By Nathan Mynatt, Wilderness Ranger
As the leaves fall from the trees signaling the season's draw to a close, I have the chance to look back and evaluate the time I have spent as a SAWS Wilderness Ranger. Recently, I had the great opportunity of going to Albuquerque for the National Wilderness Conference, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, from which I returned with a number of observations and lessons in my back pocket. Of everything I learned, one of the things that stuck with me most involved the power of messages; specifically how to show a new generation of stewards both the value of Wilderness and how it is in constant jeopardy. The inability to convey a compelling message to young people about Wilderness was an obvious obstacle that many people at the conference struggled with. Many presenters focused purely on how to hand down previous Wilderness knowledge to incipient conservationists by building intergenerational messages that keep Wilderness culturally relevant. In retrospect, I feel like the effort to construct intergenerational messages was overwrought and perhaps somewhat useless because the end goal of the conversation was to engage young people in Wilderness Stewardship which requires more than just a message to achieve. What the movement really needs in order to engage talented young people in a sustainable way are intragenerational messages coming from young people employed by Wilderness-focused organizations.
Many older citizens are concerned that millennials, aged 18 to 35, are disengaged and apathetic about preserving the institutions that made this country what it is today. A line I frequently heard at the conference was that Wilderness is a critical element of the American mindset and many were worried that a growing percentage of people are growing up disconnected from this nation’s wildlands. Considering the general concern with sustainable development and ecological degradation that provides a baseline connection between almost every millennial, I do not believe that widespread apathy is the issue here. After championing a highly idealistic movement at its inception, the Wilderness movement became entrenched. At the conference, I heard one outspoken individual refer to the Wilderness as an “industry.” Maybe it is true that, over time, the process of advocating for and stewarding Wilderness has become, in a sense, industrialized. This does not mean that the movement has abandoned its roots. The idealism is still there, and the transformation was necessary for Wilderness to become its own interest, but it means that Wilderness has to compete with other industries to recruit new talent. Due to the idealistic nature of the work, high salaries and competitive benefits are not really necessary. One of the defining characteristics of the millennial generation is that we began our adult lives during the Great Recession which left a widespread impression that the high-power jobs of old were not all that they were cracked up to be, but also that having direct access to jobs is crucial. In order to get young people to really engage in long-term care for Wilderness, a true professional track needs to be created.
I have had the great pleasure of working for an organization whose mission is to create such a professional track – Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) has reached success and relevancy so quickly because the focus is on getting millennials to engage millennials. Rather than drawing tactics from workshops on tailoring messages to eight-second attention spans on the endlessly expanding internet, SAWS employs and empowers young Wilderness Stewards to develop the skills that are necessary to become “master performers” in Wilderness protection and send out their own messages to their peers. We have found that the best way to engage young people is to provide jobs that offer an opportunity to build a professional skill-set and help defend a voiceless yet invaluable resource. Working for SAWS has been a transformative experience for me. And mine is only one of many lives that have been changed here. I have had the great pleasure of working beside a professional chef turned field supervisor, kids from Yonkers, NY who had never been in the woods before but were loathe to leave once the work was done, and many other incredible people with far more compelling stories than my own. SAWS has a great vision for how to incorporate young people into the future of Wilderness stewardship, thereby securing that future and changing lives along the way. The trail will have to be cut from scratch, and the help of many conscientious supporters will be needed if SAWS is to succeed, but its potential is truly thrilling.