Young leaders changing the West

From politicians to climate scientists, meet 10 people under 30 who are shaping the region’s future.

The West is a dynamic region: Rainfall patterns are shifting, energy production is evolving, species are disappearing from some places and recolonizing others. Responding to challenges across our protean land will require fresh ideas and innovative thinkers. In this series, meet ten of the young leaders who are helping the West face its uncertain future.


Zach Brown, 24 | Politics

“I’m in love with Montana,” John Steinbeck famously declared in his 1960 road-trip classic, Travels with Charley. The author was just passing through the Treasure State, but many longtime locals share the sentiment. “We’re between two of the most diverse ecosystems in North America, the Greater Yellowstone and the Greater Glacier,” says Bozeman native Zach Brown. “There’s a kind of Montana ‘exceptionalism’ shared by the people who live here.”

Brown, an avid outdoorsman and recent University of Montana graduate, wants to make sure that Montana stays exceptional. And now he’s taking that mission to the state Legislature: This November, Brown leaned on a platform of environmental protection to win House District 63, which encompasses southwest Bozeman.  

Brown is not entirely new to governance: As student body president at the university, he represented some 15,000 constituents. Among his signature achievements was passing the Smart Buildings Initiative, which incentivizes energy efficiency in university buildings and reinvests the savings into further efficiency measures. (As a student, Brown also wrote and introduced a version of SBI to the state Legislature; though it didn’t pass, he plans to push the bill again once he takes office.)

A Democrat who’s profoundly concerned about climate change, Brown is also a pragmatist who recognizes the primacy of fiscal arguments in a purple state like Montana. His energy efficiency bill, he says, would save the state millions of dollars, something that appeals to both parties. “One of my soapboxes is that you can have a more direct impact on the climate working at the local level,” he says, adding, with a laugh: “I have a lot of soapboxes.”

Another soapbox: protecting Montana’s progressive stream-access laws. Perhaps Brown’s most effective campaign event was a celebration of stream access, public lands and the state’s history of water conservation. “We had extreme Republicans and Democrats standing in front of a fly shop talking about shared values,” he recalls. “Everyone loves Montana’s recreation opportunities, its scenic beauty, its fish and wildlife. It’s always been about those issues for me — not politics.”


Colleen Cooley, 28 | Environmental Justice

Colleen Cooley always knew she would return to her home on the Navajo Nation. A native of Shonto, Arizona — a tiny reservation town where many residents lack water and electricity — Cooley, a Diné woman, accepted that she’d have to leave in order to study chemistry and climate science at Northern Arizona University. But the Nation was never far from her thoughts. “I feel tied to the land,” she says. “I’ve seen the Navajo Reservation’s issues firsthand — the unemployment, the lack of water infrastructure, the contamination. I wanted to do something about it.”

Cooley got her chance with Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, an organization that advocates for Navajo communities affected by environmental problems. Though energy extraction throughout the Nation has provided jobs, the industry has also caused great damage: The Four Corners Power Plant generates millions of tons of toxic coal ash, coal mining around Black Mesa has depleted aquifers, and hundreds of abandoned uranium mines pose ongoing threats to health. Much to Cooley’s dismay, her tribe also recently bought the coal mine that supplies the Four Corners plant. Though some tribal members say the jobs justify the deal, Cooley, whose group lobbied against the deal, fears a different sort of legacy. “Now we’re stuck with all those liabilities,” she says. “That was heartbreaking for us.”

Nonetheless, Cooley remains undaunted. She continues to educate communities near the mine about the potential health impacts of coal ash, from lung infections to neurological damage, and traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2013 to advocate on the Navajos’ behalf for a federal coal ash disposal rule. During the recent Navajo presidential campaign, she organized a forum that allowed young people to question candidates and voice their concerns, and she’s an adamant supporter of replacing the reservation’s dirty energy sources with clean ones.

Cooley’s work with Diné CARE takes her to every corner of the 27,000 square-mile Navajo Nation, but her heart remains in her hometown. Among her long-term dreams is to set up a recycling center in Shonto, where her parents still live. Currently, residents must drive their recyclables more than two hours to Flagstaff. “There are so many ways we could be more sustainable in our homes and everyday lives,” she says. “I’ve met a lot of people on Navajo Nation working on these issues, doing research, putting ideas together. Exciting things are definitely happening here.”


Herman Fillmore, 25 | Education 

It’s not just species that face extinction — many of the West’s indigenous languages are endangered, too. Worldwide, some 400 languages have blinked out over the last hundred years, and researchers estimate that half the planet’s 6,500 remaining tongues will vanish this century. Among them is Washiw, spoken by the Washoe Tribe, whose land straddles the California-Nevada border. “It’s only spoken right now by a handful of elders,” says tribal member Herman Fillmore. “It’s at a critical point.”

