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Tattle Trails: Great Old Broads for Wilderness

A group of hikers with cameras finds a way to keep vehicles from ruining the West's wildest lands

Tattle Trails: Great Old Broads

— Photo by Jen Judge

As lightning streaked the canyon and rain drummed on the red-rock walls of Recapture Wash, Ronni Egan and Rose Chilcoat took shelter under a ledge, delighting in the meteorological drama before them. "Does anyone not feel alive?" shouted Chilcoat after a deafening clap of thunder.

Egan, 63, and Chilcoat, 50, lead Great Old Broads for Wilderness (970-385-9577): 3,600 women (and a few hundred men) who put hiking boots to the ground and take a stand for Mother Nature by monitoring abuses of public lands. Recapture Wash in southeastern Utah is one area they watch. There, using Global Positioning System devices and digital cameras, the group has been documenting damage to vegetation and streambeds by all-terrain vehicles. The pictures have paid off: the Bureau of Land Management closed a trail that ATV enthusiasts had dynamited out of rock perilously close to 800-year-old cliff dwellings.

"We're not against off-road vehicles—or grazing cattle or oil derricks," says Egan, the group's executive director. "There's enough room for everybody. But some of these things are just so destructive, they shouldn't be allowed in certain environments." The Broads have worked to limit snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park and to establish Wild Sky Wilderness in Washington State.

On this visit to the wash, Egan and Chilcoat were pleased to see the canyon recovering. The air was pungent with juniper and sage. A wren's song cascaded in the breeze, and the cliff face bloomed with sunflowers, blue asters, and scarlet gilia. Says Egan of the landscape: "It's my shrink, my church, my meditation. When I'm out here, everything else goes away."

“You do what you can, and you're glad to know there are still wild places.”

Egan had never led anything but horseback trips from her family's dude ranch in New Mexico before taking the reins of the Broads in 2002. The group, based in Durango, Colorado, got its start in 1989 after some older hikers took exception to a remark by Utah senator Orrin Hatch. He opined that the United States shouldn't designate more land as wilderness, because the elderly wouldn't have access. Now the Broads have 22 chapters—called Broadbands—in nine states.

"We're not enforcers," says Egan. "We're the evidence-gathering arm of the environmental movement." And though staunch advocates for wild places, they seek common ground rather than confrontation. When Egan and Chilcoat, a former U.S. park ranger and the group's second in command, invited a New Mexico state legislator and rancher to sit down and talk," he said, 'I don't get why you're inviting the enemy to dinner,' " Egan recalls. Yet they found that despite differences over desert grazing, they shared concerns about contaminated water from oil and gas exploration.

Egan spends at least one week each month outdoors, on monitoring trips or camping. By the end of their recent foray, Egan and Chilcoat had jostled for hours over winding roads and waded calf-deep through a muddy flash flood. Word of a mountain lion in the vicinity only added to the excitement. "Icing on the cake," says Egan.

"Backs fail, knees fail, the body might not do anymore what it did," Chilcoat notes, "but you do what you can, and you're glad to know there are still wild places."

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