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"The only gift is a portion of yourself," said Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844, and who would argue? The greatest gift is "free" time."
All around Wisconsin, more than 7,000 volunteer safety instructors pass along the traditions, skills and good habits that help young people become safe hunters, boaters, snowmobilers and ATV riders. It costs the volunteers many hours, but they don't mind. Along with the DNR's warden force, they know that the future of outdoor recreation depends on education.
Recreational safety education in Wisconsin began in 1967 when the legislature authorized a gun safety and hunter education program. At first, the courses were voluntary, but the law required them to be offered in every county. Conservation wardens taught a lot of the classes, but there weren't enough wardens to meet the demand, and before long a cadre of volunteer hunter education instructors backed them up.
The Bessacs of Portage, for instance. Roger Bessac, a welder, answered the call at the get-go in 1967. Later, his wife Fern, a nurse's aide, joined him – she's been teaching since 1976. Together they've taught the basic hunter education course to more than 1,500 people in the Columbia County area. The Bessacs hold most of their classes at local schools and at the Rio Rod
In 1987, Warden Bill Schwengel asked the Bessacs to offer a class for the local Amish community. Hunter education had just become mandatory. The Amish students attended rural schools and traveled by horse and buggy; it was difficult for them to attend classes in town. Fern and Roger said they would give it a try, although it meant holding classes in log cabins, one-room schoolhouses and woodsheds.
They had to improvise a little. "We couldn't use slides and videos because the buildings had no electricity. So we looked back at how things were when we were in school," Roger said. "We found out we could tell stories, so we did that." Occasionally, tests were given in German and the shooting range was the pasture behind the school. The Bessacs were farm kids, and that helped them relate to the Amish. Sometimes the students had useful advice. "Make sure you're on the right side of the fence so the bull doesn't come after you," was a warning the Bessacs appreciated.
Roger is retired now and believes everyone should volunteer to do something. Hunter education is what he does because he enjoys the by-play among students, parents and teachers. Fern remembers a mother who drove her son to class and listened in while waiting for him. Afterward she told Fern, "that is one of the best classes I've ever taken. I was really afraid of guns before, and you took that away."
Tom Freeman of Fort Atkinson is a relative newcomer to safety education. He's been certified to teach the ATV Safety Course for the last two years, and helped with an ATV program for a couple of years before that.
Tom, his wife and brother had been trail-riding an ATV for about five years, and it was clear to them that a lot of people looked down on ATVers. Tom knew why. "The lack of any licensing means that people don't read the rule book," Tom says. "I don't think they intentionally violate laws, ride the roads, and speed, but it's a lack of awareness. They fail to realize that their actions set a bad example for the sport. I saw a need for the class, a need to get involved myself."
Tom teaches two ATV safety courses a year in Jefferson County, trains other instructors and helps out with a hunter education course. He believes that education creates peer pressure to be courteous and safe. It's cheaper, too. "A $147 citation is an expensive way to find out you can't ride on the roads," he says.
David Crehore is DNR's regional information officer stationed in Green Bay.