Q&A: Dan Forster Brings Over 28 Years of Experience to ATA Government Relations

Author: Patrick Durkin

Dan Forster brings over 30 years of wildlife-management experience to his job as the Archery Trade Association’s next director of government relations.

That’s not news to those who know Forster, 52. After all, his keen interest in the outdoors and natural resources started years before he began his formal studies at the University of Georgia, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in wildlife management.

In fact, Forster’s passion for wildlife biology was so obvious as a ninth-grader in 1978 that a friend engraved a placard for him that reads, “Daniel Forster, Wildlife Biologist.” Except for a few years in college, Forster has displayed that placard on every bookshelf or cubicle wall where he has worked.

That won’t change when Forster officially takes over as the ATA’s director of government relations April 1, 2017. Until then, Forster will work in tandem with Mitch King, who has served in that role since 2007, to ensure a smooth transition. King will continue working with the ATA in a reduced role after Forster takes over.

Dan Forster introduced himself to the ATA Board of Directors at its July meeting in Washington, D.C. Photo: Pat Durkin/ATA

Forster is a certified wildlife biologist, and directed the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division in recent years. As the director, Forster was responsible for an agency with over 400 employees working in three sections and a budget of $60 million. The division is responsible for over 89 wildlife-management areas and 21 natural areas; as well as fishing, archery and hatchery facilities. Forster also served recently as president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA), which represents all 50 state wildlife agencies; and as chairman of the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports (CAHSS), a national coalition of state agencies, hunting and shooting organizations, and the firearms and archery industries.

Forster, a Georgia native, is widely respected for his work in wildlife research, population management and policy development. He lives in Georgia with his wife of 23 years, Jennifer; daughter, Lanier, 19; and son, Trent, 12.

He introduced himself to the ATA Board of Directors at its July meeting in Washington, D.C. Soon after, he made time for this question-and-answer session.

Q: What are your bowhunting roots?

A: I got started in archery mainly as an opportunity to extend my time in the woods and to pursue deer. I’ve always had a real passion for deer and deer hunting, even though I didn’t come from a rabid hunting family. My father hunted some, but I killed my first deer at age 13 (with a rifle) before he killed one. He liked the social aspects of hunting and I was more focused on killing deer. I began bowhunting in my mid-teens with friends. One of my highlights was harvesting my first deer with a bow at 16. It was a close encounter while I was hunting on the ground and made for a memorable hunt. I’ve never missed a bowhunting season since.

Q: Did hunting help spark your interest in biology and wildlife management?

A: That was part of it, but so was my ethical, moral and religious background. I’ve felt a calling to take responsibility for stewarding our natural resources. It’s been a great marriage for me to work in this field of public service, doing the Lord’s work to help protect, preserve and promote natural resources and their wise use. It’s a great fit for me. We’re doing the right things for the right reasons, and keeping an eye on the long-term health and sustainability of our environment. We need to use our natural resources, but use them wisely while promoting their long-term health.

Since first harvesting a deer with a bow at age 16, Forster has never missed a bowhunting season. Photo contributed by Dan Forster

Q: How long were you with the Georgia DNR?

A: All together, 28 years, including 12 years as director of the Wildlife Resources Division. I started as a field biologist, and then moved up to assistant chief of the game-management program in 1996. I worked there until becoming the division’s assistant director in 2003, and then director in 2004.

Q: Was it difficult for you to walk away from a job that combined those interests, duties and obligations?

A: It was a very hard decision to step away at my age, but I’ve had a great career and can point to many accomplishments while I was there. Ultimately, this was a good decision for me, my family and my career. The reality is that I was the country’s third-longest tenured sitting wildlife director. I had probably carried the ball as long and far as I could carry it. There comes a time for everyone to move on. My work with the ATA has already renewed my passion to focus on programs and initiatives I really enjoy.

Q: Your AFWA and CAHSS responsibilities meant working regularly with the ATA in recent years. Did anything surprise you when you first worked with groups outside the wildlife agency?

A: My initial work with industry groups turned my understanding of Pittman-Robertson (PR) funding on its head. Most hunters who are familiar with PR would say they’re the ones paying the federal excise taxes that help fund wildlife restoration, and hunter education and recruitment programs. That’s about as deep as they explore that program.

Yes, hunters supply that funding, but it’s an indirect payment. They aren’t the ones writing the actual checks to the federal government. But from the industry’s perspective, manufacturers make those transactions. They’re the ones who feel it most personally. It’s a direct connection for them. That’s why the industry expects a little acknowledgment of their contributions when they’re working and communicating with state wildlife agencies.

Forster, pictured here with Mitch King, left, ATA director of government relations, and ATA President/CEO Jay McAninch, said his work with the ATA has renewed his passion to focus on programs and initiatives he enjoys. Photo: Patrick Durkin/ATA

Q: The hunting industry helped persuade Congress to pass the Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937, and the archery/bowhunting industry persuaded Congress to add archery gear as taxable equipment in the early 1970s. With all those tax revenues getting redistributed to state wildlife agencies, why was there so little coordination and cooperation between the hunting industries and wildlife agencies during the late 1900s?

