Opinion: Stoke Is Exactly What Outdoor Conservation Needs

An outdoor advocate responds to the idea that passion isn’t enough.

Recently, Adventure Journal published an essay by Ethan Linck, Your Stoke Won’t Save Us, questioning the efficacy of outdoor recreationists and the outdoor industry as advocates for conservation. In a sense, Linck is right, stoke alone won’t save us, and the most unimpeachable personal conservation ethic won’t either.

Meaningful conservation is driven by action, not sentiment, not vaguely defined “environmental concern,” as measured by some researchers more than 40 years ago, not even education. It’s organizing to deliver political pressure and make change, and by that measure, outdoor recreationists and the outdoor industry are delivering. And stoke—genuine enthusiasm derived from visceral experience—is the fuel that’s driving action.

Linck hangs a lot on one particular quotation from Edward Abbey:

Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am—a reluctant enthusiast … a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.

To read Abbey as saying that getting rad has the same efficacy for saving the earth as, you know, actually doing something, is a misreading. It’s much more an expression of both Abbey’s fundamental pessimism and his humanity: enjoy it while you can. Regardless, though, a better Abbey-ism for 2018 is this: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”

That Abbey aphorism is one that the outdoor recreation community is taking it to heart. Last year, Outdoor Alliance helped people write and call their lawmakers more than 100,000 times about public lands conservation issues. Grasstops advocates turned out for hundreds of meetings with land managers and elected officials. The Outdoor Industry Association, which Linck casually dismisses, undertook heroic efforts to move the industry’s marquee tradeshow in a few short months in order to stand up for its values, developed economic research that’s leveraged by public lands advocates across the conservation movement, and was instrumental in the recent push to finally secure a fix for fire suppression budgeting.

Conservation biology might be the gold standard for how land management should look, but if only conservation biologists are invited to speak up in defense of our public lands, we are all in trouble, and imposing purity tests on what motivations or ideological standards are acceptable seems like a surefire way to ossify sentiment to the ruination of all of us.

Similarly, dividing recreationists into “appreciative” and “consumptive” and then hand-wringing over what activities are genteel enough to qualify as the former seems manifestly counterproductive and needlessly sleights the work being done by conservation-minded hunting and angling groups, as well as participants in more adventurous modes of recreation. Science should always be the north star guiding conservation, but dismissing advocates because their motivations might reflect some modicum of self-interest is basically the exact opposite of what conservationists need to be doing in order to build a broad-based political coalition in defense of public lands and the environment.

To support the idea that recreationists’ single-minded focus on their own interests is harming the conservation movement, Linck contrasts the high-profile campaign to save Bears Ears National Monument—home to world-renowned climbing areas, among other invaluable attributes—with the less energetic response generated by threatened reductions to the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southwest Oregon. Rather than upbraiding the recreation community for its focus, though, there’s a better interpretation of the events around the Trump administration’s monument reductions: The outdoor recreation community focused on a place closely connected to people’s own experiences; in the process, we educated our community about a core conservation law and generated hundreds of thousands of comments and a massive community mobilization.

That effort featured Bears Ears most prominently, but also encompassed other monuments under threat. And although the fight to protect national monuments and the Antiquities Act is continuing, the outdoor recreation community has attached a political cost to the monument reductions that has staved off additional attacks on places like Cascade-Siskiyou.

The idea that outdoor recreationists don’t display “environmental concern” at a higher rate than the general population certainly doesn’t comport with my own experience. I grew up in Washington, D.C., but whitewater kayaking was my passion from a very young age. The opportunity to experience wild places—as well as to see places suffer from development—shaped my life. Eventually, I went to law school to become a more effective advocate for conservation and built a career working to help the outdoor recreation community I’m a part of become better advocates for its values.

Along the way, being a part of a community of like-minded people, passionate about experiencing the outdoors, as well as our responsibilities as stewards, has been a source of a lot of happiness in my life. I wake up every day, honored by the opportunity to work with the exceptional people at Outdoor Alliance, our member organizations, and our partners who spend their weeks working to make the world a better place and their days off paddling, climbing, riding bikes, skiing, or hiking in each of their respective humble-badass styles. At home in the Columbia River Gorge, I’m proud to see a young community of athletes growing into advocates and stewards, working to make our community and our environment better.

