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The Leader

Alumni Working for Wilderness
The NOLS grads featured in this issue’s series are all working on behalf of the environment. From saving a river in the middle of New York City, to preserving the community of a small mountain town in Colorado, these grads have brought their leadership skills and wilderness ethics out of the NOLS classroom and into their everyday lives.

By Kerry Brophy
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2003, Vol. 18, No. 2

Alex Matthiessen
Hudson Riverkeeper and Riverkeeper Executive Director



NOLS grad Alex Matthiessen’s job title isn’t one you come across everyday — he’s a riverkeeper, a steward of New York’s Hudson River. As the Hudson Riverkeeper and the Executive Director of the Riverkeeper Organization, Alex works to safeguard the river, its tributaries and the entire watershed of New York City. It’s a big task but one Matthiessen is well qualified for. Alex joined Riverkeeper from the U.S. Department of the Interior, where he developed the Green Energy Parks Initiative, a joint program between the National Parks Service and the Department of Energy that promotes clean and sustainable energy use in the national parks system. For his leadership on this project, Alex received a Presidential Award from the White House.

Matthiessen, who inherited his love for wild places from his father, author Peter Matthiessen, has achieved much in his long career working for the environment. But in 1984 he was just a 20-year-old kid on a Wind River Wilderness course with NOLS. In the Winds he remembers discovering the notion that if you’re going to enjoy a wild place, you should leave it as you found it. “NOLS instilled in me a deep appreciation and commitment to preserving wilderness in particular and the environment in general,” he says. “When I’m in the mountains I feel a certain centeredness and freedom that I don’t find in the everyday world.”

Today Alex calls himself an urban environmentalist, protecting a river that’s as far from the mountains as it is from most people’s idea of wilderness. Riverkeeper Organization focuses on the Hudson River and its tributaries, but Matthiessen asserts that the health of the river is really indicative of the entire city’s health. “When you’re working in an urban setting,” he says, “you’re working on places where people live and where air and water is being contaminated on a routine basis.”

As Matthiessen works to transform what was once considered an open sewer into a healthy waterway, he draws on some basic skills he learned at NOLS. “Part of learning survival skills,” he says, “is learning team building skills. I think it’s those same skills that are needed if you live in a community that’s being threatened.”
Alex and his volunteers and fellow advocates have rolled up their sleeves and seen enormous success pulling the community together to improve the health of the city’s waterways. Riverkeeper has investigated and brought to justice more than 300 environmental lawbreakers and today the Hudson is the only large river in the North Atlantic that retains strong spawning stocks of its historical migratory species. And while Alex doesn’t get to the mountains as much as he’d like to, he has found, in the middle of New York City, a river worth keeping.

For further information, visit

Terri Watson
Executive Director, LightHawk



From high up in the air, soaring over the peaks of Wyoming’s Wind River Range, most things look a lot smaller — herds of antelope spread out like a golden carpet, mult-pitch climbs are deceiving boulder problems, and high mountain lakes look like small specks of blue in a granite sea. One thing that doesn’t look smaller from the sky is the reality of human impacts on the land. Pilot Terri Watson, a former NOLS instructor, is very familiar with how a person’s perspective on environmental issues changes from the cockpit of a small plane.

“As soon as you start flying you see things,” she says. “Some people fly to get places. I fly to see things.”

Watson is executive director of LightHawk, a nonprofit environmental aviation organization that flies critical decision makers and shapers — everyone from reporters, scientists, and members of Congress to local villagers and land developers — over sensitive land-use areas in North and Central America. From the air, LightHawk’s team of over 100 volunteer pilots are able to show, in a way no other medium can, the interconnectedness of our natural environment.

Terri remembers taking a rancher, a developer and a “rabid environmentalist” up in the same plane a few years back. She flew the crew over an area that had been developed by coalbed methane, an area that was undergoing development by coalbed methane and one that hadn’t yet been developed. “They all saw the same thing,” she remembers. “They all gave a bit.”

Watson, a former Army pilot, has flown helicopters, Black Hawks and other planes all over the world, everywhere from Egypt to Antarctica, where she was a heli-coordinator for the National Science Foundation. Flying over places where she’s hiked with NOLS, however, remains meaningful. “When I hike I develop an intense sense of a place,” she says. “I think you develop your love with a place by spending time with it. But I think you gain a broader sense of how it fits into the big picture when you’re in the air.”

For NOLS students, Terri says, the Winds are a vast, rugged wilderness where you can hike for weeks without seeing other humans. These mountains feel remote, unspoiled, boundless in every direction. But from a plane, says Watson, everything’s different. You can see what lies beyond the mountain boarders and how little wilderness remains intact.

“You’ll always remember the peak you climbed,” she says. “Likewise, you’ll also always remember the flight you took. It leaves an impression.”

For further information, visit

Louisa Willcox
Wild Bears Project Director, Natural Resources Defense Council



Since climbing Wyoming’s Grand Teton at age 15, Louisa Willcox has been a self-proclaimed “wilderness wanderer.” She began instructing for NOLS in 1975 and continued leading students into the wilderness for the next decade. Today, Louisa still considers herself a “wilderness wanderer” but she’s known around the West as more of a wilderness advocate, fighting to protect the region’s last remaining wild places.

Willcox’s environmental career got underway while she was working for NOLS in the 1970s. Wyoming, she remembers, was then a hotbed for environmental debates. When she stopped to listen to the issues, she remembers hearing something very familiar. “When they were talking about threatened places,” Louisa says, “I thought, ‘I’ve been there!’” The West’s mountains, streams and valleys were her classroom, she could walk through many of these places with her eyes closed, and she wasn’t about to stand aside. “Having been on NOLS courses and knowing there’s a debate I found myself thinking, ‘I know these places and I can speak to their value.’”

