I went on my very first backpacking trip with college friends to Dolly Sods Wilderness, West Virginia. I borrowed everything from my backpack to my sleeping bag. When we ran out of our initial water supply, my more experienced friends refilled our bottles from the creek and treated the water with iodine or filters. I had never drunk water straight from the creek before and I was completely unfamiliar with the treatment methods. The whole process made me nervous, but as the weekend wore on and I never got a case of diarrhea, I learned that we were fine.
Flash forward 25 years and I own not only a sleeping bag and a backpack, but all other accoutrements of an outdoor adventure lifestyle, including a water filter. I also have the knowledge that my water filter (or iodine, or boiling) will guard against pathogens like Giardia, but provide no protection from high concentrations of chemicals.
When I first heard of the Elk River chemical spill just outside of Charleston and the “do not use” order in nine counties, my mind immediately went to the people and places I know that were (and still are) affected by the spill, including the nearby Kanawha State Forest. I’ve refilled my water bottles from the very same taps that were off-limits for five days last week. I’ve filtered water directly from West Virginia streams and I’ve drunk straight from springs flowing out of the mountainsides. I’ve photographed and rafted and skinny dipped in countless West Virginia waterways.
So for me, pollution of West Virginia’s waters is personal.
You likely have experienced an insult to a special place, too. Maybe a national forest closed your favorite trail during a logging operation. Perhaps your favorite state park or forest is facing fracking. Or maybe industry dumped (even legally) chemicals or debris into a waterway that ruined your kayaking or fishing expedition.
What are those of us in the outdoor adventure community going to do about it? My suggestion is: something. Because if those of us who regularly enjoy our natural environment don’t protect it, who will?
None of us can tackle all of our environmental issues at once, but all of us can do a few things. For starters, there are lifestyle choices you can make. If you can afford to, drive a smaller car, install solar panels on your home, buy organic food. Walk or ride your bike, recycle, use compact fluorescent bulbs – you probably are already familiar with conservation choices you can make in your daily life.
Equally if not more important is engaging in the world outside of your household. Join a group that works to protect the areas you enjoy. I’m a member of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and I’ve donated to Coal River Mountain Watch, but other West Virginia organizations equally worthy of support are the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the Sierra Club West Virginia.
These organizations can put your membership money to good use and once you become a member, you’ll learn about volunteer opportunities like river cleanups (the non-toxic kind), trail building sessions or fundraising events. They will also likely send you action alerts by e-mail and social media that keep you up to date on local, state and/or national issues. Through these action alerts or on your own, you can call or send a letter to a politician or regulatory agency at a time when it can make a difference and then share it on social media. For example, according to news reports, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin will join with California Sen. Barbara Boxer to introduce the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act.
Who knows at this point where that will go, but 300,000 West Virginians deserve to have safe drinking water. And those of us who venture into the backcountry deserve to drink out of streams safely as well.