By Jennie Lay
Jamie Williams’ journey to being president of The Wilderness Society began in the river corridors and ranchlands of the Yampa Valley. By Williams’ account, his current job in Washington, D.C. may seem more powerful than the grassroots land protection he led in rural Northwest Colorado, but his mission hasn’t changed a bit. He’s still figuring out how to help people work together to protect large landscapes.
“The Yampa Valley taught me more about doing that than any place in America,” he says. “It was impressive how much common ground there was between the ranching community, local towns and the recreation community in trying to preserve the beauty and what’s really distinct about the Yampa Valley.” Finding collaboration is the common thread that binds Williams’ career, starting with The Nature Conservancy’s Yampa River project, then moving on to be TNC’s Montana state director and national director for large landscape conservation, before shifting his focus to public lands in leading The Wilderness Society.
“These things all fit together. The real prize here in conservation is how we sustain large landscapes for people and nature. That’s always a mix of public and private land. We’ve got to be effective on both fronts if we’re really going to succeed in conservation,” he says.
Williams’ passion for conservation stemmed from trips as a young boy from Tulsa, Okla., venturing down the Flathead River and into the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. One particular family trip down the South Fork age 12 made an especially deep impression: “It really changed my life. I was so moved by that trip and I remember thinking…I need to end up back in country like this.” After college, he worked as a river guide for a company that ran 12 different wilderness rivers. That spurred his love for the Yampa, which he calls his “all-time favorite river.”
When TNC hired Williams for his first real conservation job in August 1992, he was tasked with starting a community-based conservation program focused on the Yampa River. Outside the shadow of Washington politics, he seized an opportunity to promote grassroots conservation inside a community that already had a love of place but needed help seeing a vision through. Today, he credits the valley’s “many amazing leaders, local ranchers in particular,” who taught him well: “It was a very empowering experience and it really defined my path forward,” he says.
Williams also learned the value of politics. He says ground work is essential to land protection, but so is being politically effective in order to pass relative (and sometimes immensely helpful) policies at the county, state and federal level. By the time Williams moved on to Montana in early 1998, he had not only solidified the organization’s Yampa River program, but he had sealed the deal on TNC’s purchase and conservation of the historic Carpenter Ranch in Hayden. He had also worked hard to pass Routt County’s Purchase of Development Rights program – a political solution for ranchland preservation that voters have re-affirmed through 2025. Since PDR began in 1997, Routt County has committed nearly $20 million to help purchase conservation easements on nearly 40,000 acres of ranchland, according to PDR’s January 2014 report.
North Routt rancher Jay Fetcher sat on Williams’ Yampa River project advisory council. Early on, Fetcher and Williams attended a meeting of the Malpais Borderlands Group in New Mexico. Ranchers from that community-based ecosystem management effort scolded The Nature Conservancy. “They said ‘Stop being the 800 pound gorilla and start working with the landowners,’” Fetcher recalls. “Jamie took that to heart.”
How Williams worked with his council, and the power he gave locals, had so much to do with his success, Fetcher says. The advisors backed TNC’s Carpenter Ranch purchase, but they were also deep in the community to calm suspicions and rumors at a time when conservation easements were relatively new around Steamboat Springs. Fetcher says Williams appreciated the finer point of bringing in the ranching community so TNC could see firsthand the challenges they faced. Local ranchers, in turn, encouraged TNC to run their own cows on the Carpenter Ranch: “We wanted them to suffer like the rest of us,” Fetcher laughs.
Williams hired me Geoff Blakeslee as the TNC’s first ranch manager. “Jamie is a deceptively talented guy. He’s just so down to earth. He’s smart and thoughtful and he’s so committed to conservation,” says Blakeslee, who is now TNC’s Yampa River project director. “Jamie understands cultural differences within communities and around communities. He’s fantastic at finding positive outcomes when there are disagreements.”
Expanding local conservation success
Williams’ work in Montana built off his program in the Yampa Valley. Now he’s in Washington D.C., having come around to influencing national policy makers about decisions that touch down in the rural places he once roamed. And, of course, his primary focus has shifted to public lands – specifically Wilderness. “If you’re going to get to scale, you’ve got to work at the policy level…whether it’s significant public funding or designations on public lands, these are decisions that need to be made by…all Americans.”
Williams sees the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act as an opportunity to elevate the relevance of wilderness for individual Americans. “Wilderness is so core to what makes this country unique and who we are as a nation. It’s vital to our well-being. It has been, and it is, going forward,” he says. “These are the places that renew our soul and our spirit, and allow nature and wildlife to thrive.” The Wilderness Society counts as many as 100 million acres of wild roadless lands that remain to be protected – and perhaps twice that many citizen proposed acres that meet those qualifications but haven’t been officially recommended for protection by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management.
Since the 1964 passage of the Wilderness Act, our last Congress was the first to fail to add a single acre of protected public land. Making a turn for the better, the first Wilderness bill in five years passed in March, adding the 32,500-acre Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness in northern Michigan. Williams hopes to see Congess take further action during this celebratory year. Thirty-four wilderness bills have been introduced in Congress this year and all of them are in various states of progress. Colorado currently has four Wilderness bills before the House or Senate to protect 756,000 acres for wilderness in the state. Regrettably, projects get stuck in the ideological gridlock of Washington, Williams says. “Wilderness is sometimes criticized as setting people outside of nature. Actually, I think, the experience wilderness provides is just the opposite, in that it really connects us to natural world and it reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Wilderness gives us a sensation of connection and humility,” he says. “Conservation should not be a partisan issue. On the ground, it’s not.”