Education & Communication

August 2016 | Volume 22, Number 2


Call-and-Response as a Call to Question

Just over a year ago, I was sitting in a ballroom in Albuquerque listening to one of my heroes, Dave Foreman, deliver the farewell address to the entire wilderness community at the 50th Anniversary National Wilderness Conference. Dave spoke of the legacy of the last 50 years and the challenges facing us in the next 50. He made a call for “quiet wilderness recreation” by sharing his experiences conversing with birds, flowers, and lightning that ended in a raucous “Chickadee dee dee!” call-and-response with the audience.

As much as I admire Dave and the work he and many other well-known conservationists have done, his talk did not resonate with me. Looking around at the perplexed faces at my table, most of them also under the age of 30, it was clear that the speech was not resonating entirely with them either.

Earlier in the day, another wilderness veteran recounted, with disgust, an encounter with a trail runner. The runner, wearing brightly colored clothes and ears tethered to a music player, ran past the presenter while he was quietly strolling on a trail. This anecdote was intended as an object lesson illustrating the attrition of wilderness values in young outdoor users. I watched as half the audience shook their heads in agreement while the other half looked around in self-conscious incredulity.

After Foreman’s conclusion, a conversation began at my table. For many of us in the sub-30-year-old cohort, it felt as though the conference was speaking about us, but not to us. Over subsequent months, we continued that conversation, drawing intergenerational support from folks like Dr. Bob Dvorak from Central Michigan University who has been conducting research on generational values, Lisa Ronald from the University of Montana who works with a number of up-and-coming professionals in the school’s Wilderness and Civilization and Environ-mental Journalism programs, and others who recognized the need for investigating such a topic. The fruit of that ongoing conversation manifested itself in an entire track at the 2015 National Wilderness Workshop in Missoula, Montana, United States, dubbed the “Millennial Track,”* which asked three basic questions: (1) What can millennials offer to wilderness management, preservation, and conservation? (2) What are the barriers to engaging millennials in professional practice and wilderness careers? and (3) How can we address and remove those barriers?

The Millennial Track at the 2015 Wilderness Workshop

The Millennial Track included diverse topics. Women professionals in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness shared ideas for inspiring female representation in wilderness stewardship. We heard from professionals and volunteers alike about the pros, cons, and trends of certification and mentoring programs to professionalize the discipline of wilderness stewardship. In a session titled “The Recreation Conservation Nexus,” members of the recreation community, who are also card-carrying wilderness stewards, explored the potential synergy between evolving outdoor sports and wilderness support. Military veterans like Tristan Persico – an important, often-overlooked, and increasingly young demographic of wilderness users – identified themselves as prime candidates for future wilderness and land management leadership roles. Two impressive panels of agency and nonprofit stewards and educators explored pathways to better engage younger professionals in leadership and provide mechanisms to enhance transitions between staff in agencies and organizations. And in a session led by the authors, we considered the evidence and implications of a diversity (or lack thereof) in wilderness values between generations. The Millennial Track culminated in a two-hour wrap-up session facilitated by the authors during which participants met to discuss what they had heard. We were charged by this session’s participants (and other participants of the track over the course of the workshop) to draft a message on behalf of millennials to the wilderness community. We recognize that this attempt may not represent or resonate with all the views of millennials at the workshop (more than half of the 200-plus attendees at the 2015 National Wilderness Workshop were age 35 or younger). Instead, we have strived to anecdotally show the spirit and values of their generation. First, however, it is important to define and describe millennials in the context of this article.

Who Are the Millennials?

There is a common litany among veteran wilderness professionals and advocates: the movement is graying; organizational membership is waning among younger generations; backcountry users are increasingly “matured.” There is support for these concerns. The United Nation’s 2013 report World Population Ageing defines an aging global population as the number of global individuals age 60 years or over, which is expected to more than double from 841 million in 2013 to more than 2 billion in 2050. Wilderness visitor use and user trend studies also mirror this pattern. Dvorak et al. (2012) found during a 40-year period in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, United States, mean user ages increased from 26 years of age in 1969 to 45 in 2007. However, these trends do not represent a decrease in the demand for wilderness recreation. Survey data from the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment has shown record visitation levels for US national parks and wildlife refuges in the late 2000s, with wilderness and primitive area visitations having increased by 12% for that same period (Cordell, Betz, and Green 2008). Millennials are among the folks trail-running through wilderness, as described in the aforementioned anecdote.

