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Alaska Conservation Camp Changes Lives
In 2005, a group of Alaska Department of Fish & Game employees gathered in Fairbanks to plan for and embark upon a journey that would involve hunting, shooting, fishing, wilderness survival, numerous challenges, and – oh yeah – a lot of fun. The experience, in many cases, profoundly changed lives, and is called the Alaska Conservation Camp.
The Alaska Conservation Camp (ACC) is a program for youth ages 11 through 16 and provides hands-on outdoor and wildlife conservation skills. The curriculum is broad and varied and youth graduate from camp with the confidence and basic skills to safely and successfully go hunting, shooting, and fishing.
What prompted this adventure? It began with a passionate desire to help with wildlife conservation efforts and to promote safe and responsible hunting, shooting, and fishing, now and for generations to come. As America becomes more and more urbanized, more habitat is lost to development; and as the youth of today surround themselves with iPods, X-box 360s and computers instead of lakes, flowing streams, shaded forest, tundra and the great outdoors, the future of fish, wildlife and habitat grows ever more fuzzy and our heritage of hunting and fishing along with it.
Hunters and anglers foot much of the bill for wildlife conservation and hunter safety in America and have done so for decades. Hunters and anglers want healthy populations of fish and wildlife and have long championed the effort to conserve habitat and land access for hunting and fishing in the future. Where would fish and wildlife populations be today without the hunter or angler?
Declining numbers of hunters and anglers spells trouble for wildlife conservation. While the decrease is not as great as it was in the 1990s, the trend still continues. The number of U.S. resident hunters, ages 16 and older, decreased four percent between 2001 and 2006, while the number of anglers (16 and older) dropped by 12 percent, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Association Recreation.
Many organizations, agencies, and individuals recognize the danger to habitat conservation that comes with the decline of the hunting and fishing public. The financial impact threatens research, management and habitat programs as hunter and angler numbers and related expenditures decline – and there are fewer experienced individuals to carry on the cause as future fish and wildlife biologists, researchers, and game wardens (such as Fish & Wildlife Troopers). The USFWS survey estimates at least $76 billion dollars were spent nationwide by U.S. residents on expenditures related to fishing and hunting in 2006 with at least $673 million of that spent in Alaska. Millions of dollars from the sales of hunting and fishing licenses, tags and permits go to ADF&G to fund research, management, education and habitat programs. Millions of dollars also come to ADF&G from federal excise taxes on the sale of guns, ammunition, archery equipment (Pittman-Robertson/Wildlife Restoration Act) and from the sale of sport fishing equipment (Dingell-Johnson/Sportfish Restoration Act).
It is vital that agencies such as ADF&G do what is possible to preserve and promote hunting, shooting, fishing, and the wise use of our wildlife resources and habitat. It is especially important to reach out to youth. Alaska’s (2007) hunter recruitment number, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), is around .59. This means that for every adult that hunts now, there are only .59 youth that hunt. If that recruitment figure stands, then within just a few generations the number of Alaskan hunters will be greatly reduced. NSSF studies also show that if a youngster has not been introduced to hunting by the age of 20 (typically by an adult mentor) the likelihood that individual will hunt in the future is significantly reduced.
The group gathered in Fairbanks in 2005 came ready to design a program that would, hopefully, result in more responsible hunters, anglers and wildlife conservationists. A few of the members gathered around the table actually had taken a similar journey decades earlier, as youth and young adults, and they brought their experience to the table, as seasoned professionals working in fish and wildlife conservation and hunter education related fields.
While ADF&G has a number of individual programs that do great work to educate about hunting, hunter safety, wildlife, habitat, and fishing, none of the programs are as comprehensive and specific, or as fun, as the Alaska Conservation Camp. Students learn firearms and hunter safety – part of Alaska’s existing Basic Hunter Education class – and also learn how to shoot rifles, shotguns, and muzzleloaders, how to field dress game animals (they actually do it), how to fly cast and tie flies, how to prepare and cook fish and game, how to navigate outdoors, how to survive in a remote wilderness situation, how to identify and track game species, and much more. The program receives incredibly favorable reviews from youth campers who have attended as well as from parents of the campers. Post-camp surveys sent to campers and their parents indicate a better than 95 percent approval rating of program.
The ACC program garners comments like:
“I thought my son was a ‘city kid’ and now he's taken a great interest in hunting! And, he loved it so much he wants to be a leader!”
“She was so enthusiastic about learning because so much was offered in more ways than I expected.”
“You should have this conservation camp every year, and multiple times during the summer. It was such a great experience for my kids. They will never ever forget what they learned!”
“It not only increased his awareness of safety but it also prompted several dinner conversations at home about hunting ethics.”
“We loved every part of the camp! You need to do this every year, and multiple times during the summer!”
“After telling other parents about this camp they wanted their kids to do this also. I wish that you would offer this camp a couple of times a year. I would have sent my son back for another round. He learned so much while having such a good time. He still talks about it all the time and can hardly wait until next year!”
Camp sessions are one week long and are currently day camps with one overnight campout each session. Tuition is kept low to make attendance more affordable. Some organizations even provide scholarships. The camper tuition collected covers stipends for the camp staff members and funding from grants and donations covers the majority of operating expenses with many thanks due the Outdoor Heritage Foundation of Alaska (OHFA) and the Friends of the NRA. The program is unique among youth programs and other camps in that the curriculum is specifically based on traditional hunting and fishing related skills, includes hunter education as a primary component, and involves professionals with ADF&G and partner agencies and organizations as mentors and guest instructors who interact with and educate the youngsters.
