Songs That Inspire

Photo: Conner Youngblood

How an innovative nonprofit pairs rising musicians with public lands to create original music that moves listeners to explore and protect.

Natural landscapes have always inspired the free expression of music. And now music has its chance to help those landscapes stay protected and free, thanks to the efforts of Sustain Music & Nature, a nonprofit that partners the music industry with environmental organizations. The goal: to raise awareness about enjoying and protecting our nation’s public lands. With the worlds of music-making and land-saving linked, you can expect to hear more songs promoting everything from mountains and rivers to wildlife refuges. 

As Sustain co-founder Betsy Mortensen sees it, the music community can play a key cultural leadership role in promoting environmental responsibility and awareness. To break through the noise with a message, Sustain pairs musicians with specific, protected land areas to create new music inspired by them. Ideally, the work creates “new audiences for both musicians and public lands,” Mortensen says, “celebrating our nation’s beautiful landscapes while generating an appreciation for public lands through music.” 

So far, the songs speak for themselves as the group has worked with several high-profile musicians, including Nashville-based Conner Youngblood, that it recently connected with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Youngblood, who had previously written a song about Badlands National Park, signed on this time to write a song revolving around birds. With guitar and banjo in hand, he headed to Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge for a week of immersion and inspiration. The result is in his song named after the refuge, which captures his experience in the hopes of encouraging others to enjoy and protect the outdoors. Proceeds from the song will support Sustain as well as the Friends of Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

“There’s nothing like being out on the marsh, surrounded by a hundred thousand birds of various types and hearing the sights and the sounds and smelling the smells,” says Youngblood. “It’s a completely immersive experience that has profound impacts on people.” 

Conner Youngblood poses for a photo outdoors Photo: Conner Youngblood

An array of mudlands, marshes, and open water providing habitat for over 250 bird species, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is located on the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and is one of the world’s most important habitats for birds, sheltering millions of birds each year during their migrations. While Youngblood admits he couldn’t name many of their calls, he was moved by the collective mass of birds dotting the marshes and the one he did recognize: the quack of a mallard. 

“I write a lot of songs and while they are inspired by my life, they also capture things bigger than my life, like nature,” says Youngblood, who returned a year later to perform a night sky-viewing concert at the refuge. “Listening to the music is one thing, but I hope it inspires the listener to go out and explore on their own.” 

Sustain has also connected several other musicians with public lands as well: bringing cellist Ben Sollee to southern New Jersey’s 47,000-acre Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge to record a song; connecting the band The Burroughs with Colorado’s 800,000-acre Roosevelt National Forest to create a song inspired by the forest; and bringing Asheville, N.C.’s folk rock band River Whyless to Wyoming’s Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge to create the song, Hold Me To Ya. This past summer, it helped L.A. artist Beebe write Make Me Light, which was inspired by a rafting trip down Utah and Colorado’s Green River through the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area and Dinosaur National Monument. And on Sept. 24, National Public Lands Day, the nonprofit announced a partnership pairing Grammy-nominee KT Tunstall in a song-writing visit to Alaska’s Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.  

“There are 567 wildlife refuges across the country—one in every state and within a one-hour drive of every major city,” says Mortensen. “When we can get artists and ambassadors like these who have a direct voice with the younger generation, it gives us a much better chance at showing that these places are not only worth visiting, but worth protecting and worth saving.”  

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