It was a little jarring at first when the group of tanned, dusty, “women of a certain age” cheerfully referred to themselves as “broads” as they gathered at the Lava Lake Trailhead on Friday.
“When I talk about them at home my friends are like, ‘Broads?’ ” said Laurie Kerr, of Battle Ground, Wash. “But now it’s just kind of accepted.”
Great Old Broads for Wilderness met outside of Bozeman, Mont., last week for one of their biannual Broadwalks. Broadwalks are events where Great Old Broads from around the country gather to learn about wilderness issues in the area where they are meeting through hikes, work projects and discussions with local folks. In their visit to Montana, the group was focused on proposed wilderness in the Gallatin National Forest.
So during the meeting, the 25 women from across the country heard presentations from the likes of octogenarian Bozeman wilderness advocate Joe Gutkoski, Gallatin National Forest supervisor Mary Erickson and performed volunteer work on the Lava Lake Trail.
“Our approach is education, advocacy, stewardship and fun,” said Shelly Silbert, executive director of the group, which boasts more than 5,000 members across the United States. “We’ve got about 36 groups working on wilderness designation or protecting public lands from a variety of threats. We’re really all about promoting healthy public lands.”
In many societies, elders are revered and honored for their wisdom and knowledge. Women have long been seen as the nurturers and caretakers who value life and recognize the human connection to nature. Rose Chilcoat, Great Old Broads associate director, said her group combines these attributes into a grassroots conservation and political voice for wildlands.
“We know what was, so we’re not starry eyed,” she said. “We’re grounded conservation folks. And it’s not all about us.”
“We had one woman who was 94 who went on a walk,” Silbert said. “Many are in their 80s. So it’s really about staying vital in our later years. That’s the way to grow old: staying active, staying passionate and refusing to give up.”
The group’s members come from different walks of life, she added, from mountain climbers and writers to dancers. The values they all share are feistiness and a “belief that the wilderness spirit is important to respect and maintain.”
It’s also important to volunteer, said Great Old Broad JoLynn Jarboe.
“Well, you figure you go out and enjoy, you should also give back,” she said.
The group was formed in 1989 by a group of “older, politically savvy women” who had just spent time in the Canyons of the Escalante proposed wilderness. Soon after the strenuous trip, they heard Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch declare that wilderness designation for the area was a bad idea since it would prevent the elderly from accessing the region by roads. Great Old Broads didn’t want their age or ability to access wilderness areas to be used as an excuse for not giving lands such protection.
“We want wilderness regardless of whether or not we can get in there,” Chilcoat said.
In the Gallatin National Forest, the Great Old Broads see the Forest Service compromising too much with the varied recreation groups — especially mountain bikers.
“The Gallatin Range is unique as the only temperate zone on the planet to have all of the species that were here before Lewis and Clark,” said Nancy Ostlie, who heads the Bozeman branch of Great Old Broads. “Yet the Gallatin is about to be divided up between recreationists, with mountain biking just ballooning.”
Interestingly, the Gallatin’s Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area was on the cusp of being declared wilderness in 1989 with bipartisan support, but President Reagan used a pocket veto to halt the designation.
Chilcoat said her group has spent time trying to understand the issues and players in the Gallatin but takes a hard-line stand: “We would like every available inch to be wilderness,” she said. “We understand there will be give and take, but it shouldn’t be quid pro quo. We shouldn’t have to trade away other wild places.”
That stance means that Ostlie has been a “burr under the saddle” of other local environmental groups that are more willing to compromise, she said.
“I feel like a lonely soul,” Ostlie said. “I was very naïve about how political this was. I just thought everyone loves wilderness.”
So she’s taking her cues from old-time wilderness advocates like Joe Gutkoski, who spoke to the broads.
“I feel like I’m representing their views,” she said. “He’s my hero. He has a lot of credibility. Me, I’m easy to dismiss.”
After lopping off branches along the Lava Lake Trail, clearing fire rings and trash from near the lake, the women of a certain age were tired and dirty but remained cheerful. That work ethic impressed Gallatin wilderness ranger Todd Burritt, who was coordinating the crew’s work.
“It’s a much bigger volunteer group than I’m used to, but everyone was ready to dig in,” Burritt said.
Prior to working with the group, Burritt said he had heard of the Great Old Broads but didn’t know much about them. After being peppered with questions about the area, as well as learning more about the group, he was impressed.
“I really liked the idea of wilderness being emphasized as a refuge for your mind, that it doesn’t have to be about running across it in a day,” he said. “It’s a conquer mentality, and in my mind that’s not what wilderness is all about.”
Silbert was pleased with Burritt’s observation.
“We’re really dependent on what wilderness provides, like water, wildlife and for serenity and peace of mind,” Silbert said.
For Washington member Laurie Kerr, though, the group she decided to join after reading an article in AARP’s magazine is most important to her because of the knowledge she gains. She’s attended six of the Broadwalks since she joined.
“I like to get together with the other broads,” she said. “I like the hiking. But mostly I like the education.”
Even men can join the group, referred to as Bros. And they don’t discriminate against younger women, either, who they call Training Broads.
What does it take to be a Great Old Broad? The members call out several attributes: commitment to the wilderness, passion, a sense of humor, a love of hiking and a willingness to work. And it helps that happy hour starts at 5 p.m.