Tomorrow's Heroes
Backpacker|July - August 2021
These 10 hikers are making a big difference
By Steve Johnson

As backpackers, we know the effects of climate change better than most. We’ve hiked to the areas on the bleeding edge: the glacier that has dramatically receded so much that its days are numbered, the ponderosa pine forest weakened by drought and ravaged by pine beetles on overdrive, that secret valley where wildlife was once abundant. Thankfully for the wilderness—and us—there are hikers that are devoting their lives to reversing those trends. Here, get to know their projects—and the trails that inspire them.

MIKE DEBONIS

WATERBURY CENTER, VT

Executive Director, Green Mountain Club, greenmountainclub.org

Some organizations fighting climate change have been around a long time but are refocusing their efforts in new ways. The Green Mountain Club is one such organization. Founded in 1910 to build Vermont’s Long Trail, the GMC pursues a century-old stewardship mission, managing over 500 miles of trail.

“We saw a 35 percent increase in trail use in 2020,” Debonis says. “What does that mean for trails not originally built for that? Locally, our spring mud season now stretches throughout the year, consistently altering trail access. We need to look at trail-building through a climate change lens to blend rustic amenities with modern trail construction materials.”

On the ground and in its Waterbury Center facility, the GMC drives sustainability through its Long Trail Patrol and Corridor Monitors. The former are seasonal staff who rebuild or restructure trail surfaces. The latter ensure conservation restrictions such as easements are upheld. GMC also offers group hikes to educate trail users and the community at large. “Regional conservation efforts in the northeast are strong and our user group is the platform to inspire resource use awareness on a larger scale,” Debonis says. “Climate change can be a politically charged topic, but we need to be honest about what we’re seeing; opinions don’t matter in crisis.”

TRAIL THAT INSPIRES

LONG TRAIL, VT

“My first camping trip as a kid was near Mt. Abraham, one of three peaks in Vermont with an alpine tundra ecosystem,” Debonis says. To follow his childhood steps, hike north from the Lincoln Gap trailhead through maple sugar bushes and krummholz on the way to summit views of sprawling, forested valleys and Lake Champlain on this 5-mile out-and-back.
4000footers.com/abraham

CONNOR DEVANE

FORESTVILLE, CA

Documentary filmmaker, hikethedivide.com

Five days after graduating from Loyola Mar ymount University in 2014, Connor DeVane set out to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Along the way, he realized something profound about the hiking scene: “There’s a huge body of people in the outdoor recreation community who are passionate about the places they hike, but not many of them are plugged into conservation efforts,” he says. This realization drew him into grassroots activism to create a bridge from loving the outdoors to fighting for it. In 2016, he thru-hiked the Continental Divide Trail and made Hike the Divide, a documentary film about how his hike drove his own journey from resignation to hope in the face of the climate crisis. His personal transformation happened through meeting local activists and problem-solvers along the trail who work on climate solutions like land regeneration and the municipalization of utilities.

DeVane’s current focus is on ecosystem repair and climate change-fueled water shortages. He does organizational and media work with groups like Sonoma County’s Sunrise Movement, a youth-led campaign to address the climate crisis and create jobs through political activism. “I’m constantly inspired by young people fearlessly advocating for their future,” he says.

TRAIL THAT INSPIRES

PIONEER NATURE TRAIL, CA

The Continental Divide Trail remains his main muse, but DeVane often looks for stoke closer to home in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. “There’s a 1,400-year-old redwood there that’s about nine feet in diameter, and the ‘Icicle Tree’ with burls hanging off the branches,” he says. See these giants on the leisurely 2-mile Pioneer Nature Trail—and add 3 miles more with a grind up the Pool Ridge Trail’s switchbacks through emerald green woods.
parks.ca.gov

JARED BYNUM

DENVER, CO

WILDERNESS AND PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER, CONSERVATION COLORADO, CONSERVATIONCO.ORG

Colorado’s forests are thirsty. Bark beetles run rampant, and wildfires have scorched vast tracts of alpine landscapes. Conservation Colorado, the state’s largest climate protection organization, addresses these issues as well as accessibility and trail maintenance. The group works directly with communities and local conservation leaders committed to environmental protection through visible, pervasive campaigns. Jared Bynum’s Montana roots sowed a love of the west that he brings to his work with Colorado wilderness conservation efforts.

“We build a more inclusive environmental mindset to inspire big-picture thinking on issues impacting our own neighborhoods,” he says. “For example, air toxins in Denver are a big problem, and we are working with governments to stymie heavy polluters through policy change, while creating campaigns to provide area communities with tools to get involved.”

Bynum is cautiously optimistic. “Everything we see is tied together,” he says, and he feels we’re on the right track with efforts like the 30x30 initiative (the Biden Administration’s plan to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and waters by 2030). Conservation Colorado does its part by aiding efforts to elect pro-conservation leaders to public office and ensure accountability thereafter.

TRAIL THAT INSPIRES

GRAYS AND TORREYS PEAKS VIA KELSO RIDGE, CO

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