On January 19, 2016, in Bend, Oregon, more than 200 grannies took to the streets brandishing rolling pins, wooden spoons, and hand mixers. Their battle cry? “Baking not bullies!” Their target? Ammon Bundy and his infamous anti-government militia, who’d seized the headquarters building of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. The grannies, who are better known as the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, had a direct message for the bullies: It’s time to go home. “Send those bullies back to their mammas,” said one Broad, speaking into a microphone to the cheering crowd that had gathered at Bend’s Riverfront Plaza. As for the baking utensils, those were just for fun.
“Our role is to show up – and we show up everywhere – and do it in a fun way, with pride and confidence that our voices can make a difference,” says Lauren Berutich, the Grassroots Leadership Director for the Great Old Broads, who are some 5,000 members strong. But being a woman “of a certain age” who advocates for the environment wasn’t always a source of pride and confidence. For founder Susan Tixier, it became a sore spot when she learned, in 1989, that Orrin Hatch, U.S. Senator from Utah, had stated that there was no value in wilderness for the “aged and infirmed,” because they couldn’t access it.
As Shelley Silbert, the Great Old Broad’s Executive Director, tells it, Tixier (who passed away in 2015) was infuriated with Hatch’s blatant disregard for people of all ages’ desire to protect our nation’s wild lands. “She knew then that we needed an organization that speaks from the voice of older people, saying that we want wild places,” Silbert says.
The name “The Great Old Broads,” as the story goes, occurred to Tixier on an outing with female friends in Utah. Following a hike in the desert, the women had gone to a restaurant to eat, covered in dust and sweat from their time on the trail. When one left the table to use the restroom, the others overheard a patron say “there goes a great old broad.”
Tixier and the earliest members of the Great Old Broads were focused on the protection of public lands. And while the organization continues that mission today, members have also realized that the knowledge, experience, wisdom, and humor that grace our golden years can benefit many different environmental issues, from climate change to energy extraction. Today the Great Old Broads are involved in a variety of initiatives, from petitioning Congress to designate more wilderness areas, to restoring trails, to leading unity marches with Native Americans, to screening films like Cowspiracy, which discusses the impact of large commercial ranching operations on climate and society.
The key to the group’s broad (pun intended) reach are Broadbands, or chapters, the brainchild of former member Rose Chilcoat. Anyone can start a Broadband in her community, so long as she has good communication skills, a fierce passion for wild land protection, good humor, and values inclusiveness. Prior conservation or wilderness knowledge is a plus, although a desire to learn and share is more important. Broadband founders receive Wilderness Advocacy Leadership training from the Great Old Broads national headquarters in Durango, Colorado. There are currently 37 Broadbands across 15 states.
For those who like to get their hands dirty, the Great Old Broads also host a series of Broadworks, volunteer events in destinations that need on-the-ground support in the form of scientific monitoring, restoration, and maintenance. A 2016 favorite was five days of backpacking in the brand-new Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness near Stanley, Idaho. Volunteers worked in partnership with the Sawtooth Society and the U.S. Forest Service (and a team of pack animals) to install wilderness signs in the backcountry. “Make no mistake about it, our women are willing and able to do very hard work and are passionate about participating in stewardship projects,” says Berutich.
And the Great Old Broads is not limited to women. Men, dubbed the Bros, are welcome to join, so long as they embrace the organization’s decidedly feminine perspective, as described on the website: As lifelong nurturers and caregivers, our approach is one of perseverance and determination, rather than militancy and contentiousness. Or as Silbert puts it, “Women have a fierce, protective passion. We want to protect our land and our water for future generations, for our kids and grandkids, and for the future generation of all species.”
Nor are the Great Old Broads limited to “elders,” although the organization celebrates the wisdom that comes with age, there are several non-grey heads on the staff, and members span all age groups. Some of the younger members jokingly refer to themselves as “Great Old Broads in Training.”
In the 27 years since the organization’s founding, the term Great Old Broads has become less about the physical characteristics of gender and age, and more about mental fortitude. “If you have an open mind, and a willingness to take on serious issues while still having fun and building lasting connections, then you are a Broad,” says Silbert.