“We’re almost there,” shouts Liz Thomas. An attorney for the nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Thomas leads a group of Broads -- several women and a few men -- over a small rise outside Canyonlands National Park, not far from where the Broads are camped. We're looking for an ATV right of way proposed by San Juan County. "It's not an open trail now," Thomas says. But we find faint treads where an ATV has tracked the route, and begin to follow them.
Along the way, group members kneel to examine native grasses and are surprised to find blooming native flowers in late September. Russian thistle and other invasives, which Thomas showed us earlier at a heavily used off-road area, could swiftly take over if ATV traffic ramps up, Thomas explains. After learning that the BLM is still taking comments, a number of Broads vow to write in.
Later, we come across a trail sign defaced with a sticker reading: "Our land my ass." The Broads gather around, open-mouthed. Then, Broadness takes over and one of the hikers pulls down his pants and moons for a photo, positioning his derriere next to the sticker.
Educational hikes like this one are regular fixtures of the four-day outings known as Broadwalks, held several times a year around the country. At Broadwalks, attendees also help with service projects, including trail construction and fence building, and spend nights around the campfire, listening to speakers and catching up with each other. They leave well-versed in federal land management and ready to engage in public-lands issues.
They also learn, as we just did, how passionately anti-wilderness some folks are. The vandalism came as the Broads joined other wilderness groups in a campaign for a new national monument surrounding Canyonlands, which could limit four-wheeling in sensitive areas, such as the one we hiked through. In 2007, the group's documentation of ATV damage at archaeological sites led to a trail closure to off-roaders in southeast Utah's Recapture Canyon -- and made some enemies in the process. But many Broads also engage in a quieter, more service-oriented activism, supporting often short-staffed government agencies as volunteers.
“So I am looking 300 degrees.” Janice Shepherd glances up from her compass to make a note in a small yellow book. Then, she photographs a spot where ATVs have widened a trail near Grand Junction, Colo., likely causing increased erosion and other damage. With her fanny pack, rucksack and a pouch dangling from her neck, the small, gray-haired woman looks like a dauntless explorer, off to map some distant clime.
It's a chilly winter morning, and Shepherd and Sherry Schenk, who leads the local Broadband, are following one of several BLM routes they monitor for damage like this. Later, Shepherd will enter her photos and notes into a database linked to a map, so the local BLM -- which oversees 1.2 million acres -- knows which trails need repair and can reference photographs of problem areas.
Alissa Leavitt-Reynolds, archaeologist for the agency's Grand Junction Field Office, credits Shepherd with documenting rock art the BLM didn't even know existed; she's also helped their recreation planner find and map new user-created rock-climbing routes. And Schenk's activities range from monitoring trails for dog-poop overload to stewarding archaeological sites and regularly documenting their condition.
In 2011, Schenk, a retired school psychologist, attended her first Broadwalk and was inspired to lead a Broadband. She attended Bootcamp, a four-day leadership training, where she fumbled with GPS devices, learned online organizing tools and attended workshops on public-lands law. "It was," she laughs, "kind of overwhelming."
Yet Schenk persisted. Her Grand Junction Broadband, which now has about 30 active members, emphasizes volunteering and participating in agency land-management planning. Schenk and Shepherd spend so much time at the BLM office that an employee told me, "When I first started, I thought (Shepherd) worked here."
As the three of us start uphill in the warming air, a mountain biker rattles down the trail, and we leap out of the way. "Hey, Sherry! How's it going, Janice?" he calls. It's Mike Jones' day off, but Jones, who works on trails and recreation for the BLM, stops to chat and answer Shepherd's questions about work the route we're on might need. He agrees with her assessment, noting that if some volunteers could build up the trail's outside edge, the "water would run off of it."
As Jones prepares to wheel away, the Broads mention that I am with them to learn about the group's involvement with public lands.
He nods approvingly.
"Yup, these guys do a lot of work for us. A lot of work. So you got the right ones."