Fillmore himself is one of the few young Washoe who’s conversational in Washiw. He gained his knowledge at Washiw Wagayay Mangal (“The House Where Washiw is Spoken”), an immersion school co-founded by Fillmore’s mother, which operated from 1997 to 2003. “The students who went to that school seemed to do really well for themselves,” Fillmore recalls. “As though they had a sense of self-worth, an understanding of who they are.”

Upon graduating from the University of New Mexico with a degree in Native American Studies and linguistics, Fillmore returned home to provide young Washoe students the same opportunities he’d had. After a stint leading adult education classes, he’s now teaching his language at eight different levels, from the tribe’s Head Start preschool program (where he works with fellow tribal members Lisa Enos, Melba Rakow and Mitchell Osorio) to high school in three Nevada and California communities. And it seems to be working: Many students, including some white ones, have swiftly picked up the fundamentals of Washiw, and one second-grader recently penned a letter expressing deep pride at her new connection to her culture.

Fillmore’s dream is to open a new school, even more intensive than the one he attended, that would immerse children in Washiw from infancy through high school. Why go to such lengths to preserve the language? Fillmore sees it as an antidote to the social problems — diabetes, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse — that afflict many Native communities. “Returning to our culture and its values would help overcome some of those ills,” he says. “Our philosophy is represented through the way we communicate with each other.”  


Amber Jackson, 25 & Emily Callahan, 25 | Infrastructure

Off the coast of California lie some of the planet’s richest marine ecosystems, undersea menageries that put coral reefs to shame. “You see scallops, rockfish, cabezon, mussels, sea lions. … It’s a whole secret world,” says Emily Callahan.

These oceanic Edens, believe it or not, are the accidental byproducts of California’s offshore oil rigs, whose struts and beams shelter species up and down the food chain. And if Callahan and her partner in conservation, Amber Jackson, have their way, the Golden State’s drilling platforms will remain habitat for decades to come. 

Callahan and Jackson weren’t always rig aficionados. Callahan cut her scientific teeth helping BP survey the environmental damage caused by the infamous Deepwater Horizon spill, while Jackson, a California native, had been aware of the offshore platforms for years without truly noticing them. But when the duo met in a scientific diving course at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where they were both master’s students, they agreed to study the rigs together. Through diving, and interviews with stakeholders from scientists to fishermen, they realized that California’s rigs had become crucial marine habitat. “Most people are skeptical at first,” says Callahan. “Once we show them photographs, they get very excited.”

But many of those platforms are approaching the end of their oil-producing days. Though the state passed a so-called “rigs to reefs” law in 2010 that would allow platform bases to stay standing on a case-by-case basis, no rigs have yet been decommissioned, so the law has yet to be put to the test. And converting rigs into reefs faces opposition, from commercial fishermen who fear snagging nets to environmentalists concerned about lingering pollution.

Jackson and Callahan have set up a two-woman advocacy group, Rig2Reef Exploration, through which they disseminate information, photos and stories to advocate for the platforms’ preservation. They want to get California’s rigs designated as “Hope Spots” — recognized strongholds of ocean biodiversity — and, eventually, as marine protected areas. “Scientists don’t often communicate the importance of what they’re researching,” says Jackson. “We’re trying to show people why these places are important, and with that, to care.”   


Daniel Kinka, 28 | Wildlife

As many ranchers could tell you, parts of the West are getting wilder: Wolves and grizzlies, aided by stringent conservation measures, are returning to forests and rangelands in numbers not seen in decades. That’s good news, but it comes at a price: The increase in predators has led to more clashes with livestock, conflicts that are costly for ranchers and frequently fatal for the carnivores involved.

While many livestock producers rely on guard dogs to ward off predators, commonly used breeds like the Great Pyrenees may be no match for wolves and grizzlies. “The primary concern used to just be coyotes,” says Daniel Kinka, a Ph.D. student at Utah State University. “Now we’re hearing from producers that their dogs are being outcompeted, beat up, even killed by larger carnivores.”

So which breed is best for the job? That’s where Kinka comes in: Last spring, in partnership with USDA’s Wildlife Services, he distributed three hearty European breeds — the Kangal, from Turkey; the Karakachan, from Bulgaria; and Portugal’s Cão de Gado Transmontano — to livestock producers in five Western states. The data from the dogs’ radio-collars, combined with data from collared carnivores and GPS-tagged livestock, should give Kinka and his collaborators insight into how different breeds perform around predators, and thereby help livestock producers choose the right canine for their situation.

A few years ago, Kinka would have seemed an unlikely candidate to conduct breakthrough wildlife research. But while earning his master’s in psychology, he got sick of air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting, and finagled a gig studying wolves in the Tetons. “When I jumped from psych, I would joke with my friends that I went into the one field that didn’t have anything to do with people,” he says. 

