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 The Trek: The Journals

•
Jan Nesset
Wednesday, April 28
American Frontiers: Part II: Taking Stock
American Frontiers: Part II
The Public Lands Journey Takes Stock


By Jan D. Nesset
American Frontiers’ South Team Trekker

When two teams of adventurers gathered in 2002 to make history, they did it for the good of America’s nearly 600 million acres of public lands. American Frontiers: A Public Lands Journey raised national exposure of public lands by crossing the United States entirely on public lands, a feat never before accomplished.

These Lands Are Your Lands

“Millions of Americans do not know they own these lands,” said Stephen Maurer, Special Projects Manager of the Public Lands Interpretive Association (PLIA), an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based non-profit organization established to support the educational and interpretive programs of public land management agencies. “It is that vast majority who don’t know that public lands even exist that we tried to reach with American Frontiers.”

In a concerted effort to raise national awareness of public lands, on July 29, 2002, the two teams started toward one another on their north and south journeys to near Salt Lake City, one from the Mexican, the other from the Canadian border. Traveling on foot, mountain bikes, horses, motorcycles, all-terrain and four-wheel-drive vehicles, canoes, whitewater rafts and motorboats, their historic trek took them through more than 3,000 miles of some of the country’s most scenic public estate.

The lands, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, and State Trust Land Offices in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, dazzled the teams with adventure and learning opportunities the entire distance to the joining event.

Of itself crossing the country entirely on public lands was enough to claim a spot in the history books. But American Frontiers: A Public Lands Journey went a page further. It was the largest educational campaign of the new millennium to reach out to the millions of Americans who are unaware of the history, values, relevancy and role of public lands in their daily lives. To show them that nearly one-third of the country belongs to its citizens, a national inheritance unparalleled anywhere else on the planet.

A Learning Experience For All

En route the teams participated in more than 30 educational events to learn about the public lands they traversed. The programs, organized by PLIA and federal land agencies, highlighted Mexican wolf and California condor reintroductions, fire ecology using fresh examples such as the Rodeo-Chediski fire in the Coconino National Forest, the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program, and others. Roundtable discussions with land managers and private interest groups provided a variety of land management perspectives.

While the teams had their adventures, millions of Americans followed the teams from home. National, regional and local media picked up the story and in some cases followed the event to its end where, in Salt Lake City on September 28, National Public Lands Day, the teams celebrated with Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt and other dignitaries at historic This Is The Place Heritage Park.

The National Geographic Society, a partner of the event, chose “Public Lands” for its Geography Action! 2002 program and in the course of the journey aired five American Frontiers’ segments on the National Geographic Today show, reaching more than 15 million households. The Geography Action! 2002 program would reach 1.5 million school children (K-12) from May 2002 through April 2003.

The two National Geographic Society videographers, Kevin Burtnett and Wayne Clague, who captured the footage of the Journey for both programs were quickly embraced as family by the American Frontiers’ teams.

It was that kind of story.

Reaching Out

There were no appearances on The Today Show or David Letterman, but local and regional newspapers and television shows featured team members in their hometowns. More than 20 local newspapers and radio stations covered the event.

National news coverage included stories in the Washington Times, U.S. Newswire, and the Chicago Tribune. Two trekkers, one representing each team, traveled to Washington, D.C., for a national press event to kick off American Frontiers. Web surfers followed the Journey through more than 13 websites that produced online coverage of the event. The Associated Press reports covered the Journey from beginning to end. The Outdoor Channel ran a two-part series on the trek on its cable network.

NBC and CBS visited the northern team on the trail.

The National Public Lands Day event was attended by five radio stations and three newspapers resulting in nine newscasts and three articles.

More To The Story Than Numbers

Did American Frontiers: A Public Lands Journey spread the public lands message to the nation as planned? The sheer volume of coverage indicates that countless millions of Americans were reached.

But were those millions of people inspired by American Frontiers? Even if a generous portion of those Americans amounted to a factor of a “drop in a bucket” in a U.S. population of more than 292 million, that drop may have provided the necessary shoulder to begin to widen the proverbial crack in the dam. On-going support for American Frontiers and public lands in general may continue to widen that crack until, one day, public land enjoys a deluge of support. Then, when the public lands’ legacy is no longer threatened, American Frontiers can begin to fully understand its role in developing that support.

Measuring the success of American Frontiers may be the part of the story that today is impossible to know fully but a deeper look into the event may shed some light on its current impacts.

To appeal to the deepest possible cross-section of Americans with personal views of the history and uses of public lands, diversity was an important aspect of team member selection. The team members selected to participate in American Frontiers were all volunteers from various locations in the country, representing a range of ethnicity, background, age and profession. To widen the appeal, no political agenda was part of the public land message other than the hope that public lands legacy will be preserved, cared for and managed for the current and future needs of the American people.

