Josh Jespersen poses for the camera out in the snowy mountains

Showing Up To Protect the Environment

Photo: Josh Jespersen/Veteran's Outdoor Advocacy Group

Why splitboard-mountaineering pro and former Navy SEAL Josh Jespersen fights to save public lands and works to share these wild places with veterans.

“He doesn’t feel pain. He doesn’t quit. His legs don’t get tired,” a filmmaker friend says of Josh Jespersen. The Navy SEAL, turned professional outdoor athlete and environmental activist, carves big mountains on his splitboard. In 2017, Jespersen turned heads in the backcountry when he used only 138 days to summit (and then ride down) all of Colorado’s 54 peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation. He smashed the state’s previous 14ers winter speed record and even did 28 of the summits solo. 

Having fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jespersen chose the 14ers speed-record project to honor military personnel and veterans who lost their lives on the battlefield under his nonprofit, Mission Memorial Day. He is also the founder and president of the Veterans’ Outdoor Advocacy Group (VOAG) and an athlete ambassador for Protect Our Winters, where he acts as a lobbying arm to push Congress to address detrimental issues relating to environmental conservation.

After completing the 14ers project, he starred in the 2020 film The Brotherhood Escort. The documentary follows Jespersen and fellow Navy SEAL Rich Schuler, as they become the first skiers/splitboarders to traverse the jagged ridgeline length of southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It was there, that in 2018, the Bureau of Land Management had plans to sell leases on 18,000 acres of land. But when word got out, Jespersen and others halted it. “Oil and gas was going to come in,” he says. “Holding up a fight and continuing to show up is one of the hardest parts. If you fight for what you care about, you will eventually get that victory.”

To share his love of wild places, Jespersen takes people into the mountains to show them firsthand why these areas need protection. “There are so many different ways to take up this fight and different ways of activism,” he says. “You can go to rallies, write to your government—just take someone outside.”

Josh Jespersen climbs a mountain in the snow Photo: Josh Jespersen/Veteran's Outdoor Advocacy Group

PUBLIC LANDS: What gave you your first appreciation for public lands? 

JOSH JESPERSEN: I grew up in Pennsylvania but was lucky enough to have a backyard with 10,000 acres of state game land, which I never knew were public lands. I’ve always cherished those wild places.

When did you decide to protect public lands?

I knew I needed to start fighting for public lands during the 14ers project. I was skiing (splitboarding) Mount Evans, and I caught this six-hour high-pressure window, so I went for it. It was super challenging, and it was just me and some mountain goats up there. 

I looked around and was so grateful for the place. It was then I realized that I needed to protect these places so other people could have the same types of moments. 

What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of being an environmental activist?

I make environmental efforts, but I also make veteran efforts; to me, they’re intrinsically intertwined. For the veteran space, I think one of the most significant challenges is that many veterans simply don’t know about public lands. 

With conservation efforts, it’s articulating the same point to the other side and finding that common language. Public lands have been a strong commonality for the left and right, meaning they are bipartisan, and both sides want to protect them. You just have to find the right language to speak the points to each side because when you’re talking to a hunter, conservation really makes their ears perk. When speaking to a skier, climate change makes theirs perk. But we’re talking about the same thing. Conservation and fighting climate change could be the same.

How did you help keep oil and gas extraction companies out of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains? 

You want to talk about a mountain range where you don’t see anybody else, that’s the Sangre de Cristos. I think it’s one of the most beautiful ranges in Colorado. The ski traverse of the range took 13 days, and it was more than 100 miles. We kept oil and gas out because of the discovery of a burial ground. I’m sure it had been known for a long time, just no one had spoken to the right people to protect it. 

What tips do you have for other outdoor athletes who want to get involved in protecting public lands? 

It’s the ripple effect. For instance, with the nonprofit Veterans’ Outdoor Advocacy Group, we hosted a two-month-long guide school, where we taught veterans how to be hunting and fishing guides. They now take people outside and provide them with amazing experiences. One of those veterans has started his own nonprofit [called Heroes’ Harvests] and is now taking other veterans outside on these hunting experiences. 

It’s figuring out ways to impact others, get them outside, and have them see the same things you see. Then they can continue to convey that message forward to others.

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