The familiar sound of the Skype ringtone fills the stillness of the room; a far cry from the sounds of the outdoors that permeates my memory. I click the
green answer icon at the bottom of the screen. The screen flickers and eventually lights up. On the other side of the screen are two smiling faces:
Connie Self and Jeff Lowe. They introduce themselves, but they don’t need to; I know them as leaders of the outdoor industry, climbers, and pioneers
of the field. I gather my notebook – nervous – and let my eyes fall to the first question: What is your earliest memory of the outdoors?
Most people can remember little moments that changed them. Experiences that left them changed, and different from before. It’s easy to look back at these moments and recognize them as defining points of our lives, the moment that helps realize who we are. For Connie and Jeff, these moments both took place in the outdoors.
The pair, who now reside in Lafayette, Colorado, are a wonderful team. They balance each other effortlessly and it is impossible not to catch the spirit of adventure that they embody within their stories. Limited now by a rare illness which debilitates his ability to talk and confines him to a wheelchair, Jeff demonstrates his love for the outdoors by the beautiful stories he shares with Connie’s assistance.
The power duo does not let the day-to-day struggles and Jeff’s physical restrictions rain on their parade, and have made time to produce a movie recounting the trials and triumphs of Jeff’s climbing days and the current challenges of his life. The award winning documentary film, Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia, is narrated by New York Times best selling author Jon Krakauer. Krakauer recounts Jeff’s solo winter climb up the Eiger’s north face and Jeff’s grace filled dance of life in a wheelchair. The film has been widely successful within the outdoor community and far beyond, winning 17 major awards at Film Festivals around the world. Connie displays her attitude best with a mantra she revisits daily, “Do the best you can, with what you’ve got, from where you are, right now.”
Connie explains early memories of weekend camping trips, followed by afternoons spent outside traversing the woods near her house. She is a gifted storyteller and captures the attention of all around. With genuine enthusiasm, she tells me stories of her earliest memories: Her father building a homemade canoe transporter made out of a wagon and her mother facing a bear head-on in a Minnesota campground. The independence and bravery that the outdoors helped instill at a young age helped cultivate values and a lifestyle that continued on as Connie grew from a child to a young adult.
For Jeff, it was those early memories of hiking up into the mountains near his house in Ogden, Utah, and learning climbing techniques from his father, Ralph Lowe, a seasoned climber himself and one of Jeff’s most influential mentors. The Lowe family also had a soft spot for animals and some of Jeff’s childhood pets included a bear named Bruno and a pair of wolves.
At just seven years old, Jeff was the youngest person to reach the top of Grand Teton with his Dad and brother Greg. On the descent, Jeff fell and bumped his head on a rock. His father helped him right away, but by the time the group made it back to the trailhead, Jeff had lost interest in climbing. He spent the next two years making excuses and finding ways to avoid climbing trips. “It wasn’t until his desire to go climbing overcame his fear of the challenge,” said Connie. After two years out of the sport Jeff was ready to jump back in.
Both Connie and Jeff agree that a climber or athlete should never put themselves at risk for fame. “If I could tell a young climber
or outdoor enthusiast one thing, it would be to simply enjoy the sport. Don’t do it for money, don’t do it for sponsorships, do it for you.”
It’s a few days after talking with Jeff and Connie that I am at a climbing wall with my sister. My hands have been chalk and blister free for a few years now, but I’m excited to be back. I’m not here for the sport. I’m not here for to prove anything to anyone. I’m here to get back to the place that I love.
A rhythm of words voiced by Connie are stuck in my head and I look up at the pattern of rocks on the wall.
“Do the best you can, with what you’ve got, from where you are, right now.” My left hand reaches for the next groove on the wall, and onward and upward I go.
Watch the trailer for Jeff and Connie's film below:
Travelers stopping to view the beauty and have their pictures taken by the sign that proclaims Loveland Pass – Elevation 11,990 Ft. – Continental Divide, may have been surprised at the large gathering of well-prepared hikers assembling at the West Ridge trail head one Saturday morning in July. Over twenty members of Rotary Clubs, families, and friends walked the trail leading to what is becoming known locally as “Rotary Peak.” This 12,479’ peak is located on the Continental Divide Trail 1.5 miles west of Loveland Pass.
