The American pact with its wide-open spaces seems simple enough: This land is your land, this land is my land. Such a noble ideal, in reality, is anything but simple to manage. However you weigh the value of public and private interests, recreation and industry, preservation and progress, we all can recognize that once wild lands are lost, they are not likely to return. It’s easy to say that our country’s natural wonders deserve protection. Meet the men on the front line, actually doing the hard work. These eight public land defenders have chosen paths that put them squarely in the fight, and often squarely in the path of real danger. As defenders who battle wildfires or track wild horses, expose polluters or face down injustice, that loss of nature is not an option.
The Riverkeeper: Kemp Burdette
The key to catching alligators is patience and solid core strength. At least, that’s how Kemp Burdette tells it. “They’re pissed when you hook them, rolling and running, but they don’t have a lot of stamina,” he says, describing how he brought in an 11-foot gator with a deep-sea fishing rig on the edge of North Carolina’s Cape Fear River. “Once you wear it out, you slowly start dragging the gator toward you.”
Burdette didn’t challenge the primordial beast just for kicks. As Cape Fear River Watch’s full-time Riverkeeper, he and his team held it down and taped its toothy maw shut so that they could test for traces of chemicals discharged by an upstream chemical plant, and then release it back into the wild. Such risks aren’t new to the former Navy rescue swimmer and Peace Corps volunteer who returned to his home state to try to clean up “the Fear.”
The 9,000-square-mile river system provides drinking water to one in five North Carolinians and hosts wildlife that also includes pelicans and manatees, but is plagued by a massive chemical facility, coal-fired powerplants and the largest pig slaughterhouse in the world.
Burdette takes a very hands-on approach. Most days, he’s paddling his kayak on the Fear or its tributaries, taking water samples, navigating waves of coal ash as they flood into the river, and thwarting sheriff’s deputies trying to block him from exposing illegal waste discharges on public waterways. On other days, he’s in a small airplane, flying above hog and chicken farms to look for improper waste disposal.
Since taking the job in 2010, Burdette has helped remove coal ash ponds, forced DuPont to stop dumping chemicals, and worked tirelessly to reduce the impact of the swine and poultry industry that operates largely unchecked on the river’s banks. It’s a job with no finish line in sight, which “I grew up on this river, and now I have two girls who are growing up on this river,” says Burdette. “I love it here, but this river needs help.” — Graham Averill
The Ice Man: Will Gadd
Will Gadd has scored plenty of personal bests in myriad adventure pursuits—first descents as a pro kayaker, two world records as a pro paraglider, three X Games golds and the first ascent of a frozen Niagara Falls as an ice climber.
Recently, though, Gadd has applied his prodigious skills to the greater good for public lands, working with scientists studying the impact of climate change. He has helped researchers explore caves beneath Canada’s Athabasca Glacier, an endeavor that discovered a new life-form (a biofilm on the cave walls). And he has climbed below the Greenland Ice Sheet with scientists to learn how ice melt might impact sea levels.
“As an athlete, a lot of what we do isn’t useful,” says 53-year-old Gadd. “I feel like I can be genuinely useful to these scientists in these harsh environments, helping them move around and conduct research.”
Gadd understands that climate change often can be an abstract. For ice climbers, it’s a harsh reality wreaking havoc on renowned destinations. Take Mount Kilimanjaro: Since 1912, roughly 90 percent of the glacier atop Africa’s highest peak has melted. In 2014, Gadd climbed Kilimanjaro’s ice fins, vertical slabs of isolated ice jutting from the sand. He returned in 2020 to reclimb those same fins, rebuild a weather station with a climate scientist and bag the last ascent of the Messner Route (the mountain’s famed ice route). But the fins were all but gone already.
Gadd sees the issue back home, too, with North American glaciers retreating at an accelerating rate. Montana’s Glacier National Park, the largest collection of permanent ice in the Lower 48, has only 25 remaining glaciers, down from 150 in 1850. The glaciers that crown Rocky Mountain National Park and Glacier Bay National Park are in the same sinking boat.
