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All sportsmen need to branch out in their thinking

Tree hugger

Function, noun. Environmentalist, often used disparagingly

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary

In my 25 years as a newspaperman, I've been called some pretty nasty names. Once, after writing several stories about the Ku Klux Klan, the sheriff of Polk County referred to me as a "cockroach" and a "slug."

"You know," he explained to David Finkel, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times for a story in 1986, "the slimy creature that crawls along the sidewalk … that goes from one place to the other and leaves a trail of goo behind."

Finkel, a recent winner of a Pulitzer Prize, told me to wear the sheriff's insults like a badge of honor. I took the veteran reporter's advice to heart.

Usually, I let insults roll off like water off a duck's back. But recently, a label pinned on me by an angry reader gave me pause:

Tree hugger.

The phrase took me off guard. Was that an insult or a compliment?

I had just written a column about a controversial tournament on the Redington Long Pier. The West Coast Anglers, a local fishing club, had organized an event that featured the killing of tarpon, a nonfood fish, which the vast majority of fishermen usually catch and release.

You can argue all day and night about whether it is morally wrong to kill a 50-year-old animal for sport, then throw its body in the Gulf of Mexico as crab food. Most anglers — I'd wager 99.9999 percent — would say it is wrong.

But if you were to take it a step further and call these same fishermen tree huggers, they would be deeply offended.

So I started thinking about the phrase itself. As best as I could ascertain, it started out west. Activists, hoping to protect old growth forests from loggers, literally wrapped their arms around giant redwood trees.

That's a little extreme. But then again, I like trees — oaks, pines, palms, and especially mangroves. Without mangrove trees, the little snook, drum, trout, grouper and tarpon wouldn't have a chance for survival.

In fact, more than 70 percent of all commercially and recreationally valuable species spend some point of their life in this estuary environment.

Ask any wildlife biologist (be it marine or terrestrial) what is the No. 1 conservation issue facing fishermen and hunters, they will say, "It's the habitat, stupid."

We sportsmen do kill and eat things. But take away the forests, swamps, salt marshes and sea grass beds, and we will not have anything left to hunt or catch.

It's odd that many sportsmen view the various environmental groups as the enemy. Some organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited, have risen above the fray and put their money-raising power to good use by buying and preserving thousands of acres of wetlands.

These gun-toting duck hunters would hardly consider themselves "tree huggers." No, "marsh huggers" would be a better term.

Anglers complain about closed seasons, restrictive bag and size limits. But I've got news for you: like the oil crisis, it is only going to get worse. As the years go by, more and more people are going to find fewer and fewer fish to catch.

According to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, there are more than 2.3-million people currently living in the three counties that directly border the state's largest estuary. That number is expected to grow by nearly 19 percent by the year 2015.

The only way anglers can ensure that their children and grandchildren will have fish to catch in years to come is to find some common ground with the "enviros" and work together to preserve what habitat we have left and restore that which we have lost.

But don't call me a tree hugger.

I'll wrap my arms around the sea grasses, mangroves, salt marshes, mud flats and oyster bars if that is what it will take to ensure our fishing future.

To learn more about what you can do, go to www.tbep.org.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808.

All sportsmen need to branch out in their thinking 07/31/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2008 4:32am]
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