Dave Muller, a well-known Denver author of 8 Colorado trail guide books, had long wondered why such a popular hiking destination didn’t have a name. Being named, it would be easier for the public to alert first responders of their location should an emergency arise, or simply to describe their outdoor adventures to friends. Dave wanted the peak to be named for a significant Colorado group that’s had a long and positive history improving local communities and championing the preservation of our outdoor resources.
On learning of the 105 year history of Rotary clubs throughout Colorado and the countless community service projects performed, Dave contacted a Rotary club member about his idea and it was an immediate hit, receiving broad support from Rotarians as well as local towns, counties, and many others. Rotary clubs in communities throughout the mountains and along the Front Range envisioned creation of local youth programs focused on bringing young people up to “Rotary Peak” to encourage appreciation of our Colorado Rockies. There are also many possibilities for engaging youth and Rotarians in supervised trail restorations, trail steward programs, and other related activities.
As I write this, I can still see smoke and flames from my home. My family and I live just southwest of Denver in the "wilderness urban interface". As I write this, I can still see smoke and flames from my home. My family and I live just southwest of Denver in the "wilderness urban interface".
We have lived here for decades because of our love of Colorado's beauty, but now the yearly "fire watch" causes us pause as we hold our breath in the annual exercise hoping the forest around us doesn't turn to smoke. This week's fire - the Lower North Fork – is now approximately 70% contained – another massive catastrophic Colorado wildfire now claiming at least three human lives, plus 27 homes, over 4,200 acres southwest of Denver in this most beautiful "wilderness urban interface".
Governor Hickenlooper promises an investigation will determine responsibility for this tragedy. Who is to blame? We demand no less. More importantly – why are we suffering such yearly fire catastrophes? Is this just the cost of living with trees? Can this trend not be extinguished? Is this inevitable, the truth behind Smokey The Bear ringing accusation -"only YOU can prevent Forest Fires!" Is there anything else we can do? Can future fires like this be prevented or only fought after the fact?
The Good News? We may well be able to reduce or prevent future fires by promoting forest health and youth. The Bad News? We may have to give up the easy answers of either blaming one person for "setting" each fire, and that there is nothing we can do to prevent these fires. Understanding the underlying cause and addressing it gives us the ability to stop the endless cycle of tragic yearly fires.
We need to drop the fiction that trees are not living things; like all living things they have finite life spans. Like us when they get old nature wants to help them go to bring in new life. This radical idea of recognizing the cycle of life means forest health is contingent on new trees. Which requires us to challenge our collective believe that cutting down trees is not "environmental" or "green". We need to see Nature's agenda as our own and be more pro new growth. The old ethos of "Let nature take its course," and "in 500 years the earth will have healed itself" must be seen as flawed. We can contribute to Nature's health, the health of the forest, and in so doing, our own health too.
The problem has roots that when the West was being settled and clear cutting was considered expedient but wasteful we were more focused on creating a civilized west even if we disrupted the natural environment and the natural cycle of fire burning old trees to keep the forest young and healthy. The unintended consequences of that fear of fire, of endless fire suppression are now manifesting themselves in these massive fires as Nature works to keep the circle of life turning. Native Americans understood the value of "controlled burns", commonly set fires every Spring knowing it kept the trees and animals within younger and stronger and saw fire as a tool used extensively prior to the white man's encroachment and restrictions.
The well documented excesses of tree harvesting without environmental limits in the 19th and 20th Centuries created a culture that reacted by believing that cutting any tree was sacrilege, using products made from trees wasteful and uneducated. Tree Killers should feel guilty about their role in hastening the destruction of our planet.
