Becky Rom, National Campaign Chair for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, would not call what she does courage. That was my original intent in contacting her regarding her years-long quest to create a permanent ban on sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. With the campaign’s 18 million followers strong and regular, national media attention, it’s rather just who she is.
Much of what she attributes her passion for the Boundary Waters and saving it goes back a generation, maybe more. It was born from values and experiences passed down to her, especially from her father. Can what you are doing today be traced back to your parents’ childhoods? Your grandparents’? Becky’s story is about the origins of passion — what you’ll truly put yourself on the line for, what you most care about. Not all of us are going to be able to conduct extensive research, mobilize millions of people and fend off a large mining operation. But, we can take small actions, and sometimes that all it takes to make a big difference. What we can learn from Becky Rom spans leadership, marketing, messaging, transformational change and the soulful expression of purpose. There is something here for everybody. To fully appreciate those lessons, it’s helpful to have the historical context.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA)
If you’re not familiar with it, the BWCA is unlike anything else in the United States containing 1.1 million-acres of pristine waters and woodlands. Only accessible by canoe and portaging, it offers unparalleled simplicity, solitude and physical challenge to 150,000 visitors every year from all the over the world. To the surrounding towns and its residents, it provides life’s work, for everything from outfitting to restaurants to guides employing over 18,000 people and providing $852 million in tourism revenue to the area per year.
If you’re one of the 150,000 annual visitors, you understand why it’s worth saving — spending time there is truly transformative, replete with stories you never tire to tell or hear year after year. To grow up there and regularly experience this miracle of nature with family created memories that carried Becky throughout her whole life. She feels without protected, unique places like the BWCA and those experiences, you don’t have memories. “We don’t remember fondly our time on smart phones, Facebook or Twitter, but rather those times we were immersed, connected, challenged and close to friends and loved ones,” Becky said.
Becky’s grandparents were Eastern European immigrants. The family made their meager income in Ely, MN fishing, hunting and growing produce from a small garden that her grandmother tended.
Her father was the only one of his nine siblings to graduate from college. While at Ely Junior College pursuing a degree in wilderness management, he met well-known author, environmentalist and wilderness advocate, Sigurd Olson, who taught science there. In addition to helping establish Voyageurs National Park and Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, “Sig” helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964 that secured official wilderness status for the BWCA. He was a mentor and instrumental influence on her dad.
When WWII came, Becky’s father enlisted in the Navy. Sig would frequently write to her dad, even encouraging him to return to the canoe country and dig into conservation. Sig relayed passionately in his letters the need to create the next generation of young men and women that have this “love of place” and protect it from the constant pull to monetize it going back to the 1920s. Far away at war, those words inspired him. When Becky’s father returned from WWII, he opened Canoe Country Outfitters in Ely, became a bush pilot and began providing equipment and guidance to people who also wanted to experience this very unique, pristine wilderness.
It’s probably stating the obvious, but Becky’s upbringing was not for the faint of heart. “My dad didn’t treat me like a girlie girl. My parents worked hard, we helped carry packs and by ’63 I began to work as a girl guide at age 14,” Becky recalled. She even became a bush pilot herself at age 16, reveling now in the confidence her father had in her. “He believed in me, taught me this love of place,” she said. “I had a very different upbringing and am very thankful for that.”
Becky has been rehearsing her national advocate role since she was in 7th grade. Back then, her father’s fight to establish lasting protections for the BWCA literally pit him against most in the town of Ely. “People treated him horribly, but he responded with such grace and dignity.” According to an article in the Star Tribune, “Loved and loathed, longtime activist has drawn a line in BWCA,” Becky was asked to defend the creation of the BWCA in a 7th grade debate in front 150 students. She lost by a vote of 148 to 2. Becky doesn’t remember feeling any disappointment about the loss and says it was then she started channeling her dad. “The failure didn’t matter, not when you feel you’re on right side of history.”
Her father, Sigurd Olson and others fought mining and other BWCA monetization attempts, including logging, roads, even hydropower, which could ruin the vulnerable wilderness for generations. Becky unwittingly landed right back into it decades later, after retiring to her beloved hometown of Ely, only to find yet another company seeking to monetize national forest lands near the Boundary Waters through mining. Despite the creation of a few hundred local, temporary mining jobs, the pollution threat from the proposed sulfide-ore copper mining would affect 20 percent of the fresh water in the 190 million-acre national forest system and last 500 years or more.
