Photo: Bryant Baker/ Vic Thasiah

Runners for Public Lands

The organization plans to harness the power of 60 million runners nationwide.

Do recreationists have an obligation to help protect the public lands they use and maintain the trails they hike, run, and ride on? Many people think so, which is why advocacy organizations like the American Hiking Society and the International Mountain Biking Association have thrived for decades. Conspicuously absent? A similar group for runners. This lack of organized stewardship has been noticed, and at least a couple of widely read articles—like these in Trail Runner and Outside magazines—have poked at trail runners for piggybacking on trail maintenance and environmental efforts of other groups.

Some trail runners took offense at the articles. But one runner, 50-year-old Vic Thasiah, believed the criticism had a point, and decided to do something about it. “I agreed with the story in Trail Runner, in particular,” says Thasiah. “There are a number of runners who protect the environment across the country, but there wasn’t a lot in the form of an organized, collective voice, or organized efforts.” Thasiah points to a handful of race directors who’ve been making efforts toward activism, and to the trail running arm of Protect Our Winters. But he wanted to do more.

He was also inspired by the rise of Indigenous and native runners making the connection between running and activism. A religious studies and environmental studies professor at Cal State Lutheran, Thasiah began garnering interest from fellow runners, and eventually, companies in his running community of Ventura—namely, Patagonia and Hoka (both of which are headquartered there). “Runners for Public Lands came together organically,” says Thasiah, who explains that both companies supported the effort via seed money, volunteer staff, use of corporate space for events, and more. “The people who care about the environment found each other. We want to be really active in our region, grow, and support both a national and grassroots effort.”

Launched on Earth Day, 2019, today Runners for Public Lands is a registered 501(c)(3) based out of Ventura with ambitions to harness the power of the 60 million runners in the United States to do great things, like fight for public lands and act as stewards for the environment. And though many trail runners have gravitated toward the organization, Runners for Public Lands invites all runners: road, track, and trail. “The more coordinated we can be, the more we can do to take a stand and make a difference,” says Thasiah.

A Catalyst for Change

Through various efforts, Runners for Public Lands aims to organize and mobilize runners of all sorts for environmental justice, advocacy, and conservation. The group fights for equitable access to nature, advocates for the climate, public lands, and green spaces, and promotes hands-on conservation work.

Thasiah explains that one way Runners for Public Lands has been working toward change is by inviting running clubs, groups, and cross-country teams to add an environmental stewardship arm to their organizations. “The goal is to be able to designate these groups as Runners for Public Lands affiliates,” he says. The idea is not to sprout other nonprofits; rather, it’s to tap into pre-existing groups and provide them with a downloadable toolkit to support their efforts. Hundreds have downloaded the toolkit since it became available on National Public Lands Day, September 25, 2021.

A key part of this strategy is recognizing that efforts and priorities will vary, and individual groups should determine what makes the most sense in their communities.

“Different communities have different priorities,” Thasiah says. “In some places, it’s protecting land. In others, it’s transitioning to renewable energy. Maybe it’s getting rid of single-use plastics in their race or community, or getting a local restaurant to stop using Styrofoam. We want to empower runners to figure out the most important effort in their own communities, then support them.”

As an example, Ventura High School’s cross-country running team has become a student chapter of Runners for Public Lands. The group connects its runners to volunteer in conservation and environmental campaigns. “It’s been cool to see groups like the kids at Ventura High add the stewardship dimension to the life of their running group,” says Thasiah.

Protecting Public Lands

In 2022, Runners for Public Lands plans to determine how best to help achieve President Biden’s 30 by 30 Executive Order. (The order is the President’s plan to have 30 percent of the country’s lands and waters protected by the year 2030.) “Now it’s at the statewide level, and we’ll see how individual states will be working with private landowners, working to preserve habitats, expand nature preserves, public lands, national forests, and the whole complex that falls under the larger umbrella of public lands,” says Thasiah.

Local issues for the RPL group in Ventura include calling the U.S. Forest Service to do an environmental review before logging Pine Mountain and Mt. Pinos—areas where wildfire-related foresting issues have been controversial. Another issue is fighting the expansion of a gas compressor station near a predominantly LatinX, low-income neighborhood. “Those compressors can explode, and it’s right across from an elementary school and a Boys and Girls Club,” says Thasiah.

On a national level, the organization has joined a consortium with the online race registration site, UltraSignUp. The goal is to help minimize the environmental impact caused by racing, most of which has to do with transportation to and from races. The consortium is working to find a third party-verified company that can translate offset credits to meaningful, measurable offsets.

RPL is also working to stop new oil and gas leases on public lands. “We’re trying to communicate to the running community how to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy,” says Thasiah. 

Photo: Bryant Baker/Runners for Public Lands

What’s Next?

The organization is developing a toolkit specifically for race directors with guidelines for becoming more environmentally conscious, from the registration process to the finish lines. 

“There are a lot of cool things you can do to enrich the experience and help us all appreciate that, in addition to the racecourse, T-shirts, and medals, it’s the environment that makes running what it is,” he says. “It’s the scenery, terrain, natural communities, ecosystems, and habitats you run through. The more we appreciate that, the better we can understand what we love about running…trail running, in particular.”

The organization is also working on fundraising in order to hire a full-time managing director. As of now, the nonprofit runs entirely on volunteer efforts.

The grassroots approach—engaging with existing running communities to make a cultural shift, to start a movement—is what Thasiah is excited about.

“A decade or so ago when gay marriage quickly seemed to move through the legislature, it looked like things were changing overnight,” he says. “But there were 20 or 30 years of cultural work that was done in advance, on TV shows, movies, protests, rallies, and more—all of which laid the cultural groundwork for those changes to happen on a legislative level.”

“I’m wondering about the cultural change that’s going to sustain efforts. Trail running clubs and races have a huge role to play in whole communities protecting the places they love,” he says.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.