Eventually, Louisa moved on from NOLS and received a degree in forestry from Yale University. After two years teaching in Jackson Hole she became the first program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), an environmental group in Bozeman, Montana. With the GYC she “helped make ecosystem protection a household concept.”

Today Louisa’s environmental efforts are focused on what she calls “an animal that’s a barometer for the health of a place.” She’s talking about bears. “When you’re working on bears,” Louisa says, “ you’re working on wilderness. The places where bears are left are the wildest places left.” Willcox is the Wild Bears Project Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an organization that works on myriad environmental issues all over the world. Since bears only reproduce every three years on average and have a very low tolerance for human development and interference, Louisa’s work to protect bears is really about making sure we still have wild places left.

According to Willcox, NOLS students, more than anyone, have the capacity to want to protect what’s left of our wilderness areas. “The physical experience of being immersed in wild places is, perhaps, the best way to inspire people to protect them. In a world of increasing asphalt, every acre that a NOLS course ever brought me into has that much more importance to me. NOLS students who see the track of a bear understand that our role is one of stewardship and that we have to give those creatures a place to be. In granting them a place we are granting ourselves a place.”

For further information, visit

Scott Pankratz
Executive Director, Ecology Project International



After working in the wilderness classroom with NOLS students, former instructor Scott Pankratz knows how to make natural science fun. He also knows that you can’t care enough to protect a place unless you’ve been there, on the ground, living and experiencing it with your own senses. That’s why he has founded Ecology Project International (EPI), an organization that introduces students to authentic scientific study through field-based experiences with local scientists.

Scott first had the idea for EPI after working on a sea turtle project with the National University of Costa Rica. There he found a crowd of international biologists gathered around the turtles; nobody, however, was interacting with the people who actually lived in close proximity to the threatened turtles. Scott’s idea was quite different — he would take local students out with biologists to explore together the tough issues facing their backyards. Scott’s ability to lead and teach groups in remote settings, combined with a degree in environmental studies from the University of Santa Barbara, gave him a solid foundation to start EPI in 2000.

In its first year, EPI had 60 students; this year they have 600 students from all over the world, primarily from Costa Rica and the Galapagos, where most EPI projects take place. In Costa Rica, some of Scott’s students live 10 miles away from one of the most important nesting sites for sea turtles in the world. But most of them have never even seen a sea turtle or spent much time outside. In the long run, Scott believes these young people will have the biggest impact on determining the fate of the turtles.

“The idea,” says Scott, “is to include locals and make them realize that they can make a difference. It’s not just teaching them but also asking their opinion so they can go home and make better informed decisions.”

Just like on a NOLS course, Scott teaches transference, or how students can take what they’ve learned in the field back to their everyday lives. The parallels with NOLS, he says, are huge. “A lot of the core values are the same. It comes down to trying to instill in students when they’re out at a field site that we don’t want to impact the land, just like on a NOLS course.”

This year, EPI is partnering with the Charles Darwin Research Station to involve groups of high school students for the first time in Galapagos research. On two beaches, students will assist marine biologists in collecting data on one of the largest nesting colonies of endangered Green sea turtles in the Eastern Pacific. Students will conduct nightly beach patrols and they will learn, like no textbook lesson can teach them, how to talk about critical conservation issues.

Most importantly, says Scott, they will return home, oftentimes to communities where sea turtle products are everywhere, with the most important conservation tool of all — information.

For further information, visit

Ellen Stein
Executive Director, Mountain Studies Institute (MSI)



On her 1996 North Cascades Mountaineering course, Ellen Stein remembers witnessing the impact the wilderness can have on a person’s life. “I saw what a powerful experience it was for people to connect over time with the wilderness,” she says. “I saw how people make changes based on very personal experiences.”

In particular, Stein remembers a coursemate who had never even been camping before the course. “She grew up so much in that month, in seeing what she’s capable of, and in learning about the world around her. I just think that’s an indelible experience that is so powerful you can’t help but bring it back to your daily life.”

Stein knows all about translating wilderness experiences into wilderness ethics. She has dedicated much of her career to work on behalf of the natural world. Stein graduated with a master’s degree in public policy from Tufts University and went on to work primarily in small mountain towns struggling to juggle agriculture, business and conservation. A stint in the Peace Corps taught Stein that you can’t look at wilderness in isolation from the communities that surround it.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that change occurs in the individual,” she says. Today Stein has taken that philosophy to her position as executive director of the Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), a mountain research and education organization established in 2002 in Silverton, Colo. MSI’s mission is to enhance the understanding and sustainable use of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains by providing individuals with experiential learning opportunities in a unique mountain setting. The Institute is a resource for academic study, field research and stewardship projects that, ultimately, involve students and citizens in protecting their own natural resources and their own community.

“We want to be a model for revitalizing small mountain communities. We want to be a forum for an exchange of ideas. We want to present success stories of mountain communities,” Stein says.

Under Stein’s leadership, some of MSI’s most recent projects include field-based training for science teachers, a recruiting program for young people interested in working for land management agencies, and classes for the public on everything from adventure filmmaking to alpine ecology. All of MSI’s projects center around the San Juan’s jagged peaks that rise up from the town of Silverton, but all of them are also about the people who live around this mountain area.

“I’ve been at odds sometimes with folks who call themselves environmentalists,” says Stein, “because they disregard the local community that lives near the wilderness.”

The San Juans, says Stein, have left a strong impression on her and she’s excited to share that connection to the wilderness with others. “We’re surrounded by these incredible peaks, vast wilderness and thousands of acres of public lands that will serve as a living laboratory and natural classroom.”

For further information, visit


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