Veronica Egan and the 'Great Old Broads' keep vigil over endangered wild lands.

The conservation group, made up mostly of older women, helps the US government track illegal use of public lands in the US West.

Carl Greers/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Victoria Egan’s childhood in Cleveland and young adulthood in New Mexico sparked her intense interest in land conservation and stewardship.

Don't call Veronica Egan a lady. Call her what she calls herself: a great old broad. As executive director since 2002 of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, an environmental group based in Durango, Colo., Ms. Egan encourages everyone to become a "Broad."

Members don't have to be an over-50 woman – although most are. "Broadness," Egan says, "is a state of mind." You can also join if you're a younger woman – you'll be known as a Training Broad. Or even if you're a guy: You'll be a "Great Old Bro."

While becoming a "Great Old Broad" includes taking fun hikes with like-minded, age-compatible women, the real purpose of the group runs deeper and, well ... broader.

Founded by Susan Tixier as a nonprofit organization in Escalante, Utah, in 1989 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the passage of the federal Wilderness Act, Great Old Broads for Wilderness means business. Its mission is to advocate for wilderness and wildlands. To do this, it relies almost entirely on the experience, energy, activism, and commitment of elders.

Talk with Egan and she quickly reveals her commitment to her work.

"We're not doing this just for ourselves, just so we can go out there for our own last great hike. We want to preserve what we've been able to experience – these glorious places – for our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren."

Egan learned early about the destruction humans can do to the natural environment. As a child in Cleveland, she grew up near the shore of Lake Erie. While she had freedom as a kid to ramble through the ravines and wooded areas near her home, her parents forbade her to go near the lake. Because of its severe pollution, the government deemed Erie a "dead" body of water. Egan remembers seeing the banks lined with dead fish. That image made a deep impression on her.

Later, when her family was preparing to move to New Mexico – and Egan set off for college – Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire, fueled by petrochemicals in the water. Coincidentally, Egan discovered Rachel Carson's landmark book on the environment, "Silent Spring."

These events ignited a passion in Egan to become an advocate for natural resources. Living in Santa Fe, N.M., on her family's dude ranch – "a hotel with horses," she says, laughing – she became a professional guide and outfitter for 30 years, which helped her understand the wisdom of conservation and good stewardship of the land, something she began to share.

"I used my saddle as my soapbox," she says.

Much later, when she decided to make a change, she felt drawn to Great Old Broads. "The mission spoke to my passion. And, of course, there's the name of the group – I loved the humor."

In the rough-and-tumble world of environmental activism, the age factor can be a plus, Egan says. Broads in 22 chapters – "Broadbands" – in 18 states join with other environmental groups to ensure that wilderness areas will be preserved for future generations.

Looking like someone's grandmother sometimes works to the advantage of the Broads, Egan says. She smiles as she recalls a time when one Broad went head-to-head with an official who most likely would have dismissed a young environmental activist. "But our Broad stood up, leaned across the desk, and said to the official, 'Now you listen to me.' " Egan savors the memory. "And he did!" She adds, "[Older women] are really not invisible, y'know."

The Broads focus only on public lands – national forests, grasslands, monuments, and parks. Most of the land they monitor is in the American West, with its vast roadless areas. The most common impacts are on archaeological sites and riparian lands, with their rich biological diversity. All-terrain vehicles, overgrazing by livestock, and oil and gas exploitation all do damage. Because US government land management agencies have limited resources, the Broads assist these agencies by keeping a vigilant watch, documenting and reporting any unauthorized activity.

Still, their accomplishments haven't come easily. Not everyone appreciates these mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, and great-aunts (not to mention the men) monitoring protected wild lands that otherwise wouldn't have sufficient oversight. In recent cases, the Broads have secured improved management for public lands scarred by motorized vehicles, reported illegal activity in archaeologically sensitive areas, and documented overgrazing.

That doesn't always win them friends.

"The first training we did," Egan says, "came almost by chance." In 2005, she and another Broad stopped to talk with local citizens in Kane County, Utah, who had just about given up trying to get authorities to do something about major abuses by ATVs in two canyons outside Kanab, Utah.

The Broads trained them in how to photograph the damage, noting locations by GPS coordinates and using descriptions that would hold up in court as evidence. The locals then made a presentation to the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Within two weeks – after years of unsuccessful lobbying – the Bureau closed both canyons and enforcement took hold.

"Without [Great Old Broads'] immediate response to the uncontrolled and unmanaged use of all-terrain vehicles on the public lands of southeast Utah, we would not have been able to start to turn this issue around," says retired Special Agent Lynell Schalk of the BLM.

The Broads are not anti-oil, anticattle, or antidrilling. "We're not against development of natural resources," Egan says. "But you can't have it both ways. The amount [of oil and gas] to be recovered is sometimes negligible, but the biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and antiquities can be lost forever. The land in many of these areas is very fragile. So overgrazing, dirt bikes, and the big push to develop oil and gas in these wildlands can have a devastating effect."

Wally White, county commissioner of La Plata (Colo.), says the conservation work Egan has done is "unsurpassed." She reminds him of the tradition of native Americans, who have always relied on elders for guidance and leadership.

"It's time we started paying attention to our own elders," he says. "I'm just thankful to have someone as committed as Ronni Egan working to protect the heritage of our wildlands."

Someone has to be thinking of future generations, Egan says. With a warm "Old Broad" smile, she adds, "We have to learn to live within our means. And to learn we aren't separate from the rest of the natural world."

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