Senator Bill Heath

This weekend, countless Americans will pack their bags full of hiking gear, or load up their cars with fishing line, and head into the over 1 million square miles of protected wilderness to enjoy the great outdoors with friends and loved ones. However, this weekend will be especially unique, as American's from all walks of life will end up enjoying our stunning natural environment on National Hunting and Fishing Day (NHF).

Celebrated on the fourth Saturday in September, NHF Day is an honorary day that began in 1972 to recognize the vital economic and environmental contributions of hunters and anglers. It is a handy time to remind citizens, particularly the younger generations, of the role that hunting and angling has played in enjoying the outdoors.

Sadly, hunters and anglers were not always recognized for their role. In the early 1900's, President Theodore Roosevelt-perhaps the most famous sportsman in our national history- first called for laws specifically restricting the commercial slaughter of wildlife. By this time in America, wildlife that we see as ubiquitous today, such as white-tailed deer, were under threat of endangerment.

A sportsman spurred to take action, President Roosevelt's directives called for sustainable use of fish and game, introduced hunting and fishing licenses by which fees could be collected and appropriated towards conservation efforts, and pushed for federal taxes on sporting equipment to provide funds for local conservation agencies-agencies like our Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who continually use that revenue to maintain protected land.

In Georgia alone, over 1 million residents enjoy hunting and fishing from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. Hunting and fishing - both freshwater and saltwater - generates $216 million in state and local tax revenue annually, directly supports 39,600 jobs in Georgia, and has a total annual economic impact of over $3.8 billion. Thanks to its abundant wildlife populations and accessible wildlife habitat, today Georgia ranks among the top hunting destination states in the country.

Together, all of these actions combined formed North American wildlife conservation model, whereby a "user-pay system", based on sound ecological principals, would slowly build a network of protected land on which wildlife can flourish. The model was successful, but the targeted impact on Sportsman for the greater good of the nation remained unrecognized for another seventy years.

That changed in June of 1971, when Senator Thomas McIntyre (D-NH) introduced Joint Resolution 117 in an effort to honor the unsung contributions of hunters and anglers to national conservation efforts. The bill passed, and on May 2, 1972, President Nixon signed the first proclamation of National Hunting and Fishing Day, stating, "I urge all citizens to join with outdoor sportsmen in the wise use of our natural resources and in insuring their proper management for the benefit of future generations."

After Nixon's proclamation, governors from all 50 states proclaimed state versions of National Hunting and Fishing Day.. This year, Governor Deal was one of 17 governors to issue a proclamation continuing the recognition of NFH Day, which is celebrated here in Georgia in various ways.

The vision that has shaped Georgia's celebration of NHF Day can be traced to dedicated legislative leaders who continue to advocate for sportsman rights while also championing smart conservation policy. Like President Roosevelt and Senator McIntyre, these legislators continue to see the critical role that hunters and anglers have in establishing, maintaining, and protecting our wildlife here in Georgia. This advocacy is not only done through the National Association of Sportsman Caucus and Senate Sportsman Caucus, of which I am Chairman, but also through comprehensive public outreach.

Together with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the aim for public outreach should not only be to encourage a new generation of sportsmen and women, but also include the multitude of hikers, boaters, birdwatchers, and campers to be conscious of their God-given land. To mark the occasion DNR is hosting numerous activities and seminars around the state, and this Saturday will be the third and final "Free Fishing Day" of the year. On "Free Fishing Day" Georgia residents are not required to have a fishing license.

In honor of NHF Day, I encourage you to step outside and enjoy the great outdoors. For young people especially, it is vital to be able to put down their smartphones and break away from their computer screens. Let's instead teach them that there is great joy and fulfillment in utilizing - and protecting-our natural resources. Whether you are a hunter, a hiker, or just like to take a stroll outside, our wildlife is an irreplaceable public resource that we must all do our part to protect for everyone to enjoy.