This article was written by trail runner and Dartmouth College student Soleil Gaylord. As we close out 2020, Soleil’s call for climate action caps off a difficult past 12 months for people and the planet. Climate Action was the American Trail Running Association’s theme for 2020.
I will remember 2020 as the year of coronavirus and birds falling from the sky.
COVID-19 has led me from bustling college life in New Hampshire to remote enrollment from the deserts, mountains, and rivers of the great American Southwest, where life is inherently quieter. While I’ve lost the camaraderie of peers, the stimulation of in-person classes, and the buzz of day-to-day campus life, I’ve had uniquely valuable time to run thousands of trail miles surrounding my hometown, many of which I’d never before had the time to explore.
Alongside my father Kent, who has been my lifetime running partner, I’ve enjoyed Utah’s juniper and uranium-mine dotted mesas of Uncompahgre Plateau, the Wasatch Mountains (a hidden gem), emerald lakes tucked into alpine sedges, the deep ochres of Bears Ears National Monument, and over half of the Colorado Trail. While remarkably cathartic, these miles have forced me to reckon with the painful notion that our public lands are under threat, as are birds, fish, trees, wildflowers, and on down the food web to intricate lichens.
While running the Colorado Trail’s first segment this past September, from Waterton Canyon to the South Platte River trailhead, I witnessed quite possibly the most jarring ecological catastrophe of my years. Mile by mile, insectivorous birds, dead or weak, lined the trail. Blue-green swallows, yellow warblers, spotted towhees — by the hundreds — feeble in rock outcroppings, in the path, or falling from trees and the sky. I tried swaddling them in mittened hands, warming them against my coat. Nothing would resurrect them.
I called ornithologist friends. On this particular day, avian mortalities were accentuated due to severe forest fires in northern Colorado, followed by a record-breaking drop in temperatures. Although this cataclysmic event was unprecedented in its magnitude, bird population decline is a long-term, background trend among a much greater extinction crisis. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, three billion birds have vanished from North America since the 1970s, nearly 30% of all birds. These findings raise fears that some familiar species could go the way of the passenger pigeon, a species once so abundant that its extinction in the early 1900s seemed unthinkable.
Climate change, the prevalence of forest fires, and rapidly-changing weather patterns have driven down populations of insects and have swept birds off their ancestral, hard-wired migratory paths. Austere die-off events occur with increasing frequency in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and California. Being witness to one of these apocalyptic scenarios forever haunts me.
That memorable day, however saddening, brought me a stark, grave realization. The ecosystems I am lucky enough to relish face threats from all sides — a changing climate, infringing development, overgrazing, and resource extraction. The United States government meanwhile remains undeniably apathetic in preserving lands and the biodiversity they support.
Each step upon the trail makes me more aware of my privilege as a user of America’s most unique asset; every mile makes me doubly grateful. As Montana’s trail runner-governor Steve Bullock so eloquently said in a Trail Runner magazine article (in reference to injury): “I had spent my whole life taking for granted the fact that I can have my bit of sanity by going out and running. What happens on that day when all of a sudden you can’t?”
Runners know acutely the pain of suffering an ache or strain, the torment of being sidelined for weeks, months, or years. Now, trail runners, all lovers of the great outdoors alike, must contemplate a reality in which the biomes they enjoy are no longer ecologically-robust or available for uses like trail running. Our public lands are actively under threat, as is the air we breathe, the water we drink, the raptor that wheels through the sky.
Despite massive public protests, the significant opposition of indigenous peoples, and a substantial depreciation in the price and demand for oil, the Trump Administration has successfully leased 5.4 million acres, a swath of land the size of New Jersey, to oil and gas interests. Drilling from these leases could release the carbon dioxide equivalent of 1,051 coal plants burning for a year. The Trump Administration further stripped protections from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Bears Ears National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Katahdin Woods, Waters National Monument, and the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, to name a few.
The litany of land sales doesn’t end there, either. In the remaining weeks of the present Administration, the government may transfer public Arizona lands to copper mining interests; drilling in a remote Utah wilderness area and the construction of an open-pit lithium mine near an ancient volcano in Nevada are pending approval.
I realize that our lands have a history of gross mismanagement, and they’ve come under particular threat in the past few years. However, I’m a youthful optimist. The next decade will not only require politics commensurate with the climate, public lands, and biodiversity crises at hand but individual action on behalf of every outdoor advocate — trail runners included. From the same Trail Runner article I mentioned earlier, I extract a particularly poignant quote from Governor Bullock. “I fundamentally believe that public policy is made through anecdotes and personal relationships,” he said. “The way to get in an elected representative’s mind is to make that connection. If trail runners are not a part of telling their story and making that connection, then they are missing a big element.”
Talk to your friends, contact your representatives, vote, stay up-to-date on the politics of America’s greatest asset — 640 million acres of public land. We are on the forefront, individual and institutional, and I have hope. I recently watched President-elect Joseph R. Biden announce his environment team. As each cabinet pick told their stories, an air of optimism, activism, and genuine concern for minorities, species, and the future itself fueled my afternoon run with particular buoyancy.
COVID-19 has given us grief, heartbreak, profound time for reflection. Yet Stanford University ecologist Paul Ehrlich, who has been warning about shrinking plant and animal populations for decades, sees some hope in this year’s jolt of bad news: “It might stir needed action in light of the public interest in our feathered friends” (and hopefully, our lands too). The health crisis, unprecedented events of 2020, and many, many solo miles have given me this “jolt” and vital call to action. I have the trails to thank for a newfound commitment to the staunch defense of the lands that I use daily, and from which I derive relief, joy, and inspiration. Whether running more miles, calling more representatives, writing more letters to the editor — I can only hope you join me in this movement.
More about the author: Soleil was raised in Telluride, Colorado, and is currently a junior at Dartmouth College studying Government and Environmental Studies. She was a member of several U.S. Mountain Running Teams. When not nose-deep in a book, Soleil is listening to her favorite podcasts and running, rafting, backpacking, or hiking and spent last summer completing many Colorado Trail segments. Soleil’s favorite landscapes are in the Southwest, where she especially enjoys the Weminuche Wilderness and the canyon country — she’s even rafted the Grand Canyon twice!