Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Last month, California’s Mojave and Colorado Deserts, along with the neighboring San Bernardino Mountains, became home to three new national monuments—Castle Mountains, Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow—thanks to President Barack Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act.

Together, these new monuments protect 1.8 million acres of desert and mountains. These new monuments will help preserve the ecological integrity of a region under tremendous pressure from two of the country’s fastest-growing urban regions, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. By connecting existing protected areas, plants and animals will have a better chance to move to cooler and wetter climates as our deserts become hotter and drier due to climate change. These new monuments will help to ensure that California’s magnificent deserts and neighboring mountains are healthy and whole for years to come.

The monuments also protect a region that’s brimming with stories of the diverse people who’ve made their homes here.

Castle Mountains provides an important buffer between an old gold mining site and the Mojave National Preserve. Prospectors first flocked to the Castles in 1908. The boomtown of Hart grew from nothing to 1,500 people in just a few months. Today, the site is barely perceptible: One can find just a chimney, tin cans and memories. When Interstate 40 was completed in 1973, the busy roadside services of US Highway 66 in Mojave Trails disappeared overnight. Proprietors simply walked away from their cafes, service stations and motels. Now these remnants of history are slowly turning to dust, even as this lonely stretch of the “Mother Road” attracts tourists from all over the world. Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa in Sand to Snow host village sites that are thousands of years old. Numerous petroglyphs, pictographs and grinding stones found there offer a glimpse into the life of Native Americans before contact with the Spanish.

However, the creation of these new national monuments is just the beginning. As communities across the desert rightfully celebrate the designation of these monuments, the exciting work of making them more than lines on a map begins. Local elected officials, business leaders, tribes, recreational interests, conservation organizations and others should join together to ensure that adjacent communities such as Barstow, Needles, Morongo Valley and Desert Hot Springs, along with tribes such as the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the Fort Mojave tribe, receive the full economic, educational and recreational benefits of the newly protected public lands.

Advocates for the new monuments have long highlighted the economic benefits that conservation would provide, and there are numerous studies to support this. However, without proper signage, well-marked trail-heads, adequate parking areas, strategically located front-country campgrounds and good maps, it will be difficult to attract visitors. To realize true economic benefits, it will take infrastructure improvements, marketing and personnel. There must be a significant financial investment, through a public-private partnership.

The Bureau of Land Management, in particular, is going to need an official partner to raise funds for things like the construction of visitor centers, campgrounds, wayside exhibits and signs, as well as the less-exciting, but no-less-important expenses, including operating costs and funding for education and interpretive programs. This new partner organization could work with groups that have existing relationships with the BLM and the Forest Service, like the Mojave Desert Land Trust and The Wildlands Conservancy, in three areas: education, stewardship and recreation. Local schoolchildren need educational resources, and there should be interpretive programs for visitors and locals alike. Stewardship programs can connect people to their public lands, help to build and maintain infrastructure, restore damaged ecosystems, and advance knowledge through citizen-science projects. Finally, we must ensure that the multiple recreational activities permitted in these monuments are carried out responsibly, without damage to natural habitat and in respect of the sacred sites of local tribes, through programs that teach and promote responsible use of our shared natural resources.

Diversity is increasing in the desert, just as it is across the nation, but California’s deserts have always been diverse. Of course, Native Americans have been here for thousands of years. Even in small, isolated railroad and mining towns, residents came from remarkably diverse backgrounds. For example, during Amboy’s heyday in the 1930s and ’40s, along Route 66 in Mojave Trails, a Greek and a Chinese immigrant each owned and operated a café, motel, gas station and garage. Hopi and Navajo railroad workers lived in town and maintained the line. Mexican Americans made up the majority of students in the Amboy School. (To learn more about the history of the Mojave Desert’s mining and railroad communities check out Joe de Kehoe’s book The Silence and the Sun.)

Ensuring that we draw Southern California’s kaleidoscope of races and cultures to enjoy these new monuments is no simple task. It will require having a workforce that reflects diversity, and the creation of an environment for visitors where cultural differences are honored and embraced. To get there, we’ll need conservation leaders who reflect our diverse communities. Fortunately, there are numerous examples of training programs that draw participants from diverse and often underserved communities throughout the Southland. One example is the San Gabriel Mountains Forever’s Leadership Academy, a rigorous program that’s training a new generation of conservation advocates who better reflect the makeup of our nation.

