Insight occasionally appears under blue desert skies. On a clear, warm day in 2010, I found myself in Grand Junction, Colorado, playing hooky on a mountain bike on the BLM’s Lunch Loops trail with my friends Clark Anderson, Chris Hermann and Peter Hart.
The three of us shared common interests in conservation. Clark was a colleague of mine at the Sonoran Institute, while Chris, the president of the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, was a land conservation expert with Trout Unlimited. Peter, meanwhile, was a long-time conservation advocate and attorney with Wilderness Workshop.
We also shared a love for mountain biking desert trails, which was why we were on Lunch Loops in the first place. But as Clark and I struggled to keep pace with two stronger riders, I was dismayed to hear these two natural allies not enjoying the outing, but arguing.
Peter’s group, Wilderness Workshop, had launched a campaign to designate a new wilderness area in western Colorado. Called the Hidden Gems, the proposal had driven a wedge between mountain bikers and wilderness supporters — who, as evidenced by the enthusiasm for the ride that had brought us together — had far more in common than not.
In between the pounding blood flow in my ears, I listened as Chris told Peter that wilderness advocates, by failing to consult with mountain bikers in the development of the Hidden Gems proposal, had missed an opportunity to gain their support. Mountain bikers, he said, had no choice but to fight a bill that would close popular mountain bike trails.
Peter’s conviction was equally sincere. Mountain bike fanatics, he dryly informed Chris, were selfishly fighting the protection of public lands that faced a witch’s brew of development threats. There were plenty of other excellent trails to ride. Hidden Gems needed to be wilderness — and as such, bike-free.
And even though I was suffering to keep pace, I got it: Such polarizing disputes between natural allies underscored one of the fundamental challenges facing today’s conservation movement. If our movement is to regain momentum, I thought between lungfuls of oxygen, we need to move beyond differences that in the big picture are trivial and focus instead on the common challenges that loom large.
At this point I’d been running the Sonoran Institute for almost 20 years. I’d watched with growing dismay as the conservation movement stalled. Advocacy for our public lands and waters had reached an impasse at the federal level and in most states. Efforts to address the existential threat of global warming were mired in climate denialism and defense of the economic status quo. Year after year Congress was cutting the funds required to manage and conserve our public lands. Designations of new wilderness areas, national parks and wildlife refuges had ground to a virtual halt in Congress. Influential leaders of one political party were calling on Congress to turn over large swaths of valuable public lands, including Grand Canyon National Park, to the states — or, worse yet, to sell them to private bidders. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which had authorized federal funds since 1965 to protect our natural and cultural heritage, was headed for sunset in 2015.
In the face of such truly fundamental threats, my mountain biking friends were divided over where and how people who share a passion for our wild places can enjoy them.
I’ve come to accept there’s a reason that 65 — senior citizen territory — is the average age of members of the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy and the National Parks Conservation Association — the country’s largest and most influential conservation organizations. It’s because they’re not keeping up with the times. Such organizations as often as not look back at 50-year-old conservation victories as causes for celebration, when what we need is to look forward with an eye on the next round of innovations. And to look forward, we need as many allies as we can attract, engaging tomorrow’s stewards while respecting our conservation elders. What we need is a coalition based on common interests, even when it includes human-powered outdoor recreation such as climbing, mountain biking and packrafting that can at times be at odds with traditional conservationists.
To be relevant to younger generations, I thought as I peddled, we need to work where they hang out: on foot, on wheels, with ropes, in kayaks, on skis. These are the natural constituents of our wild places: the fun hogs, misfits and adrenaline junkies whose path to conservation led them through years in the outdoors. John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Bob Marshall, David Brower, Yvon Chouinard: They were outdoor enthusiasts first, conservation leaders later in life. The defense of our wild places by adventurers follows a time-honored tradition.
Since that ride four years ago I’ve left the Sonoran Institute to focus on what I consider the future of conservation. To regain forward momentum, conservation groups must adapt to the current world. If we are to be successful at preserving our wild places, we must:
• Connect more authentically with our members and supporters, rather than just ask for donations.
• Reconnect with our roots by taking inspiration from wild places, whatever the vehicle for that inspiration.
• Embrace and make room for young people – people dedicated to new priorities and approaches, such as local food sustainability, pathways and public transit, the quality of urban environments and environmental justice.
• Embrace new constituents, such as African Americans, Hispanics and recent immigrants.
• And, in particular, recruit new leaders who may choose to enjoy wild places on a rope, mountain bike, a pair of skis or in a packraft. As evidenced by Yvon’s evolution from dirtbag to environmentalist, there’s certainly precedent for the adventurers of today becoming the fiercest defenders of wild places tomorrow.
To get closer to wild places, I live in Jackson Hole. Jackson is not only the birthing ground of some of the world’s great conservation innovations — Yellowstone National Park (the world’s first); Grand Teton National Park, pioneered through the private philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller; and the Wilderness Act of 1964, largely drafted at the Murie Ranch on the Snake River. It is also a world-class center for adventure, loved for more than 100 years by fun hogs of all persuasions. I love it for both reasons: the ones that inspired the Wilderness Act, and the ones that continue to inspire the ski bums, mountain rats and biking freaks of today.
I’m certainly not alone in this vision of big tent conservation. The International Mountain Bicycling Association and its local chapters are now working collaboratively with wilderness advocates to develop and support proposals to protect wildlands — proposals that combine wilderness with other conservation designations that permit mountain biking. We see the fruits of this collaboration in places that have been protected by precisely such conservation — places like the Boulder White Clouds near Sun Valley, Idaho; Hermosa Creek near Durango, Colorado; and Browns Canyon near Salida, Colorado.
Mountain bikers are hardly the only ones who get it. Led by visionaries such as Doug Walker, chairman of the Wilderness Society governing board and vice president of the American Alpine Club, the Wilderness Society has updated its priorities to support not only wilderness designations, but also “alternative” or “companion” designations to protect wild areas.
Jackson Hole is home to adventurers who share the same vision. Led by Christian Beckwith, a self-professed climbing bum who edited the American Alpine Journal and founded Alpinist Magazine, a diverse local coalition of adventure athletes, business leaders, foodies, sustainability pioneers and conservationists has gathered around the launch of Shift. Innovative and committed to the passions of the next generation, Shift focuses on local people who care about their communities—people who work toward healthy food, clean energy, and the preservation of the trails, waters, crags and wild places where they seek solace. I support their effort because we share the same values: a future of conservation that is built upon a positive, hopeful, inspired future, one in which sustainable communities and wild nature co-exist.
You, too, can help shift the future of conservation. All you need to do is embrace innovation and appeal to multiple generations who share your values and conservation can regain momentum in the policy realm. The innovations we pioneer locally and the lessons we learn from these efforts provide the most important sources of inspiration for leaders from communities around North America.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you do it. Just focus on what you love and do what you can to protect and restore it for the next generation. You’ll be stepping into a legacy of fun hogs from around North America who have already traveled this path. The next time you’re out skiing or paddling or climbing or biking, think of what your heroes have done to protect this wild place, and what you can do to step into their legacy.