Fresh Tracks from California to Alaska

Above: A young Dan Ritzman in the California Desert

I grew up in a town on the eastern edge of the Los Angeles sprawl, in what people call the Great Inland Empire. That generally comes as a surprise to folks when they ask about my upbringing, especially if they happen to be traveling with me on one of the trips I frequently guide in the wilds of America’s Arctic. But it’s true, and not really that surprising. When you leave my hometown and head just a little further east on Interstate 10 you enter the amazing Mojave desert, home to more than 2,000 native plant species, approximately 250 species of migrating and breeding birds, mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, black bears, raccoons, bobcats, coyotes, and numerous reptiles and amphibians.  These are landscapes of incredible rock formations and the first place I developed my taste for wild lands…or more accurately I should say wild, treeless lands.

That is my dirty little Sierra Club secret; I gravitate to landscapes without trees.

So this past week I was extremely pleased to see President Obama give some of these lands the protections they so deserve when he named three new national monuments in the California Desert- Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains National Monuments. These are the lands where I learned my love for nature and wildlife from my parents, where I learned outdoor skills, like climbing, and where I developed outdoor leadership skills as an instructor for Outward Bound. I am glad that these lands will be around for my son and future generations to enjoy and to explore and develop their own leadership skills.

The President’s announcement last week wasn’t just about the monuments. He also highlighted a new program that will link some of the landscapes of my youth with my most treasured landscape, America’s Arctic.

Dan Ritman on one of his guided tours of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Micah Baird

“Fresh Tracks” is program that will connect urban youth from Los Angeles with Alaska Native youth from remote villages in the Arctic. The program will allow them to share their cultural connections with the land, develop their leadership skills, and witness the challenge presented by climate change. I, and the Sierra Club, are very proud to be part of the team that worked to create this program with the Natural Leaders Network, IslandWood, action sports retailer Zumiez, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The genesis of Fresh Tracks was the President’s trip to Alaska last summer; he was deeply moved by the land he saw and the people he met. Fresh Tracks will give young people the chance to see places they would never otherwise go, and to meet other young people and build connections that will last a lifetime. Our hope is that those experiences will transform their lives, and will set them on a path to become leaders who understand the importance of caring for each other and for the planet.