A: There was a clear lack of communication for decades, but with steady declines in hunter numbers the past 25 years, the agencies and industries realized they share many of the same challenges. More manufacturers started asking how and what state agencies were doing to help. What were they getting for their Pittman-Robertson investments?

The ATA has done a phenomenal job bridging that gulf and answering those questions the past dozen years or so. Agencies now realize the ATA is a strong supporter. They have a deeper, clearer understanding of the industry’s role and its contributions. Both sectors are overcoming historical communication challenges.

Q: Is the word “partners” a fair description for those joint efforts?

A: Definitely. We’ve been bridging that communications gap with forums, meetings and joint conferences. We’re working more like partners than silos. I’ve worked aggressively with industries in Georgia because I recognized that communication gap from these broader interactions. In my new role with the ATA, I plan to extend my own efforts from the state level to a much broader field.

Q: Which shared interests are these partnerships addressing?

A: The big one is the R3 initiative: recruiting, retaining and reactivating hunters and bowhunters. We need as many hunters as possible. We need to examine regulations and programming state by state to increase participation. We’re addressing and discussing challenges and opportunities at our AFWA meetings and other special meetings. ATA is a steady presence at those gatherings. In fact, the ATA has been a key leader in many discussions and initiatives to increase hunting and participation. The ATA’s interests align well with my many personal and professional interests in those areas.

Dan Forster is a certified wildlife biologist, and directed the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division in recent years. The division is responsible for over 89 wildlife-management areas and 21 natural areas; as well as fishing, archery and hatchery facilities. Photo contributed by Dan Forster

Q: What’s on your agenda as you begin working with the ATA?

A: The ATA has been working on several things that need immediate attention. There’s a real need to modernize Pittman-Robertson funding to give state agencies more flexibility to build shooting ranges and to step up their marketing efforts to recruit hunters. But modernizing that federal act requires legislation in Washington. That’s where Jay, Mitch (King) and (ATA counsel) Pat Raffaniello have been working with lawmakers and state wildlife-agency directors to push those changes across the finish line. We want to increase funding for multi-state federal grants to support R3 and CASH efforts at the state and national levels. We’re trying to make those changes this year.

Q: How can your experience and your new ATA role address those issues?

A: Before retiring from the Georgia DNR and taking this job, I was chairman of the CAHSS, and we had just approved the first National R3 Plan. This document provides a real opportunity for our community to become more focused, strategic and successful in stimulating interest and participation in hunting. We’ll be working on step-down plans with individual states and other partners to increase hunting participation. This plan sparked a new commitment and interest among states to attack the problem aggressively. We’ll help however we can. All of these plans and collective efforts will pay dividends for us down the road.

Q: What parallels do you see between your agency work and your new ATA duties?

A: It’s rewarding to see the passion in the archery industry’s professionals. They’re motivated to do good work. It’s the same level of passion I saw in the agency. All of them are committed to ethics, sustainable resources, altruistic programs, and sound business practices. I admire that. It’s intriguing to learn more about the business aspects of hunting. In my role, I won’t be the detailed industry guy with 30 years in archery manufacturing or sales, but I look forward to working with these professionals to learn and understand their pressure points, and help them deal with the areas I know.

“It’s rewarding to see the passion in the archery industry’s professionals,” Forster said. “They’re motivated to do good work.” Photo contributed by Dan Forster

Q: So, your main interest isn’t just killing deer anymore?

A: (Laughs.) We all have our personal stories about our first deer and our first buck, but the greatest hunts I’ve experienced didn’t all involve harvesting animals. Satisfaction for me comes from sharing my passion with my kids, nephews and friends, and enjoying their successes. Lanier and Trent both have harvested deer at a much earlier age than I did. I’d rather sit in deer stand with one of them than by myself. Passing the torch and increasing their understanding about our sport and natural resources … those things are important to me and very important to the next generation. That’s going to be part of my ATA responsibility. We need to be a leader in facilitating others into the sport. I find that kind of work most rewarding.

Q: During its July meeting, you showed the ATA Board a photo of a placard that reads, “Daniel Forster, Wildlife Biologist.” You received that as a gift from a friend when you were about 14. How did your friend know your career aspirations back then?

A: My friend’s father did maintenance work at a hospital, and the hospital’s workshop had equipment for making “No Smoking” signs, nameplates for doors, and things like that. We had a class assignment to document what we aspired to be when we grew up. We had to write to or interview someone in that field, and ask some career questions. I contacted the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. I said I loved the outdoors, that I’d love to be employed as a biologist one day, and what advice can you give me? A man named Carroll Allen wrote back and said I would need to attend college and get a master’s degree. Several years later Carroll became a colleague of mine. We shared many days afield together.

Anyway, my friend was working for his dad that summer, and learned how to use the hospital’s engraving machine. He remembered that assignment, and carved the sign for me. I’ve cherished and held onto it for many, many years. He made job placards like that for several of our friends, but I’d venture to guess mine is the only one that still applies. How many ninth-graders have career aspirations that come to fruition? That sign has stayed with me through moves, transfers and new jobs. When I read that nameplate now, I see it more as a reflection of “who I am” than “what I do.”

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