Emerging Leaders' Summit 2023

Custodians of a More Inclusive Outdoor Legacy

December 11, 2023

The ATC’s 2023 Emerging Leaders’ Summit brought together young adults to cultivate a shared commitment to making the Appalachian Trail, public lands, and the outdoors a welcoming place for all and inspire a diverse new generation of public lands stewards.

The goals of the summit were to foster:

  • Connection with ATC leaders and summit participants
  • Education about Trail skills and safety
  • Inspiration through reflection and creative expression

Through a series of adventures, discussion-based activities, and guest speakers, the annual Summit offers participants, aged 18-30, opportunities to strengthen connections between rising leaders and their networks, spark momentum for action at the intersection of inclusion and stewardship, and provide a space for storytelling about the diverse history of the people and communities within the A.T. landscape.

The following is a personal reflection on the 2023 ELS from participant Devon Lespier.

Devon Lespier

“On October 6, brisk autumn temperatures first appeared, and the sun stayed tucked away in clouded skies. Leaves twirled down from treetops as the Mohican Outdoor Center welcomed us to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s 2023 Emerging Leaders’ Summit (ELS) — and me into my 25th year. Stepping out of the car felt like entering another realm far removed from the cityscape of Washington, DC, which I had left behind hours earlier. Here, sounds of nature and participant introductions replaced the urban clamor.

In the days that followed, the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) provided a scenic backdrop, weaving together the enthusiasm of young conservationists with the wisdom of experienced facilitators.

Initially, celebrating my birthday deep in the woods and surrounded by complete strangers seemed daunting. Thankfully, the shared passion for conservation among myself and other participants made it easy to connect, and before long, those strangers were friends. By the end of the day, I found that the warmth from these newfound connections rivaled the cold weather.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops filled the next day, and these principles followed us throughout the weekend. Together, we created a framework and shared understanding of what it meant to be trail leaders for a more inclusive world. In each session, I felt a growing assertiveness, encouraged by the group’s contributions and support. Each workshop, story, and silent reflection fostered genuine ideas and introspection on our roles as burgeoning leaders.

ELS participants standing in circle outside Emerging Leaders’ Summit participants, speakers, and instructors stand in a circle for a team building exercise at the AMC Mohican Outdoor Center near the Appalachian Trail and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Photo by Noel Waldron. 

On our last day, Joe Whittle — a member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, descendant of the Delaware Nation Lenni Lenape, writer, photojournalist, educator, adventurer, and backcountry wilderness ranger — shared insights on the collective nature of stewardship, emphasizing the need to honor Indigenous perspectives as the original caretakers of this land and vital to the A.T.’s legacy. Joe’s storytelling brought to life the history of the Delaware Water Gap and highlighted our duty to preserve such narratives as diligently as the trail itself.

By increasing recognition for diverse voices — including Indigenous, marginalized, and youth communities — we can help shape the dialogue surrounding conservation into one that is more potent, just, and inclusive. This is where authentic leadership can emerge, not from the upper echelons of power but from the grassroots level. Here, every individual can inspire communities, educate future stewards, and lead by example.

2023 ELS participants learn the Essentials of Trail Maintenance on a hike. Photo by Noel Waldron. 

Effective leadership can ignite a collective spark that empowers action and uplifts those often overlooked or denied seats at the table. It’s about weaving a conservation narrative that is inclusive of everyone and recognizes that planetary health is inextricably linked to the well-being of its inhabitants. We advance, knowing that each act of stewardship contributes to the larger tapestry of environmental resilience and sustainability.

Attending the ELS transformed my apprehension into determined resolve. The Summit equipped me with a network of trailblazers, a wellspring of knowledge, and a vision that transcends today’s obstacles and embraces tomorrow’s solutions. The trails we blaze through leadership and collective action have the potential to profoundly impact hearts, minds, lives, and communities — if done with sincere commitment to inclusivity.

I aspire to become a champion of this inclusive vision, advocating for and encouraging empowerment among marginalized groups and in uncharted territories. Ultimately, I felt privileged to have spent my birthday with a new network and community united in preserving the integrity, inclusivity, and accessibility of the A.T. and other natural spaces.

We are not merely hikers or conservationists; we are custodians of a legacy — a legacy that honors the past, cherishes the present, and safeguards the future. In blazing the trail ahead, we lay the tracks for our successors, ensuring the A.T. — and our planet — are protected as generational treasures, open and accessible to all.”

2023 ELS Participants. Photo by Noel Waldron.