When I was five, we moved to one of the first suburbs in Louisville, Kentucky. Our street was smack in the middle of farm and forest land that, until we arrived, had changed very little in almost two centuries. One morning I looked out our bathroom window, across Miss Huntsinger’s wheat field to the magnificent forest that lay beyond, and was confronted with an otherworldly scene. Lined bumper to bumper along the edge of the woods was a stream of bright yellow machines—bulldozers, earthmovers, road graders, dump trucks. In the next few days, they laid waste to the forest. Within months the new subdivision that replaced the trees was complete. It looked just like our street.

And so at age five, I became an environmentalist. I could not bear to see that kind of destruction and yet, a part of me knew that I was part of the problem. Like my dad said at the time, “The people that will live there are just like us. They need a home too.”

As I got older, and entered that phase of young adulthood where everything becomes more black and white, and gray zones (and self-reflection)  disappear, I became the kind of knee-jerk environmentalist that most “anti-environmentalists” love to hate. I joined all the right organizations, wholeheartedly supported every cause and walked in lock-step with my enviro pals.

When I started The Zephyr, almost 25 years ago, I was beginning to realize that my opinions were set more deeply in concrete than they had the right to be, and in the first issue of this publication, I stated my intent to offer all sides of the debate–sort of a broad spectrum forum. But while I think I stayed true to that pledge, it was always clear where my loyalties lay.  I gave the local environmental group almost unlimited space in The Zephyr to present their point of view. They in turn, promoted my little rag as “the greatest newspaper in the world.” I was quite flattered. Many thought The Zephyr was the print arm of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

And then in the late 90s, it all started to feel different to me. As the tourist boom/urbanization of Moab and the Rural West exploded, I began to doubt the purity of our cause. More than a decade ago, I decided to express those concerns as an “amenities economy” began to lay waste to the very land we sought to preserve. I thought “our side” needed to look in the mirror.  But instead, I encountered deep resistance. None of my green friends wanted to talk about these kinds of impacts anymore. When I pursued the matter, they thought it was heresy—the discomfort turned to anger and then loathing. I went from ally to enemy in a matter of a couple years.

And so, my lockstep days were over. Since then, the “wilderness” issue has, for me, devolved into a political and economic battle between two competing industries for the alleged best use of the land.  It has little to do with the qualities that the word is supposed to evoke—like beauty and space and solitude.

For me,  the moral component in the wilderness fight was lost.
But why? What changed? At the outset, I admit to being more an idealist than a realist and I was never equipped to play the role of politician/dealmaker. Still, both then and now, the effort to preserve dwindling wilderness lands has been a moral and ethical issue for me and if there is a political/economic component to be exploited, I never felt it should be the driving force behind “the Cause.”

But in the late ‘90s, something was different and I could never pinpoint the cause—if there was one.  But from where I stood, the “crusade” to save wilderness had gradually become a sales pitch. In Utah, the economic component of wilderness became a prominent, if not the defining reason for passing a wilderness bill. Suddenly, the idea of wilderness and the legislative process to create wilderness diverged. I found myself on the outside, looking into a “movement” that I no longer recognized.  It was never the same for me again and I couldn’t  understand where they (or I) had gone astray.
Jump ahead 15 years and the Miracle of the World Wide Web.

As much and as often as I loathe the internet, the medium does have its moments. Despite its overarching banality, it also has the potential to provide information that might otherwise be buried by the passage of time and the lack of access to the long-passed facts.

One day, a few weeks ago, I was Googling—just typing in names and organizations and places–to see what popped up. I typed in “wilderness” and “marketing.”  What appeared on my screen was a complete surprise to me. What it revealed to me answered my 15 year old question.

It was a web site called “The Wilderness Mentoring Conference of 1998.” It was assembled by a group of self-named “mentors,” professional environmentalists active at the time in organizations that reached from Washington DC to Alaska.  This relative handful of New Environmentalists were frustrated by the movement’s lack of progress in pushing and passing wilderness legislation across the country.

And so, On Memorial Day Weekend in 1998,  according to the document that summarizes this event, “sixty-three people active in (or suffering a tenuous retirement from) wilderness advocacy met at the Rex Ranch in Amado, Arizona, for the first Wilderness Mentoring Conference.”

It included participants from national and regional environmental organizations coast-to-coast, including The Sierra Club, Montana Wilderness Association, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, and National Audubon Society.

And it included representatives of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), including its then-Executive Director, Mike Matz. Matz would also preside over the conference as one of its mentors.


