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The Leader

Pam Eaton wages war in the West

by Molly Absolon
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 1996.

Former instructor heads Four Corners Wilderness Society

House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich was in the middle of his inaugural address when Pam Eaton crammed the last box into her car and started west out of Washington, D.C. For Pam, it seemed like a good time to be getting out of the capital. After working on wildlife refuge legislation for the Wilderness Society for seven years, Pam was tired. The looming anti-environmental mood Gingrich's victory represented was depressing, and Pam longed to get back into the "field."

Pam, a former NOLS instructor, was on her way to Colorado to begin a new job as the associate regional director of the Wilderness Society for the Four Corners area. Eight months later, that title would change to director when her friend and boss, NOLS Trustee Darrell Knuffke moved on to another position in the Wilderness Society. Out of eight current regional directors for the Wilderness Society, Pam, at 35, is the lone female.

It wasn't that Pam felt defeated when she left Washington in January 1995. In fact she'd always planned to move out of D.C. in a couple of years-a couple of years that somehow turned into seven. But in all that time on the hill, all her meetings with various interest groups, all her hours spent pouring over reams of paper, picking through the environmental language, no bill she'd worked on passed. They'd come close, and elements of their agenda had been picked up by other bills here and there, but no actual legislation had been signed into law, and the changing of the guard in Washington did not bode well for future projects. Getting west promised to put her back in the thick of the fight, and she needed the change.

"In the conservation field, it is a struggle to determine how you measure success," Pam told me. "Congress is set up to stop legislation. It is always difficult to pass things, and if that was the only way to measure success it would be extremely frustrating. I have found other ways to judge my effectiveness."

Pam's milestones are things like a few key words in a bill or management plan, a change in a senator's vote, or-the ultimate victory-protection of a piece of land. But those ultimate triumphs are rare, and it is difficult to imagine what sustains Pam day-to-day.

Pam, however, does not seem overwhelmed by the magnitude of the job ahead of her. She talks excitedly about her work, jumping from topic to topic with knowledge and ease that displays an agile and active mind. We converse about everything from the Wilderness Society's work on Utah Wilderness and her efforts to help redefine the role of wilderness in today's changing world, to women in the outdoors, families, NOLS, and her field work with caribou in Alaska. The phone rings incessantly in the outside office adding an undercurrent of nervous energy that belies the hush conveyed by the soft beige carpeting, whispering doors, and humming machines. Pam is scheduled to be in New Mexico next week and Utah tomorrow, with meetings sandwiched in between. She is getting married this summer and has a honeymoon planned in Alaska. Her life seems frenetic, challenging, and a constant battle between time and responsibilities. She gives the impression of constant motion, even as she sits calmly and talks about her work in front of the desk her colleagues affectionately call "a shrine to chaos."

But Pam has another side. Bill Reffault, Pam's first supervisor at the Wilderness Society, remembers her as quiet and confident in a soft-spoken, gentle way.

"I think when Pamela is 98.9 percent comfortable, when she is with her friends or people who have the same interests, she is quick and talkative, but in professional situations, she is quiet-which is to her advantage," he says. "Pamela is very good with people. They feel comfortable with her. She is deferential and a good listener, in fact, she is often the focus of listening and discussions and, therefore, works very well in coalitions-which is important in the environmental community."

Reffault, who is currently the Wilderness Society's program director for the Alaska Lands and National Parks, believes that this demeanor and Pam's adaptability allowed her to work well in Washington, and continues to put her in good stead in her new job in the Four Corners region. In a confrontational field, Pam has a calming effect. She diffuses tension by asking thoughtful questions and turning down the heat. She listens to everyone-ranchers, miners, land managers, hunters, developers, rafters, and backpackers-and searches for solutions that ultimately serve the land.

Reffault hired Pam more than eight years ago based on her composure during her interview. Straight out of graduate school at the University of Michigan, Pam had little on her resume to indicate that she would succeed in Washington, but her quiet confidence and ability to put others at ease won her the job and continues to win battles for Pam today. Pam attributes much of that confidence to her early experience at NOLS, but her drive to preserve wilderness comes from something else deep inside. She has what Darrell Knuffke calls a calling. He likens the environmental community to a priesthood, and says that Pam is one of the priestesses possessed with a passion to protect wild lands.

And it was a passion for wild lands that lured Pam into the environmental field initially. From early childhood, she enjoyed spending time outside. She grew up in an outdoorsy family in Tulsa, Okla., hung out with a bunch of climbers (people like renowned mountaineer Phil Powers, NOLS director of development and partnerships) in her teens, and in high school took a women's mountaineering course from NOLS. She was back again that winter to do a ski course, followed quickly by an instructors course and field work. She studied geology at Yale University not so much because she liked rocks, but because it was the only program that included field work. She volunteered in Alaska with the Student Conservation Association, and ended up working for the National Park Service in Denali National Park collaring newborn caribou calves and studying their mortality. From there she headed to the University of Michigan to get a masters in natural resource management. Her career path seemed clear: resource management or recreation. But something was not meshing for Pam.

"I wasn't that into outdoor recreation. I was too bullheaded to be a teacher and too bullheaded for the park service. One park service employee told me that if I wanted a career in the park service I was going to have to keep my mouth shut. But I didn't want to be quiet.

"I am too much of an advocate, too much of a troublemaker. So I thought, I should go work with the troublemakers, and where are they? In nonprofit advocacy work. So here I am," Pam says with a smile. "You get a lot of burnout in these kinds of jobs, because you never really win. Every victory is temporary, every defeat permanent. Did David Brower say that?" she queries, then continues, "I think that is why wilderness designation has been such an important issue, it is permanent. Once we get it designated, we can be confident that it will stay that way. But wilderness is no longer enough."

According to Pam, in the past, the Wilderness Society has been about drawing boundaries-creating wilderness-but what they have learned is that drawing boundaries doesn't mean the land maintains its character. Today she says, her organization is looking at a bigger picture. "Enough" now means creating sustainable ecosystems and the institutions to support them. Wilderness will be just one part of a mosaic of open spaces and communities they envision. To create these bioregions, Pam and her colleagues are working on building bridges between interest groups and creating a sense of community based on common values and regional character. This shift in focus is the philosophy directing Pam in her biggest current battle-the battle over Utah Wilderness-a battle that has raged for 20 years with no victory in sight. But even as the definition of victory wavers and changes with time, people like Pam, committed and driven, will continue to fight to protect our national heritage-our wilderness.


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