So how did the NRA Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC) program start in Alaska, the 49th and most northern and remote state in the United States of America?
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has long been an advocate for hunting and conservation. For the NRA, ensuring the next generation of hunters possess the knowledge and skills required to be competent and ethical hunters has always been a part of the organization's mission. That’s why the NRA took pride in developing the first national hunter education curriculum back in 1952. The NRA didn’t stop there. In 1985, the NRA launched a program called the North American Hunter Education Championship, now known as the NRA Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC). Designed for youth ages 18 years and younger (or 19 and enrolled in high school for part of the event year), who have completed a hunter safety education course at the state level, the program was designed to advance hunting skills such as orienteering, wildlife identification, and rifle, shotgun and archery marksmanship with participating youth—beyond what is typically taught in basic hunter safety—via friendly competition held at local ranges (and facilities) across the country.
In Fairbanks, Alaska, in early 2000, a newly built Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Hunter Education Indoor Shooting Range (HEDR) first opened to the public. Money from the Pittman-Robertson Act - an excise tax on guns, ammunition, and archery equipment - and from the Alaska Fish and Game Fund, including Alaska hunting license sales, helped fund the design and construction of the range. John Wyman, who worked for ADF&G at the time, and who also was a Hunter Education Instructor and a NRA Firearms Instructor (and later Training Counselor), was tasked with getting the new range facility operational for public and departmental use.
During the early years of range operations, Wyman was busy working with avid users and supporters of the facility to establish range-related programs and events and also to start a nonprofit support organization specifically for the range. From those efforts, the Alaska Interior Marksmanship Committee (AIM-COMM), a nonprofit partner organization to the range, was founded and officially encorporated in 2003. Dave Smith, a distinguished competitive pistol shooter and instrumental volunteer, served as the first President of AIM-COMM. Joe Nava, a long-time NRA Training Counselor, past hunting guide and also former ADF&G biologist, who also happened to be a former NRA Board member, served as the first Vice-President of AIM-COMM and continued in that role when retired Alaska state forester Paul Maki succeeded Smith as President of the organization. Retired Alaska Wildlife Trooper Jim Low and dedicated volunteer Hunter Education Instructor Steve Adams served as Hunter Education Division representatives with AIM-COMM at the time.
Well, what about YHEC?
While researching possible range-related programs and events to bring to the community, Wyman discovered the NRA's Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC) program and thought it would be ideal to pursue. ADF&G at the time was not willing to take on running a new program in Alaska like YHEC but supported the concept. Wyman pitched the idea of having YHEC become an AIM-COMM sponsored event, with ADF&G HEDR support, by developing and hosting an annual Alaska NRA YHEC State Championship. The AIM-COMM Board of Directors were all receptive to the idea. Wyman worked with the NRA, Hunter Services, staffed by Bob Davis, Monte Embrey and Jan Taylor at the time, in June 2004, to get the ball rolling and to get a starter packet, rules book, and additional information about the NRA YHEC program. On July 11, 2004, Wyman called together the first Alaska YHEC meeting and pledged support for getting the program going. Joe Nava was appointed as the first-ever Alaska YHEC State Championship Director and Wyman passed the chair to Nava to carry on with the meeting and committee members began work on planning for the first Alaska NRA YHEC State Championship which was held the first weekend in June, the following year, in 2005. The classrooms at the ADF&G HEDR served as the gathering space for the opening and closing ceremonies and for the Hunter Responsibility Exam event while the facility's Electronic Range room served as the site for the Wildlife ID event. A "YHEC" BBQ was held on the grounds of the facility prior to the awards and closing ceremony. Nava continued to serve as volunteer director of the program for the first nine annual Alaska YHEC state championships.
The first Alaska YHEC event had 27 youth competitors (19 Juniors ages 14 and younger and eight seniors ages 15-19). Five teams (each with five youth competitors and one adult coach) were formed, with one of the teams being a Senior team while all the rest were Junior teams. Competitor slot number 1 was reserved in memorium for Saul Stutz, a bright young man 13 years of age who was excited to participate in YHEC but who tragically died just days prior, after being struck while riding his bicycle, by a vehicle driven by a drunk driver.
