PROTECTING PUBLIC LANDS THROUGH CONSERVATION AND ADVOCACY
Aaron Hebeisen, Chapter Coordinator with Backcountry Hunters & Anglers shares his public lands passion to ensure they are accessible and well tended.
Red Wing, MN - Aaron Hebeisen's passion for conservation began as a child and led to his current role as a Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) Chapter Coordinator. Hebeisen was attracted to BHA's mission as the "Voice of America's public lands, waters and wildlife." Drawn to the opportunity to make a difference, he works to galvanize others to ensure these valuable resources will be available for future generations to use.
"BHA's very active membership base cleans up public lands and engages on policy. The BLM (Bureau of Land Management), DNR (Department of Natural Resources), state fish and wildlife agencies and land management agencies can't engage politically on anything because they are government agencies," shared Hebeisen. "BHA can help spread the word about legislation and ask our members to get out the vote."
As BHA Coordinator for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, Hebeisen wears many hats. Planning and executing fundraising and stewardship events are especially rewarding. "What's important in each state is different. We take our cues from the state chapters. For example, in Minnesota timber management and CWD are important issues. In Iowa there's less public land so fundraising for land acquisition is the focus. In Wisconsin efforts around R3 (Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation) are important to our members, explained Hebeisen. We encourage members to contact their legislators and we tell them where we'd like their vote to be for or against bill number xxx. Sometimes I'm an editor, sometimes I'm a writer and sometimes I'm a lobbyist. The biggest things are policy, advocacy and stewardship." To keep members well informed, Hebeisen updates BHA state websites and creates emails and social media posts. Writing policy pieces and action alerts means Hebeisen stays well-informed about current events in all five states.
Hebeisen first began with the BHA as a volunteer for the state of Minnesota Chapter in 2016. That chapter has undergone exponential growth from 107 members back then to 1,300 today.
His interest in BHA and public lands grew from a hunting trip in Wyoming with his wife where they experienced "checkerboarding" firsthand. Checkerboarding of blocks of public land and private land make it difficult to access public land and difficult to determine boundaries. According to a University of Arizona 2014 thesis, "checkerboard land ownership pattern refers to alternating section pattern of public and private lands created by the railroad land grants of the late nineteenth century. Given the rectangular survey (RS) grid of the United States, each 640 acres (1 square mile) section of private land inside checkerboard in surrounded by public land on all four sides. Similarly, every section of public land inside the checkerboard is surrounded by private land on all four sides."
Hebeisen explains, "We found it to be a real struggle. We'd pull up to a road that Onyx maps would tell us was public and there'd be a gate across it. It was really frustrating to try and navigate, especially as someone from out of state and not wanting to go somewhere and end up with a landowner's rifle in our face. Landowners aren't required to post their land as private out there like it's required here in Minnesota.
"Here you might have 100 acres or a couple 100 acres, and you have to post a sign every 100 yards. In Wyoming, they might have a 10,000-acre chunk and on a ranch and they're not required to post it. So, it's up to the hunters to know what's public, what's private, and that's where mapping technology has come in. You need to know that stuff. I came back from that hunt, kind of frustrated with Western hunting and thought, I don't know if this is for me. This is just so much work and you get turned down for hunting permissions. I thought it's really not worth the effort and paying for tags, maybe I'll just stick to the Midwest. And then a few months later, I found out about this organization called Backcountry Hunters & Anglers that was advocating for public access and improving access. And that changed everything for me. I'm passionate about BHA."
Hebeisen's passion is evident in his BHA role coordinating events. Hebeisen enjoys the opportunity to put on this Irish Setter hunting boots and do some "boots on the ground" work during family-friendly stewardship events like a recent event in the B.K. Leach Conservation Area in Missouri. A morning of work to provide habitat for whitetails, turkey and other wildlife was following by stewardship stories in the afternoon. Prairie improvement projects included installing short eared owl perches and beaver guards, construction and repair of hunting blinds, cutting willow and cottonwood trees, harvesting wet prairie seed and general garbage clean up. "Improving the area for owls, bats or pollinators also benefits deer, turkeys and other wildlife," shared Hebeisen. "BHA partners with other organizations like the Missouri Department of Conservation, in this case, to make these events possible. For this event, they provided chainsaws, power cutting tools and more skilled labor. After the work was done, we had time to connect over lunch and hear from podcaster and author Mark Kenyon; Jason Sumners, Deputy Director of MO Department of Conservation; and Doren Miller of Miller Fur Co. spoke about managing egg-eaters (skunks and raccoons) to improve turkey populations."
Hebeisen and several volunteers wore Irish Setter hunting boots during the wet prairie conservation project. Waterproof Irish Setter MudTrek knee boots kept workers' feet dry while working on the beaver guards while waterproof Irish Setter Terrain hunting boots were used hiking into the site and while repairing hunting blinds. When steel toe protection was needed for tree removal, the crew turned to Irish Setter Kasota work boots that are well-suited for outdoor work. Lightweight and breathable Irish Setter VaprTreks kept the crew comfortable in the hot conditions. "BHA and our volunteers appreciate Irish Setter Boots' support," stated Hebeisen. "It's a great partnership."
Hebeisen knows Irish Setter boots well because talking with Irish Setter customers was one of his jobs on his path to his BHA position. "I talked about hunting boots with hunters from all over the country. I also helped customers with Irish Setter work boots. I grew up hunting, framing, roofing and siding so it was a fun job for me. I enjoyed talking about the tech specs about waterproofing, tread, rubber in a way that's relatable. Telling people about why this boot is the best for upland hunting and why this one's the best for stalking antelope."
BHA's Public Lands work is a vocation for Hebeisen. He says it best, "The idea of public lands is this great American equalizer. It doesn't matter what your background is, what your color, creed, how much money is in your bank account. You pay taxes; you are an owner of that land. So go out and use it as if it was yours, because you do pay for it. By the same token, you also have the responsibility to protect it and keep it clean, as if it was your own. You wouldn't probably throw trash out on your own trails if you owned 40 acres. So why would you do it on public land? I feel like the difference between a conservationist and a preservationist is preservationist is someone who's going to say don't touch it, don't look at it. Conservationists want to keep quality habitat and the wildlife population healthy so we can continue to use it for generations."
One thing is certain, public lands are benefiting from Hebeisen's fervent dedication and his ability to inspire others to join the effort.