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Metamorphosis: When Prominent Users Of Nature Become Advocates For Its Protection

A young environmental writer interviews two heroes, Conrad Anker and Craig Mathews, about their own evolution as defenders

River protector and legendary fly fisherman Craig Mathews say conservation benefits communities, economies and personal lifestyles. It only makes sense that business people should act on their conscience and dedicate part of their profits to environmental protection. Photo courtesy NPS
River protector and legendary fly fisherman Craig Mathews say conservation benefits communities, economies and personal lifestyles. It only makes sense that business people should act on their conscience and dedicate part of their profits to environmental protection. Photo courtesy NPS
In my opinion, environmentalists tend to be a cynical bunch. Convinced that we are the only ones dedicated enough to protect our planet, we can appear to have a jaundiced view to those around us.

 In a movement often met with indifference, opposition or defeat, it’s an easy attitude to adopt. I have times where I find myself viewing conservation groups with skepticism and disappointment. One group gets labeled as elitist, another allegedly has racist roots, and another cares more about accessibility for funhogs than protection of rare wildlife. 

We forget that the conservation movement in many ways was a countermovement to Manifest Destiny, the delusionary belief that things in nature were inexhaustive.

While so many of our ancestors were enraptured as settlers with seizing as much of the West as we could, a few, courageous yet unpopular among the land grabbers and robber barons, said no. If we continue this line of thinking, we find that the way many of us that think of ourselves as conservationists have gone astray, in that we’ve forgotten lessons from the past.

Many groups concerned with public lands focus more on access for their recreation-minded members than preservation of the character of the land itself. Upon my arrival in Bozeman last summer, Josiah Black Eagle Pinkham, historian and storyteller, laid out the Nez Perce core values as follows: He ranks ensuring survival of things from the land as far more important than access to those lands.
We forget that the conservation movement in many ways was a countermovement to Manifest Destiny, the delusionary belief that things in nature were inexhaustive.
Most importantly, the Nez Perce aim to perpetuate a sensitive relationship with the land and the living things inhabiting it. When I visited the International Mountain Biking Association webpage, there is no question that they advocate for human access before protection. Or, consider what has happened on the world's highest peak.  Look at the refuse and human waste left there, defying the credo of leaving special places better than one finds them. 

Outdoor recreators, merely because they use nature like a workout gym are not, from my perspective, inherently conservationists though they might think are. 

In the battle to protect the planet, however, recreators are potentially a conservationist’s best friend for they possess the potential of evolving past simply advocating to satisfy their own desires to actively preserve nature for its own intrinsic worth.   

While many might not initially support conservation/environmental efforts, people care about what they love using if even for selfish reasons. They are like the freshmen walking through a club fair during their first week at college. Unjaded by years in the movement to safeguard wildlife habitat, clean water, air and soil, with the right convincing they might be more willing to join organizations that actually protect nature, write to their politicians, and donate to causes than someone who has spent a lifetime fighting battles with little end in sight.

Converting users into conservationists is one of the most important quests of the environmental movement as younger generations come of age, and the question is how do you do it?

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Wild fish photographer and conservationist Pat Clayton (read the Mountain  Journal story about his work) knows it won’t happen for people who focus only on satisfying their own needs, aren’t willing to consider that they have an impact, and, once convinced of their impact, aren’t willing to modify or end their behavior, even if their activity is contributing to harm of a place or species.

Pat Clayton
Pat Clayton
Even for him as a photographer and mindful recreationist himself, each piece of equipment, he told me, that stands between you and your experience moves you further away from being sensitive to the fragile limits of the land. 

It’s no mistake that our country’s most famous and influential conservationists were who they were. They absorbed more by going at slower speeds.

Henry David Thoreau spent two years living at Walden Pond. Aldo Leopold grew up exploring the woods and fields near his Iowa home, spent time as a Forest Service ranger, helped wipe out predators and then had a change of heart when he settled to his place at Sand County in Wisconsin. Rachel Carson spent her early life walking through the lands around her family farm. 