For each team two men and two women, the “trekkers,” were selected to physically complete the land crossing: a New York City fireman, a teacher from California and another from Louisiana, a nurse from Alaska, a Pennsylvania jewelry salesman, a Colorado writer, an off-road vehicle advocate from California and a North Carolina state park ranger.

Behind their every move and trekking alongside when logistically possible were support teams whose primary duties included shuttling vehicles, solving logistical issues, organizing events, cooking, repairing equipment and intercepting problems that threatened the trekkers from accomplishing the mission. All team members held the responsibility of sharing their public lands’ stories.

Speaking For The Land

When Stephen G. Maurer, who conceived the idea for American Frontiers, asked the trekkers during training to listen to the land speak to them so in turn they could speak for the land, the teams wondered how. As the teams progressed, their public lands’ education grew. Their adventures grew, too, to spectacular. Their ability to speak for the land … that grew as well.

Speaking for the land meant opening up to it. In journal entries that the teams shared en route with America on the www.americanfrontiers.net website, the participants showed that they were getting it – they were learning to translate their experiences into a public lands’ message.

“No electricity, no city lights, nothing but nature all around. I wondered if the elk and deer we had seen on the drive in would come to visit. As I lay on the ground looking up, I felt an incredible sense of peace come over me. Seeing the stars, hearing the crickets, knowing all is well in this moment in time. We drifted quickly to sleep with the forest as our keeper. This is the kind of healing moment I know that this type of experience on public lands can offer anyone coming to visit that allows it to occur.” – August 26, South Team Trekker Cathy Kiffe, South Rim Grand Canyon, Kaibab National Forest, Arizona.

“We are camped in what, we are finding out, is the hangout for young locals who come here to drink beer, smash their bottles on the ground, burn fires next to trees, and shoot their guns into the woods…even though our campsite is trashed and gross, it is surrounded by beautiful mountains and a terrific sunset is in the works. And the demolition of this site, with trash and broken glass and burned and carved trees and grass so trampled it may never get healthy, only serves to remind me how important this trek is. How important it is to educate as many people as possible, so the kids of the kids who use this site will also have a chance to come drink beer and smooch with their sweethearts, here in this beautiful country.” – August 23, North Team Emergency Medical Technician Michelle Williams, Homestake, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National
Forest, Montana.

The Journey was documented on the www.americanfrontiers.net website and through film and photos. Team members downloaded their journal entries onto the website through a satellite internet connection made possible by Earth Analytic, a Santa Fe, New Mexico-based company who provided each team with a “tech” trailer equipped with computers and the internet connection.

The website received three million “hits” during the Journey and more than one million in the two months following it. Since then, an average of 250,000 visitors per month view the website.

For the ongoing benefit of the public, the agencies, and organizations involved in the project, the website will remain available for years to come as part of PLIA’s online Public Lands Museum.

Educational curriculum developed by the National Geographic Geography Alliance Teachers is accessible on both the American Frontiers website as well as the National Geographic Geography Action! 2002 website, www.nationalgeographic.com/geographyaction/.

Nancee Hunter, the Program Manager of the National Geographic Society Education Foundation, explained that the lessons learned from American Frontiers’ experience are “evergreen” and will continue to reach kids through the Geography Action!, www.publiclands.org and www.americanfrontiers.net websites. “National Geographic has played an active role in supporting Public Lands Day every year and encouraging kids to get involved in service projects in their community,” she added. “National Geographic has also fostered its relationships with the Department of Interior and land management agencies to continue promoting the importance of public lands and the role that future generations play in maintaining them for years to come.”

In addition to creating lesson plans around specific themes relating to their American Frontiers’ experiences, Hunter adds that “the ‘teacher trekkers’ have been sharing their stories and messages through numerous local and national presentations at conferences, workshops, classrooms, community centers, and other venues.”

Continued event and follow-up exposure by American Frontiers’ participants, supporters and organizers has enhanced the image of public lands and their managing agencies. The BLM, for example, a leading supporter of American Frontiers and at 261 million acres the largest of all public land agencies, has developed a good working relationship with the National Geographic Society. More than 50 such partnerships with outside groups and organizations were established through American Frontiers.

How It Came All Together

Getting to a point where team members were reaching out to Americans with their experiences was no easy task. Planning began in late 1999 after PLIA’s Board of Directors approved the project and BLM’s Washington Office lent it its support. David Mensing, a BLM wilderness specialist from the BLM’s New Mexico State Office, was assigned to the project full-time as the project manager. He and PLIA’s Stephen G. Maurer developed the structure and concept for the project and David developed the interagency agreements and partnerships required. Next, PLIA contracted with Ken Chapman, president of Creative Events International (CEI), an event management company from Atlanta, Georgia, to handle project management, sponsors and fund raising.