If we want visitors to these new monuments to be as diverse as the communities near them, we have to roll out a multicultural welcome mat. We will have to address issues of access. There must be adequate and affordable transportation and a welcoming environment, including bilingual interpreters, campgrounds that can handle multi-generational visitors, bilingual signage and information, and gender-neutral restrooms to serve both families and the transgender community. Partnering with organizations like Outward Bound Adventures and the Sierra Club’s My Generation Campaign, both of whom are already working in the Coachella Valley, could help break down barriers, economic and cultural, to greater visitation by people of color.

The secretary of the interior, whose department includes the BLM and National Park Service, agrees. Secretary Sally Jewell recently signed an order in honor of the memory of Doug Walker (a long-serving member of The Wilderness Society’s governing council) that will increase access to public lands by youth and young adults who are “disadvantaged and under-resourced.”

Finally, it all has to start by reaching out to diverse communities to ensure that there is maximum participation in the creation of the general management plans that will guide the three new national monuments. We also must include diverse user-groups: Equestrians, off-highway-vehicle users, hunters and conservationists all have interests that must be addressed. Sooner rather than later, listening sessions should be organized throughout the desert and mountain area—something both the BLM and U.S. Forest Service have expressed their determination to do.

All of this will take years to accomplish. However, I’m hopeful that when the first anniversary of these new monuments is marked in February 2017, all stakeholders will see that significant progress has been made. I’m also sure the future of these monuments will be inclusive, reflecting the very best tendencies of Southern California and the nation.

Mati Jatovsky is the California desert representative for The Wilderness Society and a former park ranger interpreter. He lives in Joshua Tree. 

Published in Community Voices

Since Jan. 2, a crew of self-proclaimed militiamen have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. The occupation is a reaction to the sentencing for arson of Dwight and Steve Hammond, local ranchers who have become symbols of the Sagebrush Rebellion over the last two decades. But the action goes far beyond just one family’s fight with the federal government: It’s an escalation of an insurgency sparked by the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014.

The Hammond family has been at odds with the Bureau of Land Management since the early ’90s, initially over grazing and water rights, and more recently over arson. The son and father were sentenced in 2012 and served abbreviated sentences—a year and three months, respectively. This October, the Hammonds were resentenced to five years each, with credit for the time they already served.

That aroused the passion of Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy; the elder Bundy made national news when he sparred with the BLM in 2014. Ammon Bundy has led a social media PR campaign for the Hammonds’ cause, producing a flurry of emotional YouTube videos and blog posts that rally support for the Hammonds and stir hatred for the federal government. In response to his urgent call to action, several hundred people walked in peaceful protest through the town of Burns last Saturday in support of the Oregon ranchers. Some of them were locals, but most were from out of town.

Saturday afternoon following the rally, word got out that Bundy had ratcheted the support movement to a new level: He and a handful of compatriots, including his brother Ryan, as well as Montana militiaman Ryan Payne, announced they were occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 23 miles south of Burns. They said they would stay there for as long as it took to stop federal overreach, and that they would be willing to fight and die for their cause.

While it at first appeared to be a repeat of the Bundy standoff or the Sugar Pine Mine incident in southern Oregon last spring, many of the individuals and organizations that rallied behind Cliven Bundy didn’t join the occupiers—and, in fact, condemned their actions.

Even before the wildlife refuge occupation began Saturday afternoon, Ammon Bundy was a controversial figure within far-right circles. Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, the national constitutionalist organization that helped out at Bundy Ranch, called Bundy’s messaging “confusing and contradictory.” Rhodes criticized Bundy for putting out a call to action and incendiary rhetoric, without the full support of the Hammonds. Rhodes wrote: “At the very least, Ammon needs to make it very clear what he is asking people to do, and he needs to make it clear that he is going against the clearly stated intent of the Hammonds.”