The Muries of Jackson Hole became humbled by their years exploring wilderness and studying the creatures inhabiting it. They used their understandings to devote their lives—even when suffering social alienation in their communities and backlash from the government agencies they worked for—to protecting wild land as the consumptive mindset of Manifest Destiny continued to erode more each year.

These people had close and direct connections to the land. I would suggest that encounters such as these are a conservationist’s greatest recruiting tool. When did we forget this?  Similarly, when did society cross over a divide and decide that people who acted selflessly to protect nature—nature they may never use or benefit financially from—were “anti-human” or racist?  

John Muir today stands accused of this. When Theodore Roosevelt came to Yosemite Valley in 1903, Muir took him on a three-day camping trip. Three years later, Roosevelt signed a bill creating the unified Yosemite National Park that is accessible to every American regardless of race. Muir turned Roosevelt, ardent user and hunter, into a conservationist.  

The fact that indigenous inhabitants were forced out of national parks represents a serious injustice, warrants contemporary examination and remedies that meet treaty obligations. But the fact this happened does not negate the contemporary reality which is that national parks and some American public lands are the last places where rare species, which have been extirpated elsewhere, still hold on because their habitat is not fragmented by human uses.
Conrad Anker has made historic ascents and experienced the front lines of planet-wide climate change first-hand.  A self-proclaimed science nerd, one of his passions is understanding the geo-eco-hydrological changes affecting vulnerable people and fragile environments.  Photo courtesy Conrad Anker/The North Face
Conrad Anker has made historic ascents and experienced the front lines of planet-wide climate change first-hand. A self-proclaimed science nerd, one of his passions is understanding the geo-eco-hydrological changes affecting vulnerable people and fragile environments. Photo courtesy Conrad Anker/The North Face
I sat down with Conrad Anker—former North Face team leader of 30 years who is both an iconic figure and a self-avowed conservationist—for a feature-length piece. I could not help but ask him what he thought. He agreed with the argument made by Muir, that experiencing the raw beauty of nature, the intensity and unpredictability of the weather, and forces bigger than oneself are keys to developing an appreciation of the outdoors. 

Yet, as Anker highlighted, people like U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, spends weeks in wilderness areas, but routinely votes against conservation legislation. The League of Conservation Voters gives Daines, who grew up in Bozeman, a 14 percent score for his votes in 2018 and a lifetime score of 4 percent. 

Nature-based tourism, whether it involves outdoor recreation, wildlife watching or simply gawking at unblemished landscapes, each year represents a bigger part of the economy in the northern Rockies. Ironically, if you protect landscapes,  for their natural character and wildlife, which offers a counterpoint to the rest of of America, people in the 21st century want to live closer to them. Nature, unextracted, attracts entrepreneurs who create jobs which bolsters the economy.

So what causes a disconnect in someone like Daines who doesn't apparently see that natural resource extraction of the past is not what will drive economies in the future? What causes some people who spend time in the outdoors to end up like Conrad Anker and others to end up like him? 
So what causes that shift? What causes some people who spend time in the outdoors to end up like Conrad Anker and others to end up like Steve Daines? 
In order to not be drawn into pessimism, and as I learned from talking with conservation leader and renowned flyfisherman Craig Mathews, the only satisfying take away is that people like Daines are the exception. Give the average urbanite a real taste of the outdoors and they will come around, but given today’s challenges they need to come around sooner rather than later.  Self-serving interests must give way to thinking and acting in ways that safeguard what sets wild places apart.

Recently the findings of research looking into the benefits of small life changes like composting or purchasing local produce came out suggesting that such efforts are perhaps counterproductive and stop real change from occurring. 

That does not mean we should stop purchasing clothes second hand or recycling, rather we should diminish the value placed on these actions and encourage more meaningful, wider reaching solutions.

In the 1970’s, the grand decade of environmental legislation in the United States, passing bills like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were at the forefront of everyone’s minds. When did recycling become the calling card of the environmental movement rather than pursuing broader visions? 

