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Alumni Working for Wildlands
Dan Heilig
Executive Director,
Wyoming Outdoor Council

When you’re out in the woods carrying all your belongings on your back, conservation is a lesson that comes very quickly. At least that’s what Dan Heilig believes launched him into a successful career as a champion for conservation. “When you’re out there for 30 days on a NOLS course,” he says, “you learn conservation very quickly. Thirty days really adds up.”

Heilig believes NOLS prepares you for just about any expedition in life. His tenure working to protect Wyoming’s wildlands has been quite a journey. A native of New Jersey, Heilig’s first experience on a wilderness expedition led him deep into Wyoming’s Wind River mountains with NOLS in 1979. He went on to become a NOLS Instructor, working a variety of mountaineering courses and even leading the first NOLS ascent of Acongagua in South America.

But it wasn’t until attending law school at the University of Wyoming in 1987 that Heilig realized what it took to protect some of the wilderness classrooms he was teaching in. “I wasn’t an activist while at NOLS,” he says, “I was just enjoying the land. At law school I discovered what it takes to protect places. And I figured I owed something back, that I needed to make a contribution.”

Heilig’s law degree led him to the Wyoming Outdoor Council (WOC), Wyoming’s largest statewide conservation organization. For almost 13 years — seven as staff attorney and five as executive director — Heilig has helped WOC launch its successful citizen-action campaigns, public-policy initiatives and legal actions.

Along the way, says Heilig, there have been “lots of highs, and plenty of lows.” Some of the highs include victories he has helped win in the tough battle to protect Wyoming’s wildlife, wildlands and quality of life from increasing pressure from the oil and gas industry and other threats. Many of the areas Heilig has worked so hard for, in fact, are NOLS classrooms.

Heilig is also proud of the strategic relationships he has built with a wide variety of citizens in the state, who he says are uniting around common threats to their landscape. “The [oil and gas] issue is bringing us back together because it can alter the land so dramatically and quickly,” he says.

In August, Heilig will step down from his leadership position at WOC to pursue another goal in the spirit of writer Edward Abbey, who said, “It is not enough to fight for natural land and the West; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still there.” As Heilig prepares to leave for new adventures that include a return journey to South America, the state of Wyoming won’t be far from his mind. “Wyoming will always have a draw for me,” he says. “The state’s at a cross roads, but people are starting to join together. We need to decide for ourselves what our future is.”

Always on the look-out for NOLS metaphors, Heilig feels good about where he’s leaving WOC — just like the lessons of Leave No Trace, where you leave a place better than you found it. “See?” he smiles, “It all goes back to NOLS.”
And that contribution Heilig felt he owed to Wyoming’s wildlands after law school? “After 13 years,” he says, “I’m zeroing out the balance sheet.”

– Kerry Brophy

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