Awareness to Advocacy
And so, there are those handful of people, like Becky, whose whole life seems to have been set up for something big, to do something transformative. They provide the gift of inspiration to the rest of us, who are fully capable of mobilizing our own purposes, too. The following are five actions we can all employ, distilling Becky Rom’s generations-in-the-making passion.
- The why: identify one, singular purpose
“Love of place.” Becky can and does speak at length about the beauty and uniqueness of the Boundary Waters, but she has captured that passion in one, simple phrase, “Love of Place,” which most people can quickly grasp and relate to. People want to save the Boundary Waters because it provides hundreds of thousands of people an incomparable experience and economic benefits. But if you’re not from there, or haven’t visited there, you can appreciate “love of place” in your own way.
- The how: setting the tone with “polite persistence”
Back when Becky was young, and her father was trying to create protections for the BWCA, it became so contentious that some locals blocked the entrance to her father’s canoe outfitting business with their pick up trucks. He never turned angry and neither does Becky or any of the people currently working to protect the BWCA. The “how” much like the “why” is simple: polite persistence. Becky has visited Washington D.C. every month for the past three years, arming herself with factual, helpful information every time. Her league of followers are always reaching out and listening to people and telling their stories. Polite persistence drives every interaction with every constituent whether they are attacked on social media or experience complacency among our elected officials.
- Find others that share your passion, and unleash them
The effort to prevent copper mining in the BWCA includes support from Patagonia, Sierra Club and 18 million followers and counting, but it started with one or two local people getting together in an Ely coffee shop and asking the simple question, “What can we do?” These discussions garnered the attention of a few other passionate people who did very visible things. For example, one couple paddled from Ely to Washington D.C. in 101 days with national news media following them along the way. Then, they camped in the Boundary Waters for a year. This drew the attention of Patagonia who created a video documenting this couple’s 365-day adventure. Will Steger got involved along with other well-known outdoors enthusiasts. Becky reached out to anyone around the country she could think of to listen to and discuss this issue. In the process, she developed her guiding coalition of followers, leading to the hiring of a campaign manager.
- Lead with facts
Becky had no idea how to stop this latest effort. She had no knowledge of mineral mining or related laws, but she learned. She asked a few thoughtful questions that no one had answers to, but she eventually found. For example, had others representing protected wildernesses effectively fought mining and how did they do it? Turned out several large, well-known national parks had done so. She created maps of the Boundary Waters showing the copper mining locations and all the rivers around the area that feed the Boundary Waters and would be impacted up and down the landscape, providing a stunning, indisputable image of the potential environmental impact should the copper mining pollute as predicted. She researched who were the key decision makers in this arena and developed targeted facts and messages just for them, including the U.S. Forest Service and those responsible for public land policy. Science backs everything the campaign uses to tell its story.
- Tell stories: bring people from awareness to advocacy
“When I was a kid…” “Remember that trip where we…?” Telling stories is the fastest, most captivating, disarming tactic you can employ to take people from a new concept and quizzical faces to one people are on board to advocate for. Stories anchor people, calm their made-up, worst-case scenarios and immediately paint the picture to match the words of where you’re headed. In this case, almost everybody has a story from his or her time outdoors. Becky’s campaign has fully tapped into that, including even a Today Show host who fondly remembered a youth camping trip and jumped on board to cover the couple canoeing from Ely to D.C.
Maybe you’re one of those few driven by a lifelong passion, one that was passed down to you from generations and created memorable experiences. Even if you’re not and desire change, you can see that everybody has to start somewhere – a conversation with a few people in a coffee shop – and build on that. Create momentum by developing a translatable purpose, declaring a specific tone in which you’ll work with others, garnering passion partners, leading with facts and telling stories. This is the formula to move people from awareness to advocacy, the ultimate goal of any change.
“Life is good to those who know how to live. I do not ever hope to accumulate great funds of worldly wealth, but I shall accumulate something far more valuable, a store of wonderful memories. When I reach the twilight of life I shall look back and say I’m glad I lived as I did, life has been good to me.” — Sigurd F. Olson
You can learn more about the Save the Boundary Waters campaign by visiting their website, and you can sign up for campaign updates, too. While you’re there, don’t miss the video produced by Patagonia, “Bear Witness: A Year in The Wilderness,” chronicling a couple’s yearlong stay in the BWCA to raise awareness.