According to Mathews, it’s still all about activism and people must demonstrate courage to advocate for the rights things that may be socially unpopular. In the US, a majority understand climate science and are in favor of investing in renewable energy. The problem is not enough of us are speaking up, he notes. 

“Silence is almost a betrayal,” Mathews said. “I f you don’t stand up and speak loudly and clearly about what you love and what you feel in terms of conservation we might as well all fold up our tents and go home.” 
“Silence is almost a betrayal. If you don’t stand up and speak loudly and clearly about what you love and what you feel in terms of conservation we might as well all fold up our tents and go home.”  —Craig Mathews
Interestingly, Clayton, Anker and Mathews are involved in conservation revolving around water, understanding its role as the lifeblood of our planet.

Craig, like Conrad, became involved in conservation through his parents, who instilled a sense of responsibility to “give back more than the average person” if you are using our natural resources for economic gain, or even if you love them. He and his wife, Jackie, operated one of the most popular flyshops in America in West Yellowstone, Montana. He says that encouraging his patrons to support conservation and, in some cases, preservation, did not cost him customers; it solidified the loyalty of customers who had strong values.

As someone that spends more than 160 days a year fishing and hunting, Craig sees himself as the luckiest man in the world.  “Every minute I could spend in the wild I did,” but he adds that he didn’t promote his own profits over the destructive exploitation of a river. In fact, he is supportive regulations on rivers, and has caught flack for it, even though he would have made more money if the regulations were not in place.

Naturally, Craig’s pioneering role in creating One Percent for the Planet came up. Dreamt up with Yvon Chouinard, the business visionary and co-founder of Patagonia, One Percent for the Planet is an optional earth tax that businesses can choose to join, and donate one percent of revenue to conservation causes. 
Dreamt up with Yvon Chouinard, the business visionary and co-founder of Patagonia, One Percent for the Planet is an optional earth tax that businesses can choose to join, and donate one percent of revenue to conservation causes. 
Patagonia and Mathew’s old company, Blue Ribbon Flies, both immediately incorporated the initiative into their business practices, formalizing years of optional support of conservation organizations and initiatives. 

Businesses tend to spend two to three percent of revenue on advertising, and Craig, in an effort to encourage more businesses to adopt the model, highlights the enormous impact that adopting One Percent for the Planet can have on sales. 

One Percent for the Planet has contributed 200 million dollars towards conservation initiatives since its foundation. The draw this initiative has for customers has been large. Economically - both short term and long term - the campaign makes sense.  “If you use a public resource, or if you believe in conservation advocacy and grassroots advocacy, you have to support it with one percent of your gross sale.” 

Craig encourages businesses to join One Percent, but is not afraid to embarrass businesses in order to get them to join in the movement. Over in the Madison River Valley where Craig lives some forty miles outside Yellowstone, conflict between outfitters and conservationists has escalated into a battle over river usage and as a local, Craig has stepped in. 

Many environmentalists are concerned with advancing causes diplomatically, to the point they will not stake out decisions they fear might alienate donors, but he is not afraid of speaking out. Not one to shy away from conflict, Craig acknowledges that he is known by some guides and outfitters who want to make as much money as possible as “the enemy.” “I’m more concerned with the resource… If we protect the resource, we can make a good living,” he says. “I want to see a healthy river so we can see a healthy local economy.” 

Growing up, Craig had a summer home on a lake in Northern Michigan, and when construction began to dam up a favorite trout stream of his to create a new lake which effectively destroyed the fishing stream and eutrophied the lake his family’s home was on. The farm where his mother was born and raised had a creek that ran through it. 

But, when General Motors built a factory upstream, the creek became saturated with run-off from the parking lots, killing most everything downstream from the crayfish to the trout. That bothered his grandfather, his uncles, and his parents, and became one of the first experiences Craig had with how to protect healthy natural resources. At 70, Craig hasn’t stopped, and still finds himself advocating for rivers and healthy resource management. 