We would also suggest that millennials are not neophytes to the cause of wilderness. They have no less respect for the intentions of the Wilderness Act nor an inchoate understanding of wilderness values. Many already work for agencies and nonprofit organizations, putting in 50-, 60-, 70-hour weeks protecting wilderness. Increasingly, younger folks are engaging in the movement in nontraditional, nonmembership-based ways, such as volunteering for trail crews, conducting citizen science, and organizing recreational groups. Younger generations are very concerned about their impact to the environment but can be more independent in approaching solutions (Digital Operative 2015). This independence means they may be less apt to participate in a traditionally organized fashion. Examples of this sort of independent leadership can be found in most sectors. Of the 10 board members behind the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance (one of the primary hosts of the 2015 workshop), 4 are under age 36; for example, 25-year-old Ben Hamilton, an independent filmmaker, was awarded the Wilderness Legacy Award in 2014 for producing the inspiringly novel film The Meaning of Wild; Alyssa Ravasio, a Millennial Workshop presenter and tech entrepreneur, founded the website HipCamp (, which facilitates camping on both public and private lands.

Similarly, millennials may engage with the outdoors differently. Rather than a multi-day canoe trip, many are more likely to choose day-use activities, such as trail-running, stand up paddle boarding, or backcountry skiing (Outdoor Foundation 2013). Millennials commune with wilderness in different, but profoundly meaningful ways. Some seek sublimity in paddling amid the raw power of whitewater rivers or humility in climbing steep walls. Others seek knowledge through field research or tradition through subsistence practices. Wilderness is the place where millennials go to exercise, challenge their recreational skills, hunt, conduct science, and get their hands dirty volunteering. These observations might seem like timeworn objections. After all, each generation seeks validation and strives for recognition and differentiation from their predecessors. However, as representatives charged to bring these issues to light, we think it is important to understand that these genuine perspectives were the underpinnings of the Millennial Track that drove discussions addressing barriers to engagement and future roles in wilderness stewardship.

Millennial Track Perspectives

Professionals, both new and those midcareer, made up a large proportion of the track participants. As such, career tracks was an important topic. Systemic problems in career tracks and funding priorities were cited as principle challenges by Mills and Patel (2016) in the previous issue of this journal and by participants during the Millennial Track wrap-up session. Both agencies and nonprofit organizations have realized the benefits of engaging young professionals in entry-level, seasonal positions as summer interns or seasonal crew members. Yet, participants felt that seasonal workers are sometimes considered “less professional.” The issue for these entrants to the field is the growing gap between the bottom rung and the next step up in the career ladder. Despite recent changes to federal hiring practices that include preferential hiring of part-time and temporary employees, for example, Millennial Workshop participants noted numerous obstacles they had observed in their emerging careers. They had experienced the trend for organizations to accord these positions lower wages than permanent positions and fewer, if any, benefits. They described how after participating in the “internship-martyrdom culture” for multiple seasons, they were still unlikely to possess the minimum requirements for a full-time position. Based on these participant observations, it is critical that the wilderness community continue to address the proliferation of underpaid and unpaid internships, and build upon ongoing and new initiatives that open doors and create mechanisms for sustainable careers in wilderness stewardship.

Many Millennial Workshop participants expressed being subject to distrust, with veteran wilderness stewards assuming that those in the younger generation are less staunch in their interpretation of the Wilderness Act. One participant suggested that “people want us to take the reins, but they don’t trust we will take the same path. Accept that we may expand the path.” Others noted that although younger generations may have diverse views on wilderness, there are many firebrands in the ranks – some that rival even today’s most ardent voices.

Millennial participants asked to be trusted not to devalue the wilderness ideal, yet be allowed the latitude to accrue more acreage and address stewardship challenges in current contexts, recognizing that their creativity may be needed to further the causes for wilderness globally. Millennial participants highly value their contemporary heroes who fight for wilderness and expressed a sincere desire for the opportunity to learn from them through mentorship. As authors, each of us can speak to many instances where a mentor has imparted their wisdom, steered our passion, and encouraged us along paths that make positive impacts for wilderness stewardship. However, participants spoke of how it can be intimidating for a young steward to approach a busy professional and establish a rapport with a potential mentor. Participants echoed Mills and Patel (2016) by asking that professionals make themselves available, intentionally seek a mentee, and leverage their contacts and resources to open doors for that mentee that might otherwise be closed. The more formalized the mentorship, the more effective. Both agencies and nonprofit organizations must continue to invest and build the emerging mentorship opportunities that exist and incorporate structured mentorship and develop succession plans that raise young wilderness stewards from entry-level into permanent professional positions.

