Heather Morijah isn't a hunter. By her own description, she's "a flaming liberal Sierra Clubber with a pierced nose." But over the last six years she has won the respect and support of hunters in western South Dakota, the most conservative part of a conservative state, in supporting a new grasslands wilderness proposal.
Photo by Kirk Koepsel
In 2001, the year Morijah came on board as the Club's lone full-time staffer in the state, the South Dakota Chapter began promoting a proposal to protect 71,000 acres of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands as wilderness. The chapter was a founding member of the South Dakota Grasslands Wilderness Coalition, comprised of sportsmen, ranchers, conservationists, Native American tribes, and local business owners.
"The Sierra Club and sportsmen have a common desire to protect parts of the High Plains grasslands from motorized access," Morijah says. One of the first things she did on becoming a Club organizer was join the Black Hills Sportsmen, an affiliate of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation.
"At the first meeting I went to I sat next to a hunter who had just received a Sierra Club mailing," she remembers. "He passed it around and made some disparaging comments about the Club. I didn't say anything to the group, but when he was finished I extended my hand and said, 'Hi, I'm Heather Morijah. I work for the Sierra Club.'"
She kept attending meetings, still mostly listening. Later that year, when all the groups in the state wildlife federation voted whether to support the grasslands wilderness proposal, the Black Hills Sportsmen opposed it.
Morijah says one of the keys to effective outreach is having an ally who's already networked and involved, who can make introductions. Chris Hesla, the Executive Director of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, was such an ally.
In 2002, Morijah was staffing a Sierra Club table at the Black Hills Sportsmen's Show in Rapid City when Hesla introduced her to Tony Dean. "Tony's an award-winning TV and radio host and outdoor writer, very well-known in the Dakotas," she says. "He'd been extremely frustrated on hunting trips where ATVs and 4WD pickups came roaring over the hill and ruined everything. The main thing most hunters want is a place to have an old-school, non-motorized hunting experience."
Morijah invited Dean to speak at the first annual Wilderness Symposium, sponsored by the Grasslands Wilderness Coalition. Dean ended up speaking at four symposia in a row. "To have a Republican hunter like Tony Dean with us on this issue has been huge," Morijah says. "He can say things we couldn't get away with, but the fact that the message is coming out of his mouth legitimizes it."
Two others she met early on at meetings of the Black Hills Sportsmen Club were Jeff Olson and Carl Stonecipher, both outspoken and active within the organization. "They're also both dentists," she says. "Carl's a Republican and Jeff's a Democrat, and they've become two of our staunchest allies in building bipartisan support for wilderness."
Olson, pictured above, who is also a Sierra Club member, says Morijah lit a fire under him when she joined the Black Hills Sportsmen. "I'd been pushing the wilderness bill, but not all that hard--I was a lonely voice in western South Dakota. It's amazing what Heather has done in a very right-wing community. She got hunters, landowners, ranchers, and other citizens together and really drove home the message that hunters and conservationists need to work together. It's about conserving habitat--if you're a sportman, you need to be a conservationist."
Morijah made a point of attending the South Dakota Wildlife Federation's annual convention each year, and in 2003 Hesla and others convinced her to run for their board as a director for the western part of the state. "They wanted diversity on the board," she says," and as a non-hunting woman conservationist, I gave it to them."
In June 2004, the board of the Black Hills Sportsmen voted again whether to support the grasslands wilderness, and this time there was just a single vote against. Olson says Morijah had everything to do with this about-face. "Heather was able to get closed-minded guys to look at things differently. The Sierra Club was seen as anti-hunting, but she really changed the Club's image in the Black Hills."
The Black Hills Sportsmen has since joined the South Dakota Wilderness Coalition, which now numbers 54 member organizations. Twenty-three of them are hunter/angler groups, and Morijah's effectiveness in reaching out to sportsmen is a big reason.
To other non-hunters looking to partner with sportsmen, Morijah says, "Be honest; don't pretend to be something you're not. Show up, be consistent, and be willing to listen. It takes time to build trust."
This spring Morijah is starting a new chapter in life, moving to Pennsylvania where her significant other has taken a new job. "I'm leaving on a high note," she says. "I'm really proud of the relationship the Sierra Club has built up with sportsmen here. I've gotten so much positive, supporting feedback from all these guys I work with."
Many of "those guys" attribute the success of the partnership to Morijah. "Heather helped convince people that we may have differences, but not on habitat," says Olson. "I think this partnership holds a lot of promise."
Read more about the South Dakota Grasslands Wilderness Proposal and the Sierra Club's work with sportsmen.
Carl Stonecipher: Hunter, Republican, and wilderness advocate.
Photos used with permission.