The future of conservation depends on these young activists’ message.
The future of conservation depends on these young activists’ message. (Photo: David Swift)

These 20-Somethings Are Out to Save Conservation’s Soul

How a group of young activists changed the conversation at a public-lands conference—and where the outdoor industry goes from here

The future of conservation depends on these young activists’ message.

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Last October, Terry Tempest Williams was the biggest draw to Jackson Hole’s SHIFT festival—a conference aimed at fighting the public-lands transfer movement. (The name stands for Shaping How We Invest for Tomorrow.) The author was reading from The Hour of Land, her celebration of the national park system. In the Grand Teton National Park gateway community where Williams is a part-time resident, she easily filled the 500-seat auditorium at the posh Center for the Arts. An hour into her program, however, the celebrated author and wilderness advocate handed over her lectern to a handful of twenty-somethings who admitted that the public-lands battle actually wasn’t their thing.

From Janet Valenzuela, 24, a Latina Forest Service field ranger from Los Angeles: “We have a lot of lead poisoning in my community. Everyone knows someone who has died from cancer. The outdoors is still toxic to a lot of us. My community can’t even begin to think about public lands and access until we think about how to clean up the mess that has been created through conquest.”

From Josh Tuck, 26, a black Park Service volunteer coordinator from Atlanta: “When you look at a lot of people who have lost their land, been removed from their land, didn’t ask to come to this land, you get into a really different conversation about how we connect to the land.”

(David Swift)

Williams is an old-school, hardcore wilderness warrior—a disciple and friend of Ed Abbey, Doug Peacock, and the rest of the Monkey Wrench Gang. She had met the young speakers only three days earlier and was so impressed that she rewrote her own event to showcase their stories. It was an important acknowledgement that their perspectives belonged right alongside the traditional mores of conservation.

For many in the outdoorsy, affluent, and decidedly white audience, it was the first time they’d ever considered the idea that someone could have a complicated or even culturally negative experience outdoors. But it’s about time those messages stopped surprising the environmentally minded. The future of conservation depends on it.

The idea for SHIFT started when former Alpinist editor Christian Beckwith realized that partisan bickering among the outdoor community threatened to divide conservationists and recreationists just when they most needed to unite. In his hometown of Jackson Hole, disputes raged over mountain bikes in wilderness, paddling in national parks, and the protection of wolves and grizzlies. At the same time, public lands face unprecedented threats, like climate change and political efforts to erase their protections. “You have natural allies like hunters and IMBA working for similar objectives, but they aren’t talking to each other,” Beckwith says.

To jump-start the coalition-building, Beckwith founded the three-day SHIFT festival in 2014 with the goal of bringing together all the outdoor-centric communities to share strategies for protecting these wild places. Last year, 1,500 people attended, from National Park Service staff to representatives from the Sierra Club and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Past speakers have included Yvon Chouinard and the governors of Wyoming and Colorado.

(David Swift)

Yet it quickly became obvious that SHIFT’s coalition wasn’t representative enough. For the first two years, the conferences attracted few young people, urbanites, and people of color. “Most conversations about conservation exclude about 40 percent of America,” says Beckwith. “We aren’t going to be strong enough to solve these problems if it’s just us old white people.”

To make itself more culturally relevant, SHIFT organizers needed new torchbearers. So they launched the Emerging Leaders program in 2016 to recruit young activists with all types of experiences and interests. The inaugural cohort of 35 leaders range in age from 19 to 31, work in many different fields, and span the country. The group includes Ciarra Greene, a Nez Perce tribe member from Oregon who has worked with the EPA and the Department of Energy, and Sawyer Connelly, a white Vermonter who is the campus outreach coordinator for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers in Montana. “Activism and workshops are second nature to a lot of us,” says Madeleine Carey, a member of the 2016 class and a WildEarth Guardians Greater Gila Guardian in New Mexico. “We aren’t new to working big issues. I didn’t wake up last November 9 and think, ‘The world is fucked.’ I’m used to that.”

The group started with a simple goal: to share their stories. Stories like that of Leandra Taylor, an African American who grew up in a military family in Colorado Springs and who now works with Americorps in New Mexico. Only there did she start recreating outdoors. “My parents didn’t go camping, because it was too much like military training,” Taylor says.

