Adventure travel vs. conservation

A conversation with outdoor entrepreneur Bill Bryan.

  • Bill Bryan poses for a photo at the "M" trailhead in Bozeman, Montana, where he often goes hiking ... when he's not out trekking exotic locales worldwide.

    Erik Petersen
  • Bill Bryan, center, with sons Joe, left, and Scott, scout "family friendly" backcountry adventures in the Wind River Mountains for Off the Beaten Path, 1990.

    Pam Bryan

Bill Bryan has a talent for straddling widely different worlds. He grew up on a small farm in Maine, went to a prestigious prep school, then attended public universities for a Ph.D. that combined political science, social psychology and ecology. Delving into environmental studies in the late 1960s and early '70s, he developed a nature program for fourth-graders in New York City, ran a K-12 environmental ed program in rural Michigan, and led students from the East on trips into the Rocky Mountains and Alaska. Then he moved to Montana in 1972 to run the Northern Rockies Action Group, which helped organize many local green groups; he also served as a consultant to national groups like The Wilderness Society.

In 1985, Bryan came up with the idea for a new kind of travel company that would combine conservation goals with cultural sensitivity. He and his wife, Pam, built their company – Off the Beaten Path, based in Bozeman – into a $5 million-$7 million per year operation, and he helped manage it until 2012. Now he's president of OneMontana, a nonprofit he helped establish to bridge the rural-urban divide, through a high-school student exchange program and other strategies.

Bryan, now 70, talked with HCN senior editor Ray Ring about the relationship of adventure travel, conservation and communities.

High Country News How did you evolve from conservation advocacy to the adventure-travel business?

Bill Bryan One of the challenges in conservation work is people saying, "Well, you don't really understand the real world until you do something in the for-profit world." Both Pam and I had a passion for the Northern Rockies, not just the natural resources but also the people here. Off the Beaten Path offered "custom travel" experiences. By that, I mean we connected with people who were interested in coming to the Northern Rockies, and interviewed them about their tastes and what they might want to experience, and then we put together trips tailored for them and for their budgets. No one else in the travel business back then was doing what we did.

We gave each customer a spiral-bound book that told them everything they needed to know on their trip, as soon as they got off the plane or as soon as they drove into our region. If they needed to go 10 miles down the road and turn left, it was in the book, along with various things along the way that we thought they might have interest in. Condé Nast Traveler called us "the travel shrinks of the West." Eventually, we expanded into Alaska, then the Southwest, the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina, the Northwest and California, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, New Zealand and Australia. Pam and I led walking trips in Patagonia nearly every year.

HCN And you involved Native Americans pretty much from the beginning?

Bryan I had written a book that came out in 1985, Montana Indians: Yesterday and Today, and updated it in 1996, profiling leaders of each reservation. That helped Off the Beaten Path do trips on the reservations. Beginning in the early 1990s up to 2009 or so, Bill Yellowtail (a member of the Crow tribe who held positions in the Montana Legislature, the Environmental Protection Agency and Montana State University) and I led nine-day trips that began on the Blackfeet Reservation and swung up to the Blood and the North Piegan reservations in Alberta and back down to the Flathead Reservation. We were trying to give (tourists) a sense of hope on the reservations. We met with the tribal college presidents and various human resource people and natural resource people within the tribes; we went to the Heart Butte powwow, the most authentic one around; we once were invited to a Sun Dance, and people did sweats.

But we had a hard time selling the reservation trips. People would go visit tribes in Peru or Bolivia – that was a whole different ballgame, customers were more interested in going there. Another problem with going to reservations here: People don't want to go on a vacation and feel guilty – not that we wanted to make them feel that way, but any (white) American who spends time on an Indian reservation, with the poverty, you've got to fight your feeling of guilt. But good things came out of it. People on our reservation trips later donated money to fund programs at tribal colleges and for other needs on the reservations.

HCN Your trips also included conservation issues. How unusual is that?

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