News of the occupation blindsided other leaders of the Hammond support movement. “It was like: Wait, what did they do?” says Joseph Rice, head of the Oath Keepers of Josephine County, Ore., site of the Sugar Pine Mine incident.

“You HIJACKED what turned out to be a great and peaceful rally,” BJ Soper, of the Pacific Patriots Network, wrote to Bundy on Facebook. Rice, Soper and other Hammond-supporters have called Bundy “radicalized” and “fringe,” since he went rogue.

Chuck Cushman, a close supporter of the Hammonds and brainchild of the conservative wise-use movement of the ’90s, said of an email from Ammon Bundy: “Nearly all of what Bundy wrote was inaccurate at best. The facts were misstated and nearly all of what he talked about never happened. … Suzie (sic) Hammond (wife of Dwight) … expressed concern that statements were made that were just flat-out wrong.”

Bundy has refused to report how many people are camped at the wildlife refuge, but High Country News photographer Brooke Warren, who was at the site on Saturday night, counted 15 to 20 people. At least two were keeping watch in the federal fire tower. Rumors have circulated that Bundy may have machinations to occupy a nearby BLM building as well.

The dispute between the Hammonds and the federal government dates back decades. HCN reported in 1994 that Dwight Hammond, now 73, had made death threats against managers of the refuge in 1986, ’88 and ’91. He had also allegedly repeatedly violated a special permit that allowed him to move his cows across the refuge only at specific times. Hammond was briefly jailed in 1994 for “disturbing and interfering with” federal officials and then released after two nights in jail. Afterward, nearly 500 ranchers apparently rallied in Burns to support the Hammonds in their ongoing dispute.

The more recent fight is over two fires in 2001 and 2006. According to a family member’s testimony that is central to prosecutors’ arguments, in 2001, Dwight Hammond led family members in setting a blaze that burned 139 acres of public land in order to destroy evidence of an illegal deer hunt. Hammond argued the fire was meant to beat back invasive juniper that interfered with his cattle operation. Hammond lit the 2006 fire as a back-burn to lightning-caused fires, in order to protect his cattle and land. That backfire endangered the lives of BLM firefighters, according to Acting U.S. Attorney Billy Williams. 

In 2012, Hammond and his son were sentenced on charges of arson. Last year, Oregon’s federal attorney appealed the original sentence that was below the minimum required under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. In October, a U.S. district judge sentenced them to finish the five-year minimum prison term, with credit for time they already served.

Shortly thereafter, Ammon Bundy began ramping up his PR campaign, using the Hammond case as a rallying cry for the wider Sagebrush Rebellion—the fight against the feds, with whom his own family had unfinished business.

Among the casualties of Ammon Bundy’s recent campaign are the local communities of Burns and Hines, which have become divided over the Hammond situation and its fallout. Some local businesses have put up “Bundys go home” signs, while others have said they will only do business with Hammond supporters. Protestors on Saturday threw pennies, some violently, at the county sheriff’s office to send the message that Sheriff Dave Ward is a sell-out for not standing with them.

“We are using the wildlife refuge as a place for individuals across the United States to come and assist in helping the people of Harney County claim back their lands and resources,” Bundy said Saturday. Yet, whom he is helping is not entirely clear. In public meetings Friday and Saturday, several locals worried that Bundy and militia members from out of town were concerned more with their own agendas than with the desires of Harney County residents. On a petition to President Obama to pardon the Hammonds, out of 1,700 signatures, only 157 indicate they’re from the county. Yet the petition states: “The residents of Harney County believe that they have served enough time and are asking the president for a commute of sentence for the remainder of the Appeals Court Sentence.”

One local, Shonna McKay, wrote in a blog post: “Does anyone in town really know Ammon or what his real agenda is? Has he come here and stirred things up for our best interest or is this his own personal vendetta? … I have friends and family who live along their marching route (who) are afraid to be home on that day for fear of something happening.”

Hines resident Diane Rapaport says Ammon Bundy and his compatriots have taken the local community “emotionally hostage.”

Since October, government and law enforcement officials in Burns and Hines have received death threats from Hammond supporters. According to a city administrator, as of Jan. 4, two city halls, a courthouse, some county offices and public schools were temporarily closed due to safety concerns over the recent events. Employees at the Burns BLM office are also on leave, for safety reasons, until further notice.

