Women for water and wilderness ActNow: Feisty lady hikers puts their boots to the ground for water conservation
""We are living with the legacy of mining and don't know what it will mean for our birds, aquatic species, wells, watershed and municipal water supplies." - Shelley Silbert
by Kathy Magnuson
They call themselves the "Great Old Broads for Wilderness" and wear that title proudly.
The organization was started in 1989 on the 25th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by a feisty bunch of lady hikers who wanted to refute Utah Senator Orrin Hatch's notion that wilderness was not accessible to elders. They saw that an important voice was missing in the discussion: theirs.
Today the mostly volunteer-run organization has 5,000 members and 30 chapters across the United States committed to working on local and national wilderness issues. Minnesota's chapter, Wild Waters Broadband, has a major focus on water issues in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).
"We are the 'boots on the ground' [women] who will go to public lands meetings, get involved in wonky planning processes, write letters to the editor, get in the kayaks and show up," says Shelley Silbert, executive director of the national organization.
In August Great Old Broads from across the United States attended a Broadwalk near Ely. Scientists, researchers, public land managers, activists and novice campers came with a shared sense of community and support in their four nights and three days together. The attendees learned to be effective activists together with EMPOWER - Progressive Organization of Women for Education and Reform - based in Ely.
During the retreat, attendees participated in activities such as trail maintenance and restoration in support of local public lands agencies. They heard from local and national leaders, such as forest supervisors, wilderness guides and environmental activists. They hiked and canoed in areas where mining is proposed and heard from local outfitters about how mining could impact the watershed and the local economy.
Janet Bourdon of Maplewood had supported environmental organizations for years and became a Great Old Broad because she felt she "needed to do more than just put a check out there ... I needed to start being active." She attended a boot-camp training in spring 2015 and has become a state leader.
"We want the good life, and we don't really think about the things that we do every day," Bourdon explains, citing examples of how we use and dispose of plastics, conserving water usage in our homes and workplaces, gardening for pollinator preservation, and cutting back on lawn pesticides.
"Women have always had high hopes for mother earth and an ability to really look at things in a more nurturing manner. Maybe we can't undo some things, but if we can educate enough women to step up, be vocal and engaged," says Bourdon, "we might be able to save some things for our children."
When the Women's Press spoke with Silbert in August, the Animus River in Colorado, where their office is based, had just experienced a toxic spill from an abandoned mine.
"This issue has really come home to us. We are living with the legacy of mining and don't know what it will mean for our birds, aquatic species, wells, watershed and municipal water supplies," she says. "So many depend [on the river]. It is an economic driver for tourism. We are all connected to that river. It makes this Boundary Waters effort all the more personal and important and real. I find hope in being together with others who are also working hard for clean water."
"I feel and understand the anger [about the Animus River] but know it is not the best place from which to take action," Silbert explains. "[Anger] clouds your vision and does not give you hope."
"We do our work out of love for place, for nature, for our fortunate ability to experience these places. That is what motivates us and gives me hope," says national associate director Rose Chilcoat.