After 25 years in the corporate world of college athletics and broadcast media management, Evansville native Bill Hodge decided to “catch his breath” and ask himself what he really wanted to be doing. In 2009, Hodge began volunteering in conservation work and in November 2010, he started the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) program, which became a project of The Wilderness Society in May 2011. Hodge, a North High School and University of Evansville graduate now living in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, works to recruit and inspire the next generation of wilderness stewards to ensure public lands are cared for well into the future. In 2013, the program employed 23 seasonal conservation leaders, trained more than 90 wilderness stewards and facilitated more than 8,000 volunteer hours of service across five National Forests.
In March, President Barack Obama invited Hodge to the White House and he was honored as one of 14 Champions of Change for Engaging the Next Generation of Conservation Leaders.
Evansville Living: What was it like finding out you were honored as a Champion of Change at the White House?
Bill Hodge: “I had no idea I was even nominated. When Michael Boots (acting chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality) called to identify himself and to tell me I had been nominated and selected, I, for a minute, thought it was a prank phone call, to be honest. I was completely surprised. It was a shock. He called Feb. 28 and I had to be there March 18. I asked my coworker what was on my schedule that day, and she said, ‘It doesn’t matter what’s on your schedule. You’re going to the White House now.’”
EL: How has Evansville shaped your passion for public lands and your love for nature?
BH: “My time spent on the Ohio River, down at Land Between the Lakes, and over on the Shawnee National Forest at Garden of the Gods, were all public lands I explored during my time spent in the Ohio River Valley. My parents started me camping as a young kid. We lived in Western North Carolina before moving to Evansville and we camped in the Pisgah National Forest and I was hooked. Public lands are where I would spend any of my time away from the corporate world. I didn’t hate what I was doing. I quite loved working in marketing and advertising, and all those skills I used then, I now use today. I use my marketing experience to get more young people involved in enjoying and serving public lands in general, and federally designated wilderness in particular.”
EL: What are immediate and long-term benefits in the work you do?
BH: “We are keeping trails open and accessible while connecting a younger and more diverse generation to the idea of protected public lands. People won’t protect a place they don’t know about, and they won’t know about a place with out experiencing it. We are rebuilding trails so people can get out there and enjoy it. The long-term benefit is building a new generation and watching the transformation. There is this phenomenon of a whole generation that has missed growing up in the outdoors, and we are working hard to change that.”
For more information about Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, call 423-261-2543 or visit trailcrews.org.