Robert Steelquist: Coastal Explorer

Robert Steelquist is a native Pacific Northwest writer, photographer, naturalist, and environmental educator with a 40-year career introducing learners to the nature of the Northwest. He has led hundreds on nature walks, backpacking trips, tall ship trainings, river floats, teacher workshops, archaeology field schools, and other outdoor adventures. His public service includes work with the National Park Service, Washington Department of Wildlife, Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries, Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve and as a volunteer wilderness ranger with the US Forest Service. He is author of 13 books, including The Northwest Coastal Explorer, Timber Press, 2016. He lives in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains, near Blyn, Washington.


Tell us a little about yourself? How did you get started in EE?
I began my natural resources career on the business end of a Pulaski, working trails in the North Cascades, Pasayten Wilderness and Olympic National Park. After a serious back injury I had to find a job that connected my love of wild places to an income in a way that didn’t involve rain gear 10 days at a time. Journalism and environmental sciences came together for me naturally. Writing, interpretation and environmental education followed. Between writing books and public service I was lucky and found the right livelihood.

Do you recall anything from your childhood that may have played a role in your becoming an environmental educator?
As a kid I lived on the ragged edge of suburbia outside of Portland. West and north and south of us were orchards, woodlots, farm fields, oak groves, slow creeks, farm ponds and hills with views to the distant Cascades. My mother neglected us in just the right ways and my childhood span of personal geography was broad. Anywhere I could go on foot or on a bike and be back by dinner was on my mental map. That included a good chunk of Washington County. That sense of discovery, the curiosity it provoked and the feeling of belonging to a place, I later realized, is the essence of environmental education. Being able to communicate that and engender the same excitement in learners was as addictive as experiencing it myself as a child.

Where has your career path taken you?
Not surprisingly, full circle. During my first summers after retirement I volunteered for the Forest Service as a Wilderness Ranger in the Pasayten Wilderness, where I worked trails in 1975. The isolation, exertion, importance of the cause—all the things that inspired me in my 20s—have held their attraction into my 60s. Whether it’s a sentimental re-enactment of a formative experience, or the aspirational far end of that experience’s influence, I’m not sure. Actually, I’d cop to either.

In several of your jobs, you administered grants for EE. Looking back, do you think they made a difference?
I never looked at the money itself as what made a difference. The Puget Sound Water Quality Authority PIE grants and the NOAA B-WET funds took the risk away from innovation and novel partnerships and sharpened methods and priorities among environmental educators. The success of those programs begat more success, ultimately enabling local EE organizations to successfully grow and own that success. I think the money improved the practices of educators and was a catalyst to new and perhaps unlikely partnerships but the credit really belongs to the EE community, not the money itself.

What was a particularly memorable moment in your career?
Diving the Deepworker one-person submersible in a NOAA/National Geographic project in 1999 was pretty cool. Dr. Sylvia Earle insisted that NOAA train and dive marine educators in every National Marine Sanctuary. Being alone and untethered at 300 feet off the Olympic Coast, then turning the lights off and experiencing full darkness was beautiful. When the lights came back up, I was surrounded by rockfish that quickly fled the brightness.

You are semi-retired. What projects are you currently working on?
Although I’ve had to take a break from traveling, in my free time I am working on a multi-year photographic journey with sandhill cranes of the Pacific Flyway. Their range extends from California’s Central Valley to the Kenai and Alaska peninsulas. Our west coast birds don’t get the attention or ink of Central Flyway cranes. Their breeding areas are remote. Aside from a few well-known staging and feeding areas used in migration and winter, they slip by us largely unseen. Little tracking data exist. They raise interesting questions of past population bottlenecks and glacial refugia. Besides, they are spectacular birds, big, loud, social and beautiful.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
Covid-restlessness has pushed me back into service. I am currently working on a communication and interpretive planning process for Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. It’s short-term and I work remotely. Best of all, it has helped me focus my days and skills usefully to society. Mastering digital workarounds has also tickled some gray cells that might otherwise atrophy from too many naps.

