Sierra Club ICO Volunteer Wins White House “Champions of Change” Award


Ben Blonder


Resources and Organizations Getting Service Members, Veterans, and their Families Outdoors


IMG_0365A couple of weeks ago, a good friend of mine reached out on behalf of a few veterans he knew and asked if there was one place where someone could get information on all the various outdoor recreation opportunities that existed for folks. Part of the challenge of being a veteran today is that our country has really responded in a huge way to the needs of our service men and women, veterans, and their families and the support can be difficult to manage at times.

What follows is a list of organizations that provide outdoor opportunities for service members, veterans, and their families. While we have had a lot of positive experiences in many of these organizations, please do not use this list as an endorsement of different organizations over another. Each organization has many positives but may not be the right fit for an individual.

This list is meant as a starting point for individual research and decision-making and is certainly not exhaustive. Please list other resources in the comments section and we’ll update this as we learn about more organizations. All Military members and their dependants have free access to public lands. More information on the program, called The America the Beautiful pass can be found here.

A great place to start for sifting through the support providers and support wanted or needed can be found at Warrior Gateway: for a number of different resources.

Obviously, we at Sierra Club Outdoors are very proud of the many opportunities we provide for service members, veterans and their families, more information can always be found at this blog and the website here:

Additionally, all veterans and military family members receive 10% off our National Outings, which can be found here:

One of the neatest programs we’ve had the opportunity to partner with is the National Military Family Associations Operation Purple Program which sends military kids to summer camp:

A number of outdoor recreation and recreational therapy organizations have come together to form the R4 Alliance to try and minimize these challenges of finding the right opportunities and can be found here:

Includes links to Ride to Recovery, Project Sanctuary, Team River Runner, Higher Ground, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Northeast Passage, Terros, and Operation Game On are all current members along with the Sierra Club.

Again, this list is not complete, far from of it. Please tell us in the comments section who we’re missing and hopefully this can be a resource for other service members, veterans, and families who want to find resources to get outdoors.


Thanks to the Women


P9283875My Great Aunt Mildred who served in WW2, lived in Tokyo for four years following the end of the war, skied Hokkaido, and in her 80s began a travel schedule that included Egypt, Papua New Guinea, and China amongst others, is one of the heroes I have long looked up to and hoped to emulate in my own journey through this amazing world. She’s now a spry 95 and living alone on a farm in south central Minnesota where she still tends to her fields in a golf cart. She will wear you out with activity if you get the chance to visit.

In honor of Aunt Mildred and all the women in my life who have inspired me, challenged me, and pushed me forward in my own career and personal life, I wanted to share a big thank you during Women’s History Month to the just as many women as men, who have made a great impact on what otherwise might be viewed as a proto typical man’s career in the military, design and planning, and the great outdoors. As with any list of this sort, there will be unfortunate omissions and it by no means is the definitive list of women who have had a tremendous impact on my life.

Not withstanding the incredible impact of my amazing wife, my Mom (who raised two hellions), all my aunts and cousins, I have been surrounded by barrier breaking women as long as I’ve had a memory.

As a young Captain being asked to step up and lead an intelligence team in Bosnia in 2003, I was in turn led and mentored by now COL Karen Bridges. COL Bridges helped shaped my critical thinking and decision making skills, taught me how to stay calm under pressure and pushed me to maintain my integrity and honesty in the often morally ambiguous world of intelligence operations.

In graduate school after my time in Iraq, it was none other than Lucinda Sanders, the CEO and Partner of world-class design firm, Olin, who proved to be one of the most demanding, consistent and compassionate instructors I ever had. Not unlike COL Bridges, I’d gladly follow Cindy into battle. She forged me into a better person.

DSC_0152After graduate school I would have been lost out in the woods without Tamara Naumann, a biologist at Dinosaur National Monument. Under her own initiative, Tamara developed a program to support veterans in reintegration through service work in the Monument. Learning from Tamara as she wended our way safely down a raging river and led us in an incredible week of physical labor for the betterment of the Monument, helped solidify my personal and professional trajectory in 2010.

Also in 2010, Nick Watson and I had the bright idea to start Veterans Expeditions. It was Deanne Buck, then of the American Alpine Club, now the Executive Director of the Outdoor Industry Women’s Coalition, who was one of our strongest supporters and advocates inside the AAC and who has remained a mentor, friend, and connector. And on our first big climb, it was Vietnam Veteran Heidi Baruch who was the heart and soul of our expedition team.