Ammon Bundy’s bravado and apparent disregard for locals’ desires echo the events at Recapture Canyon in Utah in 2014, when his brother, Ryan Bundy, took an ATV protest ride farther than the local organizers seemed to want it to go. County Commissioner Phil Lyman organized the Utah protest and asked participants to stop at the end of a two-track road, and not to proceed onto a more sensitive trail. Ryan Bundy disregarded Lyman’s request and charged onward.

In Burns, Ammon Bundy says he did meet with the Hammonds, who were grateful for his support. However, the ranchers say they did not request the call to action nor the occupation of the wildlife refuge in their names.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife have offered only generic statements about how they are responding to the situation. One employee at the local BLM office, who asked not to be named, told HCN that agency leadership has been as tight-lipped internally as it is in its public statements. The employee also said that the agency has discouraged staffers from attending public meetings about the Hammonds, not for political reasons, but for personnel safety.

Late Monday morning, Ammon Bundy and other occupiers held a press conference at the refuge. They read aloud a redress of grievances addressed to a number of public officials, which stated: “We hold compelling evidence that the U.S. Government abused the federal court system, situating the Hammond family into duress as effort to force the Hammond’s to sell their Steen Mountain property to a federal agency.” The document requested a response from the federal government within five days.

In response to reporters’ questions, Ammon said: “Statements are not good enough. We intend on going to work and assisting the people of Harney in claiming their rights, using their rights as free people. We have a lot of work of beginning to unwind the unconstitutional land transactions that have taken place here. And we have defense mechanisms that allow us to do it while we’re here.”

When a reporter asked whether any Harney County residents were occupying the refuge with him, he said no.

As of Tuesday, Jan. 5, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had reportedly informed Harney County Sheriff David Ward that the wildlife refuge occupiers would face charges. The FBI is leading a criminal case against the group at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge.

Brooke Warren, associate designer for High Country News contributed reporting to this story. Tay Wiles is the online editor for HCN.

Published in Features

Wayne Hare’s 11 years as a backcountry ranger included stints at Rocky Mountain and Canyonlands national parks and, most recently, at the Grand Junction, Colo., field office of the Bureau of Land Management.

Hare grew up on a dairy farm in New Hampshire, where, he says, “As far as I knew, we were about the only black family in the state.” His father took the kids hiking, camping and biking, giving his son a love of the outdoors that would shape his life. Four years in the Marines were followed by two decades at a big computer corporation; then Hare went to work for Outward Bound in Massachusetts and directed outdoor programs at Dartmouth College. Whenever he led students through the woods, he was struck by what he didn’t see—“other brown people.” So he began writing about non-white Western adventurers and working with the National Park Service to create programs to increase the agency’s diversity. He continues to urge minorities to support—and enjoy—their public lands.

Now 64, Hare retired from the BLM last spring and has been traveling the West. Jodi Peterson caught up with him recently.

Racial and ethnic minorities are fast becoming the majority of the U.S. population, but make up only a small fraction of national park visitors. Why don’t more minorities visit public lands?

As a ranger, I made thousands of public contacts a year. Less than half a dozen were “people of color,” and maybe one was black. That’s just weird! River-rafting or mountain-biking are fun, no matter what color you are. If I blame anyone, it’s people of color who buy into their own stereotypes: “Oh, no, we don’t hike. That’s for white people.”

Also, black Americans’ institutional memory of the outdoors isn’t positive, and we haven’t gotten over that yet. I’ll never forget a black senior at Dartmouth who, in talking with me about the backcountry cabins that Dartmouth owns, and the rock-climbing that is pervasive at the school, said, “I don’t really know what a cabin is, and I don’t know what white people do there. But I do know that I’m not going into the woods with a bunch of white people carrying ropes.” Another student told me, “Our grandparents say, ‘We worked hard so you wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground and use an outhouse.’” That institutional memory and lack of peer permission is something many white folks do not believe or understand. But that shouldn’t be stopping us.

The National Park Service designates specific parks to honor the history of African Americans, like the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. What do you think of that?

