In late January, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, introduced legislation to transfer 3.3 million acres of federal land to 10 Western states. Land Tawney, president and CEO of the outdoors advocacy group Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA), wasn’t necessarily surprised by it — “People have been trying to steal it since [President Theodore] Roosevelt put it aside,” he said — or by the ensuing ruckus from conservation and sportsmen’s groups.

But Chaffetz’s response got Tawney’s attention. Just days later, he withdrew it, citing concerns of groups that feared the bill sent the wrong message: public lands are for sale.

“In my 17 years of working on this stuff, I’ve never seen anyone introduce a bill and then a week later pull it back,” said Tawney, who has led the Missoula, Mont.-based organization since 2013. “The response to the Chaffetz bill was swift and unapologetic … I hope that issue goes away.”

Signs are that it hasn’t, particularly in Utah, where the world’s largest outdoor retail show pulled its event last month over what some sponsors claim are repeated assaults by Utah politicians on public land protections. The show generates $45 million for the Salt Lake City economy, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

With the backing of BHA’s 10,000 members, Tawney’s voice was among the loudest in opposition to Chaffetz’s bill. And that’s a BHA tradition. Since the group formed around a campfire in 2004 in Oregon, defending public lands has been the group’s mission. The group has gained steam in recent years, increasing its staff size and reach. When Tawney began, there was one other full-time employee; today there are 13. Citizens of every state are among its members, and it has chapters in 26, including Minnesota, where membership has grown from 175 to 215 in the past five months.

BHA isn’t afraid — figuratively speaking — “to throw punches,” Tawney said. And that’s one of the aspects that drew Lukas Leaf to the organization.

“It’s a group that’s driven and not afraid to say what they mean, and not afraid to (hold policymakers accountable),” said Leaf, 33, a former chef from south Minneapolis who is the sporting outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters and a member of the Minnesota BHA chapter board. “It’s a no-BS group, which is great.”

One of the priority issues for the Minnesota chapter, and the group, has been opposing a proposal to develop a sulfide-ore copper mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. BHA was among the first groups to assail the anti-federalists who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for 41 days, and some of its members from Oregon and Washington went to the refuge to oppose its occupation in person.

“We were a bit nervous because we didn’t know how safe it was there,” Tawney said. “At the same time, we heard [the occupiers] talking about how they wanted to ‘return this land to the people.’ These national wildlife refuges belong to you and me and every single American. We’re all the owners of public land.”

Fishing and hunting group

Erik Jensen, 47, who lives in south Minneapolis and is a senior buildings and grounds worker at the University of Minnesota, grew up hunting small game and then took on some big game. In 2008, he drew a license to hunt moose in the BWCA, and in 2011 he traveled to Colorado to bowhunt for elk. With those experiences fresh in his mind, he started to ask himself, “What am I going to do to give back, so to speak?”

He wanted to find a group that prioritized protecting the environment, but that also placed an emphasis on the importance of hunting and fishing. He stumbled across BHA, which at the time was working to limit the motorization of backcountry lands in Colorado. (The Minnesota chapter has also been active in opposing in some instances of motorized vehicle use on public lands in the state.) He would become the co-chair of Minnesota’s chapter.

“I wanted a group that some of the time we’re talking about policy, but other times we’re talking about skills like setting up a wall tent or floating a river,” Jensen said. “You’re not going to go to a Sierra Club meeting and learn how to set up a better elk camp.”

Said Tawney: “We’re a conservation group of hunters. That’s who we are. At the end of the day we want to make sure you have access to your public land, and that there is fish and wildlife habitat when you get there.”

Unlike many groups that are species-specific — even though their work benefits a wide variety of game and nongame species — BHA has grown based on its core philosophy of advocating on behalf of public lands. Tawney sees a shift among hunters and anglers that may contribute to the group’s growth. Whereas once sportsmen simply were happy to have a trophy on the wall, today they’re more and more looking for adventure, challenge and solitude, he says.

“Backcountry is kind of a sexy thing,” Tawney said. “Our public lands and the backcountry of those public lands provide a challenge. And backcountry looks different everywhere — it’s more of a state of mind than anything.”

Mark Norquist, a member of the Minnesota BHA board and owner of Modern Carnivore, with its focus on the healthful aspects of eating game, describes himself as a “typical Minnesota outdoorsman” who grew up hunting and fishing. Norquist, 46, of Minnetonka, has been active in a variety of conservation organizations but believes BHA’s focus will become an increasingly important issue. He also believes some of the ideals of the group’s members — minimizing the use of technology in both hunting transportation and weaponry, for example, and relying on self-propulsion in places such as the BWCA — are particularly attractive to younger hunters and fishermen.

The group also places a premium on hunting’s social aspect. Oftentimes, that includes sitting around a campfire — a nod to the organization’s founding — and drinking locally made beer, Norquist said. While state chapters host events, BHA’s annual Rendezvous — the sixth annual version is set for April 7-9 in Missoula — has become popular, too.

Norquist made the trip last year.

“It was probably the best social experience I’ve had with a group of outdoorsmen and women, ever,” he said. “It was a bunch of thoughtful, engaged men and women — many younger — who are passionate about hunting, passionate about fishing, and passionate about protecting wild places and access to them.”

Meanwhile, Tawney said BHA likely will focus energy on clean water initiatives, but at its core will remain committed to public land.

“The majority of hunters hunt on public land; it’s the great equalizer,” he said. “We talk about things being as American as baseball and apple pie, but some people don’t like baseball and some don’t like apple pie. I see public land as the most American ideal.”

Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at writerjoealbert@gmail.com.