The group that met in Fairbanks to plan the program formed the Alaska Conservation Camp Development Team with Cathie Harms (Wildlife Conservation Division) as coordinator. Harms’ enthusiasm and spirit and experience spearheading the Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW) program in Alaska is a great asset to the development of the ACC program. The ACC is made possible by a cooperative effort between ADF&G, OHFA, the Alaska Interior Marksmanship Committee (AIM-COMM), Friends of the NRA, and many community sponsors and supporters.
The ACC is modeled after similar programs operated by fish and wildlife management agencies in other states that have been successfully active for decades. At least 24 other states in the country have camp programs similar to ACC. Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, in a state a fraction the size of Alaska but with a very similar population, operates their Green Mountain Conservation Camp (GMCC) at two locations in Vermont and offers dozens of week-long resident camp sessions for kids throughout the summer. Vermont’s game wardens, hunter education instructors, and biologists are very involved with the program. Two members of the ACC Development Team, Kelly Mansfield (Sport Fish Division) and John Wyman (Wildlife Conservation Division), are former campers and also staff members of the GMCC who brought their knowledge and experiences to the ACC development team. The time that Mansfield and Wyman spent at the GMCC greatly influenced their career paths. Bob Hunter (Hunter Information and Training) attended a similar camp program in New York as a kid and also contributes to the development team. Other members of the current team include Erik Anderson (SF), Laurie Boeck (WC), Mark Ross (WC), Nancy Sisinyak (SF), Mike Taras (WC), and youth member, Cameron Glodowski. All of the team members are passionate about the goals of the ACC and contribute greatly to the success of the program.
Alaska piloted the Basic ACC program in 2006 and an Advanced Camp in 2007. There were wait lists to get into the Basic Camps. For 2008, two Basic Camps (June 2-6 and 9-13) are planned along with one Advanced Camp (June 16-20). The Basic Camps are open to up to 30 youth (per session), ages 11 through 14. Advanced Camps are open to 30 youth ages 12 through 16 who have already completed Basic Camp. For the first few years of the program youth who are age eligible and who have completed Alaska Basic Hunter Education may attend Advanced Camp, even if they have not yet attended Basic Camp.
Outstanding campers from Advanced Camp sessions are nominated each year by camp staff for volunteer Junior Counselor (JC) positions. Former JCs often apply for camp staff member positions once they are age eligible. The whole program helps educate, train and mentor camp staff members for careers related to the camp curriculum. Graduates from camps and camp staff members often end up being the biologists, natural resource managers, teachers, and law enforcement officers of tomorrow. They also typically become strong advocates of wildlife conservation, hunting, shooting, and fishing.
The ACC development team hopes to see the program expand to reach more kids each year throughout Alaska. Vermont’s program has up to 60 kids at each week-long camp session and operates around 18 camp sessions a year (reaching up to 1,080 youth campers annually) between the two resident camp locations. The Alaska camps have become so popular that some kids are traveling from Anchorage and other areas of the state to Fairbanks, and staying with friends or relatives, just so they can be in town to attend camp. Many campers from Basic Camps are now returning to attend Advanced Camp and several campers signed up for Basic Camp for a second time because they enjoyed it so much the first time.
One goal is to have at least two resident camps, each near major population centers of the state, so more youth can attend along with youth from more rural and remote areas of the state. (The day camp model in place now requires that campers be dropped off in the morning and picked up each afternoon.) ADF&G employees in Anchorage, Lee Rogers (Hunter Information and Training) and Tracy Smith (Sport Fish) maintain contact with the Fairbanks ACC development team and are considering the possibility of hosting ACC sessions near Anchorage in the future. For the Fairbanks ACC, which is based out of the Hunter Education Indoor Shooting Range and Creamer’s Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, campers are transported to various locations for fishing and for the overnight campout. Resident camp locations isolated from developed areas, with a shooting range, a place to fish and for waterfront events, and with various habitats and facilities to conduct camp activities would be ideal and would bring Alaska up to standards set by other states. One of Vermont’s resident camps is located at a 275-acre, mostly forested, state owned and operated Wildlife Management Area that features 49-acre Buck Lake with excellent fishing, canoeing, swimming, wildlife viewing, and aquatic education opportunities.
The Alaska Conservation Camp program is definitely a journey and adventure for the campers who attend, the staff who operate the camp, and for the development team members that started and now plan and guide the program. Proof-positive results are already being seen as campers from the first two years bag their first moose or encourage their family to go fishing, return as Junior Counselors and express interest in being camp staff members in future years. Five years from now many of the kids who attended camp already will be in college pursuing careers related to wildlife conservation. Ten years from now some of those kids will undoubtedly be working for ADF&G. Fifty years from now the campers from this summer will be taking their grandkids out fishing and hunting. This program works and decades of experience from camps in other states prove it. We know it changes lives for the better because campers and parents tell us so.
One parent called in May to inquire if there was space left to get her son into Advanced Camp this summer and she said about his attending basic camp last summer,
“You have no idea how much it changed his life. He’s a new person. He has an interest in hunting now and he teaches us about safety and he asks us to go fishing and camping. He’s been asking all year long about going to Advanced Camp this summer. I think every kid out there should go to these camps. Thank you, thank you, for having this.”
John Wyman has worked for ADF&G since 1992 and currently oversees operations and related programs at the Hunter Education Indoor Shooting Facility in Fairbanks. Wyman serves as assistant coordinator for the Alaska Conservation Camp program. For more information about the ACC, contact Cathie Harms at 907-459-7231 (email at firstname.lastname@example.org) or John Wyman at 907-459-7292 (email at email@example.com). Additional ACC information, including camper registration packets, is available online at www.aimcomm.org.
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