Great Old Broads Take on Washington

It’s not every day that a handful of women in their sixties play a game using leaf blowers and a large yellow ball on the National Mall in Washington. But such antics are par for the course for Great Old Broads for Wilderness, an organization that enjoys its environmentalism spiced with a healthy mix of hilarity.

The Broads, based in Durango, Colo., were in D.C. the end of September as part of National Wilderness Week, along with 120 other activists lobbying for public lands protection. When I last reported on the Broads, I accompanied the group’s executive director Veronica (Ronni) Egan and associate director Rose Chilcoat on a hike in Utah to monitor the ecological health of Recapture Wash, a fragile stretch of red-rock canyon. (I knew this was not your average environmental group when the first thing I saw in their office was an enormous lavender bra–size 40-D–hanging from the wall. Instead of passing a hat, they pass the bra. “We want our cup to runneth over,” Chilcoat cracked.) On that trip, the organization successfully shut down an illegal road carved through the area by off-road vehicle enthusiasts.

Great Old Broads began in 1989 when a group of older women were sitting in a cafe after a long hike and saw on the news that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) wanted to open up wilderness areas to roads–ostensibly to allow older people access. “Our founders didn’t want to be used as scapegoats,” says Chilcoat. “They were women of a certain age, physically active, politically savvy, who realized theirs was the missing voice in the wilderness dialogue.”

Their “wrinkled ranks,” as they put it, have grown to 5,500. They regularly organize hiking expeditions (“Broadwalks”) where participants learn about wilderness, do a service project and have a lot of laughs. They have 24 chapters (“Broadbands”) in 15 states, led by women who have been through Leader Bootcamp.

Last week, Egan, Chilcoat and two other delegation members were striding along the streets of downtown D.C., through a canyon of office buildings, paying a call on the Bureau of Land Management. I tagged along, curious as to how they would be received by an agency that’s long been criticized by environmentalists for being cozy with drilling, mining and grazing interests.

The delegation was met by a friendly Bob Ratcliffe, chief of BLM’s division of recreation and visitor services, and two of his team. Chilcoat, a former National Park Service ranger, took the lead, explaining how the Broads had developed a sophisticated monitoring protocol called the Healthy Lands Project. Using cameras and GPS, volunteers and staff have created a growing data base of 200,000 photos of public lands, documenting habitat destruction. Ratcliffe and his team, seeming impressed, shared key contacts and strategies on how the Healthy Lands Project and BLM might forge a partnership.

That’s one side of the Broads–professional, passionate, strategic. Then there’s the other side.

From BLM, the Broads headed south to the National Mall, where their wackiness emerged. Along with a Great Old Bro’ (a guy), a Training Broad (Rose’s niece) and a few other volunteers and board members, they unpacked four shiny red leaf blowers from the back of a car. Then, standing on the sidewalk in front of the Smithsonian, nary a security person in sight, they poured gasoline into the machines. After donning NASCAR-type t-shirts and helmets, they trotted to the Mall’s green expanse and began a game in which a bright yellow inflatable ball was passed back and forth by the force of the leaf blowers.

As the blowers blasted the noonday quiet, kicking up dust from the pathways, Rose approached passersby and explained that the leaf blowers simulate the effects of off-road vehicles and snowmobiles on public lands out West. “That’s exactly what it’s like,” she says. “The dust, the noise–disturbing someone else’s expected experience.” Several college students thought the stunt was a riot and wanted to play too. When I asked one young man if he thought they should be allowed to play with leaf blowers on the National Mall, he said, “Sure! This is America!”

A middle-aged couple, trying to enjoy a sandwich on a park bench, were less amused and confirmed the Broads’ point–that some places should be off-limits to “motorized mayhem,” as Egan calls it.

Whether or not they made an impression on Capitol Hill, the Broads seemed to enjoy themselves immensely.

“I’ve always been a rebel,” Egan says. “Now I get paid for it.”

Photo courtesy of Great Old Broads for Wilderness.


Beth Baker is a long-time freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area and author most recently of Old Age in a New Age (Vanderbilt University Press 2007).