There’s also the amazing team of Ann Krcik, Blaire Witte, and Brook Hopper at The North Face. Though Brook has moved on since we first met, these three women have been incredible advocates for supporting military service members, veterans, their families, youth, and everyone in general outdoors. Ann is an incredible leader in the outdoor industry and is more than generous with her time and wisdom in helping me forge my own path.

Speaking of getting outdoors, I’d be remiss without mentioning my great colleagues at the Sierra Club and those women I get to work with (or used to get to work with) closest on a daily or weekly basis at the Sierra Club: Mel Mac Innis, Debra Asher, Jackie Ostfeld, Jennifer Edwards, Stephanie Linder, Mary Nemerov, Gabrielle Rierra, Juana Torres, Allison Chin, Tiffany Saleh, Kristina Ortez de Jones and Kristi Rummel. I could list every woman at the Club; it is an incredible group of women making positive history every day! And have you met Rue Mapp? CEO of OutdoorAfro? A phenomenal partner and friend.

As I try and wrap up this thank you note to amazing women, I realize how many people I’ve left off the list, women like BriGette McCoy, Genevieve Chase, and Raven Bukowski; three great women I got to serve with or work with now in the veteran community. Women like my sophomore year English teacher, know just as Gerb, who I still visit when I go home to South Dakota or Judy Kroll and Sally Pies, my high school speech coaches and Annie Lett, my high school swim coach, the women at Blue Star Families, National Military Family Association, Military Spouse Magazine, the YMCA, and the list continues on…women rock!

Thanks Ladies for helping to point a direction into the wild and encourage me when the going got tough with your wisdom and energy. I couldn’t do it without y’all. None of us could.


 Heidi Baruch on a climb in Rocky Mountain National Park with veteran Ian Smith and myself showing her some love in 2010.

I Believe, a 5th grader speaks about the outdoors


Image"A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit friends the night before their fifth grade son, Johannes, participated in a speaking contest called 'I believe...' designed to help the fifth graders share something they were very passionate about.

Johannes spoke about the outdoors and I thought it was a pretty good speech, not just for a fifth grader, but for all of us. You can see him give his presentation here, or read the speech below:

"Have you ever been stressed or angry and you just want to go outside for as long as you want? Because I have.

That is why I believe in the power of Outdoors. The way outdoors suck you outside, like a vacuum sucking in dust.

I, Johannes Wiegand believe in the power of the outdoors. Whenever I go outside I feel happy, free, healthy, and confident. One day my dad said that we were going to a place we call Red Rocks in Boulder. Red Rocks is a rock-climbing place in Boulder. I had been going to Red Rocks since before I could even walk! My dad always said it was my playground.

We were going to help wounded veterans climb. I got super excited! Red Rocks is by far my most favorite place to climb and hike. My dad and I bring wounded veterans to the rocks to try to help them feel the same way I do about being in the outdoors.

After the thirty-minute drive, we finally got to red rocks. Once my dad parked the car, we literally jumped out of the car to start the mile hike up to the rocks.

Whenever I am actually on the rocks I feel as happy, free, and confident as any bird or fish.

Climbing helps me release all my sorrows or hardships. When I jump from rock to rock I feel weightless and energetic. When I am outside, the saddest part of my soul is released.

My point for this piece is go do something outside after you finish reading this, and remember to go always outside whenever you get the chance.  That is why I believe in outdoors.

This I believe."

Johannes - 10 years Old | Lafayette Elementary School- 5th Grade 

Johannes is also a pretty lucky kid, growing up in a great family that values the outdoors. You can learn more about his Dad's work here.


Hiking in Hollywood with Brooklyn Decker



By Stacy Bare, Sierra Club Outdoors Director

Last week I had the opportunity to go for a hike in the Hollywood Hills with a few Sierra Club friends and veterans, as well as Brooklyn Decker (above).

Img_8824Having never spent that much time in L.A., it was nice to drive off the freeway and up into the Hollywood Hills to Griffith Park, the 11th largest municipally-owned park in the United States, and where you go if you want to get up close and personal with the Hollywood Sign.

I had missed out on an opportunity to go to the Arctic with Brooklyn two years ago because we were finishing up a great trip in Glacier National Park with a group of veterans, but she’s stayed very engaged with our work and is a dedicated spokesperson for living a healthy, adventurous life outdoors.

Not unlike any other hike in the hills with new friends and old, the rhythm of the trail doesn’t take long to loosen up good conversation and as we meandered up the hill and ultimately down the wrong fork in the trail, we discovered that Brooklyn had been to a lot of the places a lot of our brothers and sisters in arms had been and still are (Kuwait and Brooke Army Medical Center). When I asked her why she cared about veterans, she replied simply that, “it’s the right thing to do.”

