RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS: How to Choose a Travel Supplier
John Gans, Executive Director, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), discusses some considerations individuals and organizations should bear in mind when choosing a travel supplier.
John Gans was selected Executive Director of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in October 1995. Founded in 1965 by legendary mountaineer Paul Petzoldt, NOLS is a nonprofit international school dedicated to teaching wilderness skills, leadership, environmental studies, and wilderness first aid, with operations worldwide. John’s relationship with NOLS began as a participant in Kenya in 1979. In 1980, he returned to NOLS as a student on the instructor course, and the following year, joined the organization full-time as an instructor. John met his eventual wife, Stephanie Kessler, at NOLS and together they went to Alaska, where John ran NOLS Alaska from 1984-88. In 1990, he was named Director of Operations, overseeing NOLS programming in Wyoming, Washington, Arizona, Alaska, the Yukon, East Africa, Mexico, and Chile.
As Executive Director, John is responsible for overall strategic planning, mission leadership, and building institutional community and commitment with the school’s 1,000 faculty and staff. Under John’s leadership, NOLS has acquired and integrated the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) and created the NOLS Professional Training Institute (NOLS Pro), which tailors the NOLS curriculum to professional groups, including training of NASA astronauts, Naval Academy midshipmen, federal land managers, international representatives, and others. NOLS takes people of all ages on their wilderness courses, which range in duration from 10 days to a full academic year. More than 13,500 students graduate from NOLS each year.
Don George: NOLS has been at the forefront of advancing sustainable travel practices. What are some of the key initiatives you’ve advanced to mitigate your impact on the places you visit?
John Gans: As a wilderness education organization, our mission involves teaching wilderness and leadership skills and environmental studies on extended back-country expeditions in remote locations around the world. We teach roughly 3,300 students each year in the wilderness and we spend long periods of time there, so it’s imperative that we teach and live low-impact camping and travel. NOLS is one of the original partners in Leave No Trace (LNT), an international ethic that espouses minimum-impact outdoor activity. LNT principles form the foundation of what we teach on every course as students learn to be comfortable in the wilderness and minimize their impact on it. In partnership with the USDA Forest Service, NOLS authored the original LNT curriculum. In addition to our daily teaching, we continue to promote LNT travel as one of five providers of the LNT masters course, a five-day learning opportunity that trains professionals to be LNT trainers themselves.
How would you suggest travelers make an informed decision when selecting a travel provider?
The best way to start is by asking questions. What aspects of sustainable travel are most important to you? Are you most concerned about energy consumption? Waste management? Sustainable food production? All of these and more? Ask providers you’re evaluating what kind of environmental sustainability programs they have in place. Visit their web sites. If they are running a sustainable operation, they will likely want to tell their visitors about it and information should be readily available to the public. Ask if their practices and plans have been reviewed and evaluated by an outside organization, and if you want to go deeper, ask providers if they are tracking their organizational carbon footprint. If they don’t know what this is, that’s an indicator that their environmental commitment may be only surface deep. If they know what it is, ask them if they have plans to track it and reduce it. Encourage them to tell you about these plans.
It is also important to ask about a company’s support of the areas in which they offer journeys. Is local training and local hiring important to the company? Do they consider their cultural impacts in addition to any physical impacts? What does the company do to serve the youth of the areas that they visit?
What resources – and role models – do you use for information on sustainable travel?
In crafting our own internal sustainability initiatives, our resources are many, depending upon the area of focus. When NOLS chose to be more intentional in our sustainability efforts, we started by hiring PureStrategies, highly regarded sustainability consultants, to conduct an audit of our practices and establish a baseline from which to progress. Because we are an educational institution, we often look to the academic world for models of food procurement and facilities management (the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) is a helpful resource). When it comes to outdoor gear, we look to the leaders in the manufacturing world for the latest on improvements in materials and packaging. The Outdoor Industry Association has spearheaded the creation of an Eco-Index to encourage standardization of sustainable environmental practices in the outdoor industry.
In the realm of transportation, we work hard to minimize our environmental impact by closely evaluating the routes we drive and the vehicles we use. We plan our transportation as efficiently as possible, minimizing the number of trips we need, the miles driven with empty buses, and using fuel-efficient vehicles. We also work hard to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to individual impact on the wilderness, whether by evaluating new technology for handling human waste in alpine environments or re-routing courses to avoid high-use areas that need a break from human activity.