Outdoor communicators from across the nation met in Duluth last weekend for the 90th annual conference of the Outdoor Writers of America Association (OWAA). That such an organization can survive nearly a century is no small achievement and a testament to the professional camaraderie of the eclectic band of people who are devoted to telling the outdoor story. That I attended my first conference in Kalispell, Montana, 30 years ago is a testament to something else.
The organization was much larger back then; with a membership primarily comprised of what were then called hook and bullet writers, who were almost exclusively men. It enjoyed wide support from the manufacturers of hunting and fishing products, many of whom sent representatives to the event. You could count on coming home from the conference with a healthy amount of what is now called swag.
Oddly, my strongest memory of that first conference was seeing a a fellow decked out in what I can only describe as a full camouflage leisure suit. I also enjoyed my first trip across the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park with an outdoor writer from Missouri, whose name I can no longer recall. I was between jobs at the time and my presence stirred a little hallway chatter when it was posted on a message board in the conference hall lobby that the editorial director of an outdoor publication was trying to contact me. There were no cell phones back then. Heck, there weren’t even fax machines.
Over the years, I’ve attended a few other conferences, including Duluth in 1996; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Snowbird Resort in Utah and, last year, Billings, Montana. During that time, I’ve watched the organization and its membership evolve. As I reported in this column last year from Billings, these days the conferences are smaller, have a healthy showing of folks eligible for senior discounts, as well as a growing cadre of folks under 40. While I didn’t do a head count, there seemed to be more younger attendees this year. The nine-member board contains four women, who have a growing and very welcome presence in the organization.
While hunting and fishing still play a prominent role within the organization’s sponsorship, membership awards program and member interest, so does conservation and participation in non-consumptive outdoor activities. I saw no one wearing a camouflage leisure suit. Nearly everyone could be described as wearing business casual clothing.
When I attend professional conferences, I generally seek out sessions with topics I know little about, because I want to learn more. Last year, I reported that while traditional media such as print publications, television and radio remain vitally important to outdoor communicators, online media has a growing prominence in the field. At this conference, I attended several sessions where successful communicators explained how they use online tools such as websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to reach outdoor audiences. I saw diagrams showing the decline of traditional media advertising and the rise in online revenues. However, many of the presenters were working in a blend of traditional and online media. The traditional media outlets are evolving, but it is unlikely they will disappear any time soon.
Although I spent less time attending sessions devoted to current conservation issues, the bitter divisiveness that plagues the nation was evident. Dave Mihalic, a retired National Park Service administrator who is now senior advisor to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, gave a presentation that he said represented his views, not those of Secretary Zinke, and refused to do any interviews afterward. His answers to the questions from the audience during his presentation were frustratingly short on substance. The next evening, Dan Asche, who was chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2011 until the change of the Administration this year, gave a rousing talk on the urgent need to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from new attempts to open it up to oil drilling. Although I didn’t attend it, I was told the presenters in a session about proposed copper mining on the edge of the BWCAW became a little testy with one another during their session.
Fortunately, the camaraderie of the membership far outweighs any of their political differences. I was able to introduce five young writers and editors to the organization at this conference. All of them were pleased with the friendliness of longtime members and how willing they were to share their knowledge about the profession. The young writers came away from the conference inspired and enthused about their budding communications careers. Hopefully, they will become part of the newest generation of OWAA members.
While I’d like to fool myself into believing I’ve yet to join the ranks of lumbering dinosaurs within the organization, the only way to do so is by avoiding looking into a mirror. While my career has survived changing media markets and the Recession, I must admit that I remain a writer, rather than a wizard of new technology and the markets it has created. Even photography continues to advance at a rapid rate. One presenter, a professional photographer who travels the world, advised having a schedule to replace digital cameras every few years to stay abreast of evolving technology that continues to improve the quality of photographs.
While OWAA appears to have turned a corner and begun to emerge with a new vibrancy as an organization, it is apparent that many people working today in outdoor communications don’t belong to it or any similar organizations. When I joined OWAA, membership was considered a key to the door of professional success. That is still the case, but the realm of outdoor media has grown so broad so quickly that many professionals are likely unaware such an organization exists. This offers intriguing possibilities for future growth in OWAA membership.
As a loyal member, but not someone who serves the organization as a board member or in some other capacity, I came away from the conference inspired by the enthusiasm of the young members of my acquaintance. This exemplified by aspiration of one young woman who has distinguished herself by winning OWAA writing and photography awards. The daughter of a writer who has achieved the organization’s most prestigious award, called the Jade of Chiefs, she plans to take a sabbatical from her job as a naturalist to spend several months working in some yet-to-be-determined capacity in Alaska. Whatever path she chooses to follow in the Last Frontier, rest assured she will have muddy boots.
Our conversation about her Alaska plans left me feeling good about the future of my profession and the American Outdoor Experience so many of us hold dear. She has a deep understanding of the natural world, a willingness to share it with others and the unending curiosity that will allow her, and thus all of us, to learn more. And I know she is by no means alone among her generation. Yes, we are becoming an increasingly urbanized, technologically dependent society. But there remain among us young people who prefer a woodland path to a sidewalk and the wonders of Nature to the unreality of a smart phone screen. That’s a good thing; a very good thing.