Bruce Ward is the Founder and President of Choose Outdoors, a Colorado-based coalition of outdoor recreation enthusiasts who work to increase public support for all forms of outdoor recreation, especially activities that frequently occur in National Forests: hiking, camping, backpacking, bicycling, skiing, snowmobiling hunting, fishing and recreational vehicle touring.
He has worked closely with the U.S. Forest Service on the nearly 50- year tradition of bringing the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree to Washington, DC, at the request of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He has helped coordinate bringing 80-foot Christmas trees from Colorado, Minnesota, Alaska, Idaho and Montana with large scale support from companies and local communities.
He is also an executive producer of America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell, airing on Oregon Public Broadcasting in April. Chuck is a renowned conservationist and keyboardist for the Rolling Stones (and many other rock bands). The series focuses on stories that demonstrate how important forests are to the well-being and economic health of communities across the country
Mr. Ward, 62, is a 1978 graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He worked as an international tour guide for a decade, travelling to over 40 countries from the Arctic Circle to Capetown, South Africa.
He returned to work for REI, a retail an outdoor equipment cooperative founded in Seattle in 1938. He assisted with setting up stewardship, volunteer and outreach and adventure travel programs across the country.
He founded Choose Outdoors nine years ago, based in Pine, an unincorporated central Colorado community known for its annual rhubarb festival. After twenty years in the mountains he moved the organization and his home to Denver.
By his own admission, Mr. Ward is a “born promoter,” as evidenced by numerous interests and involvements: Founder of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance; first President of the Washington, D.C. based American Hiking Society; first National Coordinator for National Trails Day; Co-chair of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Resource Partnership; delegate to the White House’s Champions of Change and Innovation in Rural America; Take Pride in America awardee, Rotary Club of Conifer and assistant Scout Master with the Boy Scouts of America.
In this interview, Mr. Ward discusses Choose Outdoors’ outreach to the recreation industry and his hopes for building political support for forest collaboration within the outdoor recreation industry.
Evergreen: Mr. Ward, you’re a very busy guy.
Bruce Ward: I am, and I like it that way.
Evergreen: How does a journalist and adventure tour guide end up advocating for outdoor recreation and forest collaboration?
Ward: You’re a journalist and adventurer too, so I might ask you the same question.
Evergreen: Touché, but seriously, we’ve thought for years that the west’s timber industry made a huge strategic mistake in not courting outdoor recreation outfits, and now, here you are, seeking out what’s left of America’s timber industry to see what outdoor groups might do to help them.
Ward: That’s true, but I didn’t set out to help lumbermen per se. I set out to learn what I could about forest collaboration around the west, and I liked what I saw and heard. The collaborative voice in forestry is essentially the same voice we are bringing to the coalition of outdoor organizations that are the lifeblood of Choose Outdoors.
Evergreen: As we understand it, you did not set out to form alliances with forestry groups or the forest products industry. You set out to unite outdoor recreation groups that share an interest in promoting healthy outdoor lifestyles. Correct?
Ward: That’s correct, but I should add that our larger mission is to reconnect Americans to our public lands through the great outdoors, especially young people living in urban centers and cities who don’t have much of a connection to land or those who care for it.
Evergreen: Those kids are the offspring of grandparents or great grandparents who owned farms and ranches and worked land for generations.
Ward: Countless thousands of immigrant families ventured west annually in the 1800s and early 1900s. They are the ones who built the America that lies west of the Mississippi River. In a very basic sense, we have them to thank for the wealth of outdoor recreation opportunity we have today.
Evergreen: How so?
Ward: Look at Idaho, your home state and a spectacular four-season play land. Settled by loggers, lumbermen, miners and farmers.
Evergreen: Mining is a mere shadow of its former Idaho self, but agriculture and forest products manufacturing remain our leading basic industries. And tourism has been a vital economic contributor since the end of World War II. The same is true of central and eastern Washington. Spokane has been the commercial center for agriculture, timber and mining interest for more than 100 years.
Ward: The tapestry you describe repeats itself all over the western United States, which is why we think it is so important to bring all our basic industries together around a common theme – the theme being their symbiotic relationship.
Evergreen: By symbiotic, we assume you mean a kind of compatibility orbiting around a central theme – the theme being healthy forests and healthy people living healthy lifestyles. Are we putting words in your mouth?
Ward: Not at all. You’re right on track. We see a definite linkage between forests, people and their lifestyles, which is why I started attending collaborative meetings here in Colorado. I wanted to see if what I thought was happening was in fact happening.
Evergreen: What did you think was happening?
Ward: I sensed a coming together of diverse groups of people who shared a common interest in forests and the seasonal recreation opportunities they offer. It was my effort to learn all I could about the collaboratives and how they worked that led me to Colorado’s quite small but very important forest products sector. Perhaps a recognition that much of what was happening on our forests was the result of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned environmental policies.