Winding our way back up to the top of the sign we were cheered on by power pup Betty and only occasionally would we get any sideways glances for getting to be on a hike with Men’s Health Magazine’s Perfect Woman!

You can read more on about the hike from Brooklyn’s perspective and what we heard on the trail as to why she spends her time on supporting veterans and encouraging all people to get outside more.

Remember though, hiking isn’t and the outdoors aren’t just for the stars, its for everyone and getting outside will give you the best chance to see the stars anyway!

Img_8859Griffith Park hike participants; Stacy Bare at far right. Photo courtesy of Saveria Tilden.

See you at the trailhead!

Protecting Those Who Protected Us


It's not hard to understand why the Sierra Club has had a long and proud relationship with the men and women who serve our country in the armed services. As our history shows, a passion for exploring and enjoying the outdoors is a natural complement of both the skills and the spirit of the military.


Incredibly excited to be a part of an organization that doesn't look at the world around it and ignore the other issues and challenges presented with it. An organization that stands up for its members because its the right thing to do and because the Club does have a long and proud relationship with our men and women who serve in uniform!

DC ICO Kids Explore Nearby Nature Along the Billy Goat Trail


Also published in the Huffington Post

Usually when I knock on doors, it’s the weekend before Election Day, not after, and I am asking for votes, not liability waivers. Four days after the polls closed, I rapped on the doors of the Highland townhouse apartments in the Anacostia neighborhood of southeast Washington, D.C. I had just met Anne Marie DiNardo, a program leader for Sierra Club’s inner city outings group (ICO) in Washington, D.C., and she was walking me through her process for getting the neighborhood kids ready for their monthly outing, this time a trip to Great Falls National Park.

The kids were excited. Once they saw us, they ran towards us to grab permission slips to take back to their parents and guardians. They knew the routine. I was just learning – this trip was part of my process to become a certified outings leader for the Sierra Club.

DC ICO has been going on outings with the kids from the Highland Addition low-income housing project for ten years. When I asked a few of the leaders why they chose to volunteer with DC ICO, these were some of the responses:

“I became a leader after volunteering for a few months because I enjoy planning educational activities for children and finding creative ways for children to learn. What keeps me coming back is the connection we make with the youth. They look forward to the trips with us and having a positive environment to explore nature,” says Sierra Club volunteer DC ICO Leader, Anne Marie DiNardo.

“I grew up in a single-parent household in an urban area where I helped my mom with my brother and my sister. After I joined the Army and I settled into my adult life routine, I wanted to give back to the community, especially to the kids who were growing up in areas like the one I grew up in. The kids are the reason I volunteer with ICO and the reason I keep coming back. Watching them hop from rock to rock, learn to swim or improve upon their swimming skills, and learn that the outdoors is fun, not scary, is lovely and fulfilling,” says Sierra Club volunteer DC ICO Leader, Melaina Sharpe.

IMG_5939Meliana Sharpe with Highland Addition Youth


We arrived at the picnic area near the Billy Goat trailhead and the kids made sandwiches and ate lunch before we started on our hike. Some of the youth got a good work out running through the park to catch falling leaves before they made landfall. Then we hit the trail, which was packed. We spent the day scrambling over rocks (like Billy goats), watching Great Blue Herons wade in the water, and waiting to see a few white water kayakers prepare to brave the falls.


Highland Addition Youth on the Billy Goat Trail


My outing with DC ICO gave me another reason to be proud to work for the Sierra Club. Not everyone has access to the great outdoors; only one in five kids have playgrounds or parks within walking distance of their home. Spending time in nature makes kids (and adults) healthier, happier and smarter. Leading ICO trips for 14,000 young people, with limited opportunities to explore nature, each year, is one way Sierra Club volunteers are bridging the divide between youth and the outdoors. We’ve also recently launched a Nearby Nature initiative to encourage communities to access, discover, protect and restore nature in and around urban areas, ensuring that access to the outdoors is increasingly equitable.

Learn more about Sierra Club’s outdoor programs and the Nearby Nature initiative.


--by Jackie Ostfeld, Outdoors Policy Manager, Sierra Club


Getting you ready for Veterans Day with the UGM


The day before Veterans Day, take some time to learn about one of our incredible partners and what they are doing to get veterans in the outdoors and why that matters, not just to these veterans, but to all people in our great country.

Each year in August, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM) takes a group of men and women battling to overcome homelessness and addiction, many who are veterans up to the top of Mt. Rainier. UGM Special Projects Director, and ex-Army Ranger Mike Johnson says they climb “to establish a track record of accomplishment to counteract a narrative of failure.”