For many in the outdoorsy, affluent, and decidedly white audience, it was the first time they’d ever considered the idea that someone could have a complicated or even negative experience outdoors.

Michael Davis, who grew up in Maryland with a white mother and black father, studied business and economics in college, then got a job day trading at an investment firm in Philadelphia. He started rock climbing in the city, but soon “had a quarter-life crisis, staring out my office window all day,” he says. Davis quit and moved to Seattle to become a leader in the YMCA Boys Outdoor Leadership Development School. “I’ve slowly become comfortable telling my story. Having to tell and retell it helps you be OK with it and firmly believe it,” he says.

Those stories stuck with Terry Tempest Williams, who had only reluctantly agreed to meet the Emerging Leaders group at their orientation session three days earlier. She said she’d stop by for an hour, but ended up staying almost the whole night, then kept coming back, only going home to sleep. “I was completely undone by them,” she says. “I didn’t leave for a week.”

Williams had initially been skeptical of SHIFT. She thought it was simply a Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce marketing scheme to fill hotel beds in the off-season (which it was, in part). She also disapproved of the trend of outdoor recreationists forcing their way deeper and deeper into wilderness on bikes and packrafts, eroding, as she saw it, the traditional values of wilderness conservation. Williams is exactly the sort of person SHIFT aims to persuade. And, with help from the class of young leaders, it succeeded.

“I grew up a single-issue environmentalist,” Williams says. “Listening to Janet’s story about how her community first needs to be able to breathe is humbling. I am coming to grips with my own white privilege. It’s about supporting a future of conservation that transcends politics and honors humanity as well as wildness. That’s a more expansive vision for me.”

(David Swift)

For the next two days after Williams’ talk, SHIFT participants stopped the Emerging Leaders in the halls, asking them about their lives and their opinions, then listening—actually listening—to the answers. There were conversations about social justice, the technicalities of the Antiquities Act, and dismantling cowboy iconography in the service of better wildlife management, sometimes late at night, shouted over music in bars. “Having people ask me for my opinion and really wanting to know—as a black, millennial female, that was very powerful for me,” says Leandra Taylor, who sat on the so-called millennial panel.

“I don’t know how many conferences I’ve been to where everyone looks like me,” says Bob Ratcliffe, Conservation and Outdoor Recreation Programs chief for the Park Service. “The emerging leaders changed the dynamic and discussion more than any conference I have been to. We need it.”

“Bob Marshall and Harvey Broome were once emerging young leaders too,” he continues. “They got together, did some networking, and eventually created the Wilderness Act.”

Three months later, seven of the Emerging Leaders reunited at the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, Utah. The group, which included Michael Davis and Leandra Taylor, was slated to speak on a panel about diversity in the outdoors, and each was eager to continue the productive discussions they’d had at SHIFT. Several steps into the crowded trade show, however, Taylor fought the urge to turn around and leave.

“I felt completely out of place,” she says. Apart from the friends walking beside her, everyone was white, and Taylor, who is six feet tall and looks even taller with her hair gathered atop her head, was attracting stares. “I felt like I was being swallowed up,” she says. “I was the token African American woman.”

Taylor was surprised by the difference between what the outdoor industry says it wants to become and what it still looks like. “It was jarring to hear the word ‘diversity’ so often in a place that almost completely lacked it,” she says. When she asked why there was no diversity on a panel for women leaders in the outdoor industry, Taylor was told that the “diversity panel” was tomorrow.

(David Swift)

In late October, SHIFT will convene its second Emerging Leaders cohort four days before the main conference. The new group of 35 has this time been selected by 2016’s inaugural class, and includes more representatives from a group Beckwith felt was underrepresented last year: hunters and anglers. It’s a group still dominated by white men, but one that brings in different socioeconomic perspectives and a greater number of rural perspectives than the group had before. “Sportsmen were the original conservationists and, particularly in the rural areas that are the battlegrounds for the public lands fight, are critical constituents for conservation,” he says. “If we get all of these dynamic people into the same room and have them share their stories and viewpoints, there will be progress.”

There’s plenty of work to do. “Cultural relevancy isn’t a marketing strategy,” Taylor says. “You can’t just create outreach materials with bullet points. You have to actually meet the people you want to reach, to identify what makes them different, and respond to that.”

Lead Photo: David Swift

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