Want to give back? Five things to do to get your hands dirty

Look at all that junk they found!

Look at all that junk they found!

Not too long ago, I was on a Twitter chat with some fellow outdoor enthusiasts. One of the questions asked: In what ways to you give back?

I heard a lot of different responses. Some had talked about taking people with them into the outdoors, so they can learn to appreciate it like they do. But most commonly, the people in that chat – and many others in similar forums over the years – responded by saying they write about the outdoors, share their experiences on social media, or otherwise use their online channels to promote the outdoors, conservation and outdoor culture.

Valuable efforts, to be sure. There is a lot of power in social media, especially when it comes to advocacy. I’ve seen it many times — both locally in my hometown, and on a more national scale. It’s become an important tool for people pushing the message of conservation and overall appreciation of the outdoors.

Similarly, I see that also played out in the blogosphere. Most blogs — including this one — have relatively limited reach, but even the most obscure sites can catch fire if the message is right and the right people see it and share it with others. And those messages can sometimes move mountains.

A number of you out there live this out. Your own social media channels — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and whatnot — are peppered with messages that encourage protection of our natural resources. I love it when I see this, and I hope to see more. Your own blogs and websites are repositories of good information encouraging people to get outdoors, to care for the environment, and support those groups, companies and individuals who do the same.

It’s here, however, that I want to throw the gauntlet. I want you to go deeper.

One of the best things that I’ve come across since moving to Tulsa was getting involved in local efforts to preserve and protect wild lands. I remember going on my first trail cleanup day a few years back, hauling out trash from abused portions of woodlands that are commonly used by local hikers, trail runners and cyclists. It was just a few hours out of the day, a bit of elbow grease and some good times getting to know people who had the same convictions on conservation that I did. Semi-annual cleanup and trail maintenance days are events I look forward to, and we’ve been seeing growing numbers as the years have gone by.

Doin' work.

Doin’ work.

So consider this a challenge. If you’re a social media influencer, a blogger, or whatnot, take your efforts a bit further. Do these things:

1. Find a local conservation group, organization, park service or other entity and see what volunteer opportunities they offer for doing trail work and land restoration in the areas you care about. The Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition is my local go-to, as it works with the city’s River Parks Authority and other local groups for efforts in and around the city. Another example, this one in Colorado, would be the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. They do great work making sustainable routes up that state’s popular 14,000-foot peaks. Every state and many cities have groups just like these. Go find ’em!

2. Commit to taking part in a volunteer work effort. Even if you have no particular skill in land management labor, don’t let that stop you. Your presence and willingness to work is usually all that’s needed. With more technical stuff (trail building), techniques can be taught.

3. Do your best to promote it through your social media channels and websites — you’d be surprised how many others are looking for similar opportunities, but don’t know where to go or what they can do.

4. On the day or days of the project, get your hands dirty. Pick up trash. Prune foliage from trail paths. Grab a shovel, a wheelbarrow, a saw or a hoe and put your back into it.

5. Lastly, make this a habit. It doesn’t have to be every other week or even monthly. But at least a couple times a year, grab a pair of work gloves, whatever tools you might need, and sacrifice a day of hiking, running, climbing, camping, cycling or whatever and give back via the sweat of your brow.

There are good reasons for doing this, other than being a warm body on a volunteer labor project. This is leading by example. It’s also a learning opportunity, to see what goes into the actual practice of conservation, trail maintenance and land management. And you’ll get a chance to connect with like-minded people — networking can happen over a shovel.

Yes, couch removal counts as land restoration.

Yes, couch removal counts as land restoration.

So there it is. Obviously, this message could go out to just about anybody. But there is a community of people online who are preaching the values of conservation, the worth of outdoor recreation, and the need to better understand human interaction with wild places. My hope is that this community is not only the vanguard of spreading the message, but also the point of the spear — or the spade — when it comes to the work of translating these stated values into action.

How are you giving back? Leave your stories in the comments.

Bob Doucette


4 thoughts on “Want to give back? Five things to do to get your hands dirty

  1. Great post! And a topic that doesn’t get talked about enough!

    Over here in Scotland, we’re lucky in that there are numerous opportunities for people to get involved and give back to the countryside. It’s as simple as phoning up your local Ranger Service or any Non-Government Organisations and asking when they can come out and help.

    I decided a few years ago that I was going to combine my passion for the outdoors with my work life and made the career change to Countryside Ranger. I went back to college to study for 2 years and in this time I volunteered for the Scottish Wildlife Trust helping the Reserve Officer carry out his work in his area. The experience I gained coupled with my new qualification from college enabled me to become a Countryside Ranger. Now I spend my days leading groups of volunteers in practical tasks to protect and clean up the countryside, I also take groups out and talk about the importance of getting outdoors and the benefits to be gained from it. Another big part of it is educating school children from age 4 up to 16 about the environment, and ensuring they receive a level of outdoor learning that seems to have disappeared over the last decade or so.

    In essence, I give back to the outdoors in way that means I can spend more time in the outdoors! If you were a pessimist, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was being selfish! HA!

    • That’s awesome! And what a great story, to reinvent yourself and mold a career doing what you love.

      I’m a firm believer that you have to practice what you preach. I’m pleased to see a lot of voices out there promoting care for wild spaces, but I get excited when I see a group of people take time our of their day or week and put in the physical work of conservation. We need a lot more of that.

  2. Awesome post Bob, giving back to public lands is so important! Not to mention the added benefits of spending time outdoors, exercise, and meeting great people.
    Our site is dedicated to encouraging young people to join conservation corps programs, which are essentially long volunteer positions for young folks to serve public lands. I served with the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps back in 2015, and was partnered with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative for most of my season, so I especially like your plug for them!
    Thanks for your volunteerism and for promoting boots on the ground. Our public lands need all the love they can get!

    • I’m all for supporting the folks who get out there and get their hands dirty in conservation efforts. And I’m a firm believer that advocacy should be a mix of things: meeting with stakeholders, lobbying public officials, social media awareness, and, of course, getting in the field and putting in the work with some sweat.

      Thanks for the comment, and best of luck on your site and its goals! I’ll be sure to check it out.

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