By Jennifer Lamb, NOLS Public Policy Director
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 2001, Vol. 17, No. 1
I attended my first instructor briefing at the Rocky Mountain Branch last week - part of my training as NOLS' new Public Policy Director. I sat at the table with branch folks and veteran instructors, ten days into my new job, learning about all the things that go into making a NOLS climbing camp happen. My world of details seemed pretty small in comparison. For the benefit of the new person, we went around the table and introduced ourselves. When I gave a brief explanation of my position at NOLS, I sensed a hint of confusion.
This has happened to me before. There's something I call "the policy disconnect." People who aren't immersed in policy tend to glaze over when you talk about what you do. And why wouldn't they? It's a gray world full of talk and paper and process and legislative review. Time takes on a new dimension as issues and initiatives never really seem to end. What could that world possibly have to do with leading students into the backcountry and teaching them to be stewards of the wilderness?
But there is a strong connection between public lands policy and our wilderness stewards. In the briefing room, I felt my excitement build as I listened to the instructors talk about what books they would bring on the course and what classes they would teach to their hungry students. Here's where NOLS' policy efforts and NOLS' operations and students come together. Here's where policy is about more than writing testimony and comments on the latest public lands legislative initiative. It's about giving students the tools they need to be informed, to reach their own conclusions and to take action.
On a NOLS backpacking course in the Absarokas, instructors led students into pristine backcountry outside the Wilderness boundary to teach a class about a local public lands policy issue. The group camped at the center of an area proposed for oil exploration. They discussed the proposal, studied the ecosystem around them, evaluated the issue from all sides, and individually wrote letters to the Forest Supervisor offering their opinion on the proposal. By giving our students the tools to understand and influence public land management decisions, NOLS gives them the power to be stewards of their public lands.
Some people might say that unless you spend a lot of time on Capitol Hill, policy work can be a lonely existence. Not so when that work has much more to do with helping to teach thousands of future wilderness stewards how to put policy into practice.