A Tug On The Plug

Initial difficulties in raising funds, the downturn in the economy, the 9-11 terrorist attack and logistical delays caused American Frontiers to be postponed until the summer of 2002. The organizers had cause to raise doubts that the event would ever happen.

But it did. In late spring of 2002, at the proverbial “last minute,” according to PLIA, crucial funding was awarded and American Frontiers took flight.

If the organizers were not whispering “it’s a miracle” under their breaths, it was because they were too busy – and excited.

By the time the teams assembled in mid-July in Tooele, Utah, for training, PLIA, CEI and Mensing had enlisted 9 national partners, 9 sponsoring partners, 10 agency partners and 34 corporate sponsors to support the event to the amount of nearly $1 million in funding. One sponsor, Honda USA, with strong support from its Off-Highway Media Coordinator, Paul Slavik, backed American Frontiers by providing for both teams new motorcycles, ATVs, four-wheel-drive vehicles, generators and shuttle service.

Many significant details of the plan were still receiving finishing touches in Tooele, but by then there was no going back. Any unfinished business was handled during the trek.

“It was a great experiment that worked,” explained Bob Ashley, an Education Outreach Coordinator and National Geographic Society Geography Alliance Teacher from Illinois, who also served as Second Teacher Alternate on the North Team. “Throw together a dozen or so people of diverse backgrounds. Make them live in tents (and “in each other’s armpits”), move camp every day, force them to make up their own rules as they go, and see if they can survive a 60-day trek through some of America’s most rugged – and beautiful – country. Only one guideline is paramount: they must stay on public lands the whole way.”

A Challenge Tested

For the South Team that guideline was tested early.

On the third day of the trek the South Team discovered that their guide had unwittingly placed them on private land. Rather than continuing on – no one would have ever known of the mistake – the team opted to redo the entire leg, a 1 1/2-hour hike.

“We would have known,” said trekker Cathy Kiffe, a National Geographic Geography Alliance Teacher from Louisiana. “We had no intention then or ever to degrade the integrity of our mission of crossing the country ‘entirely’ on public lands. From there we took matters into our own hands and with rare exception – only in the heart of immense public land – did we ever let anybody else share our navigation duties.”

The mistake of stepping into private lands would never recur. The teams became experts on how to use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) with technical navigation software, maps and compasses.

Challenges threatened the Journey at many points. Adaptable and resourceful, the teams faced them, reacted quickly, overcoming all.

Fires broke out engulfing huge swaths of forest, the teams rerouted to circumnavigate the blazes. A trekker hit a tree with her ATV and broke her hand and bruised her face, an alternate stepped in to take her place while the trekker mended.

Navigation software technicians could not volunteer crucial services for the entire journey – only in bits and spurts – so team members learned how to use the software and decide their own routes, make maps and upload/download GPS units.

A poisonous insect (a centipede suspected) bit a videographer, he survived! Abandoned on a mountainside by a disoriented guide, the North Team found their own way to safety after spending a chilly night out.

Team squabbles and disagreements broke out, an impressive record of resolution endured. Grizzly bears stalked the land in view of the trekkers, who watched them pass by without anybody passing out.

Flash floods threatened, the trekkers waited for the threats to abate and later forded their corridors. While “lost” land agency guides scratched their heads, occasionally making decisions that risked greatly extending trekking distances, the navigation-savvy trekkers bit their lips – but voiced an occasional nudge toward route – and enjoyed the time afield.

The American Frontiers participants did endure some pains but, fortunately, without suffering any serious injuries or mishaps (granting a charity nod to the ATV incident).

American Frontiers: The Legacy

PLIA has developed several project ideas to keep the American Frontiers’ spirit alive and to further the public lands’ legacy.

In addition to maintaining the American Frontiers website, PLIA is planning to expand the online Public Lands Museum (www.publiclands.org/museum/) on its website where people can explore and learn about public lands and where www.americanfrontiers.net will find new life, too, as a “permanent exhibit”—a testimony to the women and men who participated in the historic journey because they believed in the value of public lands.

Using National Geographic Society film footage and education materials resulting from the Geography Action! 2002 connection, an American Frontiers DVD could be used for presentations and other outreach opportunities if funding became available. For schools, an interactive educational CD about American Frontiers could be developed, subject to funding, to be used in classrooms to educate students about public lands.

There’s more, of course – in the teams.

Ending the Journey in Salt Lake City on National Public Lands Day did not end American Frontiers for the participants. Nor did it end their spreading of the public lands’ message. All participants became “ambassadors” for public lands, a responsibility many embrace with gusto.
  For more on what the teams are doing now, click on the bio links--
for Wednesday, April 28
North South Both




Biographical
•
Team: South
Jan Nesset
An experienced outdoorsman, Jan Nesset knows that everyone has to pitch in at camp
A native of Montana and the third of four children, Jan Nesset joins American...
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Jan Nesset
American Frontiers: Part II: Taking Stock
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