A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Ben Colvin has grown up around the outdoors. With his father's influence at an early age, Ben learned that preserving what he loved would require taking action. As an avid paddler, hiker and conservationists he has always shared a passion for educating others and protecting the Southeast's uniquely, beautiful wildernesses.
After spending several years in the west and earning a degree from the University of Montana in Environmental Psychology and Politics with a Masters of Science in Environmental Studies, Ben returned to the South to work as a conservationist. We caught up with Ben to learn more about the great work that he's doing with Wild South.
What's your earliest memory of being outdoors?
My dad taking my family camping at Smith Lake, and my many summers at Camp McDowell in Nauvoo, AL. I was hooked and later came back after college in Montana to teach environmental education at McDowell's Environmental Center!
How did you first get involved in conservation?
Yes, I got hooked on the outdoors early on, but my father was on the Board of the Alabama Rivers Alliance. As a young teenager, I began to volunteer with them and other groups to not only get outside, but to take action and be a part of a new movement taking place in the South. I studied Environmental Science and non-profit organizations in college and in grad school, but still find those early volunteer moments to be some of the most impactful and long-lasting experiences that drove a love for conservation.
Most people talk about wanting to make a change. Was there a specific moment in time when you realized you wanted to dedicate you life to conservation?
Right in the middle of my college career, I began looking into Wilderness Therapy and Eco-Psychology and began to see the science-emotion links that deeply connect us to our Place. I wrote my research paper in 9th grade on "Your Future Career" and chose "Mountain Climbing Guide" (and received a "B" not for ability, but because I was "not taking it seriously"!) and new I wanted to be outside, but the more connected I became to both Environmental Science AND the personal connection and love we all have for our Place, the more I know I was dedicated to protecting our natural world.
How can we inspire a similar societal shift and move from discussion towards real and significant action?
ACTION is the key. Wild South and MANY of our partners and other wonderful organizations get 'boots on the ground' and inspire people to enjoy, value, and protect the wild character and natural legacy of the South. This logic model holds true to me in so many ways, but particularly because we have to experience and feel that we enjoy wild places, wildlife, cultures that came before us, and then we see their inherent values and are driven to protect them. I am seeing more collaboration in the South between groups that inspire optimism in me - Wild South works to protect public lands and when connected with watershed groups, land conservancies, agencies, 'friends groups', teachers, journalists, citizens...then we see huge corridors and landscape level protections across the South. This is a unique movement in the South and we should be proud to work hand-in-hand together.
How does your role at Wild South play into the bigger picture?
As the Development Director, I craft and implement (with staff) our development plan - how we will build our movement and how we will fund out work. I have always been in the field and love being alone in the woods, but I have a huge amount of respect for the development professionals out there who sacrifice a lot of themselves to build the support structures in organizations that drive our work and sustain our staff. As an organization, we are growing by leaps and bounds, connecting the Souther Appalachian landscapes, being THE voice for our forests, and partnering with incredible groups across the region. I am really proud to be a part of cementing these relationships and foundations that can spark a collaboration across the South to protect my home PLACE. I meet great people everyday, and that inspires me to continue growing and evolving our scope of work. It's a great world, full of great people who are inspired to do great things!
Where is Wild South currently focusing their efforts?
Currently, we are being organically pulled to our strengths of regional landscape protection. Our new staff in Mississippi is THE wilderness ranger for the state, the Tennessee Wild Campaign will add 20,000 acres of new wilderness to Tennessee, Alabama staff are connecting people to places through environmental education, forest monitoring and protecting the lands (i.e., halting oil and gas leases on national forests) and in North Carolina, we are building ever-growing relationships through wildlife education, collaborative partnerships, forest monitoring and more. All of this exemplifies the visions and goals of connecting our landscapes and preserving our public lands and wild places.
Tell me a little more about Tennessee Wild and what it means for outdoor enthusiasts.
Tennessee Wild is a project of Wild South that brings a coalition of groups together to protect wilderness on the Cherokee National Forest for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations. We aim to educate the public about the benefits of wilderness and promote volunteerism and the sound stewardship of Tennessee's wild places, which is a sustaining effort we have in TN - stewarding our lands. The TN Wilderness Bill is co-sponsored by both TN Senators (Alexander and Corker) and seeks to add the first new wilderness to TN in 20 years! Most of the 20,000 proposed acres are simply additions to existing wilderness that have been designated by the USFS as potential wilderness areas and managed just as wilderness for decades. This bill specifically designates these places, which not only secures protection for these special places for users like hunters, fishermen and women, hikers, campers, climbers, etc - but protecting the forests of East TN adds billions of dollars to the local and regional economies. This is a no brainer -- good for all.
What can people do today that will help impact Tennessee Wild and the overall Wild South mission?
Get involved! LIke we talked about earlier, getting boots on the ground - and that includes boots in the office of US Representatives and local legislators - is very important. Our elected representatives and decision makers need to hear our voices and our concerns. And get involved on outing with the TN Wild Staff -- it's a ton of fun and you'll see miraculous places!
What are you proudest of in your outdoor life?
Easy! Having led and taught (and continuing to do so) tens of thousands of students that are our next generation of leaders. As a scientist and environmental educator, it is always a goal to teach, and learn from, others and advocate for our natural world.
What's the wildest/most beautiful place you've ever been to?
I worked for a while in the Wind River Range in Wyoming -- there are wild, magical places there including 12,000 ft backcountry hikes that take your breath away. In Southern Alaska, I saw the northern lights and swam glacial water -- I've encountered griz (grizzly bears), golden eagles, wolves...But the wild places in the South are JUST as majestic if not more so. They touch a deep nerve and feel like home. The Sipsey Wilderness in Alabama is one of the most beautiful places you'll see -- GO there!
Where would you say you are most comfortable..your happy place?
That depends. Living in the West (Montana-Wyoming), I really appreciate solitude, but I like to choose my solitude. Here in the mountains of Western North Carolina, I feel like I did in Western Montana, but much closer to my Place, my native home. Being a part of an active community and then venturing off for solitude...I'd say that's pretty perfect!
What's your favorite outdoor destination?
Sipsey Wilderness -- be careful, it really is wild, untamed, steep and wet! Also, I really like Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and Shinning Rock Wilderness in North Carolina. The waterfalls and mountains trails ( Benton McKaye , etc.) in East TN are mind-blowing as well. No mater where you go, if it's on RootsRated, it's probably amazing and you should take off and get outside when you can!
Can you tell me a little more about the Tennessee Wild 2014 Launch Party Thursday, February 6th?
The TN Wild 2014 Launch is a gathering at Farmer's Daughter in Chattanooga -- owned by great people who care about the wilds -- and we are meeting to break bread, toast brews and wine, and discuss why we all love these places and how we are going to pass the Bill. Pat Byington, our TN Wild Director and Bill Hodge, SAWS, will both be there and it will definitely be an incredible crowd to meet. Go there, get active, be involved!
If you're unable to make it out to Farmer's Daughter this Thursday, February 6th in Chattanooga, TN don't be alarmed! Wild South is also putting on the Wild South Brewfest 2014 in Birmingham, Alabama on February 15, 2014 featuring unique beer tastings from twelve of Alabama's and six of North Carolina's finest breweries, supporting Wild South's work to 'inspire people to enjoy, value and protect the wild character and natural legacy of the South".