Evergreen: Not much left of Colorado’s timber industry, but we are aware of the recent startup of a new sawmill on the old Trinchera Ranch in southern Colorado, once owned by the Forbes magazine family, and the work of Neiman Enterprises in Montrose. But tell us, was it an issue or event that sparked your interest in learning more about the forest collaboratives.
Ward: Big forest fires make big news here in Denver, and have since the 2002 Hayman Fire, which devastated Denver’s municipal watershed and cost the city millions of dollars to repair. My family was evacuated three times due to that fire, the Buffalo Creek and High Meadow fires.
Evergreen: Didn’t I read somewhere that you involved in a bark beetle collaborative in Colorado?
Ward: I was. The Colorado Bark Beetle Collaborative and the Summit County Healthy Forests Task Force. But it was my being asked by the Secretary of Agriculture to join President Obama’s “Champions of Change” program that got me thinking about the collaboratives.
Evergreen: Tell us about it.
Ward: “Champions of Change” honored rural Americans for their innovation in promoting transition in the rural west’s economy. I remember sitting in the White House with the President, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, senior policy members of the administration, and ranchers and farmers, and thinking how fortunate we all are that those men and women have worked so hard to maintain a way of life that helped make our country what it is today. I asked myself what Choose Outdoors could do to help embed their pioneering spirit and values in future generations of Americans.
Evergreen: And in Colorado’s forest collaboratives you found a beginning point in your search for ways to link outdoor recreation interests to National Forests in which millions of Americans play year-round?
Ward: I know it seems like a stretch, but yes. I’ve benefited mightily in my career by being a net-worker and being as inclusive as possible in my work. It didn’t take long for me to realize the forest collaboratives work in the same way; so, I began to think about the possibilities for linking outdoor recreation groups with groups that are – and here I’m paraphrasing – “Champions of Forest Restoration.”
Evergreen: Linking outdoor recreation and forestry groups has always seemed like a no-brainier to us, but we’ve had a hard time convincing the timber industry. Yet most of the foresters, sawmill workers and loggers we’ve met over the last 32 years love to hunt, fish and camp. They are year-round users of recreation opportunity in the west’s National Forests.
Ward: There is a synergy here that begs to be explored.
Evergreen: There certainly is. It’s a shame the timber industry has ceded the moral high ground on this point to anti-forestry groups that continue to claim that timber harvesting chases away tourists. We accept the fact that logging leaves momentary scares on the land, but they are nothing compared the long-lasting scars left by big wildfires.
Ward: As you know, we have a huge educational job ahead of us.
Evergreen: Not much has changed over the last 30 years in terms of what the public expects and wants from its National Forests. The biggies are clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and year-round recreation opportunity. Timber is, of course, an important output in rural logging towns, but you don’t have to travel far from these towns to find a clear bias against logging. In fact, we’ve had easterners ask us if there are any trees left out west. They are repeatedly told greedy lumbermen will soon chop down the last forest.
Ward: It’s fear-mongering, and it has no place in what we see in terms of bridging the social and cultural gaps between those engaged in active forest management and outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
Evergreen: What are those gaps?
Ward: Mainly lifestyle differences that define what it means to live in, say, Beaverton, Oregon versus Libby, Montana or Denver, Colorado as opposed to Grangeville, Idaho. Those who live in Beaverton or Denver want to help protect nature, but really have no idea how to do it. Those who live in Grangeville or Libby know how to do the work, but lack the political muscle to get the job done. What they have in common – though they don’t know it – is a love of the outdoors.
Evergreen: Does your Choose Outdoors work involve individuals or groups? Might you, for example, have a Rolodex to die for?
Ward: [Laughs] Well, I don’t know about dying for my Rolodex, but my Linked In and Facebook and Twitter connections are substantial. and I have spent many years building relationships with organizations and companies that share my passion for the outdoor lifestyle. And, of course, all relationships are formed between individuals.
Evergreen: Name a few of your more significant partnerships.
Ward: Choose Outdoors was founded by the National Ski Area Association, Outdoor Industry Association, National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, American Outdoors Association (guide and outfitters), and we have partnered with Leave No Trace, Back country Horsemen of America, Rotary Clubs, Boy and Girl Scouts and International Mountain Biking Association. Over the years Outside Magazine, REI, Coleman. Red Wing Shoes, The North Face, Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s, Vasque, Life Touch Photography, Brookfield Residential Properties and so many more have been very supportive.
The US Capitol Christmas Tree has brought in partners like Kenworth Trucks, The Truckload Carriers Association, the Idaho Potato Commission, Lynden Transport, Tote Maritime. Alaska Railroad, Alaska Airlines, Vail Resorts, University of Idaho and native American Tribes like the Leech Lake Band of the Ojibway.
Evergreen: You’ve also cultivated a nice relationship with the U.S. Forest Service, haven’t you?
Ward: I am a friend of the Forest Service and many of my friends are Forest Service retirees. I believe those who are professionally trained to work in our National Forests should be allowed to do their work to the best of their ability. The agency gets blamed for lots of things that are Congress’ doing. We share a responsibility to make certain Congress provides the Forest Service with the budget and tools it needs to do its work.