To his surprise, though, his social science background has come in handy. An important component of his project is surveying ranchers and herders on their attitudes toward both guard dogs and resurgent carnivores. “One of the best things about this project is the amount of human contact,” he says. “Livestock producers are naturalists in their own way — they understand these ecosystems better than anybody.”



Diana Madson, 28 | Economic Development 

As climate change turns snow to rain in the West, powder-dependent ski communities have begun feeling the economic pain. According to one study, diminished snowfall cost the country’s winter tourism industry $1 billion and 27,000 jobs in 2012 alone. “Ski communities are very aware of climate impacts and eager to take action, but there are obstacles in the way,” says Diana Madson. “There’s a lack of data, little public support, and most of all, limited funding.”

Madson is trying to change that through the Mountain Pact, a coalition of alpine towns advocating for shared interests. Madson hopes that the coalition will be able to influence federal policy, attract funding to help communities adapt, and elevate climate change in the national consciousness. (Madson has experience achieving the latter: At last year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, she was part of a media team that convinced skiers and other athletes to speak out in support of climate action.) The loss of snow is the most visible manifestation of global warming, but it’s far from the only one: Wildfires and pine beetle infestations hurt the landscape –– and local economies ––  too. “Almost all of these communities have vibrant summer economies as well,” Madson says. “We’re looking at year-round resilience.”  

Mountain towns have been eager to join the Pact. This summer, Madson met with city officials throughout the Southern Rockies; by the road trip’s end, she’d enrolled Park City, Aspen, Vail and Durango, and secured around $30,000 in funding. These days, she’s working out of an office in Tahoe (another Pact member) to build support for the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, a bill that would prevent firefighting expenses from devouring agency budgets by creating an emergency funding process. She’s also plotting a trip to the Northern Rockies to recruit towns like Whitefish and Jackson. 

Madson cares deeply about the West’s ski towns. A Sacramento native who grew up exploring the nearby Sierra Nevada, she got hooked on winter sports as a student at University of California, Berkeley. No sooner had she discovered skiing, however, than she realized it was in jeopardy. “Skiing is a way for people to connect with the land,” she says. “And local economies throughout the Mountain West are feeling its loss.”  


Spencer Masterson, 28 | Food

Oregon’s food culture is legendary for its attention to organic and local sourcing — witness the Portlandia skit, in which diners are so concerned about their chicken’s origins that they trek to the farm where it was raised. Despite the clichés, says Spencer Masterson, the state still has a long way to go in its agricultural awareness. “Most people don’t think about what it takes to get affordable food,” says Masterson, community resource developer at the Oregon Food Bank, “and that there are people involved in providing that food who aren’t paid living wages.”

Masterson’s mission is to bridge that knowledge gap through a program called “Food, Education, Agriculture, Solutions, Together,” or FEAST, which gathers people who grow, sell and provide food for daylong conversations and planning. Not everyone sees eye to eye: Food pantry staff, for instance, worry that food will prove too expensive for disadvantaged shoppers, while farmers fear low prices won’t support their livelihoods. “It’s an extremely difficult discussion, but saying, ‘I understand your side, and let’s work together to find middle ground, is very powerful,’ ” says Masterson, who coordinates the program.

And FEAST has borne some remarkable fruits: a farmer’s market in Astoria, for instance, and community gardens in Cottage Grove. “This isn’t about taking notes that sit on a shelf. It’s about coming up with action plans.”

Masterson is serious about food: Living in Thailand nearly a decade ago, he realized that rural rice farmers, despite being underappreciated by Thai policymakers, possessed a wealth of agricultural and environmental knowledge. The realization kindled his desire to help farmers in his own country receive the respect and resources they deserve. As an AmeriCorps volunteer in Oregon’s Linn County, he organized food events that connected local farmers with consumers; later, with the Portland Fruit Tree Project, he planted an orchard in a public housing community that’s thriving to this day.

FEAST is flourishing, too: The food bank has sparked discussions in over 60 Oregon communities, and exported the model to states from California to Kansas. “FEAST reinforces that grassroots can make big changes, that you don’t have to wait for a public official to come up with a policy,” says Masterson. “The community has the answers. We’re just providing the space for folks to come up with them.”  


Raquel Rangel, 26 | Community Engagement

Raquel Rangel has spent her fair share of time in the outdoors. As a volunteer for the Tuolumne River Trust and other organizations in California’s Central Valley, she’s monitored water quality, planted native vegetation, and banded geese. And almost invariably, she finds herself the only brown face in a sea of white ones. “Anytime I would go somewhere to help out, I would always be the only Latino person there,” she says.

Rangel and her colleagues at Latino Outdoors want to change that. The group, founded in 2013 by a California educator named Jose González, seeks to connect Latinos with nature and provide mentorship for young leaders pursuing outdoor-related careers. “I could identify Latino-led groups working on issues like health, education, and immigration, but not conservation,” says Gonzalez, 33. Now, he adds, “We have individuals who come up to us and say, ‘You exist! There’s a place for me now.’”