“The loss of ice for recreation is a problem, but the bigger issue is for cities that rely on seasonal ice- and snowmelt for their water,” Gadd says. “These huge features we think of as permanent are not. They’re melting like the ice in your drink.” — Graham Averill
The Cowboy Conservationist: Greg Hendricks
Greg Hendricks has been hunkered down, silent, amid Nevada desert scrub for hours. Now, finally, the latter-day cowboy’s quarry is near. He stealthily shoulders his rifle, adjusts its sights and shoots a wild mustang mare. And the people who love these horses love him for doing it.
That’s because he’s firing darts filled with the birth control substance PZP.
See, the Southwest is home to some 95,000 feral horses and burros descended from those brought to the Americas by the Spanish 500 years ago. And as much as there’s no better symbol of unbridled freedom than wild horses, they also graze for 16 hours a day and reproduce prolifically, straining scant desert resources and riling cattle ranchers on both private and public lands.
For five decades, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has used low-flying helicopters to round up mustangs into pens, which regularly causes stampedes and grisly deaths. Even so, wild herd numbers often increase after a roundup.
“It’s a sad, gruesome thing to see,” says Hendricks, director of field operations for the American Wild Horse Campaign.
PZP is a cheap, safe and humane way of keep herd sizes sustainable. The tough part is getting close enough to a feral horse to hit it with a dart, requiring frigid mornings in rugged terrain, plenty of lukewarm coffee and damn good aim. The greatest hazard can be crossing paths with ranchers who harbor a sizable distrust of interlopers, be they animal or human.
“When I was an agent, I once had a .30-06 pointed at my chest by a rancher,” recalls Hendricks. “I was just overseeing a cattle guard installation and I thought this 80-year-old guy was going to kill me.”
Hendricks remains steadfast, working in the field and building a team that has darted 1,300 mares with permission on private lands. The next step is to push the program toward broader use on public lands overseen by the Bureau, which isn’t yet set up to do fertility control and still relies on mass herding.
“These horses are a part of our history,” he says while scanning the high desert for another herd. “They’ve survived for hundreds of years out here and they’re still surviving. They’ve earned it.” — Adam Popescu
The Hell Fighter: Jeff Denholm
As a series of mega-wildfires ravaged California last August, the CZU Lightning Complex fire began to burn through Bonny Doon, turning the wooded surfers’ haven northwest of Santa Cruz into a particular shade of nightmare. Skies glowed orange and rained embers and ash.
Cal Fire crews were occupied with other blazes, unable to reach the town of 3,000 for several days. “It was a bad scene, man,” says Jeff Denholm, a Bonny Doon local who leases a fleet of fire engines to the U.S. Forest Service. Fortuitously, Denholm is also the founder and CEO of Atira Systems, maker of the next-gen, non-toxic fire suppressant Strong Water.
The gel-like substance, which clings to trees and smothers flames, is intended to be delivered via a helicopter-mounted cannon—an item in short supply as hell approached. But Denholm did have a truck on hand rigged to spray the suppressant. Ignoring evacuation orders, he and his neighbors managed to save many homes, including his own.
The battle brought new urgency to Denholm’s work developing tactics to fight a frightening trend in mega-blazes—five of the six largest wildfires in state history started in the same six-week period last summer. “It was the worst fire season on record in California,” says Denholm, “and wildfire propensity is forecast to increase tenfold in the next three decades. That’s six months of smoke a year. We can’t live that way.”
Denholm contends that his innovation fights these new, hotter wildfires that can raze 10,000 acres an hour better than the typical method of planes dropping red Phos-Check retardant powder ahead of a fire. Fire departments as close as San Bernardino County, CA, and as far as Australia, agree and have added Strong Water to their arsenals.
“We need this technology,” says Denholm, who is as passionate about his professional crusade as he is his hobby—big-wave surfing. The catch? His right arm was ripped off in a commercial fishing accident years ago on the Bering Sea. That he uses a prosthetic to paddle into three-story waves speaks to his adaptability in the mission to harness nature’s most powerful forces. — Chris Van Leuven
The Native Voice: Hank Stevens
Hank Stevens, president of the Navajo Mountain Chapter of the Navajo Nation, has seen firsthand the effects of resource extraction on his cultural homeland in southeastern Utah—sacred sites and hunting grounds now toxic with un-reclaimed contaminants. A recent boom in uranium mining has scarred the landscape near the boundary of Bears Ears National Monument, a controversial site which Stevens has spent the last several years working to save from the same fate.