Which parks aren’t relevant to black history? In Yosemite, the first armed protectors of the park were a detachment of all-black mounted infantry. Grant-Kohrs, a working ranch in Montana honoring our cowboy heritage, is as relevant to brown-skinned people as the Martin Luther King Jr. site is relevant to white people. A lot of cowboys were black and brown; a lot of freedom riders were white. If we knew our own history, we’d know that we, too, are a part of what national parks represent, and that parks are not just a “white thing.”

Instead of emphasizing differences, I think parks ought to incorporate, in a natural way, the history and stories of everyone, so that we begin to think in terms of “Americans” instead of “hyphenated Americans.” There is no glory, no shame and no history that were not shared by all of us, of all colors.

How can public-lands agencies increase the racial diversity of their visitors and employees?

The agencies have an interest in diversity in public-land management, but I think it’s superficial. It’s such a difficult and uncomfortable thing. Talking about diversity is, after all, talking about race, and at least nodding to the sad history of race in this country. So diversity has morphed into “respect in the workplace.” But diversity isn’t just about getting along. It’s about having a greater cross-section of America—the “Face of America,” as Bob Stanton, former Park Service director, used to say, working on and visiting our public lands.

The Park Service and BLM could do more to promote careers in public lands, such as recruiting in places with more minorities, like big cities. I’ve heard more than one federal hiring manager say something to the effect that they’d advertise a position and simply hire the best-qualified candidate … but they made no attempt to let nontraditional candidates know about those jobs. How about sending some of us to visit schools, in uniform, to simply tell our career stories and flash photos of beautiful places and fun activities?

There are many organizations that take kids of all colors out into the woods. That will pay dividends, and the Park Service is very supportive of those groups.

I often think about the words of William Sloane Coffin Jr.: “Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without.” If we Americans, hyphenated or otherwise, want to continue having public lands to enjoy, we better get our diverse asses in gear.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

I grew up with a dozen horses on Colorado’s eastern plains. In winter, I busted hay bales to feed them, and, under a star-strewn sky, chopped holes in iced-over water tanks so the animals could drink. I’ve always believed that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.

But not all horses are equal, and these days, I question the presence of so many so-called wild horses on our public lands.

Sure, they look great—manes flying, tails outstretched, as the herds gambol across the wide-open spaces. They look great, but unfortunately, those photogenic herds, with their voracious appetites and heavy hooves, endanger native plants, introduce invasive species, hog precious water holes that other mammals need, and continue––endlessly—to multiply. What kind of symbol is this for the American West?

Unlike mule deer, elk or mountain lions, wild horses aren’t really wild. They are feral—turned loose. Perhaps a few rare specimens represent the genetics of Moorish ponies brought over from Spain five centuries ago, but most of today’s wild horses were simply abandoned. Even today, owners continue to release domestic horses onto public lands, especially when the economy turns bad or hay prices rise.

Thanks to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971, herds on public lands are protected—as they should be. But what the law never considered was equine fertility. According to a December 2010 report by the Office of the Inspector General, the herd doubles in size every four years, and “each year, the number of wild horses and burros the Bureau of Land Management manages increases, as does the level of public interest and scrutiny.”

That is why today, one of the icons of the West that has long been enshrined in myth is being scientifically re-examined. Three decades after the law was passed, we know a lot more about ecosystem balance and the carrying capacity of animals on public lands. Factor in drought, and ecological conditions on public land are getting desperate.

The places where the animals grazed in 1971 were officially designated by Congress as herd areas. Later, in the 1980s, the Bureau of Land Management determined which of them were suitable for long-term equine management, and these lands are now herd management areas. The problem is sustainability.

The herd management areas cover 32 million acres in 10 Western states with 37,000 animals on the range, but another 30,000 head of feral horses have been shipped to “long-term holding facilities.” You and I as taxpayers foot the bill. Call it donkey welfare.

I’m an environmentalist, but also a pragmatist. We simply have too many feral horses and burros. And it’s getting worse. The horses on the range grow 20 percent by producing new live foals each year—about 7,400 animals—but only 2,500 of them will get adopted. BLM wild horse and burro specialist Jerome Fox explains, “The BLM presently has more than 10,000 excess wild horses on the range, and new foals in 2013 will add 7,400 more. Our current level of adoptions does not begin to address our excess wild horse problem.”

