by Susan Frampton
In 1971, avid turkey hunter Tom Rodgers had an idea. Recognizing the declining populations of his favorite game bird, he decided to set about looking for ways to promote and restore the bird that Benjamin Franklin once nominated as a candidate for America’s national symbol. For two years, he studied the formats and business models of other sporting and conservation organizations. Settling on a plan based on his facts and figures, Rodgers launched the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) in 1973.
Enlisting the support of South Carolina wildlife biologist Vernon Bevill to the budding cause, Rodgers began making rounds to recruit members and financial support. At a turkey calling contest outside the small, charming town of Edgefield, SC, the final piece of his plan came together when he and Bevill were introduced to Sam Crouch, an old-time turkey hunting enthusiast, with whom they began “talking turkeys.” They soon realized the wealth of potential in the state, where people truly seemed to share their interest in restoring a population of birds that had plummeted to less than 1.3 million in North America. The seed was planted, and with it, the decision made to move NWTF and its holdings, which at the time consisted of a cigar box full of membership applications, to Edgefield.
Much has changed since that fateful turkey calling contest brought the organization to the historic town just a short drive from Augusta. From its inauspicious start with a cigar box of assets, to today’s sprawling campus encompassing the Palmetto Shooting Complex, Outdoor Education Center and Wild Turkey Center, NWTF has become a community of over 250,000 members aimed at building the future of hunting and wildlife conservation.
Through dynamic partnerships with state and federal wildlife agencies, in the decades since Tom Rodgers noted their decline, the number of wild turkeys in North America has risen to a historic high of 7 million birds, and the innovative science-based conservation strategies the organization has employed have facilitated the investment of $488 million in wildlife conservation. In addition, more than 17 million acres of wildlife habitat has been improved, and over 100,000 people are introduced to the outdoors each year.
NWTF’s mission, which is dedicated to the conservation of the wild turkey, its wildlife habitats and the preservation of hunting heritage, are among the elements that attracted CEO Becky Humphries to the organization.
Humphries, a native of Michigan and former Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, assumed leadership of NWTF last April, bringing more than 40 years of conservation and wildlife management experience to the table. Her dedication continues the NWTF legacy that is beautifully chronicled in the impressive Winchester Museum on the grounds of its headquarters.
“NWTF has long understood the importance of active habitat management, and that the future of conservation depends largely on the recruitment and education of hunters, who currently pay for 80% of conservation funding through license purchases and excise taxes on equipment and more,” says Humphries. NWTF is focused on the future of hunting and conservation through its “Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt.” initiative – a charge that mobilizes science, fundraising and devoted volunteers to conserve or enhance more than 4 million acres of essential wildlife habitat, to recruit at least 1.5 million hunters, and to open access to 500,000 acres for hunting.
“Thanks to the tremendous efforts of our dedicated volunteers, professional staff, and committed partners, we have had many successes that advance our mission,” notes Humphries.
But Humphries is not resting on the impressive laurels garnered in the past. “What we do in the coming decades will be instrumental in not only enhancing wild turkey populations, but also in the continuation of hunting and quality wildlife habitats for countless species.”
The latest in the organization’s trail blazing conservation efforts was unveiled recently at NWTF’s ribbon cutting celebration of its completion of the “Connecting Forests to the Community” project. Located on the Outdoor Education Center portion of its 700-acre Hunting Heritage Center campus, the new trail systems opened at the Outdoor Education Center will allow visitors to explore the diverse habitats NWTF manages at their Edgefield facilities. “We are excited to offer visitors a place to discover the wildlife that benefits from our work and also learn about the roles forestry and agriculture industries play in helping to provide a better tomorrow,” Humphries says.
The completion of the $55,000 project provides NWTF members and visitors the chance to engage in a trail system enhanced by interpretive signs and a pollinator area built in conjunction with Strom Thurmond High School FFA students, featuring a bat house, honey bee hives, a butterfly garden, and a self-sustaining organic garden. It also includes a bluebird trail with 100 nest boxes provided by the American Bluebird Society of Aiken and SCDNR and installed by Boy Scout troops.
The project enhances current NWTF programs, and it has provided an opportunity for other improvements on the property, including the restoration of a longleaf pine forest, hardwood bottom habitat improvements, wetland and forest habitat improvements along the streams, as well as creating wildlife openings and quail and food plot demonstration areas.
As she oversees the many different facets of NWTF’s programs and projects, Humphries says she is optimistic about the future, and encouraged by the role that NWTF continues to play in setting the standard. Better cooperation between government, for-profit and not-for-profit agencies is resulting in larger-scale tracts of land being set aside as habitat across the nation. And though hunter population numbers have declined, she sees a trend toward greater acceptance of hunting as the public becomes more concerned about what they are eating, and better educated about hunting’s connection to sustainability.
Though he passed away in 2008, the trail of success that stemmed from Tom Rodgers desire to continue the legacy of the wild turkey for generations to come is one that stretches far into the future and ensures that the National Wild Turkey Federation will continue to lead the way.