Watch the trailer here:


You can also follow along through connecting with the documentary crew and UGM team on facebook.

You can also always follow along with Sierra Club Mission Outdoors and partners on facebook or by visiting our website for updates.

 Below is an excerpt of a recent conversation with Mike Johnson and some of the participants.

 Mike, what is special about this climb and how many people make it to the start of the Rainier Climb?

“We started with 25 expressing interest, and from this group a stable crew emerged of around a dozen who all went on to summit Mt. Hood in Oregon and attempt to summit Mt. Rainier.  The big message of the Climb for participants is that their future is totally open, as long as they attend to their recovery.  One year ago, they were addicted, recently incarcerated, unemployable and on the streets without the faintest idea that one year later they would be atop Mt. Rainier!  Anything is possible; there are no limits.  This creates hope, and a willingness to dream again for the future-- to have goals again, maybe even big ones.”

What changes do you see in the climbers? Do you measure it or study the process in any formal way? 

“We see changes in three main areas:

1)  recovery,

2) relationships, and

3) goal-setting. 

Climbers go through a year-long recovery program that includes 6 months of individual therapy with a Licensed Mental Health Counselor.  They are tracked in their capacity to stay clean & sober for years after graduating.  This crew has displayed the most stable recovery rates so far. 

This team has learned better than any previous one how to lean on each other.  We deliberately increased the exercise demand this year, which more effectively knit the group in the face of adversity.  Their counselors track quality and depth of relating as a key predictor of a person's capacity to succeed in family and employment contexts. 

The next mountain must now be climbed: getting a job, getting parental visitations restored, securing quality housing and rebuilding finances.  Counselors track goal-setting and goal-progress in these areas.  These climbers aren't just climbing Rainier.” 

What do participants do after the climb? Do they clean up, get jobs, find homes?

“Yes. Climber Brad Cohen is back in the workforce and stably housed.  Climber Shane Leitheiser started his new job two days after coming off Rainier.  Christian Downs and Jason Reyes have secured internships in Youth Ministry at a large church in Bellevue. Chris Foss was offered the first job for which he applied.  Others are on their way to graduation.”

If the success of the program is so great, why does it seem that the wilderness or climbing or outdoor experiences are so often left out of the equation for supportive services?

“Outdoor experience, and spending time in nature, is very therapeutic at an individual level. But it also very relationship-building for those who join together in these activities. It doesn’t have to just be mountaineering. Anyone can benefit from whatever outdoor experience is available to them. Such experiences are indeed often left out of the equation because they require support and a least some expertise that are additional to the already high demand of rehabilitative services.  Community partnerships can help bridge that gap.”

Do you see any similarities between war and climbing?

“Combat operations and climbing have a lot in common, minus the bullets.  Both are specialized activities with specific gear, practices and culture.  Both are team-driven enterprises, and both rely on that team and on high-quality leadership to overcome potentially fatal obstacles. These kinds of teams achieve missions in all but the most impossible circumstances-- and sometimes even then too.”

“Everyone on the climb is overcoming; the vets and non-vets share this experience. But the sense of a close-knit team, forged through hard work and disciplined preparation for a challenging mission-- that is often new to the non-veterans.  They report that the best part of the process isn't really the climb: it's the team.”

Climbers, what did climbing Rainier mean to you?

Wednesday Moore (Recovery Climber, Women’s Shelter)

The climb means a lot to me. It is one of the scariest things I have ever done in my life.  I have never worked this hard towards a goal or wanted to do something this bad.” 

Chris Foss (Recovery Climber, Men’s Shelter)

The Mt. Rainier Climb has been central to my recovery.  The grueling training and the overcoming of unknown obstacles has taught the value of teamwork and strong character.  Most importantly, it helped renew my self-confidence.  I am grateful. 

Mark Berrier (Recovery Climber, Men’s Shelter)

Climbing Mount Rainier means that I can conquer something, it means that I can persevere

Christian Downs (Recovery Climber, Men’s Shelter)

This program taught me to be an overcomer through struggles for good and for bad... I learned the importance of friends and teamwork.








Interior Secretary Jewell Ramps Up Efforts to Connect Youth with the Outdoors


Today, Interior Secretary Jewell made some important announcements about connecting young people to the outdoors. Read this press statement from the Outdoors Alliance for Kids for details



October 31, 2013



Jackie Ostfeld, 202-821-8877,

Paul Sanford, 202-429-2615,


Interior Secretary Jewell Ramps Up Efforts to Connect Youth with the Outdoors

WASHINGTON, DC –Today, at the National Press Club, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell laid out her conservation agenda for the next four years. As part of that agenda, Secretary Jewell stressed the importance of engaging the next generation in understanding, stewarding and connecting with our public lands.

