In several western U.S. operating areas, NOLS faces increasing pressure from oil and gas development that may affect the long-term quality of our wilderness classrooms. Increases in the price of oil and natural gas, the technology to extract it and consumer demand have made it economical for companies to seek new sources of energy. Consequently, threats to public land, especially pockets with known reserves like the big basins in the mountain west, are higher than ever.
As educators, stewards, visitors and permitted operators on these public lands (NOLS spends a quarter of a million dollars a year on permit fees for access to public land in the U.S.), we have a stake in their management. Though NOLS depends on energy and does not oppose responsible development in appropriate areas, our increasing concern for jeopardized areas spurred us to object to development proposals in Utah and Wyoming.
When considering paths of action, we ask ourselves four key questions: 1) Does the issue affect an area where NOLS operates or may operate? 2) Does the issue involve a subject in which NOLS has expertise, such as wilderness education? 3) Can NOLS realistically affect the issue? 4) Is there a compelling reason for NOLS to engage? If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, we feel obligated to intervene.
We have opposed land use decisions in the past, but not those of public policy work. Opposing land use decisions usually means opposing the agencies that hold our permits. We need those permits. In addition, opposing development efforts in rural western communities often results in being labeled a “green group,” a label that can diminish our effectiveness as advocates. While we consider ourselves “green,” the environmental voice does not bode well with thorny public land issues. But as a Wyoming-based business that relies on wild places to sustain our educational programs, we have a seat at the proverbial table and will continue to emphasize the economic and educational importance of these lands.
As pressures on public land mount, we have conversations internally about whether engaging in this kind of work—call it classroom advocacy—is a good thing for the school and a worthwhile use of our time. We toss around a lot of questions: Is speaking publicly for wild land protection good for our image as a school? As a non-profit business in a rural western state? What impact will it have on our relationships with the agencies that grant our operating permits? Will our efforts make a difference and therefore be worthwhile, or do they amount to spent resources with little positive outcome? These conversations will continue, and we value your thoughts and opinions.
We all understand what it means to educate. But what does it mean to advocate? Individual definitions may differ, which makes it challenging to agree on what kinds of actions are consistent with NOLS’ mission as a school.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “advocate” (the verb) this way: “to plead in favor of, support.” Public policy sources expand on the definition to include activities such as informing the public through education and defending the rights and needs of a constituency. What does it mean for NOLS to advocate? I think advocacy at NOLS includes any of the following activities: speaking out on issues that concern us, informing our students about these issues through curriculum materials and classes and teaching them how to engage in public land decisions, writing comments on proposed plans, policies, regulations and legislation, defending the rights and needs of primitive recreation on public lands, leading by example, and defending our right to run sustainable, high-quality education programs. I believe it is appropriate and important for us to advocate for the protection of public lands, the school’s mission and its core values.
In the political realm, advocating for land protection takes on additional meaning as we approach November elections. Where do your candidates—local, state and national—stand on the issues that concern you? By asking questions, you will expose the issues, inform the constituents and insure the protection of all public lands.