There are always more stories to tell when it comes to the changing environment. Read some of the other stories that were collected by the project.
Jonathan Williams, "JW"
Public Policy Director, NOLS
To say that Jonathan Williams, or "JW" as most people call him, loves the outdoors is a bit of an understatement. Growing up he lived in a farming town in Iowa and even today his life, his interests, and his job all revolve around being outside.
"I certainly get out and do my fair share of outdoor activities," he said. "I like to fish, bike, and walk my dog, Osa. But I think the biggest thing for me though is that I love the community and the ability to connect with other people through the outdoors. That's a beautiful part of being in outdoor recreation is that community piece and getting to share experiences."
JW gets to take the community aspect of the outdoors in his work, too. He works for NOLS, or the National Outdoor Leadership School, which is headquartered in Lander, Wyoming but has locations all over the country and world including Alaska, Idaho, Chile, and India. NOLS focuses on outdoor education and teaching individuals how to be leaders through various outdoor expeditions.
At the NOLS office in Lander, JW works as the Director of Public Policy and is an active whitewater rafting and backpacking field instructor. As a part of his job, JW gets to take individuals on excursions into nature to learn about leadership, wilderness medicine, and outdoor skills, to name a few.
"What other organization or job do you get to go take people out on 30 to 90-day trips? It's a lot of fun," he said.
However, being heavily involved with the outdoors also comes with being greatly attuned to environmental change. In fact, when you ask JW about changes in the environment, he has a long list of things he has noticed.
“We’re experiencing record-breaking drought,” he said. “Sometimes it feels like we’re having to carry our canoes down the river.”
Drought has also caused an increase in wildfires in Wyoming and the surrounding areas. Smoke from the wildfires makes being outside and going on excursions extremely difficult.
“It has impacted our NOLS courses, not to the degree we had to pull people out of the trips, but to the point where it impacted the experiences,” he said. “From town, you couldn’t even see the mountains or the foothills because of the smoke.”
Among these changes, JW also points out that the snowpack is lower and there are less consistent temperatures, which also makes planning trips with NOLS increasingly difficult. Snowpack dictates course availability in the winter months. If there isn't enough snow or if the available snow isn't frozen enough, certain parts of the trip may not be accessible.
“It makes you think about what courses we can offer now and which courses we will be able to offer in 10 years. I think we’re at the point where we have to start thinking more about what these changes look like as risks and objective hazards that are only likely to intensify,” he said.
However, the greatest impact of all in JW's opinion is the increase in uncertainty that comes from these environmental changes.
“I worry about what this uncertainty means for businesses like NOLS, for the student experiences, and for people who just want to get out and go on a trip,” he said.
Despite the rather bleak impacts we're facing, JW cautions that we need to have a sense of optimism about these changes because there are things we can do about them.
“I certainly think there is something to just getting people talking, and talking to people who have different views than our own and asking them why and bringing curiosity into that conversation,” he said. “There’s great a need for stronger leadership, action, and intentional thought of how we keep this world habitable.”
John Henry Paluszek
Nordic Skier, University of Wyoming
Since John Henry Paluszek was in elementary school, he has been skiing-- both competitively and for enjoyment.
"It’s a very relaxing sport. Whenever I’m skiing, I feel like I’m in the moment. I hear a lot of people talk about doing meditation or something to be present in the moment, but I feel like I only really find that when I’m skiing. I’m not daydreaming or thinking about other stuff, it’s a good outlet. You’re outside, you’re out in nature, and nothing beats a bluebird day up at Happy Jack," he said.
Although he considers skiing to be a safe place where he can momentarily escape stress, Paluszek has come to worry about the sport he loves. He's noticed changes happening across the country, both in New England where he grew up as well as in Wyoming where he's recently moved, that have impacted his ability to ski.
“Within the past couple of years I’ve seen very dramatic changes and just from interacting with people in the ski community, it seems like there also very dramatic changes happening here in the West," he said. "During the Covid year I was back at my home course in New England but the whole ski season I was pretty much limited to a 1.5-kilometer loop. Every day I would just have to train by going in loops, and normally we have 20 to 30 kilometers of trail systems that you can just ski anywhere you want."
The environmental changes only continued to impact his ability to ski when he moved out West to attend the University of Wyoming and join the Nordic Ski team.
"Everyone always talks about Wyoming and Colorado as being 'the ski paradise,' but there was this huge period of time where all the colleges were struggling to find snow, and the first couple of races of the season, whoever won were just the teams who were able to find snow to train and practice on," Paluszek said.
The lack of snow also resulted in the Nordic ski team having to cancel some of their annual trips and training. Typically the team visits Yellowstone in November as a ski camp, but because the area was uncharacteristically dry from a lack of snowfall, the team was forced to travel to Grand Junction in Colorado, instead.
Variability in weather conditions during the season has also made skiing increasingly difficult. "Some race days it was 42 degrees, raining with really slushy and wet conditions, but then days later it was the coldest I've ever skied in, like -20 degrees. Most of the time, especially in January and February, you're getting pretty consistent snow conditions, but not recently," he said.
Paluszek fears for what might happen if these changes continue, or worsen, but he hasn't given up hope. "I think it's important for us to stay positive," he said. Things like using your voice to keep large corporations accountable for their impacts on the environment, spreading awareness about changes and impacts happening in our local environments, and working towards sharing accurate information are all things people can do to make a difference, Paluszek said.