Are outdoor athletes the new face of conservation in the U.S.? Apparently President Barack Obama thinks so.
Last week, the White House Office of Digital Strategy reached out to several well-known ultrarunners, seeking to build an influencer coalition of outdoor athletes and brands to aid Obama’s efforts. The President is on track to protect more public land and water than any other American president to date.
Feb. 12, Obama designated three national monuments in the California Desert, protecting 1.8 million acres and creating the second largest protected landscape in the world. The three monuments—Mojave Trails National Monument, Sand to Snow National Monument and Castle Mountains National Monument—connect Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks and the Mojave National Preserve.
"We want to work with other people who love the outdoors and understand how important it is to protect them," the White House said in its email to potential ambassadors, which included a number of surfers, skiers, snowboarders, climbers and other people who appreciate the outdoors. "This isn't supposed to be a big political thing, it's about sharing and protecting the natural spaces we love."
Among the star social media influencers is ultrarunner Rob Krar, a leader among athletes advocating for conservation and public land protection. His work to build public support for the proposed Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument was recently highlighted in the documentary film Chasing the Distance, by filmmaker Ian Shive. The film tells the story of Krar’s passion for these public lands on which he plies his trade.
In October, Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva introduced the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument Act to preserve the Canyon’s heritage of sacred lands and ecosystems on approximately 1.7 million acres of public lands that connect the North Rim to adjoining protected lands.
But with the clock ticking on Obama’s presidency, and potential roadblocks in Congress, the president could bypass a lengthy process and pass the protection through the Antiquities Act.
Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, the President can, by presidential proclamation, create national monuments from public lands to “protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features.” The Act has been used more than a hundred times over the last century and almost always creates political controversy over land usage and access to natural resources among interest groups, i.e. the recreation vs. the extraction industries.
“My wife and I fell in love in the outdoors, camping, sleeping under the stars and exploring the outdoors in the southwest,” said Krar. “For us to be able to make even a little bit of difference preserving these lands for the future is huge for us. And we wouldn’t be where we are right now without them.”
The opportunity to help protect public lands is a "huge honor," Krar said, and he has been using social media to get out the word.
“I’m subtly getting the word out but not getting in people’s faces about it, which is important if you want to make change in the long run," he said. "My running career is my sole focus right now, but protecting land goes hand in hand with the path I’ve chosen.”
Obama’s team also reached out to ultrarunner Joe Grant, who with nearly 21,000 Instagram followers, has already tapped into his social network. Mountain ultrarunner Sage Canaday is also on the White House list of persona magnatus.
“It's exciting to see concrete initiatives by the government being developed to further protect wilderness areas, and engaging athletes and other outdoor enthusiasts is a great way to open up a conversation about climate change to a passionate audience and encourage people to get involved in protecting the places that we love,” Grant told SNEWS.
With these outdoor athletes’ help, the Digital Strategy office launched a social campaign to build awareness for Obama’s intent to protect land and water using the tags @WhiteHouse and #actonclimate.
Obama has designated 22 national monuments so far during his presidency, and sources say he is set to designate more before the end of his term.
Getting our industry's athletes using their influence for conservation could be the best use of social media yet.