Back to Stories

What Does It Take To Create A Conservationist?

Retired Forest Service Wilderness Manager Susan Marsh contemplates what inspires wilderness users to become wilderness protectors

Photo courtesy Michele Parent
Photo courtesy Michele Parent
People often make comments to me expressing their concern about members of certain “peer groups” who seem interested only in their recreational activities and hanging with friends rather than caring about the places where they play. 

“They care if there’s a log across the trail,” a curmudgeon said to me. “But not that the trail itself is running off the wildlife.”

Will these people eventually come to appreciate the public wildlands beyond their personal enjoyment? It’s easy to doubt it when you encounter rude or clueless characters, but then I try to remember: wasn’t I like that once? 

As a downhill skier in high school, I don’t remember standing around at the top of the chairlift to ogle the snow-draped trees or Steller’s jays that flew among them like ghosts in midnight blue. Yet, those memories stick with me. Part of my brain must have been paying attention even if my thoughts were on skiing. Today I remember the jays more than the ski slope, which was exactly the same each time I pushed off the chair.

But I share the discomfort my friends express. Are some people incapable of appreciating this singular environment? Is it only a playground and not an ecosystem? One long-time environmental activist, no slouch himself on marathon hikes, climbs, and weeks spent in the backcountry, came to Jackson to work for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition about fifteen years ago. He didn’t last long in La-la land. “I don’t get it,” he said. “People don’t give a damn about conservation—it’s all about me, me, me.”

I thought he and I were part of the so-called ME generation, but perhaps every group of elders looks askance at those who follow. Age isn’t the only thing that makes a difference in the way people respond to the wild. There is a certain sensibility that opens you to the world, and not everyone was born with it. 

But other factors matter too, including whether you were exposed to the natural world as a child. One thing that made me sensitive to wild places was the sense of loss I carried since the five-acre woodlot where I played as a child was bulldozed for housing (housing just like the little subdivision where I lived, but the irony was beyond me at the time).

Even a nine-year old could see that the quail and jays and other birds that visited our feeder needed somewhere to live, and when the woods fell, they left. Whether you grieve for a lost place or not, early exposure to a semi-natural refuge where a kid can play and learn can make us feel as if we have an innate attachment to the wild. It’s there later, even as we find our adolescent selves swept into the inanity of popular culture.
"Will these people eventually come to appreciate the public wildlands beyond their personal enjoyment? It’s easy to doubt it when you encounter rude or clueless characters, but then I try to remember: wasn’t I like that once?"
Another thing that matters is having a mentor. These people seem to hold the secret to life and we find them steady and unflappable. They have information we want, and a contentment that comes with expertise. And they want to share it with the younger set. How lucky I was, when I was a teenager, to tag along with adults who taught me about conservation and natural history. Without them, I may not have developed an environmental conscience.

° ° °

In my early teens I was as influenced by pop culture as anyone, but something changed a few years later. It had to do with the times, the early 1970s, when pollution and wilderness and saving the whales made headlines. But little has changed, really: today’s young people have global warming, species extinction and we’re still trying to save the whales, elephants, and gorillas. We all have our various chances to decide if we want to work toward something beyond ourselves or just enjoy life and play. Most of us do both.

The parties I went to in college were hosted by profs and classmates, and we talked mainly about geology and mountaineering. Friends would walk in and sit down and before even saying hello, they’d launch into a tale of their most recent climbing exploit. I was no match for the north-facers, but I was proud of myself the first time I climbed Mt. Baker. Though I had been intimidated by steep snow and avalanches and the impatience of my more seasoned companions, when I returned in one piece I thought, "Wow-I did this."
Mount Baker
Mount Baker
A couple of years later I went back and found myself mentoring another young woman who was as timid as I had been. Meanwhile her boyfriend hauled a pair of skis along so he could glide down the Coleman Glacier. In 1975, this seemed very strange indeed. Now that glacier sometimes looks like a downhill ski area. 

Maybe that is one of the differences between then and now – we used the same old equipment to engage in the same kind of climbing the generation before us did. It was an adventure, not a race. We were there to be on the mountain, not to outdo each other with the latest clothing or technology.

It didn’t take long before I exchanged the adrenaline rush of an exposed climb for the contentment I found in sitting on a ridge (one that didn’t make me want to pee my pants when I looked down) and simply listen to that silence, notice the tiny buzz of an insect in the wildflowers beside me, and watch a swift, whizzing on angled wings as it flew over the ridge and down into the abyss. 

This could have been a result of my nature, but I give credit to those who were most important to me as a young woman: my conservation mentors.

° ° °

My first experience in backpacking—beyond the summer-camp night out—was led by a high school friend’s father who was a member of the Seattle Mountaineers. He taught me how to feel secure on a steep talus slope, how to take rest steps on a trail that went straight up, and how to be cheerful regardless of the weather. 

We didn’t complain about small discomforts. “If your feet are cold, put on a hat,” he advised. When we walked half a day in rain and mist, he stopped to pull out a bag of trail mix. Passing it around, he said, “Have some GNUDS.” Gnuds? “Goodies nibbled under desperate circumstances.”

 I loved not only his good cheer and obvious joy at being in the mountains, but also his knowledge. We travelled an off-trail route described in a book by a pair of geologists, and stopped often to look at the rocks. He named the peaks we could see, the marmots we heard, and the wildflowers in soggy mountain meadows, declaring his favorite to be American bistort, with its tuft of white flowers nodding in the breeze. 

