Chris Sawyer looked straight into the camera and said, “I’m not very articulate.”
Then he launched into an eloquent riff about how public lands had shaped his life and friendships. The Grapevine, Texas, resident landed in Jackson last week after a trip to the Wind River Range with his friend Skye Schell, the civic engagement director for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.
Schell, who has just been promoted to executive director of the Alliance, was the driving force behind the Party for Our Public Lands, an event held Sept. 6 at the Center for the Arts to advocate against transferring federal public lands to state control, a movement spreading across the West.
A shared vision
“I’m here because of him and our shared vision of these special places,” Sawyer said of Schell, “and really because you can’t monetize the experiences and relationships that you establish or renew on public lands.”
Over 360 people turned out for the ticketed speeches, and more swung by for the preparty. The Center’s pavilion and lobby brimmed before the speeches, with attendees sipping local ales and munching on Pica’s tacos while traversing booths set up by the Conservation Alliance’s partners, including Teton Science Schools, Shift and the Wyoming Wilderness Association.
Keep it Public, Wyoming hosted a postcard-writing station for attendees to pen appeals to officials, including Wyoming state Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta. The notes garnered support for the creation of a new state holiday, Public Lands Day, a rebuke to bills the state Legislature has considered that laid out plans for federal land transfers.
A recent one, Senate Joint Resolution 3, was killed in January.
“We’ve never had this problem before, of people trying to destroy what we hold dear,” Jackson resident Elliy Hammerel said.
She contributed a postcard to support a cause she believes in, she said.
Time to get involved
“We as Americans need to be at these kinds of events,” she said.
Schell said it is crucial for land users, especially those who have never been involved in advocacy, to raise their voices.
The diversity of attendees, from old-timers to seasonal workers drawn to the Tetons for adventure sports, demonstrates that the push to transfer or privatize public lands doesn’t represent the constituency, Schell said.
“Wyoming’s representatives are not representing the will of the people,” he said. “Whether you are a hunter, mountain biker or fisher in Wyoming, everyone needs public lands, but that’s not translating to laws at the state level.”
Following a slow trickle into the theater, Schell introduced the keynote speakers, a powerhouse family in the mountaineering community: Conrad Anker, a renowned mountaineer and head of The North Face’s athlete team; his wife, Jenni Lowe-Anker, a climber and artist; and her son Max Lowe, a filmmaker and photographer who has worked with National Geographic.
They presented as a family, all three onstage at once. They shared stories of childhoods spent in wild places and how the loss of that land brought their family together.
Anker grew up near Yosemite National Park, becoming a climber as a youngster.
His wife was raised in a ranching family in rural Montana. She got into climbing after meeting her first husband, Alex Lowe, Anker’s longtime climbing partner. Lowe was killed in an avalanche on Shishapangma, a 26,289-foot Himalayan peak, in 1999.
Lowe-Anker married Anker two years after his death.
Anker and Lowe-Anker’s slideshows, filled with grainy photos of Alex Lowe, culminated with his death. Their story spoke of inevitable loss, of finding strength in newfound love and of raising three sons dedicated to living life on public lands.
A tie that bonds
Max Lowe recounted an upbringing filled with snowy trips, meeting a mother moose in the brush of the Tetons and climbing the Grand Teton at 10 years old.
Shortly after that climb Alex Lowe left on the trip that ultimately took his life.
But his son insisted that his death, like all loss, brought about things both difficult and wonderful, like the photo he showed that elicited the most emotional reaction from the crowd: Alex Lowe’s three sons piled on top of Anker, the man now dedicated to taking care of them, at the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, doing what has bonded them from the beginning: enjoying wild spaces.