With each passing year, our planet is looking a little worse for wear. For those of us that love to play and enjoy the wilder and untamed corners of our planet, participation in stewardship and conservation should be a natural extension of our love for the mountains, rivers, valleys and forests.

In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Explore, contributor Jacqui Levy gives us a little history on Earth Day and her philosophy that every camper should also be a conservationist.


“Jesse!” I called. I felt weak and dizzy, taking slow steps up a mountain that I would normally bound up. “I need to rest again.” Coughing, I chugged water, my heart pounding. The trees were thinning out and I could see the sheer limestone rock faces far above me, shimmering shades of blue and grey in the hazy light.

I had been living the nomadic life for a year and a half, chasing the climbing seasons through the deserts, forests and mountains of north America. My travels had brought me further and further north – this time across the border to Canmore, Canada, where the wild Rocky Mountains were beckoning me to climb, swim, and hike to my heart’s content. I couldn’t wait to touch limestone again, taking a break every few days to sling beers for the new brewery in town.

There was just one problem: it was one of the worst forest fire years on record in Canada. Every few days more smoke would roll in, the sky growing ominously thick with ash and acrid, choking smoke. I felt like an old asthmatic smoker. I couldn’t run, hike or climb or even be outdoors without my eyes watering and my lungs burning.

I stood up, shouldering my pack. The visions I had had for the summer, of running up mountains in the fresh air were shattered, and my hope that I could climb today were torn to shreds. Jesse hiked down to my side. “Jac, are you okay?” I looked at him, knowing he would be disappointed with the words about to come from my mouth. Maybe even as disappointed as I already was.

“I’m sorry, but I have to turn back.”

I trudged back towards town, in search of filtered, indoor air, feeling disheartened by my thwarted attempts to get outside. I knew that fire was a natural part of any ecosystem, but being barred from the outdoors made me feel heartsick and discouraged. Was this how I would spend the rest of my summer? Cooped up in the hot van, or sitting inside a coffee shop all day?

The trail turned steeply down again, cutting a path through thick pine trees in the cool of the forest where dappled, hazy sunlight streaked through them. I imagined blue sky and fresh air, wondering how much this would happen in the future. Forest fires have always been an important part of many forest ecosystems, providing space for new seedlings and even helping to create soil. But with a trend towards hotter, drier summers and the overgrowth of underbrush from years of fire suppression, huge expanses of western forests could burn. This will impact our air quality and outdoor activities, as well as the forest ecosystem. We have impacted the environment in so many ways, and we’re still just beginning to understand the far-reaching consequences.

History of Earth Day

We weren’t always aware of the impact that our actions have on the environment. Back in 1970 in America, it was commonplace and legal for a factory to spew toxic waste into the air or streams. There were no laws to prevent wildlife from becoming extinct and dangerous pesticides were used freely. There was no Environmental Protection Agency, no Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Act or any of the land use, mining, or toxic substance control regulations that we have today.

But concerned citizens across the nation were waking up. Environmental activists were speaking out against the rampant deforestation and destruction of wilderness and scientists were reporting an increasing amount of toxic chemicals in the air and water. Writers like Rachel Carson were raising the alarm regarding the heavy use of synthetic pesticides that threatened both human lives and natural ecosystems.

After an oil well blew in 1969, spewing millions of gallons of oil, Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin was alarmed and decided to help create environmental change. He was inspired by the fervor and energy of the student anti-Vietnam war protests of the time and knew that for large-scale change to occur, he would need large-scale action. It needed to be clear that Americans were concerned for the environment, and that this concern should be at the forefront of American politics.

He began a nationwide campaign, organizing college students, activists and any concerned citizens to take to the streets. On April 22nd, 1970, twenty million Americans marched to raise awareness for these environmental and conservation issues. It was the first Earth Day, and more importantly, the first united environmental movement in America. The results were powerful. Within a year, the EPA was born, and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts were passed. Environmental issues had finally become mainstream America, and a part of the national political and social agenda.

Conservationists Today

It can be hard to clearly see how climbers and campers like myself relate to these early activists. We may march up mountains instead of taking to the streets, but we are all aware of and protective of the natural environment. Our adventures outside have taught us this – we are inspired by nature and aware of the link between ourselves and the environment. We understand that we need wilderness not just for that hit of adrenaline that comes from climbing in high alpine terrain, but also for our water, air and land. We know the wilderness is fragile and that the preservation and protection of it is essential for us to thrive.

We share our concern for the environment with those early activists, and like them, we must also act to protect wild places. Feelings of appreciation and awe for the wilderness when we adventure are wonderful, but they are useless unless they are paired with action. I may say I believe in conservation, but am I conservationist if I don’t do anything to help preserve the environment and the places that I love?

We are losing our wild places in many ways, from the shrinking of our national monuments to the drilling of oil and gas in the last remnants of pristine land. And climate change continually looms, an ever-present threat with vast consequences for our air, water and land. These factors are permanently and irreversibly altering the spaces that we hold dear. This is immensely overwhelming, and I find that it is difficult to know how a conservationist like myself can make a dent in saving these spaces.

But conservation is only hopeless and overwhelming if I do nothing, standing idly while the natural places that I love are destroyed by pollution, drilling, or climate change. If I truly love the outdoors, then I am compelled to take actions to protect it. My role as a conservationist means that my participation in conservation and passions go hand-in-hand.

This year, in the face of so many environmental threats, it has been important to do small, daily acts of conservation. I carry a trash bag to the crag or on the trail, continuing to pack out my trash and picking up litter as well. I think more before I use plastic and I am extremely aware that today’s plastic bag could end up in the ocean when I throw it away. And I think about how I enjoy the outdoors – do I really need to drive separately to the crag all the time? I’ve started carpooling more, and bike commute or bus whenever I can.

These daily acts are important but can only go so far in protecting the environment. No matter how much trash I pick up, it won’t stop oil and gas drilling in the arctic or protect our national monuments or even halt climate change. We need large-scale change, and in order for this to occur, we need every single conservationist to be involved in some small way. We need to amplify our voices so that our message of conservation is clear. Think back to that first Earth Day – their strength and power was in their sheer numbers. They showed up so that their individual voices combined to a collective, deafening roar that can produce positive change.

I encourage you to partner with organizations that amplify the voices of conservationists – The Access Fund and The Conservation Alliance do a lot to help protect wild places and need your help. Join, donate or volunteer – there’s so much work to be done. Call your political representatives and always, always vote. By joining in on the action, it shows that there’s a lot of us who care and that we will not be ignored.