SEE COMPLETE LIST OF PARTICIPANTS:  http://www.jmccomb.com/mentor/participants.htm

The report of the gathering–the post mortem—was called “Building a Successful Wilderness Campaign: Lessons from the 1998 Wilderness Mentoring Conference.” It brought together, the introduction explained, “the last generation of ‘closers,’ those who know how to take an idea and run with it all the way to the president’s desk, with a new generation of eager, thoughtful wilderness advocates. The younger generation was encouraged to think critically and to identify strategies, tools, and tactics for developing and leading successful wilderness campaigns.”

A prominently displayed quote by Michael Carroll, now of The Wilderness Society, established the tone and direction of all that would come later:

“Car companies and makers of sports drinks use wilderness to sell their products. We have to market wilderness as a product people want to have.”

That, in its most succinct essence, was the theme of the conference.  While the organizers of the event paid tribute to the wilderness activists who had come before, clearly the purpose of the meeting was to propose a new approach. “Although it is important to pioneer new wilderness strategies,” the report explained almost as an afterthought, “we must do so with knowledge of what has come before.”  With that token nod to the “importance of history” and to the “philosophical and political contexts” of the wilderness movement, the conference explored the new territories of salesmanship, marketing and media manipulation to win the legislative wilderness battle. One might think you were being taught how to sell a new Buick.


The conference offered a plethora of ideas. Among them:

Hire a professional consultant.

Build a portfolio that contains your media clips.

Create relationships with reporters. Don’t wait for reporters to come to you. Use smart lobbying skills when you speak to them  If you can, give them tips about good stories elsewhere. They’ll appreciate it, remember you, and come back to you.

Widen your availability. Don’t just aim for newspaper coverage.

Talk to local radio show hosts and see if they can interview you.

Videotape your congressional co-sponsor.

Use “Presponse.” Call the media before you stage an event.

Hold a press conference. Anyone or any group can call a press conference. The trick is to have a hook that will attract the media.

NOTE: You can view the entire “Mentoring Conference Report at:  http://www.jmccomb.com/mentor/

The conference explored the differences between a “defensive” and “offensive” campaign and it examined the fine art of lobbying both the executive and legislative branches of government. And most importantly, it emphasized:  “Understand and use the media.” They could not have put a finer or more meticulous point on it…
“When you are learning to cook up a campaign, media are an essential utensil. In addition to using media strategically, you need to know how to market your cause effectively once there.” Among its more important points:

* Get people’s attention. Use an unexpected messenger to get your message across. Do something unexpected and unique. Gimmicks can be very effective for capturing people’s attention…

*  Use a catchy slogan. Use alliteration or a clever rhyme to make a slogan stick in people’s head. For example, many years ago, the line, “Don’t be a litterbug,” made people more aware of their littering habits.

*   Appeal to people’s interests. Use marketing to let people know how a certain initiative will help them in particular. For example, get families’ attention by talking about their children’s future.

*   Deliver your message using an unexpected source. Increase your credibility by asking a hunter or rancher to deliver a message of support to Congress or the media

*   Ask experts to endorse your “product.” Ask a scientist, a geologist, or any pertinent expert to help market your campaign. Maybe they will let you quote them or refer to them in an article or ad.

*   Develop a spokesperson. Get people used to a recognizable, quotable, and believable spokesperson. If Joe Movie Star thinks saving the wilderness is a good idea and is vocal about it, his support might be enough to convince some people to back you. Who is a local hero in your city or town? Might he or she be willing to support your cause?

*   Use other products to sell wilderness. Note the byproducts of protected wilderness, such as clean air, clean water, and pristine places to visit and enjoy.

*   Contrast real wilderness with fake wilderness. Show how much better the real thing is than Disney or cyberspace, for example.

*   Take back your leaders’ quotes. Many companies that don’t seem to have the best interests of wilderness in mind, such as ATV manufacturers, often cleverly use quotes of well-known wilderness advocates to sell their products. Use quotes (e.g., John Muir’s) in a context that supports saving wilderness.

* Make it funny. People like humor. Make good-natured jokes about anti-wilderness initiatives. People also like the possibility of good times. Show people having fun in the wilderness.
This was the Rosetta Stone. Until I stumbled upon the web site in April, I had never heard of the conference; nor did I know that my Utah friends had participated in it. Nor did I know that SUWA’s executive director was one of its mentors. This is the moment where my friends in the wilderness movement in Utah took a sudden turn in a direction I had not even remotely imagined possible. The ‘why’ part had been answered.
“Gimmicks…Catchy slogans…ask a rancher to support you…get Joe movie star as a spokesman…Cleverly quote John Muir…Ask experts to endorse your ‘product.’…Show people having fun in the wilderness.”