Stevens co-chairs the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, made up of Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and Ute tribes united toward the goal of conserving Bears Ears. When the coalition successfully petitioned the Obama administration for federal protections for Bears Ears, the first designated monument proposed by Native American leaders, it gained real influence in the oversight of public lands that are also ancestral homelands.
Not that it mattered much to Trump administration Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who met only briefly with Stevens on his 2017 visit to the monument. “He kind of shook my hand, mentioned that he knew some native warriors, and that was it,” recalls Stevens. A month later, Trump drastically shrank Bears Ears’ protected acreage.
Undaunted, Stevens defended the region from the Trump administration’s aggressive oil, gas and mining agenda. As the Navajo representative on the Coalition, he led meetings with decision-makers and traveled to spread the urgent message of what’s at stake.
“We need to preserve this sacred site not just for the tribes, but also for people wanting to see these natural places,” says Stevens. “We want people to regard Bears Ears as a shrine that everybody is welcome to come to in a spiritual way, to envision the Creator’s artistry without a flaw made by mankind, and to have a sense of comfort when they travel home.”
With President Biden’s executive order to review the boundaries of Bears Ears and other national monuments reduced by the Trump administration, Stevens sees a light at the end of what has been a dark tunnel. “The next opportunity is now,” he says. — Cassidy Randall
The Super Arborist: Drew Peterson
When wildfire whips through a forest, tens of thousands of giant pine and fir trees, often still burning, must be felled in order for ground crews to gain access, and locals to safely escape.
“These are the jobs you don’t tell your mom about,” says Drew Peterson, Oregon-based tree climber and self-pro-claimed Swiss Army knife for the U.S. Forest Service. “You are working to get trees down that are nearly burned through. The risk can be pretty staggering.”
Though Peterson’s specialty is taking out such hazardous trees, the USFS also has tapped the elite rock climber for another vital conservation task—saving endangered tree species that are threatened by fire, drought or disease. Often his goal is to return to terra firma with critical genetic material that gets distributed to seed-bank vaults around the world.
“I can’t really call myself an environmental activist,” admits Peterson. “My personality is more keeping my head down and hands dirty.”
For one mission, he packed his climbing gear and shipped out to California’s Channel Islands National Park to collect cones from the Torrey pine—one of the most endangered tree species in North America. Despite high winds and long pack-outs, he returned with bags full of the pineapple-size cones: “It was basically the arborist equivalent of a Patagonian climbing adventure,” says Peterson. — Nancy Bouchard
The Wilderness Shepherd: George Schaller
Explore the wilds with George Schaller—the world’s greatest living field biologist—and you’ll quickly pick up on his indefatigable sense of mission. While trekking the Arctic in 2006, the then-septuagenarian moved with the same enthusiasm and limber grace as the grad students trailing in his wake, pausing only to pull apart grizzly scats, measure tree trunks with a string, and note it all down in his pocket-sized journal.
For more than six decades, he has endured ill-tempered weather, hellacious insects and civil wars in a storied career that he calls “roaming around watching animals.” His gentle yet tenacious advocacy fostered the creation of more than 20 refuges around the globe that protect large creatures besieged by habitat loss, over-hunting and climate change. Armed only with notebook and camera, working in close quarters amid wild teeth and claws, Schaller believes that focusing on charismatic megafauna could extend protection to all important species, from furred quadrupeds to spiny scorpions. (In northern India, one of these newly discovered arachnids, Liocheles schalleri, was given his surname).
Possessed of less aversion to self-promotion, George Schaller would be a household name. His 1950s graduate fieldwork in Alaska led to the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He steered Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey to their breakthrough work with great apes. And after leading his friend Peter Matthiessen through the Himalayas, he became the semi-anonymous protagonist “GS” in Matthiessen’s classic 1978 book, The Snow Leopard. Schaller himself would write 22 books and publish hundreds of scientific and popular articles that further buttressed his devotion to saving wildlife and wilderness.
