A few weeks ago, I found myself standing outside a Bozeman bar at dusk, a file of topo maps tucked under one arm. I’m not the kind of person who hangs around bars (the file of maps should be a clue; I’ve discerned that these are not a usual drinking accessory) but I was waiting to meet Gregg Treinish, the founder and director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), an NGO whose name alone intrigued me enough to venture out into the introvert-unfriendly universe of college-town drinking establishments. Gregg’s credential as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year was intimidating, but when he showed up and spent the first fifteen minutes of our conversation talking about how inspiring he finds wolverines, I figured we were on equal footing in at least one respect. This was fortunate, since a mutual friend had contacted me in January to talk about putting together an exciting, wolverine-related adventure with Gregg and a few other people, and I wasn’t really prepared to spend time in the remote backcountry with someone who intimidated me with his athleticism. An athletic individual committed to wolverines, however – I could deal with that.
Earlier this week, an article about ASC appeared in the New York Times, putting the organization – and wolverines! – in headline news at America’s newspaper of record. The article and attached video feature gulos, and the narration and the interviews in the film segment contain solid information about the species (I’ve been told that it’s better to collect hair samples with tweezers rather than bare hands, since this minimizes the risk of cross-contamination of the DNA, but that’s the only very minor issue that I would raise), but the larger arc of the article is about the as-yet-untapped potential of citizen science among the outdoor set.
In his phenomenal book Annals of the Former World, John McPhee relates the story of geologist Jean de Charpentier, whose work influenced Louis Agassiz, the geologist renowned for pioneering the field of glaciology. In McPhee’s telling, Charpentier was climbing in the Alps one day in 1815 when he met a mountaineer and hunter who had spent most of his life tracking chamois and climbing peaks. This mountaineer pointed out to Charpentier that the boulders in the lower pastures had been placed there by ice that had melted off many years before, suggesting that at one time ice had covered much more of the mountains than it did in 1815. Although Charpentier didn’t believe the mountaineer, he reported the comments, other geologists picked up on the idea that mountain glaciers moved rocks around and shaped the peaks, and Charpentier himself eventually accepted the theory and published work on it. Agassiz expanded this notion one step further to realize that glaciers had once existed at far larger scales, and that much of the topography of the mountainous north had been shaped by glacial ice. He had the technical expertise to understand the implication of the mountaineer’s notion, but he hadn’t spent adequate time in the mountains to have reached this conclusion on his own. The scientific community needed someone who had been out in that environment over the long term to put the pieces together.
This story has stuck with me for years, as an illustration of the importance of being out in the world you’re studying, and of listening to people who spend even more time out there than you do. Scientists these days spend more time than we would like stuck at a computer, and Americans have reached a level of socio-economic development in which adventure has become its own endeavor, separate from either science or survival. Citizen science in general, and organizations like ASC, illustrate that the separation isn’t strictly necessary. The outdoor adventure community consists of smart, generous people who care about the environments in which they’re skiing, climbing, kayaking, rafting, and hiking, and most of them want to contribute to protecting those environments and are eager to share observations that they’ve made. Creating a vehicle to organize connections between these two groups is a great idea. I have some qualms about data-quality issues and the need for rigor, but perhaps the existence of such an organization will prompt adventurers to gain those skills, and perhaps it will also prompt scientists to figure out how to summarize what they do to a lay public.
Wolverines are especially emblematic of the potential for citizen science among adventurers, and adventurous climbers may be particularly important to scientific research in mountainous regions where wolverines and other climate sensitive species live. Like the mountaineer of the Alps – his name was Perraudin, to give him equal credit with his more celebrated contemporaries – hikers and climbers spend far more time than scientists do in high altitude environments, and their observations can be important. So it’s really great to see that more and more projects are working to tap this potential.