Evergreen: We’ll hazard a guess that you know all about the fire borrowing mess.
Ward: I do, indeed, and I think it’s shameful that half the Forest Service’s budget is confiscated to fund the cost of fighting wildfires. How can the Forest Service get ahead in the business of restoring dying forests and replanting dead ones so long as Congress requires the agency to pay its firefighting bills from its appropriated forest management and restoration budgets?
Evergreen: It seems backwards to us, too. The whole purpose of restoration forestry is to reduce the risk of stand-replacing wildfires in National Forests that have grown so dense that they cannot sustain themselves, much less survive insects and diseases that are naturally drawn to over-stressed forests.
Ward: If a journalist can understand this – and I do – you would think that a member of Congress could also understand it.
Evergreen: You would think. We gather that most of what you know about ecological collapse in the west’s National Forests you learned from visiting with members of collaborative groups.
Ward: That’s true, though in Colorado, it’s impossible to miss our dead and dying forests. We have a real disaster on our hands here. Lyle Laverty, who I know well, and who worked for the Forest Service for many years, recently testified before a Colorado House committee. The growth and mortality statistics that he presented were jaw-dropping.
Evergreen: Lyle’s testimony is posted on our website. The statistics, which were compiled by the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory Analysis group, indicate that mortality exceeds growth by two to one, which makes the forest health crisis in Colorado’s National Forests the worst in the nation.
Ward: Wow, I knew it was bad, but two to one is stupefying.
Evergreen: Your organization and your organizational skills are needed in the push to increase the pace and scale of restoration work in the west’s National Forests. Small timber towns are easily ignored, but it will be much more difficult for Congress to ignore the wishes of urban-based outdoor recreation coalitions. Would you agree?
Ward: I do agree, but like you, I find congressional disinterest in the dismal condition of the west’s National Forests – to say nothing of the fire borrowing mess – to be more than a little dismaying.
Evergreen: Are we correct in sensing that there are lots of competing interests in the recreation sector – that not all outdoor users are on the same page when it comes to appropriate uses?
Ward: Not all uses are compatible, and the result is that there is a lot of dissonance in the recreation community. Everyone wants more of what they want. Noise and solitude are big issues with Wilderness advocates. RV travelers want more access and more facilities. We do need places of great solitude in our National Forests, but we also need more campgrounds and destination-type facilities.
Evergreen: We have long believed that people need to pay to play, but whenever recreation fees are proposed, the outcry is ear-shattering.
Ward: I agree with you. Skiers pay a lot for the privilege, campground users comparatively little. Others even less. Some nothing.
Evergreen: What’s the likelihood that capital investments in outdoor recreation will flow in the direction of our underutilized National Forests?
Ward: Ski resorts on leased Forest Service ground represent huge capital investments with very positive economic impacts on nearby towns, restaurants and such, but outdoor activities associated with the forest itself tend to run in the direction of hunting, fishing, hiking, bicycling and camping. Nearby communities don’t get much of an economic boost from these activities. Groceries and incidentals, but nothing like the revenue ski resorts generate.
Evergreen: Back in the 80s and early 90s, a few economists and quite a few conservation groups claimed that outdoor recreation would replace the timber industry as soon as it was gone – the presumption being that tourists would not travel to areas where logging was occurring. We never believed the claim. Nor did we think tourism would ever replace woods and milling jobs. But we very much agree with your earlier suggestion that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two industries. How do we tap into it?
Ward: First let me say that if there is anything that chases tourists away, it is heavy wildfire smoke for days on end or acres and acres of dead and dying trees. As for the symbiotic relationship that we both sense, communities need to promote what they have: rivers, streams, RV parks, hiking trails, bicycling routes, you name it. Events help too: music festivals, whitewater racing, sailing regattas, fishing derbies. You name it. Pine, Colorado, where we used to live, has a rhubarb festival. And lots of people come to it!
Evergreen: The “build it and they will come” theory.
Ward: Yes, absolutely, but to your earlier question about capital investments, time was when the Forest Service spent some serious money helping build the west’s timber economy. Now that the emphasis in National Forest on restoration, with timber as a byproduct of thinning work, the government needs to make strategic investments with new money that will encourage private capital to again flow to towns that have lost their sawmills and loggers.
Evergreen: We’d certainly second that idea, but Congress has no idea what it costs to own and care for the public’s 190-million-acre forest estate. What they appropriate annually is a drop in the bucket – and half of that drop is spent putting out forest fires.
Ward: Perhaps we can change the dynamic by working more closely together.
Evergreen: Let’s hope so. We don’t have much time left, especially in places like Colorado where National Forest mortality exceeds growth by 200 percent.
Ward: Exactly, but I am very optimistic about the future with the help of Evergreen and so many others we can ensure we have healthy forests for future generations to enjoy. Thanks Jim for the opportunity to talk with you.