So, by default, we now practice equine birth control. Volunteers shoot mares with contraceptive darts that after a few years lose their potency. Then it’s time to pull the trigger again. For wild-horse lovers, that strategy far exceeds the bruising benefits of helicopter roundups, now called “gathers” by the BLM, which can run animals into dense oak brush or box canyons, and can produce panic and fatigue in horses as they are crowded into corrals. The Office of the Inspector General admits, “The risk that horses or burros will be injured or killed is an unavoidable consequence of gathering. Injuries and broken bones can and do result from the effort to herd, capture, and transport the animals.”

After the gathers, it’s off to not-always-pleasant pastures in Kansas, Oklahoma or South Dakota at a total taxpayer cost for the horse and burro program of $66 million annually and climbing.

It’s time to stop and smell the sagebrush. We need laws that allow federal agencies to sell or auction feral horses and burros to be re-cycled into food products.

Horses inspire devotion. I understand; I’ve placed my head against their warm flanks after currying them down. I love their smell and their soft lips, and the way they blow on an apple before they eat it. I’ve enjoyed the comfort of sitting a saddle knowing that a good horse will find its way home no matter how dark the trail.

I also believe you can have too much of a good thing, and we have too many feral horses on public land.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.

Published in Community Voices

It's a brilliant Sunday morning in southeast Utah, and a hag mask hangs on the fence before me.

Gray hair askew, the mask gapes at red cliffs through dripping fake blood. The vandal who mounted the mask has also locked the gate to our campsite. No one can get in or out—a dangerous prospect, since most of the 50 or so folks here are senior citizens.

I'm about to photograph the scene, documenting what to me seems a gruesome tableau, when a voice pipes up: "She's kind of pretty, actually."

"Yeah, she looks wise," adds another.

"Like us!"

"Will you take my picture with her?"

Rose Chilcoat, the rosy-cheeked, energetic 54-year-old associate director of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, mugs next to the mask as I snap away.

I'm startled by the Broads' calm response to this outrageous threat. The mask comes with an ominous note: "Get out of San Juan County. This is your last warning." But Chilcoat, whose group educates elders about public-lands issues in hopes of making them active stewards, seems unfazed.

Later on, in a more-serious moment, she muses: "I never thought little old ladies in tennis shoes would be seen as such a threat." But such extreme reactions to their activism have only encouraged Chilcoat and the Broads to hold fast to what might be called an essential tenet of "Broad-ness": Humor is more powerful than fear.

In a roundabout way, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, inspired the creation of the Broads in 1989. New Mexican Susan Tixier and some of her backpacking buddies in their 50s heard how Hatch had argued against wilderness designation, saying that prohibiting motorized access excludes the elderly from the backcountry. "We thought, 'Jeez, we are all old and we still hike!'" recalls Tixier. "So what better than to have old people, particularly old women, stand up for wilderness?

"We didn't really want to be 'ladies,' and 'women' seemed like kind of a weak noun," she adds. So Great Old Broads it became.

The brash name is a selling point to women of a particular type, notes Chilcoat. Broads enjoy joking as they protest; when they picketed against snowmobiles in Yellowstone, one wore a Winnie the Pooh costume with a sign reading, "I can't 'bear' the noise and pollution."

"When you get to a certain age, who cares?" she says.

By 2030, there will be about 30 million more senior citizens in the U.S. than there are now. But their growing numbers aren't the only reason to get them interested in public lands, says Chilcoat. Many are retired and have the time to get involved. And, "There's a certain credibility when elders speak, even in this day and age."

The fast-growing advocacy group has about 4,000 members and has opened 22 chapters, known as Broadbands, across the West—including a Southern California chapter, based in San Diego, and in places as far away as Florida. And while the group is unabashedly pro-wilderness, each Broadband has considerable latitude to choose what it works on. As former executive director Veronica Egan puts it: The Broads are "not anti-anything except poor land management."