What interested me most when I started my career was policy, but a big part of what I’ve learned over the years is that coming up with good ideas is the easy part. The challenge is in building a constituency to turn those ideas into reality, and that’s where the outdoor recreation community has a leg up. I don’t believe that we display “environmental concern” at no higher rate than the population at large, but even if that’s true, if the half of us who do are ready to stand up and fight, I’ll take it. After all, it’s not sentiment, but action that counts, and the outdoor recreation community is taking action every day. Maybe because those of us who actually get out and enjoy wild places tend to view ourselves as a community, those within our sports who do share a stewardship ethic are more primed and ready to engage in concerted action. Or maybe it’s because our experiences make us fired up and motivated to act. Stoked.

Linck begins his essay with a definition “stoke,” in the common usage, but I’d like to get out my shreddog OED and dust off an older definition: raising up a fire. That’s what the outdoor recreation community is doing right now. We’re taking our experiences, our passion, our community and building a fire to drive change. Stoke is what drives climbers to show up for public meeting on Bears Ears in Blanding, Utah in triple-digit temps. Stoke is what motivates paddlers to spend careers advocating for dam removals. Stoke is what inspires thousands of adventurists to write their congresspeople in defense of the Arctic, a place most of them will never visit. Community, passion for place… these things matter.

I think stoke is going to save us.

Louis Geltman is the policy director for the Outdoor Alliance


Showing 10 comments
  • Kyle

    Thanks, Louis – it’s great to see this debate going on in AJ. I work as a land conservationist. My organization does have public-access/recreation-focused conservation projects. However, much of our work is on private land – and conservation on private lands is essential to long-term environmental protection.

    Our recreation community comes up big for those public-access projects, but drops off when it comes to conservation without access. I’m curious what your thoughts (or others!) are on whether the outdoor community is capable of expanding that passion for place beyond those places we can hike and bike (etc.).

  • Gretchen King

    I think the story that sparked this article came from High Country News, and is well worth the read (as is this). Check it out here.
    Your stoke won’t save us, published May 14: https://www.hcn.org/issues/50.8/recreation-your-stoke-wont-save-us

  • Allen

    Agreed with fellow-conservationist Kyle that I’ve also seen the rec community perk up when public access (or loss of public access, or the perception of loss of public access) is on the table and much less so otherwise. Stoke and conservation are both important, but it’s two different things. Marketing your brand is not environmental education. Building trail isn’t land stewardship. Big Rec becomes a long-term environmental ally, rather an an occasional one, when they more consistently push for fees and taxes on users and gear to pay for mitigating the impact of recreation.

    • Mike Foote

      HI Allen. My name is Mike Foote and I’m a professional mountain runner and ski mountaineer as a sponsored athlete with The North Face. Additionally, I serve on the board of our land trust in Missoula, MT where I live. We work hard on land conservation in our region on both public and private lands. We have worked with ranchers to conserve thousands of acres of land to protect habitat for nesting long-billed curlews as well as to connect elk migration corridors. We have also partnered with our local mountain biking and running clubs to acquire and conserve public lands on the fringe of our city that were under pressure of development and would be a large loss of habitat for our local elk herds. Last year I attended Outdoor Retailer show and Bears Ears Protest in Salt Lake, but then also attended the Land Trust Alliance Rally Conservation Conference.

      I really appreciate both Linck’s and Geltman’s voices in this conversation and can side with both arguments to a degree, however, I don’t like that recreationist/conservationist are framed in an either/or whereas I believe it can be both/and. I can be a dedicated recreationist who loves to build trail yet still care about and prioritize the conservation values of prime agricultural lands, wildlife habitat, and ecological biodiversity. Recreation has been the conduit to my connection with the wild places I love in my backyard, and I’ve come to appreciate conservation for reasons well beyond how it affects my experience in the outdoors. Though I share some of the concerns Linck raises in his piece, ultimately I side with Geltman that “stoke” can lead to action and meaningful conservation gains. I’m holding myself accountable to have these conversations within my recreation community at a local level and prefer to focus my energy on leveraging this community for conservation vs. begrudging its current shortcomings. If we keep having these important discussions I hope we can move the needle on the culture in a positive way!

  • Kat O

    Re: efforts toward private/non-accessible lands, I think we have to take a realistic perspective as well and realize that, in general, people focus on what they have a personal investment in/attachment to, and that people usually can’t “do it all” without it being their full-time job. I, for one, rarely even hear about conservation issues concerning private land, since that information isn’t as publicized. Ideally people would be invested in all aspects of conservation, but I don’t think we should diminish the efforts they do make just because they’re not involved in EVERY cause out there. It’s kind of like asking the Susan G. Komen foundation why they don’t focus on prostate cancer; they work for a specific cause they have a personal relationship with (and, yes, that foundation is HIGHLY problematic, but you get my point). As a social worker I frequently feel overwhelmed by everything in the world that needs attention, so I fall back on the idea that doing a little is better than doing nothing, and I think that could be applied to outdoor recreationists as well…while of course pushing for broader involvement.

