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Mature Activism May Save the Planet

En español | It was not a promising start. Getting ready to head out for the Utah wilderness, Lee Verner had packed her clothes in a black bag, laid it down on a black chair and … promptly forgotten about it. When she realized her mistake, she was too far from home to turn around.

That wasn’t all. An inexperienced camper, she didn’t know that you have to pound tent stakes into the hard earth of canyon country, not just push them in and assume they’ll stay put; her tent blew away, though she was able to haul it back. That night, it turned cold and rainy—and, of course, she had no change of clothes. Exhausted, Verner lay in her sleeping bag on a too-thin mat with one unexpected thought in her mind: “I have never been happier in my life!”

She had just spent the day working with other women, most in their 60s or older, raking out and covering up unauthorized routes carved by off-road vehicles into the wilderness around Cedar Mesa, in southeastern Utah. Verner, a soft-spoken 72-year-old who had recently retired from a career as a marriage and family therapist in Durango, Colo., had joined a work crew to restore damaged backcountry. “I feel so passionate about doing this,” she says, “that whatever I can do with what time I have left, I really want to do.”

Which is why she now finds herself in a nondescript conference room at a slightly down-at-the-heels hotel just off Historic Route 66 in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., where it sounds as though a dismayingly large share of the national Harley fleet has come to roar up and down the street at all hours.

It is an unlikely spot, because the group that has called this meeting—and that organized the Cedar Mesa work trip—is the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and the Broads do not like sitting indoors in cities with loud traffic. Or, for that matter, sitting indoors anywhere. “Broads like getting out there and getting dirty and crawling on rocks and getting muddy,” says Rose Chilcoat, a former National Park Service ranger who is now the group’s associate director.

Founded in 1989, the Broads—they don’t go by their acronym because, explains Chilcoat, “We’re not gobs, we’re Broads”—work off a deceptively simple premise: Older women who care about the wilderness and have spent a lot of time exploring it can make a tangible difference in protecting it. This has proved to be an attractive message to a lot of people like Verner.

The group began as a handful of women gathering around one another’s kitchen tables—when they weren’t hiking together—and it now has 3,500 members, including some men, and sees no end to its expansion. The Albuquerque meeting is its first effort to train the growing number of women who are interested in opening local chapters, which they call “Broadbands.”

Great Old Broads for Wilderness may be the most colorfully named environmental effort spearheaded by older Americans—and surely it is the only one to hang a large purple bra at its headquarters for collecting donations, so that “our cups will runneth over,” as executive director Ronni Egan puts it—but the Broads are hardly alone.

All over the country, women and men in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond are plunging into environmental activism in ways that are redefining the term. Not content simply to join environmental groups or write letters or lobby or stand around holding placards—though some do that, too—they are taking the lead in getting results they can see: in local carbon footprints, in their communities’ consumption habits, in a restored patch of earth like Cedar Mesa.

There’s 62-year-old Joe James, for instance, whose Greening of Black America initiative in South Carolina is aimed at helping African American farmers find ways of selling their products locally, grow biofuels and in other ways hook into the “green economy.” There’s the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, 66, whose Interfaith Power and Light campaign began as a coalition of Episcopal churches around San Francisco purchasing renewable energy, and has expanded to working with congregations around the country. There’s Rick Cherry, 66, whose Community Environmental Center in New York City was founded to help low-income New Yorkers improve their homes’ energy efficiency and has become one of the state’s leading energy conservation organizations; and Barney Flynn, 73, a retired northern California farmer whose River Partners does large-scale habitat restoration along the state’s rivers and streams.

A national survey for Civic Ventures, a San Francisco group promoting the involvement of older Americans in social change, found that almost a third of 44- to 70-year-olds interested in so-called encore careers found it “very appealing” to work to preserve the environment. Karl Pillemer, a sociologist and human development researcher at Cornell University, has found that although adults over 65 tend to be less involved in environmental volunteerism, the leading edge of boomers is participating at almost the same level as younger adults—and with boomers’ sheer numbers, that’s a lot of activism.

In a recent study for AARP, 55 percent of members of the “silent” and boomer generations thought they were leaving the world in worse condition than they’d found it. Having founded Earth Day and expanded environmentalism to a much greater scale, those generations, says Marc Freedman, CEO of Civic Ventures, are “looking back at where things stand and feeling a great sense of urgency and some sadness at this prospect of leaving the planet worse off.”

Denis Hayes, the veteran activist who organized the first Earth Day in April 1970, believes this is why older recruits to the movement are looking for measurable results. “There is a sense that we did not do as much with the world as we had intended to, and that the people we placed in roles of national prominence have for the most part let us down,” says Hayes, now president of the Bullitt Foundation, which focuses on building a sustainable economy in the Pacific Northwest. “So you’re seeing a resurgence of people trying to shape up their own communities and wilderness areas, doing something that’s tangible, changing something profoundly and leaving a visible legacy.”

Asked why they do what they do, the Broads can get quite poetic about their cause. The second night of the Albuquerque meeting, the group’s original moving spirit, Susan Tixier, 66, addresses the assembled activists. “It is our calling to spread the word to great broads everywhere,” she says, “that the experience of waking up in your sleeping bag in the middle of the canyon country with too-close yipping coyotes under a full moon, walking through a rising river in the rain, seeking shelter from a late snowstorm under a ledge … standing quietly to watch a mama bear and cubs cross the path in front of you—that these events are a living metaphor for how best to live our lives. Without the opportunity to experience wilderness, civilization becomes sterile, safe and dead.”

What’s interesting about the Broads, though, is how they blend steely passion with clear-eyed pragmatism. The group’s “Broadwalks,” for instance, take its members to wilderness areas that are threatened or that are being considered for official wilderness designation. They hike, listen to speakers who know the area’s history, flora and fauna, and learn why it’s special. “We fall in love with it,” says the Broads’ Chilcoat, “so we can go home and be passionate advocates for it.”

More prosaically, the group tackles issues not through launching protests, but by painstakingly documenting wilderness destruction so that sympathetic but understaffed federal land managers can act, and unsympathetic ones have no excuse not to act. “This is not the Forest Service’s land, or the Bureau of Land Management’s,” says Chilcoat. “It is your land that the Forest Service is supposed to be managing for you.”

It is this blend of idealism, fact-based activism and roll-up-your-sleeves enthusiasm that many older people find most appealing, says JoAnn Valenti, a longtime member who lives in Florida. “We have a responsibility to be active users,” she says. “If we need to pull this barbed-wire fencing off the top of this mountain because it’s a proposed wilderness area so it can’t have fencing in it, we will find the right people to show us how to pull barbed-wire fencing, we’ll figure out what we need, and we’ll go up there and do it.

“It’s not ‘eco-tactics,’ ” Valenti continues. “You investigate what needs to be done, who’s responsible, and talk to them about whether they are willing to work with you to do it, so that you’re being a positive force in society, you’re being an informed and involved citizen, but you’re doing things that are self-serving as well, because it’s preserving the place you want to go pitch that tent and you want to go hike. It just makes ultimate sense.”

In this down-to-earth approach, the Broads may be an emblem for the new activism of an aging activist generation. “There was a tendency that grew out of all the movements of that era, which had to do with media and egotism, but the dominant position was the one that said “I am more radical than thou,” says Hayes. “But ‘radical’ didn’t have to do with a profound understanding of conservation biology or a basic restructuring of society; radicalism had to do with throwing a brick through a flower shop window. Well, that is dead and buried. We want to get the job done. We are out of time.”

Rob Gurwitt is a writer based in Norwich, Vt.

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