In late January, Emily Peterson was on her usual trail run around the stunning Marin Headlands, near San Francisco, when she was gripped by fear. Here she was, enjoying public lands at a time when the fate of public lands was very much up in the air. Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz had recently proposed a bill transferring 3 million acres of public land to state ownership. The fear is that states, unable to afford managing this land, would look to sell it off to private landowners.
“I benefit so much from public lands on a daily basis, whether it’s running solo or with a friend having that camaraderie and sense of adventure,” Peterson says.
Representative Chaffetz quickly killed his own bill after outcries from prominent hunter and angler associations—and that helped crystalize an idea that Peterson was kicking around. Trail runners use public land too, and people are more involved in politics now than anytime in recent memory. Why not mobilize runners to have a presence like other outdoor sportsmen?
“Why aren’t trail runners at the table?” Peterson asked herself and her friends. “I know that we don’t have the numbers and deep pockets that hunters might have. We’re not lobbyists in Washington, [D.C.], but I think it’s right for us to have a voice on these issues.”
Run Wild was soon born along with runners Claire Bernard, Levi Miller and Dylan Bowman, with the goal not only to build a coalition and stay aware of new bills in congress—but also to foster an appreciation for public lands. There’s a website, but the organization’s medium of choice is Instagram.
“We want to raise trail runners’ awareness about their dependence on public lands in the sport that we love to do,” Peterson says. “There’s an innate connection that we’re intrinsically aware of, but I don’t think that people always connect the two.”
Peterson, who by day is an environmental consultant in San Francisco, was wary of being seen as more clicktivism or slacktivism. The group is incorporating action alerts from The Wilderness Society so that when a bill is proposed, people will know to contact their elected officials. But there’s another thing Peterson is wary of.
“For me the most important aspect is that it’s also celebratory,” she says. “It’s important that we’re not depressing, because you’re not going to motivate people. We want to appreciate what’s already at our fingertips and inspire people to get engaged from there.”
Down the road, the group aims to be active in corporate outreach, but wants to build momentum first by hosting public-lands “teach-ins” around the country, starting at local running clubs and stores.
“As we’ve seen with other causes, you can’t really have a presence on an issue politically if you aren’t already mobilized,” Peterson says. “You can’t be successful fighting a bill and gathering thousands of people overnight to express support for something. We’re slowly laying the groundwork, and if a big bill comes, we’ll have that community.”
Most importantly for now, then, is the message.
“In a true sense of the word, these lands are public, which means that you own them. It’s a pretty fundamental concept, but might be revolutionary for some people. You have a piece of 640 million acres, and that’s something we should celebrate and hang onto. If it comes to these lands being auctioned off, we should put our foot down.”