But we are wiser than that now. We know many pine trees in nature would have life spans not much longer than the longest living human – yet we protect geriatric trees whose very nature is turning them toward fire and replacement as though they could – they should last forever with our help. This is wrong. Now that we can see the effects all around us as nature pushes to return to a balance allowing new trees to replace the old, the time has come to dispel that well intentioned but wrong environmentalist mantra that forbids "killing trees" and realize that interfering with nature is what creates the problem. Now is the time to embrace a new environmentalist culture that embraces planting new trees, that enjoys wood products from local sources because they come from renewable resources, provide jobs to rural economies, and most importantly bring our environment back into balance, introduce health and youth into our forests as we reduce the density of forests back to the pre-Columbian norm.
When I was first asked by Undersecretary of Agriculture Harris Sherman to help increase the public's awareness of the mountain pine beetle epidemic and help engage the private sector to create solutions to deal with millions of acres of pine trees dying and turning brown – our own "Katrina of the West", local stakeholders shared with me the problem of geriatric forests and explained to me the complexity of our problem and the unprecedented magnitude of the epidemic we have created.
Turning to those working to solve the ongoing beetle kill catastrophe I found caring citizens who were using and encouraged the use of "Rocky Mountain Blue Stain" wood; a community throughout the west of environmentalists, lumberman, builders, lumber yards, pellet mills, furniture makers all working together to take our blue wood and turn it into products that would help the forest heal. But even these efforts struggle against the mistaken belief that using wood is bad. This is just the first of many steps to use wood as part of a pro-environmental effort to heal our forests and make them young and healthy again. With careful effort, we can harvest the wood, use this gift and make these living wooden lungs pull more carbon from the air, leave more oxygen, and make our world safer and greener and healthier. They encouraged me to join their longstanding efforts to tell the story of aging trees, dead trees waiting to be used – of too much wood waiting for us to use it to build a better world, and the dire consequences inevitably waiting if we didn't educate the public's mind about the wisdom of using wood for all the right environmental reasons.
The time is now to change decades of outmoded public perception that the only good forestry goal is to let our forests age, and how sustainable forestry is married to utilizing wood products in order to plant and grow new trees.
Join us and help spread the word – Loving Trees, planning new trees creates a more fire resistant home for all of us. Now, before it is too late and old forests are burning and there is little left for us to enjoy and experience that is the marvel of healthy living forests. To not help make a better, greener future with new trees means betraying the legacy of those visionary conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, John Muir and so many others that have gone before us and in their wisdom understood the importance of our natural lands.
Love our trees. Help us replace the old with new and in so doing put out the fires destroying so much needlessly.
For every American there can be no greater reward for ones's work then to be asked to come to the White House to share your thoughts. To be included with outstanding representatives from across the country as "Champions of Change" on behalf of rural Americans was truly an honor and a extraordinary example of our system of government at its finest, as well as exemplifying the sincere interest by the Administration to hear from "real people" outside the proverbial "Beltway."
As I looked around the room at the farmers and ranchers who literally had to leave their chores for the day to be in DC, I thought how fortunate we are to still be able to honor the way of life that helped make this country what it is today, and importantly how we can learn from them how to instill those characteristics in future generations of rural Americans.
My work for the last 30 plus years has been of a different, but closely related nature. Connecting Americans and our visitors to the land through tourism and outdoor recreation has been my passion. First as an international tour guide leading camping tours across the country, then serving as President of the American Hiking Society and Co-executive Director of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance with my wife, Paula and then founder of Choose Outdoors, a national nonprofit that seeks to connect all Americans to the land through Outdoor Recreation.
As Horace Axtell, a tribal elder cautioned many years ago. "Many of the problems of today's society are directly related to our lack of connection to the land. We must do all we can to find ways to bring future generations back to appreciating the natural environment." He truly understood "Nature Deficit Disorder" long before the term was used.
The meeting with the President, Secretary of Agriculture, Champions of Change and other high level members of the Administration was, for me, an exhilarating and rewarding opportunity to be a part of an effort that will help our country out-educate and out-innovate the rest of the world and help us carry on the legacy our forefathers envisioned.