It all came to pass.

Particularly ironic was the mentors’ admonition, “Contrast real wilderness with fake wilderness. Show how much better the real thing is than Disney or cyberspace.”

Since this was written, many of us have lamented the Disneyfication of wilderness. What better example than Moab’s latest incarnation as the overhyped “Adventure Capital of the World, home of swing lines and zip lines and slack lines and every adrenalin-fueled recreational exoperience imaginable. The Mentors must be proud.

But what this conference created and what their report reveals is that, not only did the mentor gathering give its collective blessing to an all-out  Disneyfication of Wilderness, its embrace of the strategies set forth in 1998 established the  Disneyfication of the wilderness PROCESS as well.
This is where the heart and soul of the wilderness movement died.

One final note.

To put together an event like the Wilderness Mentoring Conference would have been an expensive proposition, even in 1998, especially at Rex Ranch Resort and Spa, in Amado, Arizona (south of Tucson). Affording the travel costs of 63 people from around the country should have been a daunting task. But the event had plenty of backing from some very deep pockets. REI, which had recently put future Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on its board of directors was a contributor. So were two mega-wealthy board members from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance—Bert Fingerhut and Hansjorg Wyss.

At the same time Wyss and Fingerhut were engineering a dramatic shift in SUWA’s wilderness strategy, it was injecting millions of dollars into SUWA’s coffers, turning it from the bare-bones grassroots organization it had been, into a cash-flushed “business” with brand new offices and a million dollar payroll.

That was fifteen years ago. Maybe passage of the Red Rock Wilderness Bill is just around the corner, but so far, all that cash and all that flash have not served them well.

Maybe ‘selling’ wilderness isn’t like selling a car after all.

*UPDATE: In 2018, we discovered that the links to the Wilderness Mentoring Conference were broken, so we’ve altered the links above using the Internet Archive to show to the cached versions of those pages. 

Click here to read extended excerpts from the Wilderness Mentoring Conference in this issue’s “When Everything Changed? The Wilderness Mentoring Conference, 1998.”

To read the PDF version of this article, click here.

Don’t forget the Zephyr ads! All links are hot!


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6 comments for “Take it or Leave it: 15 YEARS LATER…THOUGHTS ON ‘THE WILDERNESS MENTORING CONFERENCE OF 1998’…by Jim Stiles

  1. Scott Thompson
    June 2, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    Jim, your willingness to even HAVE this insight is what makes you different, as well as your willingness to stand up for it. You have something to be proud of here.

    To find a counterpoint to Disneyfication I find myself saying that the wildness of the land is sacred. The problem is that the real environmentalism has evaporated.

  2. CM Felts
    June 2, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    “Beware the paid staff.” I have always paid attention to this rule–even after having been the paid staff for a couple of gigs…

    “Selling” wilderness has nothing to do with creating more wilderness designations or, for that matter, protecting existing wilderness. It has to do with the careers of those who seek to sell it–a new product, so to speak, as if these people were bankers dreaming up new mortgage “products.”

    Very nice, Mr. Stiles.

  3. Hobart Clems of Nebraska
    June 8, 2013 at 6:27 am

    You want wilderness? Start by keeping it simple. We pool our Green Stamps and buy Nebraska flat out. With today’s ridiculous interest rates, the monthly payments cain’t be more than $15. I know a guy at Wells Fargo that ain’t moved a mortgage in 5 years. He’s hot to trot and would sell Nebraska without blinking a dusty eyelash. Soon as the ink’s dry, we convene a whopping BBQ and sizzle every cow within 300 miles. Good calories, little cost. Burn the corn in our gas tanks until its gone, then let the whole state do what it already wants to do – go wild. Don’t need no bureaucrats for the job. No professional greens need apply, neither.

    Recreate at your own risk.
    Problem solved.

    Your pal,
    Hobart Clems of Nebraska

  4. Thomas Crowley
    June 24, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    A very thought provoking article. Keep up the good work.

  5. John Tymochko
    July 1, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Hobart Clems has it right!!

  6. Lenora Mosier
    July 23, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    I always enjoy reading your articles. This one especially for the truthful insight.

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