Broadening Horizons with Wilderness

June, 2017


Really, what are they thinking?  What are a group of women (mostly) of a certain age, (mostly) who love to hike,  and want to have fun while saving wild places thinking?  They are thinking: “Get on Board with the Great Old Broads for Wilderness!” U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is no conservation champion, can ironically be partially credited for the creation of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness (GOBW). In 1989 conservationists and recreationists were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and the creation of new wilderness areas like Escalante in Hatch’s home state. But Hatch opposed wilderness saying, “...if for no other reason, we need roads for the aged and infirm.”  GOBW founder Susan Tixler took exception to that characterization of older people. Tixler, who held a law degree from University of New Mexico, had a knack for converting outrage to action. She gathered her activist hiking friends and created Great Old Broads for Wilderness. Their goal? To address the fact that  “an important voice was missing from the environmental movement: the older woman—impassioned, experienced, not afraid to speak out, and definitely not needing roads,” as their history states.

But where did that name come from?  Tixler and the gang were  hiking  one day when  they came upon a group of elderly ladies coming off a trail who were “dusty, tan, sinewy, and gray-haired.” “What a bunch of great old broads!” someone remarked.  And there you have it—the birth of a name. But as current Executive Director Shelley Silbert points out:  don’t be fooled by that name.  “Broadness is a state of mind,” she states, “Although we are  mostly women over 50, we are inclusive to all—we are really saying anyone can be ‘broad.’  You don’t even have to be ‘great!’” Silbert laughs. “Just be flexible and enjoy being  outside together;  then  fight like mad to protect wild places.”

You also need to have a sense of humor. Fun and humor are the mortar that holds them together. Broad’s  work includes many examples  of putting humor into action. After a Jeep crashed and spilled transmission fluid in Moab, Utah,  GOBW founder Tixler led the  Broads to the scene with brooms and mops.  The local news media covered the group  scene as they metaphorically “swept up”  after the Jeep mess.

Great Old Broads put their brawn where their hearts are as well. Each year the group organizes “Broadwalk” events—many of them multi-day—to explore and learn about a new area. They not only hike and camp but accomplish “Broadwork”  as they call their hands-on stewardship projects.  They repair trails, remove invasive exotic plants and whatever work will help the host area protect resources and add to people’s enjoyment.

This summer, the GOBW are broadening their horizons to Northwest California for some inspiration, hiking, stewardship work, and education. The two Redwoods Broadwalks (info here and here) will take place on two separate weeks in July, and include camping on the South Fork of the Smith River. While here, they will hike in redwoods and explore wilderness, and will hear speakers on topics such as the history of the region, conservation efforts (such as reintroduction of California Condors and continuing efforts to protect wilderness), wild and scenic rivers, and better forest management. Six Rivers National Forest has also identified some restoration projects that the Broads will work on while here.

They bring experienced leaders who are passionate about conservation, wild places, and wildlife. They come to immerse themselves in a region’s local story, so they then can speak  in a whole new way with direct experience when advocating for protection.

Beyond Broadwalks and Broadwork, GOBW advocate for public lands and resource protections.  Almost 30 years after  Senator Hatch’s statement “hatched”  the Broads,  GOBW is still fighting Hatch. President Trump has proposed  to de-designate  President Obama’s Bears Ears National Monument. GOBW fought hard alongside local communities, tribes and conservationists to save this scenic and historic landscape in southeastern Utah.  And,  as Associate Director Carrie King says, “Watch out, these broads are ready to engage!”

After the summer Redwood Broadwalks,  the GOBW hopes to leave behind the beginnings of a new chapter or, “Broadband” as they call them.  Although there are 36 chapters across the nation, there is not a chapter in northwestern California or southern Oregon, which is surprising considering the demographics. “We hope to change that and add our experienced voice with other conservationists,” King adds.   

You can learn more about the Great Old Broads for Wilderness and get involved by visiting them online at