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Public lands are easy to take for granted. How often do you reflect on why there are trails where you are running? Why isn’t the land covered in houses or highways?
Emily Peterson, a 30-year-old environmental philanthropist from Mill Valley, California, had one of those moments of reflection earlier this year. Descending into Pirate’s Cove in the Marin Headlands outside of San Francisco, she was greeted by the sunrise reflecting off of crashing surf and steep mountains.
“I feel so extraordinarily blessed by the well-protected network of public lands in our backyard,” she says. “Time on these trails grounds me, sets the tone for my day and has enabled both close friendships and great adventures.” At that lightbulb moment, Peterson says, “I decided there was a great opportunity for the trail community to celebrate and defend the public lands that make our sport possible.”
The next day, she gathered a group of 10 local trail runners, and the idea of a trail-runner-led initiative to protect public lands was born.
A Threat to Public Lands
Peterson’s urgency was spurred by a shift in political winds that seemed to portend threats to public lands. In 2015, the U.S. Senate passed a budget amendment that would enable transfer of public lands to state and local governments. Then in January 2017, just before Peterson’s run in the Marin Headlands, two rapid-fire actions in the U.S. House of Representatives sparked concern.
First, a budget amendment changed how the value of public land is accounted, stating that the transfer of land from federal to state control is revenue-neutral. This meant that the federal government wouldn’t have to consider the impacts of land transfer on the national debt, essentially making land transfers increasingly possible.
Second, and more prominently, Representative Jason Chaffetz from Utah introduced a bill that would have sold off 3.3 million acres of public lands in 10 western states.
A debate that had been bubbling beneath the surface of western land management policy exploded onto the national scene. Conservationists like the Wilderness Society and outdoorsmen like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers got out and spoke up. After a few days of deafening opposition, Chaffetz withdrew the bill. Public lands were safe.
Or, as Peterson was thinking, they were temporarily safe. How could she help? As she thought about it, she came back to the reason that bill was withdrawn in the first place—the voices of conservationists and outdoorsmen. What about the voices of trail runners?
Run Wild’s Mission
Run Wild was born to help give the voices of trail runners a megaphone. According to Peterson, Run Wild will focus on two avenues of movement building. First, Run Wild has partnered with the Wilderness Society, which is on the frontlines of protecting public lands at risk. Revenue from Run Wild shirt sales will be donated to the Wilderness Society’s Our Wild campaign to protect public lands, and Run Wild also encourages individual donations. Second, and most significant to Peterson and her co-founders, Run Wild will try to engage trail runners to become aware of the benefits of public lands in their own backyards.
“Trail runners can start by celebrating the value of public lands directly in the communities where they live,” says Peterson. “We’ll have a designated ‘Run-In’ day in late April, where you can run one of your favorite trails with a group of friends and share photos … [with] a description of the public lands in the area. Learn about how they were protected and when—there’s usually an interesting personal or political story behind every protected area, with passion and timing coming together to push for the protection of that place.”
Peterson says she wants Run Wild to evolve organically and have a “lighter touch.” Instead of big direct actions, like marches, the goal is to help people “become more informed about public lands protections already in place, and to stand ready to activate when public lands are at stake.”
When challenged on the effectiveness of social-media movements, Peterson laughs. “We’re going to put this issue out in the world, and let it resonate with people,” she says. “The optimal response would be full engagement and increased awareness about this connection [between trail runners and public lands].” Run Wild wants trail runners to volunteer in their local communities and make their voices heard in the political process, adds Peterson.
In essence, the goal is to “recognize that every American owns a slice of our country’s wild places—618 million acres, to be exact. This is something unique and worth celebrating, whether you live in Maine, Montana or Manhattan.”
David Roche is a public-interest environmental lawyer working on public-lands issues. He also coaches runners of all abilities through is coaching service, Some Work All Play.