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Finding Our Voice For Wilderness
By Jennifer Lamb, NOLS Public Policy Directory
A gas field in Wyoming, where the pace of oil and gas activity has escalated in recent months.
Photo: Peter Aengst/TWS/LightHawk

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 solutions.

Other Updates

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

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