More recently in New Hampshire, while walking in his characteristic and watchful long strides—like the mythical Greek shepherd Endymion—he eyed a furry creature scramble off the roadside. “Marmota monax,” said Schaller, “the woodchuck.”
Now in his 80s, he mentions a Colombian colleague who wants him to visit wildlife there. Then China, Brazil, Ecuador, maybe Guyana. “I choose where I can do something useful,” he concluded.
When asked if he’ll stop and relax, he waved his hand impatiently.
“When I die,” he said, “I retire.” — Jon Waterman
The Border Guardian: Gabe Vasquez
Gabe Vasquez first learned a love for the outdoors from his grandfather, who passed down the cultural traditions of hunting in Mexico’s Sierra Madre and fishing on the banks of the Rio Grande. After immigrating to the United States at age 10, Vasquez watched the magnificent Grande, the lifeblood of so many border communities, diverted and divided as the river became a front in battles over immigration policy.
Vasquez, now a city councilor in Las Cruces, NM, founded the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project in 2017 to help ensure that those same communities maintain access to public lands and play a central role in their conservation. Their collective voice historically has been excluded from this effort, even as special interests seized control of precious water resources and frontera lands come under threat of destruction by an expanding border wall.
“How would you feel if there were a proposal to build a solid wall across the entirety of Yellowstone? You’d be outraged,” says Vasquez. “But people don’t have the same reaction when we talk about borderlands, because they’ve been so politicized.”
Putting his boardroom convictions into outdoors action, Vasquez often escorts reporters on field assignments to see what’s at stake. This marginalized region encompasses some of the most biodiverse landscapes in North America—spectacular grasslands, deserts, forests and archeological sites home not to drug runners and economic migrants but to bobcats, mountain lions, mule deer and quail. When not guiding decision-makers on trips to areas deserving of federal protection, he takes local Hispanic youth rafting on the Rio Grande, hunting in the Potrillo Mountains and hiking in the Organ Mountain Desert Peaks National Monument, which he played a key role in establishing in 2014. Those outings also play a vital part in his conservation vision.
“If you have an experience that makes you love a place, you’re much more likely to want to protect it,” says Vasquez. “But the truth is that only a small few are allowed those opportunities. It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that more of our young people can have those experiences.” — Cassidy Randall
Young Guns: The Next Generation of Public Lands Defenders
1. Tanner Saul
Homebase: Missoula, MT
Cause: Tracking wildlife
Purpose: To tag a 500-pound grizzly, somebody has to jump out of the helicopter—often it’s Tanner Saul, who started capturing and collaring mountain lions with the Park Service in high school. That led to work with big cats, wolves and bears in Montana, caracals in Africa, and bighorn sheep in South Dakota, where he took a tumble off a 35-foot cliff while tending to a newborn lamb. “I want to make a difference when it comes to wildlife, whether it is protecting them from disease or extinction or human pressure,” says Saul, who now hosts A Wilder View on Montana Public Broadcasting.
2. Sammy Gensaw
Homebase: Yurok Reservation, CA
Cause: River revival
Purpose: Sammy Gensaw doesn’t just view the largest dam removal project in U.S. history, which begins with this year’s demolition of four of the Klamath River’s six dams in California and Oregon, as the successful culmination of a decades-long struggle. The cofounder of the Ancestral Guard, an outdoors-oriented network of indigenous peoples, calls it no less than a “restorative revolution” that will help in developing local foodways and teaching young people the traditional fishing practices that were strained by the dams’ decimation of salmon and steelhead populations.
3. Fred Campbell
Cause: Elevating climbs
Purpose: While playing football at Stanford, Fred Campbell suffered a broken neck. The injury altered his plans, but when he healed and took up climbing, he found a sport with the power to change other lives—especially when he took notice of how unusual it was to be person of color in the vertical world. Now a data scientist and team climber for The North Face, he uses his platform to inspire new climbers. “By bringing more people from diverse backgrounds into the outdoors,” explains Campbell, “there’s a stronger population to protect public lands and fight climate change.” — Nancy Bouchard
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