Bay Area Wilderness Training

Earth Island News

When I began Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT) in 1997, I knew very little about David Brower. I did know, however, that my connection to the outdoors was what grounded my concern for the environment. After BAWT became a project of Earth Island Institute,

Youth educators in Yosemite National Park on BAWT's Wilderness Leadership Training. -Kyle Macdonald photo.
Youth educators in Yosemite National Park on BAWT’s Wilderness Leadership Training.
Kyle Macdonald photo.

I met David Brower and learned that he had taken the earliest members of the Sierra Club into the peaks of Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks on what became known as “High Trips.” The idea was that people could nurture their relationship with the Earth and ultimately their belief in environmental conservation if they had a connection to the outdoors. BAWT does this very thing, concentrating on urban youth.

BAWT trains youth workers and teachers in wilderness leadership and then supports them with outdoor equipment loans and advice. To date, BAWT has trained close to 200 youth workers through the Wilderness Leadership Training program. More importantly, over 3,000 youth have had wilderness experiences through these trained youth workers and teachers. Many slept under the stars for the first time during these trips.

David Shelhart is a former Wilderness Leadership Training participant and a staff member for the Marin Conservation Corps. Using BAWT’s equipment, he took a number of young adult corps members to Yosemite National Park in the fall of 2003. The trip to Yosemite had created a particularly profound shift for one young man who had been involved with gangs in Los Angeles. Standing at the base of a giant sequoia, he said to David, “If the guys back home could see what I’m seeing now, they wouldn’t be doing what they do.” He related that he had never in his life felt as safe as he did when he was in Yosemite. He went on to become a spokesperson for the California Conservation Corps’ Backcountry Program.

“Cultural Conceptions of Wilderness” panel discussion
Now Available on DVD through BAWT’s Website.
In spring 2004, a diverse group of six panelists got together at Bay Area Wilderness Training’s Fifth Anniversary Celebration to honor and discuss the intersections of culture/class/gender/sexual orientation/race and wilderness. An eloquent discussion by Running Grass of The Three Circles Center for Multicultural Environmental Education, J. Mijin Cha from the Center for Race Poverty and the Environment, Shyaam M. Shabaka, founder and director of EcoVillage Farm Learning Center, and others make this DVD an important tool for environmental education in all contexts.
Institutional (College/Universities, Public Libraries), $75
High School, non-profit and private use rate: $40
To receive a copy send your name and shipping information along with a check made payable to BAWT to:
Attn: Cultural Conceptions DVD
300 Broadway, Ste 28
San Francisco, CA 94133
You can also order online at
or call Kyle at 415-788-3666 x125.

Critical to BAWT’s success is its grassroots community, which is grounded in the organization’s values—values that allow people from all walks of life to bond with one another for a common purpose and encourage something that was critical to David Brower: boldness.

Our Core Values

In recent years, BAWT has developed a set of four core values by which it operates – environmental stewardship, relationships, risk, and diversity. These values serve as our compass and continue to affect our strategic direction.

Environmental Stewardship – We honor and protect the earth. Through inspiration gained from wilderness, we work to integrate this value into our pedagogy, as well as all of our decisions.

Relationships – We nurture a culture of learning through relationships. It is this focus on relationships that makes BAWT different. First, our long-term relationship with the youth workers we serve means that we can support them as they develop their skills. Once someone is trained through BAWT, they have access to our equipment lending library indefinitely, so long as they remain active in taking youth outdoors. While there are many programs that take youth on wilderness trips, BAWT’s model allows the youth organizations it serves to deepen the relationships that develop among their adult staff, mentors, volunteers, and youth by supporting them as they experience wilderness together.

Risk – We foster the virtues of positive, calculated risk taking. This value underpins one of the most important ways that people learn: the willingness to make and learn from mistakes. Risk is an inherent element of outdoor education, and it is one of the most powerful tools for learning. BAWT teaches a risk management model that can be applied to any situation that might occur in the outdoors with youth. Safety is the bottom line, with no exceptions. And while there is calculated risk involved in backpacking in the backcountry of Yosemite, the rewards of taking those risks are immense. Furthermore, the emotional risks that young people must take in order to trust their peers as they travel through wilderness are immense. As young people learn to trust themselves and those around them, the rewards become equally great.

Diversity – We promote a diverse community of environmental educators. The model allows educators to frame the wilderness experience within a context that is both culturally appropriate and grounded in the larger curricular themes the organization is utilizing. For example, someone working with Hispanic youth in San Francisco’s Mission District might lead a trip, speaking mainly in Spanish, providing a different cultural lens. Young people learn from the adults in their cultural group that they too may become skilled in outdoor leadership.

The trail ahead

Because youth in every major city in the United States deserve an opportunity to make a powerful, transformative connection with nature, there needs to be a movement that encourages this connection wherever possible, steering youth away from video games and televisions and sedentary lifestyles and into the outdoors. Wilderness encourages us to actively engage in the world around us and to connect the earth’s co-inhabitants.

After you explore a field or a park or a creek or a beach with a young person, whether it is your nephew or granddaughter, the boy you tutor, or your neighbors’ soccer team, remain connected to them in some way and support them as they integrate the lessons of the trees and birds and wind into their urban existence. Organize with others, take a Wilderness First Aid class, volunteer your time and work with educators as they take on our future. The rewards are immense. If you do not have an existing relationship with a group of young people, take a risk and start one. Be bold. One of David Brower’s favorite quotes was from Goethe: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

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