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for people who care about the West

Meet the new advocates for the West

A generation of young Western activists are using outdoor sports as a step towards conservation.


The West has long been a mecca for hikers, kayakers and campers. Getting recreationists to help preserve the landscapes they love isn’t always easy, though. Now, some Western activists are using outdoor sports as a stepping-stone toward conservation. Here, High Country News contributors Paige Blankenbuehler and Joshua Zaffos caught up with a few of these advocates, who are using outdoor recreation to tap into deeper missions, such as bolstering science, addressing climate change and bringing new generations into the wilderness.

Students at Southern Utah University, hiking above The Subway in Utah’s Zion National Park, won the Outdoors Nation Challenge last year, getting SUU named the Most Outdoorsy School in the Nation.
SUU Photo Services

Away from screens and onto the trail

During a ski trip with her family a decade ago, avid kayaker and surfer Christine Fanning witnessed a moment that made her acutely aware of the growing schism between people and the outdoors. Fanning brought her niece to a beginner’s lesson with a large group. As they practiced, one young boy fell down sobbing, ski poles flailing. “His mother started yelling at the ski instructor,” she says. “She couldn’t understand why her son wasn’t good at skiing. I remember her saying to the instructor, ‘You’re doing something wrong. He’s great at video-game skiing!’ ”

That moment inspired Fanning to address a modern condition that many describe as nature-deficit disorder. Today, children are spending less time in the outdoors and more time in front of screens, and many are developing behavioral problems as a result. “Across the country, there are millions of permanently protected acres that provide an incredible opportunity for outdoor recreation,” Fanning says. “But if there is not political will going forward, we could lose that. We need future stewards and environmental leaders.” 

In 2014, Fanning, who has a background in philanthropy, created Outdoor Nation, a nonprofit that aims to get more millennials engaged in outdoor activities. Fanning, who is the executive director, and her three-person team are partnering with several Western colleges that organize outdoor adventure programs and multi-day experiences. In 2015, Outdoor Nation hosted its second annual summit, which, perhaps ironically, was documented via social media. More than 56 colleges registered, and, in the end, more than 10,000 inspired young adults participated in outdoor activities and shared their experience on Instagram. This year’s campus challenge begins in September.
-Paige Blankenbuehler

Eleven-year-old Dae Dahlquist speaks at a rally at Washington state’s Department of Ecology during a public hearing on a proposed coal export terminal in Longview, Washington.
Damian Mulinix/GreenPeace

Young but outspoken for the climate’s future

The Pacific Northwest has an unlikely new champion for climate change awareness — an 11-year-old boy in White Salmon, Washington. Dae Dahlquist is not your typical kid, though. When he was 4, he remembers his mom, Brynn Dahlquist, listening to NPR. He was struck by the solemn, urgent tone of the voices. When “I asked my mom what was wrong,” Dae says, she told him they were talking about climate change. “I just said: ‘Well, why don’t we stop it?’ ” he recalls. “I was interested in trying to help.”

Dae began modestly, by begging his mom to drive him and his friends out to river cleanups in Portland so they could help. By the time he was 6, he and a group of nearly a dozen children cleaned up riverbanks regularly to “get out in nature and help.”  In 2013, when he was 9, Dae started his own nonprofit organization called Gen-Earth (short for Generation Earth), aimed at getting kids engaged in hiking, camping and talking about climate change.

At meetings, group members often watch YouTube videos and discuss what they might do about climate change. Then, they all take to the trail. Dae says his strongest tool has been recreation, because activities like swimming, hiking and camping can get kids excited about protecting the environment. “It takes an activity to motivate people to care about something like climate change,” Dae says.

Dae has been a youthful powerhouse at climate rallies throughout Washington and Oregon, where he partners with organizations like Climate Solutions and Power Past Coal. In 2015, the first time he spoke in public, he stood in front of more than 200 people in Seattle at a hearing about running coal trains through two dozen Northwest cities and ports. “I realized very soon into doing those hearings that the magnitude of human-induced climate change was a lot bigger than just me,” Dae says. “There were so many people.”

What does the future hold? Dae hopes to attend a university on the East Coast and eventually become a diplomat. “I like to travel, I like to speak, and I know I want to make a difference in policy,” he says. 
-Paige Blankenbuehler

Citizen scientist Claire Hood, whose day job is at Gallatin Microplastics, chops through the ice to get a sample from the Gallatin River near Black Butte, Montana.
Louise Johns/Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

Adventures with a bigger purpose

In Bozeman, Montana, an organization has been blurring the line between recreation and science for half a decade. Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation transforms outdoor enthusiasts into citizen scientists, teaching them how to take samples and build data around the places they love.

Since its start in 2011, the organization has grown into an international hub for a host of projects geared toward solving “pressing environmental challenges,” such as climate change and mass extinction. Currently, around 800 volunteers contribute data to various projects each year.

