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Jim Ratz and the birth of Leave No Trace, Inc.
By Tom Reed

I’ve been exploring new country lately and these expeditions require maps. I’ve been buying a few. On the corner of each is a logo: the dot and twin swirls of Leave No Trace, Inc.

By now, almost everyone who shrugs into a backpack or takes off in the family Subaru for a couple of days in the outdoors knows the logo. In 1994, it wasn’t that way. In May that year, I started my career with NOLS and there was a tremendous debate raging over the logo for Leave No Trace, the outreach program of minimum impact. NOLS wanted to take its curriculum beyond its own students to the general public and LNT was the tool, but the new program needed a logo, an identity.

Like a lot of things that are developed for public consumption these days, the logo had been studied, opinioned and study-grouped ad nauseam. One of the early editions had an arrow on one of the swirls. People said it was like looking into a top-loading washing machine. Others liked the arrow. It was a debate that went on for weeks. Finally, the boss had enough.

“We’re going to take the arrow off the logo and that will be it,” said Jim Ratz, who was the executive director of NOLS and the man most responsible for me having a job.

Today, that logo has been seen by millions of people. There may be some out there who think of laundry day when they see it, but there are far more who recognize the logo of Leave No Trace, Inc., and think about going camping. That’s a pretty good legacy, but Jim Ratz has left this world with a lot more.

Most of 1994 at the International Headquarters of NOLS was spent trying to figure out how to keep the LNT program afloat while still doing what NOLS does so well — teaching students in the outdoors. LNT was a tremendous financial burden on the school and initially, NOLS sought corporate sponsors to help out. They were willing, but the details, the financial structure and the administration of the program were all causing one big headache.

That summer, Jim Ratz, Rich Brame (who was administering LNT for NOLS) and I flew to Reno, Nevada, for the Outdoor Retailer summer show. After a few days of listening to manufacturers and retailers, Jim, Rich and I found ourselves sitting at a bar across from our hotel. I can still remember the place: it advertised something like eighty beers from around the world. We were trying a few out and discussing Leave No Trace and how NOLS was going to deal. Clearly, the program was on the verge of explosion and NOLS just didn’t have the resources or the staff to take it to another level. Somewhere in that discussion, Jim came up with the solution.

“How about Leave No Trace, Inc.?” he said. “Its own nonprofit, with its own staff, its own fundraising?”

And that is how Leave No Trace, Inc., was born. Since those beginnings from the brain of Jim Ratz, LNT, Inc. has grown up: it has educated thousands. Its principles are on the lips of backcountry world travelers every year, and its logo is a lot of places. Jim did that.

Jim was a doer. He made decisions quickly, or if he thought long about them or processed them, he did it silently. When the decision came out of his mouth, it seemed sometimes as if no thought at all had gone into it, but action people get accused of doing this all the time. Jim Ratz was the poster boy for the term “man of action.”

Jim took the school from a little organization into the all-important midlife of a nonprofit. He pushed the school to explore the wonders of the Internet, he was instrumental in starting the public lands policy program, and he led the school in new and exciting directions. He encouraged me to make The Leader into a publication with broad appeal and a classy design, and he helped the annual catalog be more appealing and, simply, better. He let you do your job and he supported you. I worked for him for less than a year, but he remains one of the most influential leaders in my career.

Jim died this spring while climbing near his home in Lander. In a life, one can only hope to leave something of a tiny legacy, to love well, lead and mentor others, and to do the right thing. Jim did all of that in spades. He loved his family and friends, he left one hell of a legacy, and he did the right thing, even when the right thing was the tough thing. That’s the definition of moral integrity.

I can still hear Jim, talking in that clipped, soft way of his. It’s interesting how people have influences not only on one’s career and one’s personal life, but on speech patterns. Jim was famous for always saying: “Fabulous. Fabulous.” It was so funny that Bruce Palmer and I often laughed about it and imitated him. That word and the way Jim said it is still part of my repartee. Lately, whenever I say it, I think of him. One could say that of Jim’s life: Fabulous.

Tom Reed, former NOLS Publications Manager, now works on roadless area protection in Wyoming and Montana for Trout Unlimited. He is the author of Great Wyoming Bear Stories and a NOLS Instructor. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.

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