Diversity in the spotlight as tool for conservation

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – An unlikely group filled the ballrooms of Montana State University’s Strand Union Building on April 23 and 24. Hikers and backpackers sat alongside dirt bikers, hunters and land managers, all in the name of conservation.

The gathering was the first of its kind in the Greater Yellowstone and was an opportunity for recreationists of all backgrounds to come together and discuss the effects of increasing recreation on the still wild places of the region.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Bozeman-based conservation organization, partnered with MSU to host the event, titled “Our Shared Place: The Present and Future of Recreation in Greater Yellowstone.”

Brooke Regan, special projects organizer for the GYC, opened the symposium with a presentation about her recreation inventory. This research was conducted over several years throughout the Greater Yellowstone and was an effort to understand where and how people are using the land.

“For the most part, there’s very little data on recreational use,” Regan said, adding that without this data it’s difficult to fully realize the impacts of increasing land use.

“We know that there’s pretty major growth happening in many places of the Greater Yellowstone area,” she said, also noting that climate change and limited funding for land managers threaten the region.

“We really can’t afford to be splintered in our alliance as conservationists and recreationists. … Ultimately, all of us who care about conservation, recreation and our public lands need to come to a common understanding about the challenges we might be facing and the potential opportunities.”

Regan briefly mentioned some of the negative impacts of outdoor enthusiasts, which include conflicts with wildlife, reducing habitat connectivity and resource degradation.

Following the morning session and presentations from local recreationists, Governor Steve Bullock gave the keynote address.

“I fundamentally believe that our public lands are one of our great equalizers, meaning it doesn’t matter who you know or how wealthy you are, these lands, these rivers and these trees belong to certainly each and every one of us,” Bullock said. “Setting lands aside for public benefit is one of America’s greatest ideas and now I think it’s up to us to pay it forward, to make sure that those future generations have the opportunity to wander, to contemplate, to create lifelong memories on those prized public lands.”

In an email sent to EBS prior to the event, Bullock addressed some of the issues arising out of recreational growth. “What’s clear is that most user groups are increasing their demand for opportunities—and so we need to find ways to meet those demands that aren’t in conflict with other resource management goals or with one another,” he wrote.

“We can better disperse more of our state’s recreation visitors and users beyond some of our most iconic spots to reduce pressures on the resources, while offering new outdoor experiences and supporting community economic development at the same time,” the governor added.

On the second day of the symposium, a panel discussion focused on the future of recreation in the Greater Yellowstone.

The panelists included Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk; Nicol Rae, dean of MSU’s College of Letters and Science; Caroline Byrd, executive director of the GYC; Mary Erickson, supervisor for the Custer Gallatin National Forest; Rachel VandeVoort, the director of the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation; and Angelina Gonzalez-Aller and Frances Kim, co-founders of Earthtone Outside Montana, a group dedicated to ensuring access and representation in outdoor recreation for all Montanans.

“Greater Yellowstone, home of the first national park, the first national forest; home to the idea of wilderness. It should be home to where this conversation takes off and gets legs, we need to lead on grappling with this,” Byrd said. “We need to know what the impacts are, where people go, how it affects wildlife, water. … This needs to be a conversation with everyone.”

Gonzalez-Aller and Kim added to Byrd’s last statement. Beyond including individuals from every facet of recreation, from biking to hiking to rock hounding, Gonzalez-Aller and Kim said it’s critical for there to be more diversity in the conservation world.

“One recurring theme is how, for many people, recreation is that first step into the conservation or preservation world,” Gonzalez-Aller said. “By becoming invested with public lands … we really build a lifelong devotion to these places that turns into advocacy, attention and action.

“One missing point from this perspective, however, is that ‘our shared place’ doesn’t always include us,” she added, referring to herself and her colleague, who represent a diverse community of various ethnic backgrounds.

“We firmly believe that the lack of diversity in recreation and conservation circles must be addressed if the movement is to prepare itself for the challenges that face us in the coming years,” Kim said. “In an increasingly multiethnic and multicultural society, failure to create a more inclusive environment for people of color and the outdoors will significantly limit the foundational support we need to ensure the continued protection of the GYE. … People of color and their communities represent the largest untapped resource for the conservation movement.”

The symposium concluded with diversity still on the minds of the speakers.

“There’s no one person who is going to help us address the issues we’ve discussed over the last two days,” said Scott Christensen, Greater Yellowstone Coalition director of conservation. “It needs to be crowd sourced, it needs to come from a lot of helpful people getting in a room and having some difficult, at times, conversations.”