IF YOU set your sights on finding the best places in America to celebrate National Hunting and Fishing Day, this unique area of northern Wisconsin would be among the top choices.

That was on my mind last Saturday walking across a Pennsylvania pheasant field with son Brian as we snuck in a hunting trip on a visit to see family and especially grandchildren.

Sharing a passion for the great outdoors is something that bonds friends and families for a lifetime, giving them a natural and very easy excuse to get together often.

On the last Saturday in September since 1972, Americans have celebrated with pride the fact that hunters and anglers were the earliest and most vocal supporters of conservation and science-based wildlife management.

It was hunters and anglers who established a conservation ethic for the entire nation to follow, calling for the first laws restricting the commercial slaughter of fish and wildlife.

Led by fellow sportsman President Theodore Roosevelt, they argued for sustainable use of fish and game, created hunting and fishing licenses, and lobbied Congress for taxes on sporting equipment to provide funds for conservation.

Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties are uniquely qualified to be on the “best of the best” list for places that exemplify the great things that can happen when conservation is the priority.

Fishing, hunting and other outdoor recreation is a big deal here, where we enjoy millions of acres of public forests and one of the highest concentrations of inland lakes found anywhere in the world.

These counties are the gateway to the 1.5 million-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, the 226,000-acre Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, the 42,000-acre Vilas County Forest and the 82,000-acre Oneida County Forest.

Besides that, we have tens of thousands of acres of industrial forestland enrolled in the Managed Forest program, aggressively managed for timber and wildlife habitat — and open to hunters.

Some of the finest hunting for deer, bear, ruffed grouse, waterfowl and American woodcock can be found right here. Some of the state’s best fishing lakes, especially for muskie, walleye and smallmouth bass, are found here.

If it is wildlife watching and photography you seek, this area has more nesting bald eagles, ospreys and common loons than any other area of Wisconsin.

This also is the land of gray wolves, fishers, pine martens, bobcats and abundant numbers of furbearing animals including beaver and American river otter.

Hunters and anglers have done great things. No other group of Americans has spent more time and money to create law, raise awareness, protect habitat and nurture species that were adversely impacted by rapid development or unregulated harvest.

As it turns out, it takes people with passion for harvest and fair chase to pledge their time and money for the cause of conservation.

Anti-hunting groups bash hunters, but they spend zero to help the wildlife they think they are protecting.

You may have noticed that in last week’s Outdoor section, we ran a two-page spread to promote National Hunting and Fishing Day — the largest such spread among weekly newspapers anywhere.

The wide range of business owners who helped us deliver the message was quite impressive and we thank them. You should too. They support our favorite sports.

So if anyone wonders from time e why this newspaper places such a strong emphasis on outdoor sports, especially hunting and fishing, the answers are right here.

These sports are an integral part of our heritage, the fabric that bonds family and friends together for a lifetime of outdoor adventure.

One of this country’s great foundations is its roots and ties to the outdoor world, including the pioneers who first hunted, trapped and fished for survival in a wild land. It is that heritage our country celebrated last Saturday.

The other element of these sports that can’t be downplayed or denied is their economic impact, supporting more than 45,000 jobs and generating some $52 million annually in state sales tax and income tax revenues. These sports are a critical component of the all-important tourism industry here.

In fact, through license fees and excise taxes on equipment, the nation’s 47 million hunters and anglers age 16 and older generate about $100,000 every 30 minutes to be spent on fish, wildlife and habitat projects.

It should be noted that game fish and game animals aren’t the only species helped when money is spent to improve habitat. Countless species of nongame and even endangered wildlife get a boost as well.

For most of us, these sports are our connection to the land and waters. They are recreational passions that have been carefully and thoughtfully passed from generation to generation.

No other sports are more deeply rooted in the history of America than hunting and fishing. And that’s something worth celebrating.

The timing was perfect. Last Saturday was the second weekend of the grouse and deer archery seasons, and the third for the bear season.It was one of the best times of the year to fish.

We often refer to this three-county area as God’s Country, and so it is in the minds of hunters and anglers who live to play in the great outdoors here.