Meet four women whose love of the outdoors inspires their commitment to the environment.
Australian pro surfer Tully White’s visit to California for the World Surf League longboard tour stop in Malibu did not go as planned. An oil spill south of Los Angeles meant the exact location of the competition had to be changed each day depending on where the oil was floating. Among the fans, workers in hazmat suits scrubbed oil from the beaches and wildlife.
“Everyone said it was common,” says White. “Like it’s no big deal.”
Meanwhile, back home in Sydney, White learned that the Australian government was in the process of renewing a petroleum exploration permit for an oil pipeline. The California oil spill and the Australian pipeline were on opposite sides of the world, but White couldn’t help but draw a straight line from one to the other. After witnessing first-hand the damage an accident could cause, White didn’t want that permit extended and decided to do something about it: she campaigned against the pipeline and all future oil and gas pipelines before it Australian coast.
Those of us who work at desks don’t often encounter environmental degradation, which means global warming and planetary destruction can feel like distant, theoretical problems. But experiences like White’s — seeing environmental damage in action — are more common among people who earn a living or spend a large portion of their time playing sports, competing, and playing outdoors. As a result, it’s not surprising that outdoor sports enthusiasts have formed several organizations to advocate for conservation and environmental action, such as Surfers for Climate, Protect Our Winters, Footprints, and others.
“They actually live it and worry and think about it,” says Kathleen Rogers, President of Earthday.org.
The diverse experiences of athletes and outdoor people paint a broad picture of environmental disasters at any altitude and in any terrain – and consequently also trigger measures at all levels.
For example, as professional skier Sierra Quitiquit has traveled around the world to places like Japan and Switzerland and seen consistently snowy places like Alaska becoming more temperate, her ski seasons have become shorter and shorter. (Researchers report that the average ski season was shortened by a whopping 34 days from 1982 to 2016.) Quitiquit has seen the impact on businesses and athletes, and has heard from communities how different things have gotten in recent years.
“As a skier, you spend a lot of time out in the elements and really get in tune with the rhythm of nature,” says Quitiquit. “When you show up in places that have traditionally been covered in snow for their entire history since it was written and there’s no snow, it’s just this feeling that something is seriously wrong.”
It’s not just her travels; Quitiquit has also experienced this sense of uneasiness in her hometown of Park City, Utah. As a young girl, she even started a MySpace page called Skiers Against Global Warming. Today, she is an activist with Protect Our Winters, a coalition of winter sports enthusiasts, and an ambassador for Earthday.org’s Athletes for the Earth program. She also works with NATO, has started her own environmental projects, and has traveled to Capitol Hill to lobby for climate change legislation as part of the Inflation Reduction Act (then called the Build Back Better Bill).
Quitiquit’s representative in Congress made it clear to her that if he supported climate change provisions in legislation, it would be up to her and others like her to provide public support for the idea. “He said, ‘I need you to educate people and mobilize people in support of this bill so I can have public opinion and vote for this bill,'” Quitiquit recalled. “It opened my eyes to how politics works and how we can’t neglect ourselves. The public has the ability to move mountains.”
The IRA was finally passed in August 2022, and the EPA describes it as “the most significant climate legislation in US history, providing funding, programs and incentives to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy [that] will likely drive significant deployment of new clean power resources.”
Rogers agrees that athletes are uniquely positioned to bring about the kind of heart and mindset change that requires support for climate change policies. She says celebrities like actors and singers are often viewed as “liberal,” but athletes tend to be seen as politically neutral role models, and that hard-to-reach sections of the public take their opinions seriously.
“You’re trying to save the winter because your career depends on it,” says Rogers. “It’s not perceived as superficial.”
Unlike much of the environmental movement, where women are disproportionately driving climate action, Rogers’ experience is that male athletes tend to be more visible in environmental initiatives (perhaps because society generally pays more attention to male athletes than female athletes). That makes Quitiquit’s and Tully’s commitment invaluable, as have leaders like Olympic sailor Hannah Mills and rower Melissa Wilson, who have been spotlighted for their activism at the Olympics. But Rogers wishes even more that they lend their voice to the cause and use the moments when they are in the spotlight — like when they share their feelings after a win — to connect their sporting achievements with the need for environmental action.
“I think they’re great speakers for that,” says Rogers. “We just don’t have enough of it.”
Luckily, pros aren’t the only athletes getting involved. Kamilah Journét was a high school and collegiate runner and later became a high school track coach in Ventura County, California. Growing up, she recalls having days when she wasn’t allowed to run because of nearby fires and the potential danger of smoke inhalation.
A few years ago, she met the founder of Runners for Public Lands, an organization that seeks to bring environmental responsibility to running culture through initiatives like reducing waste at races and mobilizing runners as climate activists. Devastating wildfires broke out in Ventura County around the same time, dating back to the smoky days Journét experienced while running as a teenager.
“It’s really hard for me to just completely detach myself from something that I see so visibly,” says Journét.
When Journét was asked by Runners for Public Lands to serve on their board of directors, she was intrigued. As a younger woman of color, Journét realized it was a perfect way to respond to concerns she had developed as a teenage runner for the planet and for the disproportionate impact of climate change on people of color.
“It just seemed like such a natural way to use my voice in a space that’s really dedicated to building inclusive running communities and protecting the environment,” says Journét.
Journét notes that professional athletes often get the most attention for their environmental commitments. But Journét and Runners for Public Lands think it could be strong in numbers if Runners – the country’s largest recreational group – mobilized to champion climate action. Runners, she believes, are uniquely suited to the demands of tackling an issue as big as climate change.
“There’s a natural connection between endurance sports and the challenges that the climate movement brings, because we have to commit to it for more than a short period of time,” says Journét.
Not to mention the love that any runner or athlete who spends a lot of time outdoors ultimately has for the outdoors. For example, photographer, documentary filmmaker and recreational fly fisherman Katie Falkenberg describes the feeling of fly fishing as “awe” – so it’s only natural that it’s become something she wants to protect. “Catching a wild fish and then releasing it again is just the most magical feeling for me,” says Falkenberg. “It’s that brush with this wild thing that you hold in your hands and then let go.”
After decades of working for the Los Angeles Times, Falkenberg recently decided to become self-employed, among other things to tell stories about what she experienced in nature as a result of climate change: namely the warming of rivers and the drying up of tributaries, as well as the forest fires that have wreaked havoc in Oregon. “Where we are in terms of climate change has been so tangible to me, but especially in the last three or four years,” she says. “When I’m by the river or the mountain, I keep thinking of stories to tell.”
Today, Falkenberg makes films and documents the drying up of river beds and the people working to survive, hoping to inspire action by telling their stories. But she believes the best way to fuel the fight is for more people to spend more time outdoors and foster a relationship with – and responsibility for – our planet. (A small 2021 study even proved that spending just a week outdoors makes people more responsible for the environment.)
“I feel incredibly compelled to tell stories that could motivate people to get out there and see what’s at risk, what we have to lose,” says Falkenberg. “If people aren’t out there recreating and doing these activities, fewer people will feel the desire to protect them.”
This desire to protect wild places unites these women who want to continue surfing, skiing, running, fishing and otherwise living outdoors. Quitiquit refers to it as “intimacy” with the snow pack. The way she witnesses climate change in real-time fuels her activism — and which she believes can empower athletes and anyone else who enjoys spending time in nature.
“There’s so often a feeling like ‘Who should I lead?’ or ‘Who am I to go into this and what do I know?’” says Quitiquit. “There is this feeling that someone else should solve this problem. But in reality, this challenge belongs to all of us.”
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