Yesterday’s New York Times Op-Ed page included an all-too-rare print appearance by Tim Egan, the paper’s spiky pundit on matters Western: a cri du couer on the decline in Americans’ usage of their greatest collective possessions, the national parks. Egan could just as well be writing about the sad state of public lands in general. While camping numbers appear to be up of late—apparently it only takes the near-collapse of the global economy to remind Americans that it is, in fact, fun to sleep in the woods—the long-term trends, as documented in at least one major study, show a decline in visits to parks, reserves, wildernesses and natural areas of all kinds, across the Western world.
Sensibly enough, Egan proposes what seems, these days, to be the only available solution to any social, political or environmental ill: he wants the Obama family to get involved. Specifically, Michelle. Egan suggests that, just as she gave gardening a shot in arm by tearing up a bit of White House turf, the First Lady could reignite the nation’s interest in its grand communal pleasure grounds by leading the First Kids on a circuit of National Parks:
The parks need Obama-era branding. So, the first family should go ahead and spend that week at Martha’s Vineyard in August, playing scrabble with Hillary and Bill, clamming with Spike Lee. But it would not take much for Michelle and her brood to visit the people’s land.
Maybe an overnight in Acadia, the first national park east of the Mississippi. Or a trip to the California home of Eugene O’Neill, America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright. Alas, the O’Neill national historic site had a mere 2,440 visitors last year — a lonely home for the creation of “A Moon for the Misbegotten.”
While not even Michelle Obama can cure America of videophilia and screen fixation, Egan’s idea is excellent. And I have an additional scheme to propose: After Michelle finishes with Yellowstone and Yosemite—after she has Sasha and Malia all fired up about the great outdoors—she should take the next logical step.
Michelle Obama should get a hunting license. Sasha and Malia should get theirs, too.
Hunting, you see, needs just as much help as the national parks, maybe more. Just about every metric shows a long-term decline in hunting participation, in some cases trending towards zero. Even for the non-hunting majority, this matters: hunting is a major source of revenue for all kinds of conservation programs. (For example, in a recent biennium my home state of Montana derived 53 percent of its state-parks revenue from the sale of hunting licenses.) If hunting dies, we’ll lose not only an important cultural link to deep human history, but a big chunk of the money and constituency that protect our remaining wild and semi-wild lands.
Okay, yes, it’s a bizarre idea: cultured, refined, sharp-dressed Michelle Obama, donning safety orange and packing a thirty-aught? Venturing into the home territory of red-state Rush-listening rednecks and the Gunrack Vote? Plunging her manicure into deer viscera? What fever dream did that image crawl out of?
But—don’t you see? The very factors that make this idea so weird also make it potentially brilliant. Michelle the Huntress could simultaneously destroy about a half-dozen prejudices and stereotypes and stimulate a serious discussion between urban and rural America. In crass political terms, she would sow confusion in the ranks of the Right and preoccupy cable TV for days or weeks.
To be crystalline, I’m not suggesting that Michelle and Co. embark on either a John Kerry-style camouflage pander outing or the kind of pathetic canned turkey shoot preferred by incompetent marksman Dick Cheney. I’m talking the real deal, from the beginning: Michelle and the kids enroll in a public hunters’ safety course; learn proper firearm usage; study the practical and philosophical ethics of hunting; enter whatever license lottery is necessary; and seek their quarry on public lands. In other words, hunt like the people hunt. Both Virginia and Maryland offer hunter education, and I’m sure the First Family could find a suitable woodland in which to bag a deer within a couple of hours of the White House.
The White House kitchen would not be the only constituency of interest here. With one squeeze of the trigger, Michelle (or Sasha, whom I suspect, for some reason, might be a crack shot) could strip hunting of the bizarre cultural baggage it currently bears. People on the left might recognize that the modern American hunting system is, in fact, a profoundly liberal and progressive institution: durable, sustainable, heavily regulated, state-managed for the common good. Even the crunchiest vegetarians might grudgingly acknowledge that, as author Steven Rinella has pointed out, hunters are the original locavores.
On the other end of spectrum, a genuine Obama family hunt would deal a serious blow to the NRA crazies and “Real America” propagandists of the right. It would clue the world into the fact that, are, in fact, liberal hunters. (I’m related to several.) It would perhaps suggest to traditional sportsmen and -women that their interests are not necessarily served by “conservative” politicians who talk up gun rights but vote in favor of mountain-top removal and against climate-change mitigation. The image of Michelle packing heat would help the national media discover that hunters do not conform to stereotype: women hunt, and so do African-Americans.
As for the aesthetic end of the pursuit, I humbly suggest that the First Lady and the girls would probably look very nice in anything from Filson’s women’s line. And, finally, if drawing down on Bambi’s daddy is just too much to contemplate, there’s always fishing. Michelle would really class up a set of stockingfoot waders.