POLITICS AND SLED DOGS

When Sarah Palin was announced as U.S. Presidential candidate John McCain’s running mate, many across the US and the world wondered who she was.As a political junkie, Palin was no surprise to me as she had been mentioned as a possibility. Her presence on the national political stage has many mushers wondering what it might be like to have someone familiar with dog mushing in the White House. Spontaneous discussions sprang up on message boards throughout the sled dog world speculating as to whether Palin’s presence and her support of dog mushing would make a difference to our sport. Some contended that presidential politics has no bearing on what we do as mushers.While arguments could certainly be made for both sides of the presidential and vice-presidential debate it is important to note that politics and political ideology do have bearing on our sport at the local and state level. Nearly all of the major decisions that affect us as mushers, from taxation, and property rights to land access, and animal welfare issues are made by the people we elect to state and local offices. Politicians across all levels of government talk about the economy, fuel prices, health care costs, access to affordable education and taxation, but rarely discuss the issues that impact us as sled dog owners at the most basic level. Do you know what your city councilor or selectman thinks about property rights and restrictions, the taxation of pet food or the use of snow-machine trails by non-motorized users? What about your state representative or senator? Knowing where your state and local officials stand and more importantly how they will vote on these issues is part of being an informed musher. It enables you to vote for the candidates who are most likely to support mushing if not explicitly, implicitly, by their support of laws that are not detrimental to dog owning and training. Mushers concerned with keeping, breeding, training and racing sled dogs have a responsibility to themselves and the mushing community at large to understand the positions of their local elected officials so that the rights and privileges, which allow us to participate successfully in this sport we love, are not diminished. We as mushers are obligated to stay informed of the issues that could severely inhibit or prohibit our ability to own and train dogs. Being informed of the political challenges we face as mushers is vital for the continued growth and success of our sport.So what should mushers do to increase their awareness and knowledge of the candidates and the issues?Campaign Season-What You Should KnowThe campaign season is the best time to get to know the candidates running for office and their position on various issues. Candidates campaigning door to door are a captive audience and voters should use the few minutes they have with the candidate to find out where they stand. Debates and candidate forums are another good time to glean information about ideology; some smaller events may even allow questions from the audience and mushers should use this time to ask pointed questions of the participating candidates.You can also be proactive. Often candidates will agree to attend meetings or “meet and greets” where they are guaranteed an audience. This would be a good opportunity for a group of mushers in a particular electoral division to invite the candidates (separately is best) to speak to them. This gives mushers a chance to talk with the candidate and allows the candidate to find out the needs of the mushing community. Learning about the candidates and casting an informed vote is an important part of the political process, but it is really just the first step. Do not expect that because you did the research and voted for the right candidate that your obligation is met until the next election. Perhaps the candidate you voted for loses, or is elected, and turns out differently than you expected? For this reason it is vitally important that mushers stay informed and involved after election day.After the Election-What’s Next?Staying up to date on what is happening with regard to local ordinances, agency rule changes, and proposals to amend, or create new state laws is paramount to the continuation and success of our sport. Finding out about legislation is relatively easy given today’s technology. All state’s and some municipalities have websites listing proposed legislation or ordinances. Those without websites typically list the proposals in town government buildings or in print in daily or weekly publications. A weekly perusal of these outlets could reveal a great deal of information. Most state governments also have some sort of legislative information office whose sole purpose is to provide information to citizens on the happenings of the legislative body. This is a fantastic resource and should be utilized whenever possible. Once a list of proposed legislation is gathered, mushers should carefully review the language and determine its impact. Whether a positive or negative impact, a game plan should be formulated. Most government entities require a public hearing or public comment period for any piece of legislation, this provides an opportunity for those who are impacted by a proposal to stand before the legislative body and explain how they or their group will be affected by the proposal. Most of the decisions affecting a proposal take place at the committee level so weighing in during the public comment period is an important part of the legislative process. The information gathered during the public comment period often completely changes the proposal and mushers should be confident in their ability to influence the outcome. A written copy of your comments is often required.If an individual or a club is not comfortable speaking in front of a legislative body it is imperative that written comments be submitted. Comments should be succinct and include your opinion or