Louisa Willcox: ‘Wilderness Wanderer’ Bridges Science and Advocacy in U.S. West
Louisa Willcox ’84 M.F.S. never imagined that she would make a career out of conservation advocacy. But she's spent more than three decades protecting the wild lands of the western U.S.
Written by Kevin Dennehy
From the beginning, even friends were advising Louisa Willcox that it was an impossible fight.
It was the late 1980s, and a large Canadian mining company planned to operate a gold mine in the high country near Cooke City, Montana, on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park. And while environmental groups — including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) — warned that it could send waste into the park, the chances of stopping it seemed slim.
“It looked like a completely impossible task,” recalls Willcox ’84 M.F.S., who was GYC’s program director at the time. “I was still early in my career, and people were saying, ‘You’re not going to stop this gold mine. There’s a billion dollars worth of gold in the ground.
“‘Just figure out what you need in terms of mitigating the impacts and get out.’”
But after a decade-long fight, they stopped it. By 1996, a GYC-led coalition convinced the U.S. government to broker a settlement that withdrew the lands from mineral development permanently. The company even agreed to clean up environmental damage caused by earlier mining operations.
For Willcox — who’d played a key role in creating a grassroots movement that included local residents, ranchers, snowmobilers and scientists — the victory was an exhilarating lesson in the power of coalition building and smart conservation advocacy.
“It was one of these campaigns where it took being smart, contextual, and integrative of a lot of different groups of people,” she says. “And there was just a snowball effect of enthusiasm to stop this goldmine.”
The funny thing is, Willcox — who will receive an F&ES Distinguished Alumni Award on Oct. 11 — never imagined that she would make a career out of conservation advocacy. In a way, she says, she’s an accidental advocate.
Louisa Willcox was still in her early teens, and living on her family’s farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia, when she discovered the American West.
Her first climb of Wyoming’s Grand Teton would make her a “wilderness wanderer” for life. There was something about the vastness of wild places, she says, that made her more comfortable in her own body. And she would find her way out there whenever she could.
As an undergraduate at Williams College, she took a three-year break, during which she became an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School, leading children into the wilderness, and became passionate about climbing.
Despite the pull of the West, she decided to get her master’s degree at F&ES.
“I remember asking myself at the time, ‘Why am I going back to college on the East Coast when I really intend to live and work out west?’” Willcox says. “But what attracted me to it — and I know it’s still true — is that Yale had a very broad program. You could get a strong ecological scientific background and orientation. You could integrate it with policy. You could stick your toe in to the School of Management, the Law School — I did some of both.
“And since I didn’t really know what I was going to do, I wanted to try a lot of things.”
Her first job out of school was as field studies director for the Teton Science School, based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she introduced local kids to the natural world.
When she wasn’t working, she was developing a network of friends in the environmental field, including some of the giants in the worlds of ecology, geology and conservation. During those years she befriended, among others, Luna Leopold, an ecologist and son of Aldo Leopold; and geologist Dave Love, who was immortalized in John McPhee’s book “Rising from the Plains.”
“They were from a different generation, but they were very inspiring,” Willcox says. “And it was also very humbling to be in their company and to see how curious they remained as older men.
“I realized that there was just a huge amount that we still didn’t know — and may never know — about how these ecosystems are put together. So I got really interested in following in their footsteps and taking up what I could in a field sense.”
Despite her passion for the natural world, Louisa Willcox never imagined that she would be ever be a professional “advocate” for conservation when she was younger.
It wasn’t until she started reading stories about proposed oil and gas drilling projects in places she’d grown to love — (“When they were talking about threatened places,” Willcox told one interviewer, “I thought, ‘I’ve been there!’”) — that she poured herself into the work of conservation.
As she worked on more campaigns, she began to view herself as a “bridge-builder” between the worlds of advocacy and science, and she enjoyed cultivating skills in political organization, research, communications — even some legal expertise.
After teaching at the Teton School for two years, she became the Montana-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s first program director. And for a decade she worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council, leading the fight in a cause particularly important to her: saving the threatened grizzly bear populations of the American west.
Protecting bears, she says, remains her most important fight, and will be the foundation of a new conservation initiative she will announce in the coming months.
“I continue to work on grizzly bears, largely because I love them,” she says, “but also they really are the most sensitive barometer of the health of the northern Rockies ecosystem. If bears are healthy, so tends to be the rest of the ecosystem.”
These days, she says, the greatest threat facing the bears are the decimating effects of climate change, including the loss of two of their critical food sources — whitebark pine and cutthroat trout.
Of course, these represent just the latest threats facing this iconic species. “We were so close to exterminating grizzly bears in the Lower 48 — there are still only 1 percent of the numbers that were here when Europeans arrived in the West,” she says.
The fact that humankind has rallied to save the grizzly gives her hope. But she knows it will take vigilance and hard work.
“We came so close to exterminating the last of the bears, yet we didn’t,” she says. “And while I know that Manifest Destiny is still alive and well in the West — and that ‘progress’ still means paving things over and plowing them under and killing all the native fauna — there was a statement when we passed the Endangered Species Act. And that statement is that Manifest Destiny has gone too far and it is time to put the brakes on and save some of the wildness that we’ve inherited.
“And yet, even after you make some headway, and you think, ‘OK, success has been achieved,’ each generation needs to reach their own conclusion about what they think about bears and what stories they want to tell.”