  • Deborah Woodard

    Louis, you give voice to the kind of dialog I look to AJ to provide.

    Kyle, it appears to me that land trust activities in much of the country are being supported to do just what you suggest, protect w/o access. My personal view holds that as long as land is undeveloped the potential for public use may be a future proposition. Even if it’s not, if it can be left as habitat for other living things, that works too.

    I currently live in eastern PA where most preserved land is not public but is supported to preserve an esthetic. Ditto for NM where we have a mountain cabin near the CO border. That being said, I’ve been a Jersey girl most of my years. NJ has an interesting formula for using a state fund to protect land. Green Acres funds may only be used where there’s a public use component which may be in the form of easements. These funds are generally combined with other sources including private 501c3’s. The result has been acquisition of thousands of acres in a populous state where one can truly feel alone in the landscape and connectivity has been a priority.

  • Margo Pellegrino

    We need to diversify those who experience stoke in the outdoors. It’s a challenge, but a panel I attended a couple of years ago made me realize it’s SO possible, but we just gotta think outside the box AND make it a PRIORITY. I’m a paddler and one of my biggest concerns is the gentrification of our coasts and waterways and how access is being limited. I’ve even paddled by waterways which claim, WITH SIGNAGE, to be “private.” We are a strong movement, for sure, but we are also lacking diversity. Like biological systems, diversity is necessary for life. This MUST be a priority. Thank you good folks, at the Outdoor Alliance and AJ (maybe I should subscribe!!!), for all your hard work to protect our outdoor playgrounds.

  • Charlie Walbridge

    The conservation movement I know is based on “stoke”, that is to say, passion to protect the places they know and love David Brower and many of the Sierra Club pioneers were hard charging High Sierra rock climbers in the 1950’s. Martin Litton, linchpin of the Grand Canyon protection effort, was a professional river guide; Same with David Brown, who saved flows on the Ocoee and led efforts to protect the Gauley. Friends of the Cheat was founded by local river runners and most of our members are outdoor enthusiasts. American Whitewater became what it is thanks to Pete Skinner, Chris Koll, Pope Barrow, and Mac Thorton’s efforts; we all used to paddle class IV-V together. Mac later founded West Virginia Rivers Coalition and the Potomac Conservancy; Pete founded New York Rivers United, Pope became a hydropower relicensing expert and Chris manages whitewater releases on New York’s Moose River. A lot of “environmentalists” look down on activities like biking and hunting. That’s wrong. We need to get people away from their screens, out of their houses, and into nature. Otherwise its a bunch of academics talking about things that people can’t relate to.

    • Elizabeth M.

      I second Charlie Walbridge’s comment that we need to think about ‘screen culture,’ whose hyperrrealities may well pose the biggest challenge to the outdoors.

      I wonder if the more people become un-habituated to non-tactile life and social situations involving in-person, face-to-face interactions, the less courage they have to negotiate off-screen life.

      Similiarly, if secondary schools emphasize electronic values rather than land- and soil-centric values, how does this influence growing children’s attitudes about the ground beneath their feet and the water bodies in between. ?

      Last, it seems to me that when daily habits and attention spans are increasingly dependent upon and adjusted to the speed of electronic machines rather than what Sven Birkerts terms ‘the speed of blood,’ it’s inevitable that natural processes are increasingly discounted.

      Then again, I am typing this comment on an iPad mini and would not have known about Charlie Wallbridge’s thoughts had I not connected through a hyperlink on an email sent to me by the Outdoor Alliance.

      Which comments here could also be directed to the institutions supporting ‘screen culture’ ? And would any of those institutions be environmental organizations whose staffs could perhaps think more about the way that paper outreach materials made of atoms have a link to the the myriad atom-based presences living out of doors.

  • George Hayduke

    I agree with all that’s been said, yet Geltman and all those leaving comments have not addressed Linck’s poiny around lack funding to support conservation and stewardship goals. It’s often touted that the outdoor recreation industry contributes $887 B to our national economy, yet very little of those funds are directed back to the lands supporting that industry. I, for one would like to see the industry focus less on profits and more on supporting their advocacy efforts by putting their money where the mouth is. When it comes time to support a tax, much like the sportsman community has done, the outdoor rev industry becomes silent. Yes, we’re all in this together, but without new streams of funding we’re all going to lose.

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