Our series on Outdoor Allies profiles rad outdoor advocates and their approaches to protecting public lands. Today we’re hearing from Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director for American Whitewater. Tom is the real deal when it comes to advocacy. We’ve yet to meet someone involved in advocacy or conservation in the northwest who doesn’t know Tom and have a million good things to say about him. Plus, he’s an advocacy renaissance man, as good at communications, social media, and outreach as he is at tackling a long day of meetings on the hill. Here, Tom shares some of his wisdom about how to show up, and how he’s working to protect rivers.
Tell us a little bit about what you like to do outside and some of your favorite places to go.
I like to do anything in, around, or under the water. I believe water is the best way to explore the outdoors and over the past year I have packrafted on the Olympic Peninsula, rafted the Grand Canyon with my kids, gone free diving and spear fishing at Cape Flattery, fished from a kayak off Vancouver Island, and kayaked the Payette River. I grew up swimming and canoeing and played water polo through college before learning to whitewater kayak in graduate school. My canoes, kayaks, and rafts take me to incredible places; they are a means to experience adventures in the outdoors and connect with the natural world.
How did you first start getting involved in advocacy work? Why does it matter to you?
I was originally on a career track in academia in the field of aquatic ecology and spent my time coordinating a research program and teaching. I was providing technical assistance to organizations engaged in protecting rivers using my skills and experience as a scientist. I came to realize that I could apply my analytical approach to understanding the natural world and how ecosystems work to efforts to protect these places for future generations.
Ultimately protection of landscapes is a human decision; those with the authority and responsibility to pass laws or take executive actions that conserve wild areas or free-flowing rivers, depend on public support. Some of the strongest support comes from those who have a personal connection to a landscape. By translating this love of place into actions that demonstrate support and create incentives for conservation, we can achieve outcomes that extend on in to the future.
What are the big issues you care about that you’re working on right now?
With the 50th Anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act approaching, I am working to designate and protect additional rivers that are free flowing and have scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, of regional and national significance. At the time the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed into law in 1968 Congress determined that the established policy of the time for building dams and other construction on rivers needed to be complemented by a policy to protect free-flowing rivers and their water quality. I am committed to realizing this vision and promoting the recreational opportunities that rivers provide.
I am also working to restore rivers impacted by hydropower development. The projects I enjoy most are those where we get to remove a dam and watch the amazing recovery that can occur when rivers are unplugged and set free. In other cases where dams are currently providing societal benefits, there are still ample opportunities to improve instream flows and overall river health for recreational users, fish, and the ecosystem as a whole.
I also believe we are just starting to scratch the surface in terms of recognizing the power of the outdoor recreation economy. Here in Washington State, a recent study found that outdoor recreation contributes $21.6 billion to the state economy and supports nearly 200,000 jobs. That's huge when you compare it to other economic sectors like the tech industry and aerospace that are held up as the pillars of our regional economy. I see big opportunities to connect the conservation of places essential to outdoor recreation to the economic benefits that are realized from doing so.
Let’s say you care about protecting a place near you. Where do you get started, if you’ve never done advocacy before?
I think the most important thing you can do is show up. Whether it is meetings with a utility over the future operations of their hydropower project, a discussion with the Forest Service over management of their lands, or a member of Congress with an interest in pursuing a future conservation vision, showing up at both formal and informal opportunities is important. When college students ask me about what they should do to be effective my advice is always the same: polish your writing skills. Whether you are writing a comment letter on a proposed action, preparing persuasive testimony for a Congressional hearing, or communicating the success of your work in an effort to secure funding support, writing is essential to effective advocacy.
What are your best tips for getting involved in advocacy or citizen engagement?
Identify the issue or place that you care about. Find out who determines policy over the issue or manages the place. Start researching the process and outline the pathway for how decisions are made. Determine who influences those decisions and expand your network to include those individuals. As an example I have had some recent successes in building and improving river access and in some cases these projects took a decade. I worked to get my ideas integrated into agency planning documents. I next identified those who had capacity and resources to implement the projects, and connected them with the opportunities. People like to be a part of success and do good projects. Helping others be successful is often the most direct pathway to achieving your own success.
Current favorite piece of gear: My camera: Nikon D200
Favorite social media tool: Instagram
Next destination on your bucket list: Middle Fork Salmon: one of the few major rivers I have just not made it to
Thank you so much, Tom! Check out more of Tom's work at American Whitewater.