° ° ° °

Every conservationist I have listed here grew up in nature, or with a family that instilled a sense of responsibility to the land within them as a part of their upbringing. But, with the outdoor recreation industry booming, many new recreationists did not learn about a land ethic from their parents or peers. They don’t understand concepts of limits in order to protect a greater good or wildlife ecology. Perhaps more than ever, the overlap between land users and conservationists is smallest. In order to remedy this, Craig sees childhood as the key. “It has to become more and more a part of our education system,” he says. 

“When I see the educated young people, little kids some of them, four or five years old that come in, and they already know all about [nature], it comes from public schools and the right teachers.” “Unfortunately there are far too few of them”

“If we don’t start educating people about climate change and about the issues – I mean climate change is coming right at us. We don’t have a long time to address that.” He sees it as a responsibility of everyone to educate young folk, and believes the guides and employees for Blue Ribbon Flies instill knowledge in those that visit the shop. Craig has seen firsthand the effects of teaching the young kids that come in to the shop with wide eyes, excited to learn about wild places and wildlife. “That really gets the ball rolling.” 

He highlighted the impact of former Yellowstone Superintendents Michael Finley and Dan Wenk who never turned away from a fight. Finley fought tooth and nail to bring wolves back to Yellowstone and both took on the effort to reduce invasive lake trout that was decimating cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake. 

The way to overturn opposition to environmental protection is to prove the naysayers wrong, not play nice. Despite his take no-BS attitude, Craig is optimistic. He sees elected officials like Daines as outliers who are out of touch with social changes and shifting values, with citizens recognizing that traditional resource extraction is not sustainable or a way to build communities that last. 

Most people, when confronted with the vulnerability of a species, a river, or a planet that they hold dear, will choose to act, Mathews says. And action is what he believes we need. Too many people are content to sit on the sidelines, he told me, happy to donate and vote, but unwilling to participate in the activism necessary to stop the rising threats that face the Mountain West and the world at large. And with the fate of wild lands at stake, we all need to act. 
Too many people are content to sit on the sidelines, he told me, happy to donate and vote, but unwilling to participate in the activism necessary to stop the rising threats that face the Mountain West and the world at large. And with the fate of wild lands at stake, we all need to act. 
What do I think? Many young people are so tongue-tied by the idea of intersectionality that they are afraid to act on one specific issue, leading to inaction on all fronts. I wish I could present a blueprint of how to remedy this, but I cannot. 

There are organizations that are doing it right. Sunrise Movement, a grassroots, youth-led climate advocacy group has been able to do what Mathews calls for. They are getting today’s youth and students out in the streets, they confront politicians and leaders, and engage in civil disobedience. 

Sunrise has put my generation’s respect for intersectional activism to work, calling those from all walks of life to change the world for better. Becoming a part of something bigger and seeing the power of action creates a sense of self larger than the individual. At the risk of oversimplifying, the exploitation of our wild places comes from greed and individuality. Our efforts to protect it come from community and empathy. 

Everyone you meet on the trail and out in your waders and on the slopes has stakes in what happens to our public lands and natural surroundings. Recreators already congregate. We do it in mountain towns, in Facebook groups, and through running and hiking groups. Maybe these can take a page from my generation’s insight and turn these groups—our communities—into allies. 

An affinity for the outdoors cannot just be an opportunity to work up a sweat on our public lands instead of a gym. It has to be more. It has to include advocacy, discussion, and action. Over the past few years I have observed a sizeable increase in the frequency with which people are willing to talk about climate change. I think, and hope, we are on the right track. 

But, expanding on what Mathews said, we need to educate and cultivate a personal connection to the land in our peers, our children, and our fellow recreators. As stewards of the lands and animals around us, we have to go beyond our personal enjoyment of these spaces and follow our duty to protect them.  

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jordan Payne was Mountain Journal's summer intern in 2019 and is a senior at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington
Jordan Payne
About Jordan Payne

Jordan Payne is Mountain Journal's 2019 summer intern. A native of the West Coast, he is a student at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. 
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