Where in Durango, in southern Colorado, can you spot a lavender size-40D bra hanging in an office window? Why, the national office of a group called the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, of course. It's one sign that this organization, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is not an ordinary organization.
"We're the junkyard dogs of the environmental movement," says Great Old Broads director Ronni Egan. With 4,000 members nationwide, it's also the little enviro group that could, as it continues to capture headlines and financial support within the environmental movement.
They've carved out their niche with a sense of humor, along with a conviction that women over 50 have an abiding interest in the health of American landscapes.
But the group doesn't discriminate. If you're a woman under 50, you can join by becoming a "training broad." And if you're a guy like me you can be a "Great Old Bro." I like the title and admire their belief in wilderness tithing, a phrase coined by founding member Ginger Harmon, who thinks we all need to give back to the public lands we love.
With most environmental groups you send a check and wait for the next financial appeal, but with Great Old Broads for Wilderness you need to get personally involved. That's the recipe that brings American women together from all walks of life and from all parts of the United States for work projects called "Broadwalks." No couch potatoes here: These women are ready to hike and to document public-land issues with digital cameras and GPS units. Members focus their attention on the impacts of oil and gas leasing, overgrazing and off-road vehicles. To that end, the group has created one of the most important databases on public lands in the West, with 60,000 data points useful to land managers or judges when environmental issues go to federal court. Volunteers document illegal traffic on public lands and the resulting erosion and litter, and then upload the photos, complete with latitude and longitude coordinates, to an online database to create what Egan describes as "a picture over time of what's happening on the land." "Citizens have to do the work," she says; "we have to be the eyes on the land for the understaffed federal agencies."
Great Old Broads for Wilderness began over lunch one day in 1989, in southern Utah. After several days of hiking and backpacking, half a dozen weary women were gathered in a cafe in Escalante, and there they happened to read in a local paper what Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch thought about wilderness. No more wild lands were needed, he said, because senior citizens couldn't visit them. Hatch said elderly people needed roaded lands that they could get to in cars, recreational vehicles or astraddle ATVs.
I wasn't there, but apparently the ladies' discussion became somewhat boisterous, with recommendations about exactly where the senator could go and how he could get there. When one of the women rose to use the restroom, a male patron remarked, "Now there goes a great old broad." The name stuck, and so did the conviction that Western women over 50 didn't need a male U.S. senator to tell them what they could or could not do on our public lands.
Over the years, the feisty group has earned some respect. It stood up for Park Service employees who were getting gassed by idling snowmobiles in West Yellowstone, and it has joined lawsuits for environmental causes. Last April, the monthly magazine of the American Association for Retired Persons — with a whopping 35 million readers — featured a two-page spread on Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and phones rang off the wall, says Ronni Egan. She adds that the story's placement next to a full-page ad for senior sex videos was purely coincidental.
Plans for the group's 20th birthday include collecting and preserving oral histories from its founding members. Thanks to a grant from the Ballantine Family Foundation, Great Old Broads is linking up with students at the Durango-based Fort Lewis College for everything from work projects to resource monitoring, and even a marketing plan. Another goal is to have local affiliates support cash awards for students writing essays about the meaning and value of wilderness. The Broads are determined to pass on their eco-advocacy — teaching another generation to become stewards of wild lands. So happy birthday, Great Old Broads, and thank you, Sen. Hatch, for inspiring an enduring environmental organization.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.