FEATURE: Sharp SHIFT

By on October 6, 2015

Adventure, conservation luminaries storm the valley for annual festival

151007CoverFeatJackson, WY – I ran into a friend at the park last week. She was brimming with excitement about a wedding she attended the night before. “They grew everything we ate in the past year, from the goat to the salad,” she said, adding that each bite was filled with gratitude. “I’m still stuffed.”

It is that kind of gratitude and appreciation for where we live and what we eat that SHIFT, a festival celebrating the intersection of outdoor recreation and conservation, seeks to cultivate.

But cooking up a conservation summit is no small task in a kitchen community with an abundance of ideas on ingredients for change. Adventure junkies, foodies and public lands advocates have added various flavors to the pot since SHIFT’s inaugural festival two years ago, with the help of travel and tourism funding. This year, as the festival gears up to wean off of tourism dollars and seek more private funding, it is positioning itself as a summit with fewer days of programming and a sharper focus, in hopes that the aftertaste is sweeter.

SHIFT is asking a tough question: How do we reach a more diverse segment of the population that is not in that mindset and show them the beauty of communities such as Jackson, gateways to some of the last nearly intact ecosystems in America?

This year’s festival, from Oct. 7 to 10, will feature films, panel discussions, keynote presentations, bloggers, a contest for innovative new projects and the ultimate foodie event, the anticipated People’s Banquet,  a cornucopia of local foods from valley eateries and food purveyors. The People’s Banquet is made possible thanks to a partnership with Fine Dining Resturant Group.

The organizers have reached out to a cross section of urban Americans who have never before visited the Rocky Mountain West with the help of Latino Outdoors and the Children and Nature Network. By showcasing the elaborate network of recreation and conservation stakeholders in the community to a broader cross section of America, SHIFT hopes to follow up like never before to impact change.

“What we are looking at is ways to use outdoor recreation to engage cross sections of Americans that are typically not included in outdoor recreation and land management decisions to further our collective goals,” said Christian Beckwith, the founder of SHIFT. “We have to protect these places or our ability to sustain our existence on this planet and the existence of innumerable people is jeopardized. We are in the middle of this mass extinction. It’s all hands on deck.”

Beckwith, a mountaineer and former editor of the American Alpine Journal dreamt up the acronym SHIFT, Shifting How We Change for Tomorrow, after losing his friend Jarad Spackman in an avalanche. “While I was with him before the rangers came, I decided I didn’t want anything else to do with anything that wouldn’t contribute to the world,” he said. SHIFT is “an emotional response to a global problem.”

SHIFT’s new direction comes after hiring a consulting firm to study the bigger picture and, admittedly, not creating a database that the firm suggested last year. In response, Beckwith frontloaded the festival with a meeting in June where SHIFT sought input from 65 organizations to create a set of principles to unify outdoor recreationalists, conservationists and land managers. The goal is to leverage the $646 billion outdoor recreation industry for conservation gains.

“Last year, we threw everything into the pot with food and evening programming, the summit went for five days and it was great,” he said. “Thought leaders from communities like ours that were up against similar problems were able to compare apples to apples. It was a great beta test.”

But when the festival ended, everybody “group hugged” and left, Beckwith said. They didn’t have the energy and resources to share the best practices on how to minimize areas of conflict between natural partners and inspire more land stewards.

151007CoverFeat-2_origOne of the main concerns that emerged from the study is that traditional conservation organizations are aging. The average Wilderness Society member is a 71-year-old caucasian female, Beckwith said. So he designed the program to capture more hearts and minds in a shorter period of time.

“The meat and potatoes is the intersection between conservation and recreation and the gravy is the evening programming, which is broader and more dynamic, designed to impact a broader audience,” Beckwith said.

Summit topics will address controversial issues like land transfers and permitting regulations. It will also seek answers to how they can protect public lands and prevent discrimination against nonprofits that want to inspire kids with outdoor experiences, among other topics.

