When Andrew Sansom was named executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1990, he boldly took on the challenge of uniting conservationists and hunters through a shared interest in the outdoors. “I don’t think there had ever been an attempt to get hunting advocates and birders and backpackers and hikers and rock climbers to work together,” says Sansom from his ranch outside of Johnson City. “But when you get people together, they find out that the others aren’t so bad.” Sansom left that post in 2001. Today he directs the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, but he remains one of the state’s most incisive voices when it comes to the thorniest issues affecting the future of hunting.
TEXAS MONTHLY: Many people still think of hunters and conservationists as unlikely allies. Do you see that as a problem?
Andrew Sansom: Most people don’t really understand the relationship between hunting and conservation. Over the past 25 years, there’s been a growing coalition between what we used to call consumptive users, who are focused on hunting and fishing, and nonconsumptive users, who are focused on birding or other forms of outdoor activities. But I always say that there are really no consumptive or nonconsumptive users: there are only users who care and users who don’t.
TM: You’ve been instrumental in bringing hunters and conservationists together. What lessons have you learned?
AS: I think everyone who uses the outdoors recognizes that we’re not going to have a future for conservation unless we engage children in the outdoors, whether they’re hunting or birdwatching or rock climbing or canoeing.
TM: What are the obstacles to getting young people interested?
AS: It’s a function of the demographic changes that have taken place. When I was a child, growing up in Lake Jackson, a little town on the Texas coast, every October, millions of waterfowl would arrive: snow geese, speckled belly geese, pin-tailed ducks, mallards, teal. It was a huge part of our lives, because you could hear them every night, and see them in the marshes and the rice fields. What first lured me towards hunting was this annual sensational wildlife spectacle that was brought about by migratory waterfowl. Today most children grow up in a situation where the outdoors is not immediately accessible to them and their parents and probably their grandparents didn’t grow up hunting and fishing. Children aren’t growing up in the same cultural framework. But what we see is that when you introduce kids to hunting and fishing, even though they may have grown up in a totally urban environment, they love it.
TM: Even if you get an urban Texan interested in hunting, the cost can still be prohibitively expensive. Do you see rising costs as a barrier?
AS: It’s not so much the change in cost but the change in organization. Up until the early nineties, most hunting in Texas was conducted through leases, where a family would have a lease on a ranch that would sometimes last for generations. What changed was the opportunity for someone to come in and pay a lot of money for a single hunt over a weekend.
TM: What prompted that change?
AS: Principally because of the improvements in the quality of our animals. By good management, we’ve produced high-quality big game in the past 25 or so years. In Texas, almost like no other place in the United States, you can come for the weekend from Chicago or New York or St. Louis and have a wonderful hunt and then be back in the office by Monday morning. That’s unique.
TM: And why is that?
AS: It largely stems from the fact that the land is overwhelmingly owned by private citizens. When Texas entered the United States, we were an independent nation, and so we negotiated the retention of our public lands. Unlike New Mexico or Colorado or others, when we came into the Union, we kept our public lands. And then we promptly sold them off in order to finance the government.
TM: How has that affected hunting in the state today?
AS: Hunting is provided largely by private landowners who derive revenue from it, which is not true in hardly any other part of the United States. That’s generally been a good thing. If you see that you can help support your family by managing your wildlife well, then you’re going to do it. There were parts of Texas, as recently as the thirties, where white-tailed deer were virtually extinct. That’s inconceivable today. We have some of the best big game and other wildlife populations anywhere in the United States. It’s clearly been beneficial, but we’ve also got to find ways to provide access for average people. Hunting among Texans is continuing to decline, which is a shame.
The biggest single terrestrial environmental problem that we face in Texas is the continued breakup of family lands.
TM: Are there any good solutions out there?
AS: Well, for one, we need to be acquiring more land for public hunting opportunities. The state just initiated a huge purchase of land along the Rio Grande, about 16,000 acres, and that will go into a public wildlife-management area. The more of that kind of acquisition we make, the better. Two, we need to do everything we can to introduce children to the outdoors, whether that’s hunting or fishing or birding or whatever. Three, we need to do everything we can to make an increasingly urban population understand that hunting is an important part of wildlife conservation.
TM: Looking ahead, what else should we be concerned about?
AS: When I got started in this business, forty years ago, most of the landscape in Texas was still owned by families that had been on the land for generations. Now much of that landscape is owned by people who are affluent and only go to their ranches part of the time. Every time someone dies in a family and the kids inherit the land, they inevitably split it up, and it gets smaller and smaller. As a result, the amount of land managed as ideal wildlife habitat decreases. But it has all kinds of other negative effects as well. The biggest single terrestrial environmental problem that we face in Texas is the continued breakup of family lands. We lose rural and agricultural lands faster than any other state; we lost around a million acres of working lands between 1997 and 2007 alone.
TM: Are you hopeful about the future?
AS: I am. Our management of wildlife and hunting continues to improve, the opportunity of private landowners to derive income from outdoor activities has continued to increase, and we’re trying to bring more children to it. After all, hunting and outdoor activities of all kinds are an opportunity for people to build relationships, particularly parents and children, and that’s a good thing.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.