Statement of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids – OAK:

The Outdoors Alliance for Kids shares Secretary Jewell’s vision to inspire millions of young people to play, learn, serve and work outdoors. We applaud Secretary Jewell for reaffirming and scaling up the commitment of the Department of the Interior to engage young people with our public lands.

The Secretary’s ambitious plan will help connect kids and youth with the outdoors through environmental education, community health and wellness and environmental stewardship opportunities. Specifically, Secretary Jewell announced plans to do the following:

  • Provide educational opportunities to at least ten million K-12 students each year, thereby enhancing environmental education opportunities for young people across the country. Outdoor environmental education opportunities improve academic and practical skills and create a well-rounded education that all kids need to thrive.
  • Establish partnerships in 50 cities with a goal of creating outdoor play and recreation opportunities for ten million young people in the next five years. Physical inactivity is a major contributor to the childhood obesity crisis and these partnerships will increase opportunities for kids and families to get active in urban areas.
  • Ramp up the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps. Service Corps activities help youth assume responsibility for the stewardship and preservation of America’s great outdoors and the healthy development of the next generation.

The Outdoors Alliance for Kids looks forward to working with Secretary Jewell in the weeks, months and years ahead to fulfill this ambitious vision and ensure that more and more children, youth and families have opportunities to get outdoors in nature.


Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK): OAK is a national strategic partnership of organizations from diverse sectors with a common interest in expanding opportunities for children, youth and families to connect with the outdoors. The members of OAK are brought together by the belief that the well-being of current and future generations, the health of our planet and communities and the economy of the future depend on humans having a personal, direct and life-long relationship with nature and the outdoors. OAK brings together more than sixty national organizations including the American Heart Association, Children & Nature Network, Izaak Walton League of America, National Association of State Park Directors, National Recreation and Park Association, National Wildlife Federation, The North Face, the Outdoor Foundation, REI, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and the YMCA of the USA to address the growing divide between children and the natural world. Find out more on our website:


Secretary Jewell moves to increase storm resiliency on Sandy anniversary


Today marks the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall across the Eastern Seaboard. Many communities are still devastated. Many families remain without homes.

On this relatively calm and beautiful autumn morning one year later, my colleague Debbie Sease and I headed to the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve in Virginia, to hear Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announce some solutions to increase our resiliency to future storms.

Secretary Jewell launched a $100 million Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program to restore habitats and increase the resiliency of communities to storms. Joined by Senator Tim Kaine and Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia, the Secretary laid out a process that will begin to answer President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.


“By stabilizing marshes and beaches, restoring wetlands, and improving the resilience of coastal areas, we not only create opportunities for people to connect with nature and support jobs through increased outdoor recreation, but we can also provide an effective buffer that protects local communities from powerful storm surges and devastating floods when a storm like Sandy hits,” said Jewell.  "In cooperation with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, this competitive grant program will fund innovative projects by States, local communities, tribes, non-profit organizations and other partners to rebuild, restore, and research these natural areas along the Atlantic Coast.” 

In addition to the newly rolled out $100 million Grant Program, today we joined the Secretary to celebrate $162 million in federal funding for forty-five projects announced last week to “restore wetlands and beaches, rebuild shorelines and research the impacts and modeling mitigation of storm surges.” Dyke Marsh will receive $25 million for wetland restoration to increase resiliency to storms. And they will use some of that money to engage youth and returning veterans in the process – AWESOME!

“Dyke Marsh is the largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh in the Washington metropolitan area, providing rich wildlife habitat, outdoor recreational opportunities, and critical flood protection for the neighboring community,” said Jewell.  “With each major storm, we see more and more destabilization and erosion, which threatens both the local community it helps protect and the outdoor recreation it supports. This funding will allow the National Park Service and its partners to reconstruct the marsh and make it more resilient when big storms roll in.”

Following this morning’s announcement, Secretary Jewell joined a group of students for an outdoor learning opportunity along the dock. Jewell understands as well as anyone that there’s no better way for young people to learn about natural ecosystems and the real world impacts of climate disruption, than by getting outdoors and participating in restoration efforts.

I was honored to be a part of today’s announcement and look forward to supporting the Secretary’s vision to engage young people outdoors – whether for recreation, education or as stewards of our lands and communities.


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