Murie Center honors spirit of conservation

By Kylie Mohr

This article originally appeared in Jackson Hole News & Guide


A soft evening breeze rustled through the grasses, and the smoky sky bathed the Murie Ranch in an orange glow. Live music mixed with the sounds of chatter and the clinking of glasses as guests gathered Aug. 24 to celebrate the past, and the future, of the conservation movement. Behind the tent with twinkling lights and a podium stood Mardy and Olaus Murie’s original log cabin.

From the porch of the cabin, visitors can catch glimpses of the Grand Teton peeking out above the trees. The Wilderness Act of 1964, describing wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” was inspired by the view and conceived on that porch.

How fitting a place to honor present and upcoming leaders in the conservation movement following the Teton Science Schools and Murie Center merger announced during last year’s award dinner.

Actor Harrison Ford received the 2016 Murie Spirit of Conservation Award, adding a wow factor to the event. But organizers downplayed the celebrity aspect.

“This is not about Harrison Ford as a celebrity,” said Patrick Daley, vice president of advancement at Teton Science Schools. “This is about Harrison Ford as a leader in conservation.”

That didn’t keep eager guests from rushing, albeit cordially, to take photos with Ford once the speeches had concluded.

Chris Agnew, executive director of Teton Science Schools, said Ford was being recognized for his remarkable body of work on behalf of conservation globally and in the valley and that he respected Ford’s “authenticity.”

In 1985 Ford signed the first of what would become nine conservation easements to protect his 800-acre ranch southwest of Jackson while creating open space and providing a safe habitat in an ecologically rich area.

He has also been involved with the board of Conservation International for almost 25 years and currently serves as vice chair.

“His work comes from conviction,” Agnew said, before playing a Ford-narrated clip in “Nature is Speaking,” Conservation International’s award-winning film.

The overarching theme? Nature doesn’t need people, but people need nature.

Ford’s acceptance speech began humbly, as he thanked all the staff at Conservation International and said he didn’t want to be a “poster child.” He then told the crowd how he came to Jackson Hole by accident but, like many, fell in love with this “vision of paradise” and was anxious to find a way of giving back.

Also honored was Jose Gonzales, a first-generation Mexican immigrant who founded Latino Outdoors in his quest to bring diversity to the conservation movement. Agnew described his work as “providing access and encouraging stewardship in all of our special places.”

When presenting the award to Gonzales, Ford called exposing every culture to preservation “critical.”

Gonzales said “surprised was an understatement” when he learned that Ford chose him as the recipient of the Rising Leader award.

“It was a bit surreal,” Gonzales said. “How else would my name and his name be in the same sentence?”

Gonzales told the News&Guide that education caused “the future to open up” for him and that now he wants to return the favor.

“I realized that I wasn’t limited to just what my parents did,” he said. “I saw being a teacher as a way of giving back to the community.”

Gonzales’ friends told him to “just start something” when his search for existing organizations connecting leadership, Latinos/as and outdoor education came up empty-handed. When a Google domain search for Latino Outdoors came up as available, Gonzales said he was “laughing and crying.” It was go time.

Today, Latino Outdoors is a network of leaders committed to engaging Latinos in the outdoors and connecting families and youth with nature.

Gonzales talked about the importance of a diverse conservation movement that builds on past successes.

“What does the next centennial look like?” he asked.

He said that while the parks represent such diverse public lands, more inclusive leadership — and visitorship — is needed.

“Latino and American are not exclusive identities. They’re not,” he said, to cheers from the audience after quoting Cesar Chavez and President Barack Obama.

Guests remarked that the Murie Center was the perfect location for the night’s event.

“The heart and soul of old Jackson is still here,” said Nancy Leon, former co-chair of the Murie Center board of directors.

“Docent Dan” McIlhenny aptly described the cabin and the landscape surrounding it as “tranquil” and “peaceful,” noting that visitors are often inspired by “Two In the Far North,” the biographic novel that Mardy Murie wrote. Murie was a beloved leader in the conservation movement who went on to win Wyoming’s Citizen of the Century award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom but liked to fly under the radar.

“People read her words and come here on a pilgrimage,” McIlhenny said.

The executive director of the National Outdoor Leadership School, John Gans, also attended the Murie Center event.

“A key part of all of our programs is building a conservation ethic and a wilderness ethic,” Gans said. “A lot of leaders in the conservation movement are NOLS grads, and I see that kind of leadership represented here tonight.”

Spur Catering provided the evening’s food, including local cheeses and vegetables. Snake River Brewing, Grand Teton Distillery and Jackson Hole Winery provided the drinks.

The night concluded with a live auction of trips such as a winter expedition through Yellowstone, a getaway to the San Juan Islands of Washington and a vacation in Honolulu. The artist Borbay, whose daughter will start preschool at Teton Science Schools this fall, donated a commissioned piece of art.

The event was a success, said the Science Schools’ Daley.

“We saw 20 to 30 percent more attendees this year,” he said. “That really demonstrates the collaborative aspects of our integration with the Murie Center.”

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