Wednesday there will be a snowboarding film screening and presentation with pro-freeskier Angel Collinson and pro-snowboarder Lucas Debari at the Center for the Arts to inspire the next generation of adventure athletes to protect the powder. Thursday evening features a discussion with National Geographic journalist David Quammen and photographer Charlie Hamilton James relating lessons from Yellowstone National Park to the global perspective on climate change.

Quammen is standing in for National Geographic’s Chief Content Officer Chris Johns, who cancelled his trip to SHIFT when Fox Cable Networks made a $725-million deal to take over most of its content including the 127-year-old magazine. He is the sole author of National Geographic’s much anticipated Yellowstone issue. In his 15,000-word essay, Quammen said he explores the global issue of climate change through the lens of the grizzly bear. “It’s not an A, B, C, D list that says you should buy a Prius, be a vegetarian, not have children and live close to where you work. I can say those things, but it sounds preachy … it’s about letting people form their own opinions.”

James, a cameraman on the project, was also the subject of a BBC documentary called “I Bought a Rainforest.”

“One thing I’ve learned from remote communities is their ability to use and reuse everything, to repair and adapt,” he said in an email interview. “We are terrible in the West at just chucking things out and buying new ones. When you have no money and your village is a three-day boat journey from the nearest shop you simply don’t throw anything out.”

Summit events are designed to incite mentorship and to identify burgeoning leaders who will find a way to draw in a huge segment of the American population that is not involved in conservation yet. Food, which continues to be one of the most popular topics, is “the bridge,” Beckwith said. It may even be the reason why his hero Yvon Chouinard is finally sitting down to the SHIFT table.

In the past two years, the festival has hosted foodie films and locavore feasts sponsored by the slow food movement. Last year, it expanded its food programs and held a weeklong series of coffee klatches with roasters and ranchers to discuss why fair trade and local food is so central to the conservation movement. St. John’s Medical Center brought in Marion Nestle, an outspoken author on food politics and professor of nutrition.

“I don’t know if Jackson was ready for a weeklong food festival,” said food writer Dr. Annie Fenn. She was responsible for setting up the talks, cooking demonstrations and a smorgasbord of local delicacies for Foodshift in the past and laid the groundwork to bring renowned author Mark Bittman here this year. Fenn is no longer involved in SHIFT. But she did have some provocative questions for Bittman, who recently wrote his last column for the New York Times, moved to California and is working on an undisclosed start-up business.

I caught up with Bittman by phone in Boston and asked him — in Fenn’s words — what can be done to make home cooking more mainstream?

“We have to find other strategies to get people to eat real food because clearly not everyone’s going to cook,” he said. “They don’t have the time or they don’t believe they have the time. They just don’t want to cook … meal kit delivery services, better fast food, better institutional foods in hospitals, prisons, schools. People are going to eat in convenient ways. We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice.” When I followed up by asking if this was his new direction he declined to answer.

After participating in the People’s Banquet with Bittman this Friday, Chouinard will talk 7 p.m., Saturday about his latest adventure, Patagonia Provisions, a passion project that encourages the use of sustainably-sourced food like cedar planked salmon and tsampa to fix the broken food chain and narrow the expanding gap between where we live and where our food comes from.

“Instead of waiting for some miraculous, high-tech solution to bail us out of our climate change disaster, the real miracle turns out to be simply working with nature instead of against it,” Chouinard says on the Patagonia Provisions website. “Our grasslands, and the soil beneath them, might just save the world.”

SHIFT began with a three-year commitment of $100,000 per year from the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board. Each year, Beckwith has doubled the pot with private contributions and sponsorships. After this year, that seed money is gone. So he set up a new nonprofit called the Center for Jackson Hole and he is poised to take it to the next level.

For Beckwith, it is focusing on and strengthening the intersection between adventure and conservation that matters most.

“What I care about is the world my daughter is going to inherit,” Beckwith said. “I want her to know the Jackson I know. I’m seeing a change before my eyes and it breaks my heart.” PJH

For a full schedule and more info, visit shiftjh.org.

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