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David Rainer: Conservation’s R3 program expanding college outreach

One of the goals of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) is to not only manage and conserve our abundant natural wonders but to also share Alabama’s great outdoors with everyone.

The R3 Program of ADCNR’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division is a significant part of outreach efforts to get Alabama’s citizens and guests outside, enjoying the many outdoors recreational opportunities in our beautiful state. R3 Coordinator Justin Grider and his team want to share the message of the benefits of getting outdoors with those who have little or limited exposure, those who are urged to continue their outdoors activities, and those who once participated but need encouragement to start again.

One facet of R3 – recruitment, retention and reactivation – in Alabama is the outreach efforts in schools around the state, which led to the rebranding of one of its programs. Now called Campus Conservation Program, the effort has expanded from serving mostly colleges and universities to all learning institutions.

Heading the Campus Conservation Program is Sgt. Bill Freeman, who also patrols the woods in Bullock County as a Conservation Enforcement Officer. Freeman has been working with colleges and universities for several years to expose students to outdoor adventures. He wanted to increase the outreach to all places of learning.

“We renamed the Collegiate Conservation Program to the Campus Conservation Program so that it includes all K-12, colleges and universities rather than just concentrating on our universities,” Freeman said.

Grider added the outreach will also extend to trade schools, tech schools and culinary schools.

“We are adding every learning institution you can think of to talk about conservation, conservation education and outdoor recreation,” Grider said.

Freeman said participation in the program in recent years was mainly from the HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), but the program has always been open to all colleges and universities.

“The big takeaway is that we have hired an assistant R3 coordinator (Olivia Wilkes) to go out and recruit more colleges and universities,” Freeman said.

Justin Grider shows Assistant R3 Coordinator Olivia Wilkes the proper point to mount the shotgun. (David Rainer Photo)

Participating campuses for the 2023-2024 calendar include Auburn University, Tuskegee University, Montevallo University, Alabama A&M University, Alabama State University, Jacksonville State University, the University of Alabama-Huntsville and Calhoun Community College. The Montgomery Parks and Recreation Department will also participate in hosting events for different student groups.

“Olivia’s position focuses on outreach specifically, so it dovetails nicely with the Campus Conservation Program and the Adult Mentored Hunting Program,” Grider said. “She is providing outreach opportunities for folks to get involved specifically with outdoor recreation – hunting, trapping and shooting. We want people to get that process so that they are eventually buying a license and contributing to conservation funding.”

The vast majority of funding for the ADCNR’s conservation efforts comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses as well as those who purchase a Wildlife Heritage License to use one of the state-managed shooting and/or archery facilities. Federal three-to-one matching funds are allocated according to the number of licenses sold and the state’s land mass.

The R3 Program will soon add another assistant, Bridget Murphy, who will focus on visiting classrooms in the state to share the conservation message.

“Bridget’s position is focused on the education component, so I think about her and Olivia’s efforts as a one-two punch,” Grider said. “Bridget will provide conservation education in schools, specifically.”

Grider said WFF has been participating in education for years, doing guest lectures, acting as a subject-matter expert in labs and field work. Freeman’s work at Auburn University led directly to the hiring of Wilkes.

“Bill taught a hunter education class at Auburn,” Grider said. “Olivia went through that class and wanted to continue to get more involved. She did a few ride-alongs, and Bill got her involved in some other programs and mentored her. He taught her to become a hunter, and that led to her pursuing a career in conservation and specifically doing the things she did in college. It’s really neat to see that come full circle.”

Freeman said that seeing the students embrace the many aspects of the outdoors is especially gratifying.

“It’s great to see students who don’t have any background in hunting or fishing that come for the first time and harvest an animal, like a deer,” Freeman said. “We teach them to field dress and process that meat. It makes you feel good that they jump right in. They are very involved. They really want to do it, and it’s great to see how excited they are to get to prepare their own meat for the table. It’s eye-opening to see what that opportunity can do for someone who does not come from that kind of background.”

The R3 efforts in Alabama will be among those showcased when the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports holds its National R3 Symposium May 29 through June 1 at the Riverview Plaza Hotel in downtown Mobile.

“We’re honored to host that,” Grider said. “We’ll have R3 professionals from agencies, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and industry that will represent the conservation community. We will have sessions to brainstorm and talk about programs that are working. We’ll talk about new ideas and new concepts. We’ll talk about what we can do to change this long-term decrease in participation that we are seeing nationally and, in some cases, regionally.

Sgt. Bill Freeman watches her form as Olivia Wilkes gets ready to shoot the clay target. (David Rainer Photo)

“We’re fortunate in Alabama that our participation numbers are relatively steady. Our license holder numbers are actually up this year, which is a positive trend. I think some of the positive trends are a result of our agency’s work but also things happening nationally that are contributing to folks getting outdoors, understanding where their food comes from, spending time in nature, spending time with friends and family in places that are conducive to their well-being and mental health. We’re excited to host folks from all over. We have a lot of great programs in Alabama. We’re really proud of what we do, so we’re excited for them to see our state and some of our programs. We’re going to encourage some of them to do some redfishing, trout fishing and maybe snapper fishing while they’re here.”

One of the R3 programs that will be highlighted at the Symposium is the Adult Mentored Hunting Program, which is headed by Regional R3 Coordinator Brandon Holloway. The mentored hunts are aimed at individuals with no or limited hunting experience who can learn from veteran mentors about all aspects of the hunt from how to prepare to head afield to preparation of the harvested animal for the family table.

Holloway said the hunts have been well-received by those who participated in the Adult Mentored Hunting Program as well as hunts on the Special Opportunity Areas (SOAs). Visit www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/special-opportunity-areas and www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/adult-mentored-hunting-program for more information.

“We’re getting positive feedback from people who are coming through the program,” Holloway said. “They enjoy it. We’ve had several people who have come through the program go out and hunt on their own. Several have harvested deer and turkeys, and they send us pictures and say, ‘Thank you,’ for the course.

“We’ve had people who will be return customers, and we hope to be able to increase those numbers. Some of the people who participated in the Adult Mentored Program have come back to the agency to attend other programs that we offer. We have people come back and want to become a mentor. We have assisted them through classes and a vetting process, and they’re doing great.”

Grider added, “There are absolutely people who jump in head-first, from selling their sedan and buying a four-wheel-drive truck to people buying land so they have their own place to manage and hunt. It has an incredible impact on some people. And then there are people who decide that hunting is more than what they want to get into, but they have learned about the Department and how conservation is funded.

“We have allies now; folks who are going out and sharing that information, spreading the word and helping us increase our footprint and overall impact of the program. We want people to participate, but we also want people to support and advocate. We’re getting that from this program year after year.”

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