How have you seen EE change over your career?
I think that between my childhood, when EE was viewed as “Conservation Education” and now, EE has been responsive to the need for more diverse and better STEM education. Geospacial Data Visualization didn’t exist then. Today’s second-grade girl on an EE outing is more likely to find a technical career if she’s inspired enough. And the challenge we’ve always faced—and still face—is inclusion and social equity. Consumers of mainstream outdoor experiences were predominantly White when I started, as were the faces of the educators. As issues of environmental justice became visible, the environmental movement as a whole had to reckon with racial and social exclusivity. Obviously we are not there yet. Cultures have always had their own ways of connecting with Nature—we’ve just been stuck on culturally constructed relationships comfortable in a White-dominated society. I believe there’s a mutually-beneficial relationship not merely “translating” White cultural views for non-Whites, but in looking for, learning from and honoring other traditions without falling back into the habit of appropriating them.

What’s the future of EE?
I don’t have a crystal ball. I think of the “future” of EE in the literal sense of the “future” that we educators project and how that has changed. On Earth Day ’70 environmentalists and soon-to-be environmental educators owned “The Future.” DDT was banned so that our children’s future included songbirds, NEPA was created so that future effects of growth and development would be understood and minimized, The Clean Water Act promised safe and abundant water. In other words, we could promise a better world because of our work. Somewhere in the project, things changed. When we discovered how out of whack things were truly getting, the news we delivered wasn’t as pretty. In 1982 I wrote a piece for the local daily newspaper on greenhouse gases and climate change and shrinking glaciers. Since then the messages just seem to have gotten worse and, frankly, we’ve scared people to death. We lost the rhetorical claim to the future. And we are seeing, daily, the consequences in our society’s state of denial. Worse, ideas aren’t the only things being denied, evidence-based Truth is at stake. The balance we, as environmental educators have to strike is to find in every learner or listener the creative moment when they connect with personal inspiration and their personal power. We can do that.

What inspires you now? What people have inspired you?
Ok, back to the bright side. I still chase experiences in the wild, among wild things. Being distracted by something purely beautiful in nature purges the cortisol buildup in my brain. Wildlife and landscape photography adds a much deeper dimension. You look for, and honor by that sustained glance, the world around you. As a visual narrator, you teach by showing—in this case a picture. But the artistic side of photography lets you also reveal something deeper than information. A fall of clouds pouring over a coastal ridge line, the wet hair on startled elk or the muscular strain of a jumping salmon carry power in a picture and, to me, force an emotional connection. I get to experience it and I get to pass it on.

Who are your environmental heroes?
It’s easy to list the famous people I was privileged to work with. Dr. Sylvia Earle; Jean-Michel Cousteau. They were examples that I learned from and tried to follow. From here on out though, my heroes have to be the ones stepping into this work at such a critical time. In my mind I see the faces of young people who participated in our programs, or who I chaperoned as a parent on field trips with my kids. Many of them are into their careers now—archaeologists, wildlife biologists, policy makers, artists, outdoor adventure leaders and environmental educators. I am as proud to have influenced them as to admit that I was influenced by those before me—none of us do this alone.

What books are currently on your nightstand?
On the level of pure intellectual exercise, I’m reading critical theory of photography—Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. In a more practical realm, I am re-reading Richard White’s Land Use, Environment and Social Change—the landmark environmental history of Whidbey Island. At the most practical level, I’m studying a PDF manual to my new Fitbit. It’s confusing as hell.

Do you have favorite places to go when you need to connect with nature?
Covid has restricted my movements quite a bit. Over the last few years I’ve enjoyed photographing wildlife and landscapes in the North America West and in Scandinavia. Recently, I connect with the homescape of my place. In March, I’ll visit a trillium that has made its appearance for me every year since 1973 when I first noticed it.

Are you hopeful about the future?
Being aware of seasons, especially with lengthening days, always makes me hopeful. Thanks for not asking last October.