In 2013, Abby Barrow, a marine biologist, and Jenna Walenga, an ASC project manager and sailor from Seattle, created the organization’s microplastics program, which tests water samples for bits of broken-down pollutants. “The smaller the piece of plastic, the more available it is as food to animals,” Barrow says, but they can’t digest it. The group has collected nearly 2,000 aqueous analyses from 680 outdoor enthusiasts from around the world, including sailors crossing the Pacific, skiers in Italy, and a group of women kayakers from an organization called EXXpedition, who took samples as they paddled the Atlantic Ocean. The project is still in its early stages, but its goal is to create a comprehensive dataset that can be used to help develop policies to better control plastic production.

Barrow and Walenga say that enlisting outdoor recreationists has given the project access to waterways across the globe that one team of scientists alone could never have tested. “Despite all of the bleak and terrible things we’ve done to the natural world, this work gives me hope for the future,” Walenga says. “There is a lot of potential to solve these issues.” 
-Paige Blankenbuehler

Ezekiel Sanchez, co-founder of the Anasazi Foundation, which is geared toward getting troubled kids into the wild.
Courtesy of Michael Merchant / The Anasazi Foundation

A new start in the wilderness

Near Flagstaff, Arizona, on a warm summer night, about 20 young adults step aboard a bus just before dusk, on their way to a campsite in the middle of Coconino National Forest in northern Arizona. It doesn’t take them long to set up a group camp with a crackling fire, as youth leaders go from one teen to another, providing gentle reassurance and cozy wool blankets.  The teens, some from broken families or with histories of substance abuse, have come to this wilderness to heal.

The Mesa, Arizona-based Anasazi Foundation seeks to provide a primitive outdoor experience for troubled kids with the goal of encouraging their mental and physical rehabilitation. Each year, more than 200 young people enroll in the 30-day retreats, held in the Coconino or nearby Tonto national forests. “It’s just us and nature,” says co-founder Ezekiel Sanchez. “Nature is very impartial. If it rains, it rains on everybody.”

The group is led by mentors called the Young Walkers, who are trained in sociology and Native American traditions. All they ask the teens to do is walk — whether just taking a single step or hiking for several miles. “This program teaches them that whether they are in the middle of a desert or in a city street, they can walk forward at any time,” says Sanchez.

Instead of taking a militaristic approach, the Young Walkers move at the pace of the individual. “We get out to the wilderness, but if they don’t want to walk, we will stay with them until they decide they want to,” he says. Those methods, says Michael Gass, a wilderness therapy researcher, set the organization apart from others with controversial boot camp-style programs. “(The Anasazi Foundation) is certainly one of the leaders in the field of primitive skills adventure therapy programs,” he says.

The program, Sanchez says, sparks a lifelong conservation ethic in many young people who have never had an outdoor experience. Teens learn how to be self-sufficient, cooking their own meals and setting up their camps. “It gives them confidence,” he says. “There’s a sense of  ‘If I can do this, I can do anything.” 
-Paige Blankenbuehler

Elementary school students during a learning day at Cal-Wood Education Center’s environmental education program above Jamestown, Colorado.
Courtesy Cal-Wood Education Center

Center gets Latino children — and parents — outside

Rafael Salgado grew up in Michoacán, Mexico, bird hunting with his dad and brothers. When he was 12, Salgado shot a duck with a mysterious band on its leg. His brother translated the English wording on the tag, which explained that it was placed by a Canadian researcher, and then helped Salgado exchange letters with the scientist. “So, there are people who actually go to school for this?” Salgado asked his brother. The experience inspired him to study science in college, a story he often shares with youth.

Salgado is the executive director of the Cal-Wood Education Center, a 1,200-acre nonprofit outdoor learning space nestled in the mountains above Jamestown, Colorado, west of Boulder. Established in 1981, Cal-Wood offers overnight camps and other programs to help kids, including minorities and low-income and urban youth, get comfortable in the mountains. “You’d be surprised how many kids — kids who were born (in Colorado) — have never been up here,” says Salgado. In 2015, the center served 3,775 children, including more than 1,300 low-income students.

During three-day programs that include hiking, camping and science fieldwork, students go from scared, in some cases, to not wanting to leave. In order to keep that spark lit, Salgado and staff have extended their services to parents and adults who sometimes lack information about outdoor recreation or a connection with nature.

In Boulder County, for instance, 80 percent of Latino families originally came from Mexico, where there are few public recreation areas. “(They) may not understand what public lands are, and they don’t have a lot of information about how to use them,” Salgado says.

Two years ago, Cal-Wood began bringing Latino families from across metro Denver for a two-night camping experience. “It’s a short program, but it’s very impactful,” Salgado says, “because they get to actually camp, and to learn how to fish, do archery, or mountain bike.” While families pay what they can, donations help cover program costs, including gear and a bilingual activity staff. In the first two years, 378 people participated in the Latino Family Camp, and there are plans to serve 450 this year.

“I really believe the experiences that we are giving these kids are an opportunity for them to think about what else is out there,” Salgado says. “I tell kids, you know, that duck really helped me to make a decision in my life, and I hope you can find your own duck, too … something that will motivate you.”
-Josh Zaffos