Spending time with the group in Colorado and Utah, I met grandmothers who could hold forth in intimate detail on grazing policy and octogenarians who volunteer for the Bureau of Land Management, providing informed critiques of federal land-use plans and studies. How, I wondered, do the Broads transform their members from graying retirees into GPS-wielding, public-comment-making dynamos?

“We’re almost there,” shouts Liz Thomas. An attorney for the nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Thomas leads a group of Broads—several women and a few men—over a small rise outside Canyonlands National Park, not far from where the Broads are camped. We're looking for an ATV right of way proposed by San Juan County. "It's not an open trail now," Thomas says. But we find faint treads where an ATV has tracked the route, and begin to follow.

Along the way, group members kneel to examine native grasses and are surprised to find blooming native flowers in late September. Russian thistle and other invasives, which Thomas showed us earlier at a heavily used off-road area, could swiftly take over if ATV traffic ramps up, Thomas explains. After learning that the Bureau of Land Management is still taking comments, a number of Broads vow to write in.

Later, we come across a trail sign defaced with a sticker reading: "Our land my ass." The Broads gather around, open-mouthed. Then, Broadness takes over, and one of the hikers pulls down his pants and moons for a photo, positioning his derriere next to the sticker.

Educational hikes like this one are regular fixtures of the four-day outings known as Broadwalks, held several times a year around the country. At Broadwalks, attendees also help with service projects, including trail construction and fence building, and spend nights around the campfire, listening to speakers and catching up with each other. They leave well-versed in federal land management and ready to engage in public-lands issues.

They also learn, as we just did, how passionately anti-wilderness some folks are. The vandalism came as the Broads joined other wilderness groups in a campaign for a new national monument surrounding Canyonlands, which could limit four-wheeling in sensitive areas, such as the one we hiked through. In 2007, the group's documentation of ATV damage at archaeological sites led to a trail closure to off-roaders in southeast Utah's Recapture Canyon—and made some enemies in the process. But many Broads also engage in a quieter, more-service-oriented activism, supporting often short-staffed government agencies as volunteers.


“So I am looking 300 degrees.” Janice Shepherd glances up from her compass to make a note in a small yellow book. Then, she photographs a spot where ATVs have widened a trail near Grand Junction, Colo., likely causing increased erosion and other damage. With her fanny pack, rucksack and a pouch dangling from her neck, the small, gray-haired woman looks like a dauntless explorer, off to map some distant clime.

It's a chilly winter morning, and Shepherd and Sherry Schenk, who leads the local Broadband, are following one of several BLM routes they monitor for damage like this. Later, Shepherd will enter her photos and notes into a database linked to a map, so the local BLM—which oversees 1.2 million acres—knows which trails need repair and can reference photographs of problem areas.

Alissa Leavitt-Reynolds, archaeologist for the agency's Grand Junction Field Office, credits Shepherd with documenting rock art the BLM didn't even know existed; she's also helped their recreation planner find and map new user-created rock-climbing routes. And Schenk's activities range from monitoring trails for dog-poop overload to stewarding archaeological sites and regularly documenting their condition.

In 2011, Schenk, a retired school psychologist, attended her first Broadwalk and was inspired to lead a Broadband. She attended Bootcamp, a four-day leadership training where she fumbled with GPS devices, learned online organizing tools and attended workshops on public-lands law. "It was," she laughs, "kind of overwhelming."

Yet Schenk persisted. Her Grand Junction Broadband, which now has about 30 active members, emphasizes volunteering and participating in agency land-management planning. Schenk and Shepherd spend so much time at the BLM office that an employee told me, "When I first started, I thought (Shepherd) worked here."

As the three of us start uphill in the warming air, a mountain biker rattles down the trail, and we leap out of the way. "Hey, Sherry! How's it going, Janice?" he calls. It's Mike Jones' day off, but Jones, who works on trails and recreation for the BLM, stops to chat and answer Shepherd's questions about work the route we're on might need. He agrees with her assessment, noting that if some volunteers could build up the trail's outside edge, the "water would run off of it."

As Jones prepares to wheel away, the Broads mention that I am with them to learn about the group's involvement with public lands.

He nods approvingly.

"Yup, these guys do a lot of work for us. A lot of work. So you got the right ones."

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment