THE BLOG
09/19/2014 07:52 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

One Woman's Amazing Work for Wilderness

We're right in the middle of Wilderness Week, and this year it's a special one because we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act -- which is still a high-water mark for the protection of our most precious wild places. On Wednesday night, I attended a big gala in Washington, D.C., along with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and plenty of other political, movement, and environmental big shots.

For me, though, the real star of the evening was Vicky Hoover, the humble, unassuming Sierra Club volunteer superhero who received  the "A Wilderness-Forever Future" award. Nobody I know has put our motto "explore, enjoy, and protect" to better use. Vicky has done all of those things, with a zest and ageless energy that radiates from her. When I see her well-used blue commuter bike locked up in front of our headquarters, I know stuff is gonna get done.

Like so many wilderness champions, Vicky started by falling in love with the wilderness experience. She took up backpacking in the mid-sixties, after she already had two young children. She and her husband brought them along, much as my wife and I do with our kids today. Soon their whole family was climbing Sierra peaks and, by 1981, Vicky had summited all 247 peaks on the Sierra Peaks Section list. You can find her own version of that story here.

But one thing anyone learns about Vicky in a hurry is that she's not content to be a follower. As I said, she's a doer. Very quickly, she graduated from outings participant to trip leader -- mostly in the Sierra Nevada, but also in Alaska, Utah, and even New Zealand.  She may have been born in Manhattan, but I'd bet her wilderness skills and Sierra knowledge would match even old John Muir's. And word has it she's a much better cook.

Another thing she shares with the Sierra Club's founder is a deep appreciation of the mountains and meadows she's explored. Eventually, that led her to realize that someone must have worked to make sure those places were protected. Vicky was also quick to figure out that wilderness exploration is a gateway to wilderness protection. "When I started leading trips, I took it for granted that these wild places were just there," she once said. "But all those years of leading outings made me think that I should try to get more places protected.

She did a lot more than try.

Vicky had already volunteered with her local chapter's office, but in 1985 she stepped up her game. She got a part-time job in the national Sierra Club office as an assistant to Dr. Edgar Wayburn, himself one of the greatest wilderness activists of all time. She started working hard for Dr. Wayburn's Alaska Task Force -- and has kept going for almost three decades.

She also began serving on local and then national wilderness committees. One of the great conservation campaigns at that time was to pass the California Desert Protection Act. Right away, Vicky was in the thick of it. She started leading outings to some of the Southwestern lands that would be affected by the act -- so she could be an even more effective advocate. When President Clinton signed the bill in 1996, the American people gained two national parks (Joshua Tree and Death Valley), as well as more than half a million acres of Wilderness Area in the new Mojave National Preserve. I doubt Vicky even paused to catch her breath before plunging into the next campaign. That California and Alaska are the states with the highest percentage of their lands set aside as wilderness is in no small part thanks to Vicky Hoover.

Vicky finally retired as a Sierra Club staffer four years ago, but her idea of "retired" isn't one you'll find in a dictionary. She still chairs the Club's California/Nevada Wilderness Committee (also serving as its newsletter editor). As co-chair of Wilderness50 -- a coalition of federal agencies and nonprofit organizations -- she's also spent the past four years using the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act as a way to publicize and promote wilderness to as broad and diverse an audience as possible. Oh, and she continues to lead outings -- including five service and other outings already this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary.

Over the years, Vicky's received lots of awards for the incredible work she's done, including the Club's highest honor, the John Muir Award, in 2004. But as much as she deserves this latest accolade, I know it's only a small measure of how much all of us who love wilderness owe to this remarkable woman. What's the best way we can really thank her? Get out and experience some wilderness!

And while you're at it, take a moment to ask Congress to continue the 50-year legacy of the Wilderness Act by passing some of the current wilderness bills with bipartisan support that have been stuck in gridlock for years. Hey, not even Vicky can do it all single-handed!