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for people who care about the West

Adventure travel vs. conservation

A conversation with outdoor entrepreneur Bill 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?

Bryan The whole idea that if you're coming out here, you need a guide who isn't just a fishing guide or a hunting guide, was new when we started Off the Beaten Path. We hired local naturalist guides for trips to Yellowstone and Patagonia, and so on.

HCN Were conservation groups selling similar trips?

Bryan The Sierra Club had its own program, and still does – moderately priced trips led by local Sierra Club members who are not necessarily professional experts. Other national groups have travel programs where they contract out to an Off the Beaten Path-type organization – trips mainly for donors or just for their membership. That became a fairly big deal for Off the Beaten Path, running trips for World Wildlife Fund and the National Parks and Conservation Association. A few other companies got into it, too.

Lindblad Expeditions does trips in small boats, maybe 70 to 120 passengers, in Alaska and the Columbia River and Baja whale-watching, and recently it merged with National Geographic so most of their work now is under the banner Lindblad National Geographic. Sven Lindblad, the founder of that company, has a real environmental agenda, so those trips have great naturalist guides; they've even done trips to the Arctic and Antarctica, taking influential people into the ice regions to observe climate change. Natural Habitat Adventures, out of Boulder, Colo., has a relationship with World Wildlife Fund. Backroads, out of Berkeley, Calif., offers conservation-minded biking and hiking trips. Other companies specialize in bird-watching trips. Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, out of Bozeman, helps qualified travelers volunteer to do research in the outdoors. Smaller groups like Montana Audubon offer local trips for their members. There are other companies doing it too, now.

HCN And this is a good trend?

Bryan Yes. In order to deal with these environmental issues, you have to get outdoors, and you can't think just about your own back yard, you have to think about the larger context. Travel helps with that. Most of these conservation-minded travel companies attract customers who, even if they're not members of conservation groups, they're looking for a learning experience. ... You'd be surprised how many people come out here without a clue. They want to come to a dude ranch, and they ask about the ranch's spa program and whether there's a swimming pool, how fancy are the meals, and can they do a bit of horseback riding or fishing in a pond that's stocked? They want their amenities to come with them.

HCN On any conservation-minded trips, you think adventure travel should engage the local cultures respectfully?

Bryan Everywhere we go, travel should be accountable to the local communities, and accountable to the environment. On fishing trips to Patagonia, many American adventure-travel companies bring their fishing guides from this country, instead of hiring local guides in Chile, because the American guides speak English better and know the needs of the American travelers. Companies doing 30 bus trips per year in Yellowstone bring in guides from Santa Barbara and Connecticut, because that's also cheaper and easier than hiring local guides. To encourage more accountability, Off the Beaten Path and Lindblad and a few other companies created the Adventure Collection, an organization advocating for all companies to be "deeply respectful of our travel destinations" (according to the "travel ethic" posted on www.adventurecollection.com) while minimizing our impact. We call for travelers to engage with local communities, to help sustain them, and for educating travelers on the best cultural and ecological practices.

Those that try to be accountable will do it to a certain extent, always with the profit margin in mind. It's easy to develop trips to see polar bears around Churchill (on the shore of Canada's Hudson Bay); lots of people want to do that. It's much more difficult to develop trips to see something like the black-footed ferret, an endangered species on the Northern Plains, where you might not even see one ferret. Or trips to see Yellowstone wolves, you can't guarantee you'll see one wolf. People want certainty. ... The marriage of the adventure travel world and the conservation world has come a long ways in the last 25 years, and it's probably going to get better, but there has to be some accountability to more than the bottom line. My feeling is, you can do both.

This story is part of an April 2014 special issue of the HCN magazine devoted to travel in the West.