2004 was a year of significant change for those
of us at NOLS who work to maintain our access to
the spectacular public lands we call our classrooms.
In the same year that brought us the 40th anniversary
of the Wilderness Act, the legislation responsible
for protecting so many of the places in which we
live, learn and teach, many of our unprotected wild
classrooms were subject to significant new threats
from development. While we celebrated permanent protection
of some areas, we simultaneously increased our focus
on being strong advocates for public land targeted
for resource extraction.
In the past, NOLS weighed in on proposed development
projects that we believed had the potential to affect
the land on which we teach. But for the first time
in the school’s history, three critical operating
areas in the Rocky Mountain region turned up directly
in the center of oil and gas leasing developments
within a single year.
More than half of the acreage in the region is federal
land. Based in a rural Wyoming town, we hear first-hand
the breadth of opinions residents hold regarding
how this public land should be managed. We know the
important contribution the minerals industry makes
to our state. There is no denying it. And no need
to. There is a need, however, for the rural west
to understand and support the equally important contribution
that the recreation industry–which includes
wilderness education–makes to local and state
economies. This contribution is even more important
considering its long-term nature, especially compared
to resource extraction and the painful cycle of boom
and bust that has long defined Wyoming’s economy.
NOLS’ voice in the public lands management
debate, as a credible, conservation-minded, educational
institution is an important one. We learned this
year, however, that, in a rural Western state, our
voice as a non-profit, commercially-perm-itted business
is equally important. We are a business with a 40-year
history that relies on healthy, natural landscapes
to maintain high-quality programs. This latter voice
resonates with many in the West, particularly those
whose livelihoods also depend on wild places and
healthy public lands.
But the “business voices” for wild lands
in western states such as Wyoming, like the wild
lands themselves, are scattered far and wide. Compared
to the relatively clearly defined minerals industry,
for example, the recreation industry has not been
well organized, with associations that produce reports
on its facts, figures and financial contributions
on a state-by-state level. While we can (and do)
collect data about the number of tourists and sales
of fishing rods and backpacks, it is difficult to
define with certainty the total contribution that
recreation makes to a state’s bottom line after
all the gas is purchased and the last recreation-related
meal is eaten.
As a well-established entity with strong values
and a solid track record, NOLS is in a good position
to help strengthen the effort to protect wild places
by bringing new voices to the forefront. Land managers
and state representatives need to hear from organizations
with an economic interest in protecting public land,
especially in the West where historical values and
use patterns still drive the decision making process.
The silver lining in facing classroom threats this
year is that we had the opportunity to refine our
voice for public lands, evaluate its effectiveness,
and share it with others who also work to protect
wild places. Good things are already happening as
a result. We have established new partnerships with
a wider variety of organizations with common goals.
For example, we regularly partner with the Outdoor
Industry Association, a national group representing
recreation-related companies that has made great
strides standing up for wild places in Utah. We have
strengthened relationships with state representatives
in Wyoming. And we have a better grasp of how to
speak in a way that underlines the importance of
recreation and wilderness education to Western states’ economies.
We have also renewed our commitment to reaching out
to NOLS alumni who have a personal connection to
wild lands and have the passion, skills and desire
to help us protect them.
In a year when our federal administration cancelled
a national wilderness anniversary celebration because
it was scheduled to occur “too close” to
a national election, these are strange times on public
land. Strange times call for creative and strategic
If you’re interested in learning about the
work that NOLS is doing to protect the wildlands
where we teach, check out NOLS Wildlands Announcements,
NOLS’ Public Policy List-Serve. You can subscribe
to the list-serve through here.
In 2004, the Access Fund selected Scott Berkenfield,
who is Lead Recreation Planner for the Utah Bureau
of Land Management Monticello Field Office, as Land
Manager of the Year, for his work on the Indian Creek
Corridor Plan. This award recognizes Berkenfeld’s
commitment to progressive public lands management.
Scott was critical in helping NOLS with field staff
training and search operations in the late 90s. Visit www.accessfund.org.
NOLS is one of 400 organizations to endorse American
Rivers’ Citizen Agenda for Rivers, a nation-wide
plan created by and for the river movement to maintain
healthy rivers and healthy communities. To learn
more, visit www.americanrivers.org