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Challenges Give Rise to Opportunity

Bill Hodge serves as the Director of the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) program. Since starting in 2010, the SAWS program has quickly grown not only in capacity to assist the United States Forest Service in serving and stewarding federally designated wilderness areas across five states, it has also become a constituency building effort to engage, inspire and deploy public lands stewards from a new and more diverse generation.

Bill Hodge

Bill Hodge is being honored as a Next Generation of Conservation Leaders Champion of Change.

Change, or transformation if you will, does not come easy if it is real. The kind of change that can influence lives and shift generations only comes from great challenges. Champion of Change is an honor that I am thrilled to carry, and yet, a commitment for the work ahead. To be a true champion of a movement means to not achieve a goal, but to drive a shift in how we define goals.

The challenge that sits at the core of my work today is to build a tribe from a new and ever more diverse community of young people, and to connect them to the magic of the protected public lands across their country, and in their backyards. But that challenge is not where my Wilderness journey began.

From the first time my parents took me camping, I was hooked on public lands. We loaded up a used pop-up camper and took off for the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. One of the first hikes I can remember was in the Linville Gorge Wilderness. The idea of designated Wilderness was beyond my mind at the time, but I knew that the place was rugged and awe inspiring; special. I had no idea that Wilderness as a designation was only ten years old in practice, but decades in the making. I certainly did not know then that the Linville Gorge was only one of three areas in the east at the time, being protected in its natural state, ‘where man is but a visitor, and does not remain’.

Throughout my life, public lands have been my refuge from an ever more chaotic pace. It was not until just five years ago, however, that the protection of public lands became my life’s vocation.

In 2009 I began to volunteer with Tennessee Wild, a campaign to add 20,000 acres of Wilderness designation to the Cherokee National Forest near my home. Throughout my work, the concept of struggling stewardship efforts for our public lands and protected Wilderness kept creeping into the conversation. Trail systems had long fallen into the hands of volunteers as federal budgets for the land management agencies shrank. The volunteers serving our public lands are an amazing community, but their numbers have mainly been limited to those retired or those few that are willing to give of their weekends.

The challenges of meeting the stewardship needs of our public lands met opportunity while attending a youth and diversity workshop held by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. There, I met some amazing young people from the urban youth engagement efforts of Groundwork USA. To hear and experience the disconnect that these kids had from their public lands; I knew that the mission was clear. Connect this generation back to public lands and public service through Wilderness stewardship, and future generations will follow. 

Since 2010, the year of our launch, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) has been working to serve the designated Wilderness of the southeast while also connecting a new generation (our tribe) to public lands and public lands service. We have grown into a social enterprise through the creation of conservation jobs (23 in 2013), and a volunteer pipeline (over 8,000 volunteer hours in 2013). We partner to train volunteers and conservation leaders through a nationally recognized Wilderness Skills Institute, and provide numerous opportunities for continued growth of our conservation community.

The need for public engagement in service to public lands is the challenge, and connecting a new generation to the natural world around them is the opportunity for a real win-win solution we gladly accept.

Bill Hodge is the Director of Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS), a program of The Wilderness Society. Bill also serves on the board of the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance and is a recipient of the Bob Marshall Award as external champion of Wilderness from the United States Forest Service and the International Journal of Wilderness.