Creating Pathways to the Wilderness

In her role with the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, Erynn Castellanos aims to make the outdoor community more representative and inclusive by removing barriers

By Micah Drew
Participants in a BMWF-led backpacking trip study organisms with aquatic research biologist Kellie Carim. Photo by Antonio Ibarra-Olivares

Erynn Castellanos didn’t associate greenery or the outdoors with her early childhood. The first elementary school she attended in East Los Angeles had a blacktop for a playground with not much to do except climb on the chain-link fence.

Around her fourth-grade year, however, she transferred to a school in a different L.A. suburb. 

“It was kind of startling to then have a grass field with lilacs along the fence and playground equipment and kids that would actually sit under this giant oak tree,” Castellanos said. “It was also something that made me sad to realize so many of my friends didn’t have those opportunities. At my new school these kids were living this totally different life.”

Growing up in a big city, Castellanos said her family rarely ventured beyond L.A., and it wasn’t until halfway through high school that she took her first camping trip with an extended group of family members. 

“This was a 17-person camping affair with my extended family down by Kern River,” she said. “We just had a blast, floating on the river, camping there for two weeks. It was pretty immersive.”

The camping trip became a yearly excursion after that, but it was still one of the few opportunities Castellanos had to immerse herself in the outdoors. 

“It felt like this completely new world; it didn’t feel like L.A. at all, even though Kern County is only about two hours away,” she said. “And it flagged for me the accessibility issues with these places.  You need a car, you need to know where to camp and how to get there.”

Erynn Castellanos. Photo by Alex Kim

Castellanos says she was raised as an “environmentalist without the capital E,” and was recently hired as the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation’s (BMWF) education and partnership specialist, with the specific role of focusing on accessibility issues in the wilderness. She considers her early experiences in the outdoors, as well as her Hispanic roots, as fundamental to her career in the conservation world. 

“My grandmother was like that — she repurposed her laundry water,” Castellanos said. “When you would shower at her house, there would be a bucket there to reuse it. But it was just in her value set to save everything that you have and essentially no food would ever go to waste in that household. It was just the way we grew up.”

“It’s weird coming into this world of environmentalism and realizing, ‘Oh, people don’t always save their jars,’” she added. “I’ve always had that mindset and those values.”

It wasn’t until she was finishing her undergraduate degree and taking a course in environmental policy that she realized how much she enjoyed the field, and knew she wasn’t meant for a regular 9-to-5. 

Castellanos interned and ended up working at a nonprofit, Global Green USA, doing environmental policy education with a focus on making urban spaces more environmentally friendly, including a lot of work in urban L.A. Eventually, she decided she needed to fill in gaps in her environmental education, so she cast around for a grad school and landed on the University of Montana in Missoula. 

“Here was this town I’d never heard of surrounded by all these national forests and there’s so many nonprofits in the area that are doing so much to get environmental ed into schools,” she said. “The whole town is so knowledgeable about so many environmental issues because it’s where they live and it’s in their backyard.”

Castellanos was the only person of color in her graduate cohort and immediately got to work reaching out to her fellow students. She founded the Montana chapter of Latino Outdoors, recruiting students from the university and using her connections as the historian for the Latinx Student Union as her gateway into that community. 

“I never felt like a minority growing up in L.A. because everyone is something. It was really interesting to walk into a space and realize I was the only non-white person there,” she said. “The work I was doing in L.A. was about making the outdoors accessible but not necessarily catering to a certain demographic. I was thinking mostly in socioeconomic barriers when the idea encroached in my mind that I wanted to focus on this kind of work.”

The first excursion into the Bob as a BMWF staffer occurred in early August as a partnership with Alex Kim and Here Montana, a City of Missoula program that focuses on outdoor access for members of the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community. 

The two organizations led an introductory five-day backpacking and stewardship experience for eight BIPOC individuals. 

Castellanos leads a backpacking trip for BIPOC individuals into the wilderness. Photo by Antonio Ibarra-Olivares

“It was really awesome to see the initial first-stage jitters of participants being really unsure of where to pitch a tent and how to get started in the morning, and then see them being 100% comfortable with where they were the next day,” Castellanos said. “We allowed everyone to really explore their identities and abilities and figure out what their way of connecting to the wilderness would be like.” 

Rebecca Powell, program director of the BMWF, says that Castellanos’ position and partnerships like the one with Here Montana are both steps in a journey the nonprofit has been making for several years now. 

“The foundation has 300 volunteers each year; most are middle class, white, over 55, which doesn’t look like what America does,” Powell said. “We looked at how to expand that, looked at partnering with groups like Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors, and what I heard from them was we didn’t have a reputation for providing these kind of projects safe places.”

Powell started a series of training opportunities with her staff and outside groups, and the foundation began working with the Greening Youth Foundation (GYF), which engages underrepresented youth and young adults and connects them to the outdoors and conservation careers. It was through a GYF program, the Bridge Project, that Powell met Castellanos. 

“This position is something that we’re hoping can help bring in other partner groups to our organization,” Powell said. “We’re a foundation that started as a moving-dirt organization, but as we evolve and learn new things we see there’s more ways to connect people with the wilderness in the outdoors than simply moving dirt.”

Castellanos has big plans for her first years with the foundation. In addition to creating a “responsible access” education plan, she hopes to make inroads with the migrant worker community in the Flathead and lead introductory hikes and conversations with workers to help establish connections with the places they live. 

“I want to create opportunities where people can go on trips and get into the outdoors, but then stay involved and become interns or continue the work of making the outdoor accessible somehow,” she said. “You can have all this access in a place like Missoula or the Flathead, but if a family can’t take time off or you don’t have access to equipment, then it’s just as far away as anywhere else.”

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