Twenty years later I chose a drawing of bistort to illustrate the cover of an anthology about wilderness which I edited. It only occurs to me now why it seemed an unconscious but obvious choice. It is the flower that symbolizes the wild because of that long-ago backpacking trip.

Later I got involved with the northwest office of the Sierra Club which was conducting its own counter-inventory of national forest roadless lands after the first official inventory done by the agency. There I met people who had dedicated their lives to conservation. 

Two that stand out were a husband-wife team of botanists who, with their Corgie, Owen, tramped along the trails and invited me on some of their botanizing forays. I learned more wildflowers, and felt their deep appreciation for the plants and the mountain ecosystem they depended on. Yes, I was hiking, being in the mountains to do what I most wanted to do, but I was also learning from these and other mentors how to approach wild country – with reverence.

It’s tempting to say that we old moss-backs had more of a conservation ethic than some of the young people we see in the woods today, but I’m not sure it has much to do with age. I know people in their thirties whose parents took them on hiking, climbing, and paddling expeditions in Greater Yellowstone and beyond. They were instilled with a love of the land. Regardless of your age, you either have the religion or you don’t.

Not long after that first backpacking trip I retired my Trapper Nelson for a more comfortable pack, but that’s about the only thing I got rid of. The wool shirts and leather boots I hiked in were little different from those I use today. Some of them actually are the same shirts. Everyone else had the same gear, basic and utilitarian. I noticed a change in the early 80s when the parties I went to in Bozeman found people no longer bragging about climbing feats but hunched over a coffee table with the latest Patagonia catalogue. These people were already outdoors-oriented, and conservation was high on their list of things to care about. Why were they such gearhead consumers all the sudden?
"Maybe that is one of the differences between then and now – we used the same old equipment to engage in the same kind of climbing the generation before us did. It was an adventure, not a race."
Towns like Bozeman were listed in national magazines with other “best places” for outdoor living. The in-migration of people to Greater Yellowstone to experience its lifestyle coincided with the dot.com boom that allowed people to live wherever they wanted and still do their work. Or else make a few million, retire, and move to the Rockies.

° ° °

Fast-forward three decades and the scenario that began in that time is playing itself out. Housing is hard to find, rents are astronomical, and young people who come for a season or two are forced by high prices to move on. Our town ski hill, now trying to reinvent itself as a major destination resort, recently got popped for cramming 14 employees into a tiny living space.

You don’t engender a love of place with this kind of treatment. People get off work and run to the closest trail to let off steam. They don’t have time to look at the wildflowers, they have to be back at their second job in an hour. I don’t know that it’s a lack of sensitivity or mentorship that makes some of the ‘new’ people the way they are, as much as the circumstances offered to them when they come here looking for a life of high adventure.

Too many of them don’t take the time to practice with avalanche beacons or ice axes, and are killed in accidents that might not have happened had experienced mentors been there to guide them.

Advertising adds to the problem. The Jackson Hole tourism board’s “Stay Wild” campaign is an example of the kind of promotion we’ve seen for years, meant to ratchet up the excitement factor with shots of extreme sports while claiming to honor the area’s heritage of wilderness. The campaign states, “There’s something for everyone—shopping, destination spas, award-winning dining, museums, concerts, dance performances, and a vibrant nightlife.” No wonder people come here looking for fun, not an appreciation of what is truly wild.

Stay Wild posters show, among other scenes, a snow biker riding off-trail in front of the Grand (let’s hope this was photoshopped) and a skier heading down the mountain in a flurry of powder. This reminds me less of staying wild than engaging in the industrial tourism Ed Abbey warned about long ago. But whether the images display bikers, skiers, or snowshoers, the dominant photographic subject is people.
Still image taken from  Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board's YouTube video "Jackson Hole Winter 2017-18 : Stay Wild".
Still image taken from Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board's YouTube video "Jackson Hole Winter 2017-18 : Stay Wild".
This may be another reason those ‘peer groups’ behave in ways that seem shallow to some of us. While ski magazines have always promoted downhill thrills at resorts, the same kind of imagery is being applied to activities that take place in the backcountry. I contrast these to the pictures in books and calendars that inspired me when I was young. People were rarely featured in the photos except as small silhouettes in large landscapes. Those images were meant to portray the magnificence of wilderness: a stunning granite tower, not a brightly clad hero crawling up it. They stimulated my imagination, allowing me, the viewer, to place myself there instead of suggesting what I should be doing.

In spite of the advertising, people keep coming to Greater Yellowstone for the same reasons that have always drawn them. There are more wildlife tour companies than I can keep track of, and their clients are thrilled to see moose, bison and bears in their natural habitat. Outfitter-guides whose long-term businesses revolved around elk hunting are welcoming people who just want to get out and see a real wilderness during the summer season. One guide who specializes in naturalist hikes has to turn away business on busy days.

° ° °

In Greater Yellowstone, we have a unique opportunity to do what many of our slogans promise: invite people here to increase their appreciation for the wild world, and to reconnect with themselves as its offspring. Without WIFI in many places, people start slowing down, relaxing, and experiencing the present moment without distractions. Not everyone is able to do this. You still see the businessman twitching with impatience as his kids revel in a lake so clean they can swim in it. But most visitors, some for the first time in memory, seem to find moments of peace and serenity in simply being here.

Here the land itself is our mentor, and it’s up to us whether to accept its invitation or not. We should be grateful that we have this choice.
Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.