That’s more or less how Rangel felt when she heard González speak at California State University, Stanislaus, where she’s studying biological sciences. Today, she serves as the organization’s Regional Coordinator for the Central Valley. Though the Central Valley is dominated by agriculture, even humble reservoirs and refuges can be strongholds for foxes, coyotes and other wildlife. For Rangel, who grew up scrambling over rocks and through creeks, that wildness is exhilarating. On one recent nature walk through Modesto’s Tuolumne River Regional Park, Rangel led 25 Latinos past the manicured lawns and barbeque pits at the park’s entrance and into an area thick with trees and brush. Though some of the hikers were at first skeptical of the untamed terrain, they’d come to recognize its beauty by day’s end.  “The greatest fulfillment comes when someone says, ‘Thank you for bringing me to your park,’ ” says Rangel. “I say, ‘It’s not my park — it’s your park, too.’ ”

To Gonzalez’s mind, Rangel is an ideal ambassador. “She’s a cultural leader, which helps so much with building trust and relationships,” he says. “But she also has a keen connection to the more traditional conservation community. She’s a fantastic role model.”

Daniel Swain, 25 | Climate

In early December, as a massive storm drifted toward Northern California on the wings of the Pacific jet stream, few observers were more excited than Daniel Swain. “It’s nice to see some real rain after a long period of exceptionally boring weather,” said Swain, a Stanford Ph.D. student studying the connections between extreme weather and climate change. “There’s a lot to talk about, a lot of clouds to watch.”

Swain is the meteorological mastermind behind the California Weather Blog, the go-to website for everyone from fellow climate scientists to skiers who want to know whether to hit Tahoe next weekend. Every two weeks or so, Swain’s blog analyzes recent weather trends, putting heat waves and precipitation patterns into their larger context: How will localized rain affect ongoing drought? What might El Niño mean for the Golden State’s weather? Where do storms like the recent December deluge fit in history? 

Though Swain began the blog in 2006 as a simple outlet for his personal weather excitement, he’s lately discovered its power as a climate science megaphone. “A useful way of thinking about climate is that it’s weather in aggregate,” he says. “I’m able to talk about issues at that interface, including with people who are normally not receptive to the idea of environmental change.”

California, locked in prolonged drought, is often considered Exhibit A in how climate change is affecting weather. But Swain says the science isn’t quite that simple: Though some patterns, like rising temperatures, can confidently be attributed to global warming, climate change’s impact on precipitation varies from region to region.

Of course, that ambiguity doesn’t diminish the overwhelming evidence for global warming. “One of the important roles of the climate scientist is to be clear about uncertainty that’s real, and uncertainty that’s propagated by people with vested interests,” says Swain. “The first role of the scientist is to be an objective observer of reality.” 


Ryan Vogel, 23 | Water

The West has a water problem: Rainfall patterns are shifting, populations are growing, and our already-stressed rivers and aquifers are struggling to keep up. Seawater seems like an obvious alternative, but the steep price tag of desalination plants has hampered widespread construction.

Making desalination viable is the mission of Pure Blue Tech Inc., a Seattle-based startup that wants to solve the world’s water crisis through what you might call “good vibrations.” Among the primary costs of desalination are the contaminants — salt, microorganisms, and other particulates — that accumulate on membranes; the more gunk that builds up, the more energy it takes to push the water through, and the more frequently membranes have to be cleaned or replaced. Pure Blue’s innovation is to use ultrasound-like microvibrations to shake off contaminants, saving plants energy, water, time and money. According to Ryan Vogel, the company’s cofounder, the technology can reduce membrane fouling by 70 percent, cutting resultant costs by 30 percent.

Vogel, a 2013 graduate of the University of Washington, didn’t start out devoting his life to water — his first passion was neurosurgery. But when he realized he could help more people by creating a business than through medicine, he changed his focus to entrepreneurship, and he soon discovered a passion for H2O. “Water is the backbone of every industry in the world — it’s the backbone of life,” he says. “There’s nothing that I want to do more than provide more of it.”

In 2013, Vogel and Pure Blue cofounder Adam Greenberg got a boost when they took home first prize — and the accompanying $25,000 — in UW’s Business Plan Competition. With help from investors, Pure Blue’s capital has since grown, and its founders have recruited a board of heavyweights from the fields of water treatment and management. Vogel expects the nascent company to set up its first pilot projects in 2016 at sites in Seattle, California, and Washington’s San Juan Islands, which lean heavily on desalination to meet their water needs. Says Vogel: “We’re building this brick by brick.”

Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent for High Country News.

Background Photo: Amber Jackson and Emily Callahan explore and photograph unique reef ecosystems that have taken root on offshore oil and gas platforms.