Where on Durango's College Drive do you see a lavender size-40D bra hanging in a street side window? Why, the national office of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, of course.
As the nation has become more green, Suburbans traded in for Subarus, plastic grocery bags exchanged for reusable tote bags, Durango - like San Francisco, Boulder and Flagstaff, Ariz. - has evolved as an epicenter of the environmental movement in the West.
Home to the Wilderness Support Center of the Wilderness Society, the Western Environmental Law Center, and offices for the Wyss Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and Campaign for America's Wilderness, Durango is also home to regional organizations like the San Juan Mountains Association, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Trails 2000, Colorado Wild, Durango Nature Studies and a thriving Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College. But there's no group in town, or across the country, quite like Great Old Broads for Wilderness, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
"We're the junkyard dogs of the environmental movement," quips Executive Director Ronni Egan. Now with 4,000 members nationwide, the little enviro group that could, continues to capture headlines and financial support and has found its own eco-niche among the stalwart Sierra Club and Audubon Society. How do they do it? With humor, grit and grace, and a conviction that women 50-plus have an abiding interest in the health of American landscapes. Great Old Broads believe the heart of our nation is our roadless, wild lands, which according to Egan "have never been more threatened."
But the group doesn't practice age or sex segregation, either. If you're a young woman under 50 you can join - by becoming a "training broad." And if you're a guy like me you can be a "Great Old Bro." I like that title, a lot. And I like the group's openness, its willingness to speak to Fort Lewis College classes and to High Noon Rotary. I admire their belief in "wilderness tithing," a phrase coined by founding member Ginger Harmon, who feels that we all need to give back to public lands instead of using and abusing them.
With some environmental groups you send them a check and wait for the next financial appeal, but with Great Old Broads for Wilderness you get personally involved. That's the recipe that brings American women together from all walks of life and from all parts of the United States for work projects or "Broadwalks." No couch potatoes here.
These are fit, active women ready to hike, to document public land issues with digital cameras and GPS units, and eager to push the eco-envelope in the name of natural resource protection. Many Great Old Broads members classify themselves as eco-feminists, but they're not content to drink white wine and complain about pollution; they'd rather assist with work projects at national monuments, camp out in tents, and monitor all-terrain vehicle abuse on Bureau of Land Management lands in Utah. Great Old Broads want federal agencies to manage Western lands for the health of ecosystems, and the three focus areas for the Broads are oil and gas leasing, overgrazing and off-road vehicles.
To that end, the group created one of the most important and up-to-date databases on public lands in the West with 60,000 data points useful to land managers or judges when environmental issues go to federal court. Volunteers document illegal traffic on public lands and the resulting erosion, rutting and litter, and then the photos, complete with latitude and longitude coordinates, are uploaded to an online database to create in Egan's words, "a picture over time of what's happening on the land." She feels strongly that "citizens have to do the work. We have to be the eyes on the land for the understaffed federal agencies."
Great Old Broads for Wilderness began in 1989 in Escalante, Utah, when after several hard days of hiking and backpacking, half a dozen weary women were having lunch in a local café only to read in the newspaper that Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, stated that we didn't need any more wilderness lands because senior citizens couldn't visit. Federal wilderness regulations require access only on foot or on horseback and Hatch felt that the elderly needed lands they could get to in cars, trucks, jeeps, recreational vehicles, or astraddle ATVs.
I wasn't there for the ladies' comments, but apparently the discussion got boisterous with recommendations about where the senator could go and how he could get there. When one of the women rose to use the restroom, a male patron remarked, "Now there goes a great old broad." The name stuck and so did the conviction that Western women over 50 didn't need a male U.S senator to tell them what they did or did not want.
After standing up for National Park Service employees getting gassed by idling snowmobiles in West Yellowstone and joining several lawsuits for environmental causes, the feisty group has earned its share of respect. Now the group's membership is booming with local chapters known as "Broadbands." In April the monthly magazine of the AARP, with a whopping 35 million readers, featured a two-page spread on Great Old Broads for Wilderness and phones rang off the wall. Executive Director Ronni Egan assures me, however, that placement of the story next to a full-page ad for senior sex videos was purely coincidental.
The AARP Bulletin explains, "The Broads may be an emblem for the next activism of an aging activist generation." Indeed, the group's literature states, "We renew our vow to use the voices and activism of elders to preserve and protect wilderness and wild lands. And further, we renew our vow to be visible, to be vocal, to be focused, to be good humored, and to be a good partner until our work on this earth is done."
Plans and projects for their 20th birthday include conducting oral histories with founding members, and thanks to a grant from the Ballantine Family Foundation, Great Old Broads are linking up with Fort Lewis College students for everything from work projects to resource monitoring and even a potential new marketing plan. Another goal is to have local Broadbands support cash awards for students writing essays about the meaning and value of wilderness. The first Ginger Harmon Wilderness Essay Awards were given out this last semester at FLC. The objective is for Broads to pass on their eco-advocacy to teach another generation to become stewards of wilderness and wild lands.
Egan encourages us all to "protect your favorite wild places in the spirited company of kindred passionate souls" because she believes that represents "Broads at their best." She's right. There's nothing I like better than hiking new trails with old friends. So Happy Birthday Great Old Broads, and thank you Sen. Hatch for inspiring a truly innovative environmental organization.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College.