By Bill Knight
Labor unions work for wages, hours and working conditions, but also fishing, hiking and even “hacking towers,” as the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance volunteers to do what union workers do best: organize, work and defend – in their case, public spaces.
“It’s important to look toward the future impact we can have on America’s outdoor heritage,” said Fred Myers, director of Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA). “Whether restoring a weathered visitors center or rebuilding the park ranger station, USA members will come together to exhibit pride, craftsmanship, dedication and unity while demonstrating to all park visitors the best of what being union in America really means.”
A new USA project is at Anderson Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, the largest of seven Fulton County lakes just across the Illinois River from Bath, south of Havana. It’s the most recent of several Illinois projects showing organized labor’s talents and value to society.
“It’s important to give back to the community,” said Eric Patrick, Business Manager for Local 196 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), who coordinated a USA project in northern Illinois. “You hardly ever see anything positive about labor organizations on TV or in the news. Projects like this help demonstrate to the public that union members are part of the community and care about those around them.”
Tim Bindl, USA’s national events/fundraising coordinator and manager of its Boots on the Ground program, summarized USA’s mission in a phone interview.
“We work to unite the union community to expand and improve hunting and fishing access and wildlife habitat,” Bindl said.
“We’re just getting started in some ways,” he continued. “We’ll finish the [Anderson Lake] osprey hacking towers this fall and have more conservation projects next year.”
The Union Sportsmen’s Alliance is more than a club, they say; it’s a cause.
“The future of our outdoor heritage depends upon the connection of today’s youth with nature,” said Kate Cywinski, Senior Communications Manager for USA, which is based in Nashville. “Boots on the Ground brings together union members willing to donate their time and skills for conservation projects.”
Union-member volunteers have done work as varied as building wild-hog traps and tree trimming to clearing debris and cleaning facilities.
At Anderson Lake, about 50 miles southwest of Peoria, USA volunteers from the Carpenters and Laborers (LIUNA, the Laborers’ International Union of North America) are cooperating with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to construct hacking towers for ospreys, a fish-eating bird of prey listed as an endangered species in Illinois. Hacking towers are cages on platforms where young ospreys are fed and protected. When the birds are able, they’re released from the towers and usually return to nest in the area where they first flew. The idea is that the osprey can gradually and naturally return to the wild in its natural habitat in Illinois.
A couple of hours north of Peoria, members of the Painters and IBEW unions helped finish the new Youth Conservation Education Center and cleaned area campsites at Torstenson Family Farm. Owned and managed by the Illinois Conservation Foundation, the 750-acre property has woodlands, wetlands and prairies and is a hunting, camping and birding refuge used by area science classes, FFA members, Pheasants Forever and other groups.
“These projects are important to the labor movement because they give union members the opportunity to refine their skills while working together to volunteer for a great cause,” said Ryan Anderson, with Painters District 30. “Unions provide members with the best when it comes to career opportunities and representation. It’s great that our members are able to give some of that back to their communities with a skill set that allows them to do the jobs right.”
There, Operating Engineers have suggested helping develop a 5-acre pond and berms for a shooting range.
Wherever USA rallies its “troops, communities benefit,” Bindl said.
“USA not only helps with habitat and the quality of wildlife, it opens up opportunities, save foundations or states money, and opens up community involvement,” he said. “We’re geared toward the public.”
USA is largely self-sustaining. Last year, a sporting clays shoot in Illinois raised $50,000 to help support USA’s conservation activities, which range from TV’s “Brotherhood Outdoors” show to kids fishing events, from youth mentoring to the new Adopt-A-Park program, which already has helped rebuild foot bridges and improve access to trails in state parks in Tennessee and Texas.
There are more than 6,000 state parks in the United States, with more than 14 million acres of open space, 41,000 miles of trails, 207,000 campsites and 7,000 cabins, USA says. But, like Illinois, parks across the country face budget cuts and threatened shutdowns. Such financial pressures have created a backlog of repair and restoration projects, and USA is calling on its 60,000 union members to use their skills and volunteer to repair and rehabilitate projects that if left undone would deny access to the outdoors to millions of visitors, or even force states to close parks.
“Not only did labor come together to raise thousands of dollars to support conservation efforts,” commented Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan, “but union members from various communities around the state got the chance to connect on a lifestyle level outside of the workplace not only as brothers and sisters but as sportsmen and women.”
To learn more about the benefits of USA membership, visit https://unionsportsmen.org/take-action/join/
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