The first Alaska YHEC teams and coaches:
- Four Boys and a Girl, Coach Stephani Hillen (Junior Team)
- Delta Deadeyes, Coach Mike Bender (Junior Team)
- Team Nukalpiaq, Coach Roy Roehl (Junior Team)
- Team Tanana Valley Youth Shooters, Coach Bud Burris (Junior Team)
- Team Jager, Coach Pam Roehl (Senior Team)
The event coordinators for the first Alaska YHEC state championship in 2005 were:
Hunter Responsibility Events:
- Hunter Responsibility Exam – Steve Adams
- Hunter Safety Trail - Steve Lanford
- Orienteering – Clay Cranor
- Wildlife Identification – Jim Low
- Archery – Del DeMeritt
- Muzzleloader – Jim Kruse with Curtis Stables
- Rifle – John Krieg with Victor Barranco
- Shotgun – Larry Hannesson with Rohn Abbott
Dozens of AIM-COMM volunteers (not all listed here) helped get the program up and running. Steve Adams served as the Assistant Director. Karen Lidster was instrumental as fundraising director for the start of the program in Alaska and also helped with food for the event. Deb Hoglan volunteered as treasurer and helping with awards. John Turner helped with gathering and compiling score cards and also with awards. Darla Redger and Patty Davis helped as food coordinators for the event. Kemberly Adler helped with promotion and program support. Bob Hunter with ADF&G helped with equipment and events. Larry Poland helped with Muzzleloading. Bryce Burns, who worked as a range technician at the ADF&G HEDR at the time, helped with the event. John Wyman handled registration, website and promotion, scores and results, and with facilities. Many additional volunteers helped to organize and conduct each of the eight challenge events.
Numerous sponsors and other organizations, besides AIM-COMM and ADF&G, helped start the Alaska YHEC including:
- Alaska Tent & Tarp
- Alaska Volunteer Hunter Education Instructor’s Association
- Conoco Phillips
- Golden North Archery
- Fairbanks Optimists Club
- Fairbanks Trap Club
- Fairbanks Youth Sports
- Fraternal Order of the Alaska State Troopers
- Frontier Outfitters
- Midnight Sun Muzzleloaders
- Riverboat Discovery
- Seekins Ford
- Utility Services of Alaska
Joe Nava stepped down as AIM-COMM's Alaska YHEC director after the 2013 Alaska NRA YHEC State Championship and Cassie Pinkel, who had volunteered as the program’s awards coordinator for some of the previous years, was confirmed by AIM-COMM as the new director for the 2014 Alaska NRA YHEC State Championship. Pinkel, a former UAF Rifle Team member, and her family, had experience with YHEC from another state and brought a lot of enthusiasm and energy to the Alaska YHEC program. Pinkel served as AIM-COMM's YHEC director through the 15th annual Alaska NRA YHEC State Championship in 2019.
2020 interrupted Alaska's YHEC run. The 2020 Alaska YHEC was canceled during heightened COVID precautionary and social-distancing times. In 2021, avid and successful hunter, and former youth sports coach, Bobby Pace stepped up with a one-year committment to bring the Alaska NRA YHEC State Championship back and Grace Nelson, also a former UAF Rifle Team member, helped as an assistant. For 2022, AIM-COMM confirmed Nelson as director for AIM-COMM's YHEC program and the 2022 Alaska NRA Youth Hunter Education Challenge State Championship. ADF&G and the ADF&G Hunter Education Indoor Shooting Range continues to support the YHEC program in Alaska as do many volunteers, parents, coaches, sponsors, and businesses. YHEC means a lot to the youth participants and their family members. AIM-COMM wouldn't be able to conduct YHEC without the support from the community and wishes to thank all of the participants and supporters.