position on the issue and highlight specifically any unintended consequences of the legislation. This would also be the appropriate time to make suggested changes to the proposal. For both spoken and written comments the legislative information office will be able to let you know what group or committee to address your comments to and any additional specifics you should include.A vote of the committee is usually required before it goes to the full legislative body for consideration so it is important to influence the committee. An email, telephone call or letter to the individual committee members asking for a specific vote on the issue is a good way to follow up on the public comment period. Get your club involved and have them phone committee members to voice their opinions. Once the committee has made its decision the proposal will usually go before a larger legislative body for further consideration. Most issues are decided based on the committee recommendation but sometimes contentious or partisan bills will receive further scrutiny by the larger body. In any case, mushers should contact the elected officials of their respective electoral districts and let them know exactly how they should vote on the issue. This is why it is important to elect officials who will support the same issues we do so that when the full body votes on a measure there is support for your position. Additionally, mushers should not let their guard down or abandon their lobbying efforts until the final step of the respective process is complete. Make sure the proposal is seen through to its final disposition whether that’s being signed into law by the Governor or going to the public for a vote.Groups and individuals, what’s the role?While clubs and organizations are most effective in lobbying issues, as there is strength in numbers, individuals can also impact proposals. Email, telephone calls, and letters are an effective means of communicating with elected officials. Messages should be kept short, concise and to the point. Explain that you are a voter (remember they can find out if you actually vote, so make sure you do), what proposal you’re contacting them about, your position on the issue, why you feel that way and specifically how you would like them to vote. Face to face meetings are also a terrific way to make your point known and you get the added benefit of seeing the policy or lawmakers reaction to your opinion.Mushing clubs across the US have had significant impact on local ordinances and state law due to the willingness of mushers to get involved and make their presence known. The Down East Sled Dog Club and the New Hampshire Mushers Association are two success stories of local involvement and Mush with P.R.I.D.E. serves as an example of success at the federal level.The Down East Sled Dog Club (DESDC) in the State of Maine has a significant presence in the Maine legislature. For many years members of the club have kept track of legislation expected to impact the sport and weighed in on the proposals. More recently DESDC has taken on a more proactive role, hosting a legislator’s luncheon for members of the Agriculture Committee; the committee of jurisdiction for animal welfare and trail access issues in the State of Maine. Members of the club explained how mushing impacts the state and how state policies affect the mushing community. Now when the committee hears bills important to mushers, the committee members have a better understanding of DESDC’s concerns and give them ample consideration. A member of DESDC was recently awarded a seat on an animal welfare working group due to the club’s diligence and positive image.The New Hampshire Mushers Association was organized a few years ago to address trail access issues in New Hampshire. They’ve been successful in their lobbying efforts to get mushers named as an official user group with regard to trail use in the state and have introduced legislation to allow mushers to train with motorized vehicles. The organization also produces a tri-fold pamphlet describing the trail use practices of dog teams and caution signs to alert other users to the presence of dog teams on the trail. The group continues to advocate for mushers on trail access issues both reactively and proactively.Several years ago federal policy was also addressed by mushers and mushing groups concerned with the USDA canine tethering requirements. The group Mush with P.R.I.D.E. provides a link to the USDA rule and a statement about the practice of tethering on their website. The common theme among these three examples is the importance of individuals and groups to coordinate their efforts to get involved in the political process and see their efforts through to the end. It is common for people to say they do not have the knowledge, time, or desire to act on the important issues we face, but our failure as mushers to get involved, even at the most basic levels, will adversely affect our sport. So regardless of your opinion on the presidential race and whether the winner will impact our sport, one thing that can be agreed upon is that politics play a role in our everyday lives. It cannot be argued that the officials we elect and the votes they cast do not impact our sport at the local and state level. It is up to us as individuals within a larger mushing community to make informed decisions and to be active participants in the democratic process. Involvement in the process is essential to the well-being and growth of our sport and is the responsibility of all mushers. Sara Vanderwood is a second generation musher who resides in Oxford, Maine and works for the Maine State Senate. She also serves as the US Regional Director to IFSS and as President of Mushing USA. She is intimately involved with politics in Maine and has testified before the Maine Legislature on numerous occasions on behalf of sled dog owners.

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