As a professional conservationist and kayaker, I often hear paddlers of my generation lamenting the transition of river runners from 1960s-era counterculture conservationists to smartphone-toting river consumers. It happened for a simple reason—we won.

The Paddlers Who Popularized River Running In The 1960s And ‘70s Didn’t Just Notch First Descents. They also chalked up major conservation victories. They stopped dams in the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument and maneuvered environmental legislation through Congress. River runners, climbers, and backpackers whose names you know—Martin Litton, David Brower, Ansel Adams, Roderick Nash, and Tim Palmer to name a few—led many of these fights.

The laws passed thanks to those victories—the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Wild, and Scenic Rivers Act, and National Forest Management Act—rely on science and administrative procedure. The Byzantine laws controlling government agencies now inform decisions.

The United Rallying Cry Of Paddlers And Conservationists Can Stop Big Dams

The challenge now is more complicated, like enforcing the TMDL (total maximum daily load) under the NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) of section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. It’s complicated and full of jargon, and the average person’s eyes glaze over just trying to comprehend my last sentence.

I can spout acronyms with the best—and worst—of them. Most people who do conservation work nowadays have advanced degrees in ecology, law or policy. Few volunteers have the time and attention span to endure the long technical meetings, policy discussions, and back-and-forth revisions, a process which can drag on for years.

Developing a municipal cleanup plan for a polluted stretch of my backyard river took 16 years. And salmon protection has been in court since 1994, back when I was still paddling my New Wave Cruise Control.

The True Challenge Is To Make Paddlers Who Care About Rivers Feel Like More Than Mere Foot Soldiers In These Battles. Professional conservationists monitor the legislative and agency processes and send email blasts with speaking points—please email Senator X or forest service planner Y. There are experts on one side, with followers and clicktivists on the other. It’s necessary to work, but it’s not an inspiring way to build a movement.

So, in addition to paper pushing, I also do what all kayakers do. Seek mentors who know the local runs. Watch those with the best lines through tough water and mimic what they do.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed paddlers who took the plunge to become effective river conservationists without making it their full-time jobs. Not unlike learning to paddle whitewater, their stories have a common thread—intimidation at first, then great rewards.

“The secret to conservation is easy. Mostly it’s showing up and using skills you already have,” one told me.

Easy floats are sharing articles, news and petitions on Facebook, contributing $5 every month to the Friends of Your Favorite River, and volunteering to plant trees or remove invasive species. When you’re ready for class II and III, you’ll be emailing lawmakers and showing up with your pals at a hearing or two, or collecting plant and critter data.

Ready to run the big stuff? Practice for the lines of a policy campaign to get stream buffers into the land use code. If you want to huck yourself off waterfalls, strap on the elbow pads and run for office so paddlers can lobby you.

Yes, Conservation Is Intimidating. It’s much easier to just go boating. But fighting for rivers is as addictive as paddling them. Nobody listens to experts without people who share their passion. Wilderness, as Edward Abbey wrote, doesn’t need a stronger defense. It just needs more defenders.

Neil Schulman paddles and does conservation work in Portland, Oregon. He grew up loving rivers and not environmental impact statements but he now loves both.  


  1. Really powerful article. And spot on analogy to classes of river running. Hadn’t thought much about the role we paddlers play in conservation – thanks for providing this perspective!


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