finger from the trigger guard. He taps his index finger once on the side of his lower receiver: counting coup. We watch as the doe, completely unaware of us, disappears gingerly into an impossible canvas of hazelnut and towering birch – Bob Ross style. “Too young,” he whispers through a smile … and returns his gaze to the ancient wilderness around us, stirring in the morning light.