One morning this July, I was fortunate to join hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts at the Conservation Alliance Breakfast in Denver, CO. The Keynote speaker was Mr. Timothy Egan, the inspiring author of one of my favorite books, The Worst Hard Time. He spoke about just one of the many things that has made America great over the last hundred years: Our rich legacy of shared public lands and wilderness. It is a uniquely American concept, and it has a storied history that is both tumultuous and eerily familiar in our current political climate.
As Mr. Egan spoke, I began reflecting on my own “conversion” story – that moment in time when wilderness reached into my soul and changed me irreversibly. It isn’t difficult for me to pinpoint – I was six and we paddled into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) for the first time. I spent the next week, shoeless and shirtless, running through the woods, climbing trees, swimming and drinking from the clearest of lake waters, building fires, catching and learning to clean fish and, of course, being utterly transformed as I watched the stars and listened to the stillness of the night. That week remains amongst the most vivid of my life’s memories.
That trip instilled a hunger in me for wild places, and soon we were travelling all kinds of wilderness, summers and winters, our trips getting longer and our adventures far reaching – trips across the arctic ice in Svalbard, two weeks living and travelling with Inuit hunters in Western Greenland. But always - no matter where I travelled or how exciting the adventure – every year the BWCA called me home again.
All that changed in a blink. In October of 2014, at age 13, my travels came to a screeching halt. Unusual bruising led to a blood draw, which landed me directly in the pediatric ICU with a diagnosis of High Risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Just like that, our adventures were on indefinite hold. I was suddenly staring at 3.5 years of daily chemotherapy and wondering, not how I’d survive my cancer, but how I could possibly survive without my wilderness.
Inspiration, though, comes from surprising places. The summer before my diagnosis I’d been in Ely, MN, the last town at the end of the road before one heads into the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and I’d learned that a sulfide-ore copper mine had been proposed right on the edge of the Wilderness, within its watershed. This type of mining has never been done without significant environmental damage, anywhere, and has been deemed by the EPA as America’s “most toxic industry.” I’d signed petitions while in Ely and promised I’d do what I could to help the campaign to stop this dangerous and toxic mine.
About two weeks after my diagnosis, a representative from the Make A Wish Foundation came to visit me at the hospital. She told me I’d been granted a wish, and talked about the foundation and the work they do on behalf of critically ill children. It was shocking – the idea that my “bad luck” had earned me a wish like that…it set the wheels spinning. Especially as she told me about the wishes they’d granted other children: trips, celebrity visits, shopping excursions, even a swimming pool and pony.
For me, choosing my wish was simple: To Save the Boundary Waters.
As it turns out, though, wishes take work, even with an organization like Make A Wish in your corner. The political nature of my wish made it impossible for them to help and, ultimately, my wish was “closed” as ungranted. In the meantime, though, I had learned how fight for what matters: my life, (my hair!) and the Boundary Waters.
Over the next 3.5 years, whenever my treatment allowed, I travelled to Washington D.C. to meet with lawmakers and leadership to make our case in defense of the BWCA. I wrote blogs, gave speeches, made phone calls, wrote letters and granted interviews – whatever I could do with my time and energy to try and protect this wilderness that myself and so many Americans love so much.. The Boundary Waters are 1.1 million acres of pristine water and unspoiled woods. It has a long history of environmental protections put in place dating back to 1909 when President Theodore Roosevelt established the Superior National Forest. I felt as though I walked in the footsteps of environmental giants with every trip, every meeting, and every small success in the fight.
In February of 2018 I took my last dose of 3.5 years of daily chemotherapy. It was remarkably anti-climatic, and as I swallowed the pills and headed up for my homework it occurred to me that as I closed the door on cancer it was time to up my game on behalf of the BWCA. And so on June 19th, in front of the Washington Monument and with a small group of equally committed teenagers by my side, I launched my new initiative: Kids For The Boundary Waters (Kids4BW). The fight for the BWCA is most especially about us KIDS; we will be inheriting whatever mess gets left behind. This is our future, our water, our public lands, our resources, our health, our country at stake.
Kids For The Boundary Waters will focus on honing a message of conservation and protection of the BWCA and teaching kids how to advocate - how to write letters, make phone calls, follow up, and how to make personal appeals during DC fly-ins. We all have a huge stake in protecting this wilderness, and beyond that, in learning to effectively and efficiently navigate the political system. Today, we vote with our dollars and our voices, but very soon we will be voting with our ballots. The more engaged we become as teenagers, the more we understand our power and our ability to effect change, the more likely we are to STAY engaged.
Though the Kids4BW campaign focuses on preservation and protection of the BWCA, it is my belief that teaching kids about the process of advocacy will undoubtedly spill over into political action in defending - and visiting! - other wild places as well. The BWCA was a “gateway drug” for me, getting me hooked on camping, on backcountry biking, on dogsledding, on backpacking, and on adventuring to remote, wild places around the world. Wilderness adventures instill a hunger for more. And although there are a multitude of reasons why people choose to pick up a paddle – or throw on a pack - and head into the wilderness, one thing is certain: Universally we all come out changed for the better.
Since our launch in June, we have been hard at work creating the infrastructure and making the connections necessary to recruit and get our message out. But most importantly, Kids4BW recently activated its network to call and write in opposition to the Nolan-Emmer amendment to the 2019 Interior Appropriations Bill. During floor debate, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) read aloud from 7 handwritten letters she had received from Kids4BW advocates, and at the last minute the amendment was withdrawn when Rep. Emmer realized he did not have enough votes for it to pass. We count this as our first official (shared!) victory on behalf of the Boundary Waters!
I know I speak for every member of our Board when I say we take this fight very, very seriously and are committed to doing everything possible to defend the BWCA. Beyond that, we are wholly dedicated to training the next generation of advocates in how to effectively use their voices and their considerable power. I truly believe my generation will become an unstoppable voice for environmental protection, defense of our public lands, and protection of wild places across America.
Living with Cancer is no joke – it’s hard in ways that are difficult to articulate, and it takes things you have to fight very, very hard to reclaim. But Cancer is also a surprisingly good teacher. Most importantly, it trains you to fight like hell for the things that matter. Although I’ll still be sorting lessons for years to come, the one thing I have learned for sure is that sometimes life only gives you one chance to get it done. And I think this is it. This is my chance to help save America’s most visited and pristine water Wilderness.
When you volunteer, it’s easy to get trapped into thinking that the work doesn’t matter unless you “change the world.” What my work has taught me is that it’s all about the small steps forward, about getting back up despite setbacks, about consistently showing up and about staying even when you’re discouraged, when the work you’ve done gets undone, or when other things compete for your time. Change happens when you suit up and show up, over and over and over. It may not be enormous, instantaneous change, but many small steps over a long period of time add up. And though we are “not obligated to complete the work, neither are we free to abandon it.”
I hope you’ll join me in this fight. Meanwhile, paddle on!
Joseph A. Goldstein
Joseph Goldstein is a student at Glenwood High School. He lives on a farm in Springfield, Illinois with his parents, three brothers, three dogs, 10 cats, 12 sheep, and a variety of chickens, ducks and other farm critters. He plays the guitar and trombone (marginally) and skis and mountain bikes (awesomely). You can follow the Kids for the Boundary Waters campaign online at their website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.