By now we hope that everyone knows that each year, we donate 10% of our total profits to wilderness groups. This year we’re on track to give more than $25,000 away, which, if you don’t mind us saying, is pretty rad.
What you probably don’t know is who gets that money and why. But we want you to know. Not only because we like to be transparent about this kind of thing, but because we’re hoping that you’ll also do your part to help. After all, you can’t have wilderness perfume if you don’t have wilderness. It’s all of our jobs to protect what we love.
So in the interest of sharing all the good these organizations do, we’ve done a few interviews with some of the folks driving their efforts. Enjoy and please, finds ways to contribute!
To start, meet Ventana Wilderness Alliance. We got a chance to talk to Mike Splain, Executive Director of VWA, about what they do, how they do it and why it matters.
JR: Most of the land your organization protects and stewards is already designated as wilderness, so what is the ongoing mission of the VWA?
MS: That’s true. Well over 80% of the Monterey Ranger District of Los Padres National Forest is protected in the Ventana (240,000 acres) and Silver Peak (31,000 acres) Wilderness areas. The Ventana holds the distinction of being the most expanded unit in the entire National Wilderness Preservation System. This didn’t happen by accident. The Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club (for which I serve as Wilderness Chair) was instrumental in initially protecting the Ventana back in 1969. The Chapter helped to spearhead expansions in 1978, 1984 and 1992, which included the initial designation of the Silver Peak. Many of the VWA’s co-founders are Ventana Chapter veterans and our first significant achievement was the inventory and ultimate protection of 55,000 acres worth of additions to the Ventana, Silver Peak and Pinnacles Wilderness areas in 2002 through, believe it or not, a bill signed into law by none other than G.W. Bush!
At the time, our assumption was that once designated as Wilderness, the land was safe and the U.S. Forest Service would manage it to protect Wilderness character. Hindsight has shown us the naivete of that assumption. The Monterey Ranger District has not seen a full-time Wilderness Ranger since 1988 and the management budget for public lands (especially Wilderness) has been strangled by Congress ever since. For instance, the Los Padres National Forest was once allotted over $6 million to manage recreation— nowadays it rarely receives $1 million, for nearly 2 million acres of land! And wildfire suppression efforts are allowed to further drain this budget. In our District, the result is a once magnificent, 300+ mile trail system in utter disrepair with no agency boots on the ground and no real Wilderness management. The understaffed, overworked District now relies almost entirely on volunteers for all backcountry work: maintaining trails, cleaning up trash and teaching visitors how to enjoy Wilderness without loving it to death.
So, all that to say that the VWA’s ongoing mission is to protect, preserve and restore the Wilderness qualities and biodiversity of the public lands within California’s Northern Santa Lucia Mountains and Big Sur coast.
We accomplish this by advocating for more wilderness acreage (yes, there are still a few candidate roadless areas!) and Wild and Scenic River designations (there are many, many deserving miles of rivers and streams). We also advocate for State Wilderness. For example, there are well over 1,000 candidate acres in Andrew Molera State Park alone. But we’ve also extended our tactics to include stewardship— in our opinion, “the most sincere form of advocacy.” The VWA Trail Crew recruits volunteers and raises funds to hire contract crews, Volunteer Wilderness Rangers patrol the backcountry to clean up camps and teach “Leave No Trace” principles, and our Youth in Wilderness program inspires the next generation to embrace Wilderness and take an active role in protecting it. Meanwhile, we actively campaign to convert the Monterey Ranger District into a “Big Sur Management Unit” with its own guaranteed recreation and Wilderness funding. We also regularly encourage our members and supporters to contact their decision makers and advocate for sufficient public lands management funding. We have found that by actively engaging a wide range of stakeholders, we can cultivate an awareness and earn buy-in for public lands and Wilderness spaces. In the current political climate, we are convinced that the only way to protect the future of our shared legacy of public lands— for ecosystem services, recreation, Wilderness and myriad other benefits— is a steady drumbeat reminding each and every benefactor that conservation is everybody’s business.
JR: What projects are you most excited about?
MS: VWA’s youth programming has got me pretty jazzed. Our Youth in Wilderness program has begun to hit stride to the point where we have enough field leaders to run concurrent outings. Several of these leaders have also stepped up to participate in other programs, including event planning and stewardship. As we continue to cultivate this new talent, promising mentors, leaders and even future board members have begun to emerge. The program shows a lot of potential for institutionalizing Wilderness immersion-based outdoor education in local high schools as well as backcountry service learning in local universities. With enough interest and awareness, I think we could set the stage to re-establish wildlands management career paths and the educational tracks to support them.
JR: What are some of the greatest challenges to wilderness defense across the Central Coast?
MS: I see apathy as the greatest challenge. On a recent visit to Missoula, I got to see firsthand what accessible, understood and beloved public lands can do for a culture. Whether it’s a camo-clad elk hunter, a fanatical fly fisherman, or an aspiring university student, people there share a universal reverence for public lands. This is reflected in college course offerings, internships, state and federal funding— the list goes on. Here on the central coast, that awareness is far from universal. The average central coast student has never heard of Wilderness and has little to no understanding of public lands, so how can we expect them to care? Unless we (conservation groups, schools, agencies and concerned businesses) can collectively shine the light on the inexcusable neglect Congress has bestowed upon our most precious shared cultural heritage, apathy will reign, Wilderness will lose and we will eventually lose Wilderness.
JR: What strategy does your organization use to get things done?
MS: Our strategy has always been to roll up our sleeves and teach by example. Persistence (to the brink of obnoxiousness) is the name of the game in terms of getting the Forest Service to work with us. For instance, due to agency concerns about volunteers, trail crews on the Monterey Ranger District were almost entirely unauthorized until after the Kirk Complex Wildland Fire of 1999. By refusing to take no for an answer, religiously observing USFS regulations, hiring Forest-approved botanists, biologists and archaeologists, and even offering to prepare NEPA paperwork, we eventually convinced the District to permit volunteer trail crews. In the dozen years since, the agency has consistently recognized the contributions of the VWA Trail Crew and nominated outstanding crew leaders for USFS Volunteer of the Year awards.
JR: For those people who love Big Sur and wish to see it protected for generations to come, how can we help or get involved?
MS: Advocate for public lands. Maintain a constant drumbeat and never let up. Tell all of your decision makers that public lands are what make America great and that it is up to them to see that the Forest Service, Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management are sufficiently funded.
Tell them that the lower Pine Ridge Trail between Big Sur Station and Sykes Camp needs a quota-based permit system and a full-time paid Wilderness Ranger on patrol to keep hordes of careless visitors from destroying the Wild and Scenic Big Sur River with trash, toilet paper and human waste.
Spread the word to local businesses, schools, universities, chambers of commerce and community groups that besides being good for the body and soul, outdoor recreation is a 646 BILLION dollar-a-year business that’s also extremely good for the economy.
Tell your state officials that you care about State Parks and want to see more State Wilderness.
Tell all government officials to kick out concessionaires and bring campground and day use fees back to the state and federal agencies that rightly deserve them.
Help to build career paths that get young people back on the land.
Join a VWA Trail Crew
Join the VWA
Support the VWA at Monterey County Gives! campaign
Volunteer to make visitor contacts and teach “Leave No Trace” principles at a busy trailheads
Take a friend for a hike in the majestic Big Sur backcountry and show them the incredible public lands, of which they share part ownership!