It will take continued, concerted effort from all sectors of our wilder-ness community to dismantle these barriers and others expressed by Millennial Workshop participants. Funding agencies and organizations will need to provide more unrestricted funds to allow organizations to pay staff and provide benefits. The outdoor recreation industry must align their outdoor ethic to encourage corporate accountability by giving back monetarily, not only to designation and advocacy campaigns, but also to wildlands stewardship and education. Federal agencies must increase the value they place on wilderness management as a professional practice in its own right and not allow it to be lost as an ancillary assignment or duty. These are big obstacles to overcome, and they are entrenched in our conservation culture; however, there are smaller, more tractable changes that workshop participants believe can be enacted now.

For example, conservation leaders can highlight and award individuals to recognize their future potential rather than past achievements. While an award given to a veteran wilderness steward is an appreciated and important acknowledgment of their contributions and dedication, an award given to a promising professional translates into tangible résumé currency that will be spent to leverage resources and create greater leadership, overall accruing compounded rewards for the wilderness community.

The wilderness community can also recruit more young people in elective leadership roles, including serving on organizational boards. Inclusion at this level is mutually beneficial: young stewards learn the ropes early from experienced professionals, while the organization benefits from the added diversity of opinion, especially in the area of engagement where organizations often struggle. It is important to consider that although many boards have good intentions to recruit younger participants, it does little good in practice without codified requirements and strategic goals. As Glenn Nelson pointed out in his concluding keynote at the 2015 Wilderness Workshop, good intentions don’t count unless they are reflected in writing, either in bylaws or the budget. Glenn was speaking to the paramount topic of including racial diversity, but the rule holds true for generational diversity as well.


While the views expressed by those attending the Wilderness Workshop Millennial Track are not fully representative of the diverse opinions of millennials in general, they do represent the earnest thoughts of wilderness advocates and stewards (from many age groups) who dedicated two days to considering these issues. And although many of these issues have been debated since the inception of designated wilderness, the fact that they linger unsolved 50 years later is noteworthy and continues to make them relevant to today’s broader discussions.

We may ask why these issues linger so persistently. Is it an inherent trait of successional generations to strive for recognition and individuality or simply a seat at the table? Is it an inherent patrimonial trait of preceding generations to want sub-sequent ones to “stay the course”? Is it the product of a latent human tendency to perpetuate barriers? This article does not attempt to explain their existence but rather to highlight it as evidence of the need for continued focus on generational diversity issues within the wilderness movement. As cliché as it may be, we truly believe that the “kids are alright” and have a great chance for success given the efforts of those who have come before them.

As facilitators of this conversation, we hope to stress that individuals of the millennial generation are our colleagues, peers, and integral components of our professional network. They echo our community’s ubiquitous passion, commitment, and enthusiasm for the wilderness movement. The most important message from millennial-age wilderness professionals and stewards is a promise that, with everyone’s help, the new guard of stewards and managers will continue to uphold the spirit of the Wilderness Act. They are willing to invest the time, energy, and talent. But most importantly, they have made a promise that when they are senior members of the wilderness community, they will hold themselves accountable to the same standards addressed herein and commit to passing on the torch for the next generations.


Cordell, H. K., C. J. Betz, and G. T. Green. 2008. Nature-based outdoor recreation trends and wilderness. International Journal of Wilderness 14(2): 7–9, 13.

Digital Operative. 2015. Aug. 6. Gen Z: Getting today’s digitally focused youth outdoors. [PDF presentation]

Dvorak, R. G., A. E. Watson, N. Christensen, W. T. Borrie, and Ann Schwaller. 2012. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: Examining changes in use, users, and management challenges. Res. Pap. RMRS-RP-91. Fort Collins, CO: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Mills, Christina, and Monica Patel. 2016. Where are the young people in wilderness? International Journal of Wilderness 22(1): 4–7.

Outdoor Foundation. 2013. 2013 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report. Boulder, CO: The Outdoor Foundation.

United Nations. 2013. World Population Ageing 2013. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division.

*For the context of these discussions, we defined millennials as individuals born in the 1980s to early 2000s, but really, the discussion intended to engage anyone in the “new guard,” approximately under age 30.

A. ANDIS is a board member of the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance. He is a graduate of the University of Montana Environmental Studies Master’s program and a current PhD student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; email:


ROBERT DVORAK is managing editor of the International Journal of Wilderness and associate professor in the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Leisure Services Administration at Central Michigan University; email:


LISA RONALD is the National Wilderness Communications Coordinator at the University of Montana’s Wilderness Institute and serves on the board of the Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation; email: lisa.ronald@umontana. edu.