(Washington, DC)—At a White House ceremony March 18, President Obama honored Bill Hodge of The Wilderness Society with the Champion of Change Award for Engaging the Next Generation of Conservation Leaders. Hodge is the director of the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) program at The Wilderness Society.
As SAWS director, Hodge works to recruit and inspire the next generation of wilderness stewards to ensure that public lands are cared for well into the future. The SAWS program now serves as a campaign for stewardship across 45 wilderness units from the Shenandoah Valley to the north Georgia Mountains. In 2013 alone, the program employed 23 seasonal conservation leaders, trained more than 90 wilderness stewards and facilitated over 8,000 volunteer hours of service across five national forests.
“The challenges in stewarding our protected public lands also gives rise to the greatest of opportunities,” said Hodge. “The rewards are two-fold: we are keeping the trails open and protecting wilderness character while also changing the lives of young Americans by connecting them to their public lands.”
Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said, “Bill’s work is more than a success story for the youth he has worked with. SAWS is a powerful model for what we can be doing throughout the U.S. to instill in youth the skills and understanding needed in our next generation of conservation leaders. Under Bill’s direction, this program offers the type of lasting, visceral wilderness experience that is essential for the preservation of our wilderness heritage.”
Jose Arroyo, a former SAWS Crew Member and resident of Yonkers, NY, said the wilderness experience impacted him greatly. “To spend time in these areas, and to understand that these areas are also mine — I want to protect them,” he said. Arroyo, now a freshman at the United States Naval Academy, is starting a Midshipmen Wilderness Trail Crew.
Hodge is among 14 people who received the award on Tuesday. A statement from Obama administration says, “On Tuesday, March 18, 2014, the White House will honor fourteen local heroes who are ‘Champions of Change’ for their efforts to engage communities and youth in environmental stewardship and conservation. Through innovative approaches, they are creating opportunities for the next generation of Americans to take part in outdoor recreation and physical activity.”
SAWS is a project of The Wilderness Society dedicated to providing stewardship to areas designated and managed as wilderness in the National Forests of a region that includes parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. The program focuses on engaging local communities across the landscape in active volunteerism and development of the next generation of public lands stewards. Since its founding in 2010, SAWS has provided on-going restoration efforts to trails and campsites, developed a training program for volunteers and staff, and created a Wilderness Ranger program to measure the impacts on wilderness character and to assist the recreating public.
With leadership from Hodge and his staff, the SAWS program provides:
• Year-round volunteer opportunities
• Summer crew employment and internship programs
• Training through the Wilderness Skills Institute (in partnership with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the US Forest Service)
• Wilderness ranger employment programs
• Alternative break volunteer programs
• Educational opportunities through college campus presentations and workshops
Before joining The Wilderness Society in May of 2011, Hodge had already started Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards to serve wilderness areas across the Southern Appalachians. Hodge’s passion for stewardship began has a field organizer for Tennessee Wild, a citizens campaign supporting new wilderness designation in the Cherokee National Forest. Bill Hodge is a recipient of the Bob Marshall Award as External Champion of Wilderness from the United States Forest Service and the International Journal of Wilderness, a USFS Certified Cross-Cut Sawyer Instructor, Wilderness First Aid Certified, Leave No Trace Master Educator and a board member of the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance. He lives with his wife Laura in Coker Creek, Tennessee.
The Wilderness Society is the leading American conservation organization working to protect our nation’s shared wildlands. Its mission is to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places.