Rose Chilcoat has retired, but she will remain a Great Old Broad.
After 15 years with Great Old Broads for Wilderness, the lifelong conservation advocate credited for growing the organization, campaigning to protect Recapture Canyon and participating in environmental protection efforts across the Colorado Plateau hung up her hat in March. Sort of.
Though technically retired, Chilcoat has continued making defensive moves for public lands, including joining the push to give national monument status to Bears Ears, 2 million acres of cultural and historic land in southeastern Utah.
Chilcoat, 58, who insisted on climbing into her backyard tree to be photographed, is vivacious; she has a lot of plans – like continuing to advocate for public lands in the West – but they’re plans she can execute on her time and terms.
And with 13 years spent working for national forests and parks, watching funding decrease and bureaucratic issues complicate, environmental advocacy isn’t something she can easily drop.
“I’m not an organizer,” Chilcoat said. “I just followed my instincts.”
Having grown up in a family of educators, campers and nature-lovers in Baltimore, Chilcoat knew she wanted to be either a park ranger or environmental lawyer by the time she enrolled at Virginia Tech, where she studied horticulture.
Durango gave Chilcoat her first seasonal jobs, working summers as an aide for the U.S. Forest Service Columbine District in the late 1970s. The odds of getting a permanent job in federal government at the time were low, she said, because Vietnam vets were first in line.
While chasing a career in the Park Service at Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain and Bryce Canyon national parks and Coulee Dam recreation area, federal lands were seeing their last days of adequate funding.
“We see agencies incredibly cash-strapped, trying to do more with less,” she said. “They added NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act), and I see agencies stuck following those processes while they don’t have the resources for the day-to-day, like maintaining campgrounds.”
And as she experienced firsthand, the National Park Service wasn’t friendly to women. While working as a concessions analyst for the regional office in Alaska in the early 1990s, Chilcoat had a son, and management begrudgingly granted maternity leave.
So Chilcoat returned to Durango in 1993 with her husband and son, working a series of odd jobs until 2001 when Great Old Broads sought an assistant to the executive director to work 15 hours a week.
When Chilcoat arrived, Great Old Broads was in disarray with little funding, as the founder had recently left without applying for the usual annual grants that sustained the organization.
“There was a core of amazing Broads who knew their stuff, but they needed to replicate,” Chilcoat said. “I said, ‘If you need someone to answer phones, get someone else.’”
Instead, Chilcoat was instrumental in expanding the Great Old Broads network by partnering with other organizations and establishing chapters called “Broadbands.” There are more than three dozen in 15 states across the country today, which Chilcoat notes as her greatest accomplishment.
“Rose has the energy of 10 people, and we’re excited for her to put that in the direction she wants,” Great Old Broads Executive Director Shelley Silbert said. “But we’re losing our institutional memory.”
As it does for many advocates, burnout ultimately reached Chilcoat.
“The work is intense. It’s emotional,” she said. “I did this for love of wild places, but the frustration when you see the destruction of wilderness, agencies not doing the job that laws and regulations require them to do, when you fight the government to do what the public expects – it’s fatiguing.”
Leaving Great Old Broads staff is hard, but she said she’s leaving a solid stand-alone organization.
“I feel like I can be done, and it will be fine when I leave,” she said. “It’s like having a child.”
Without the Broads, Chilcoat will be spending more time reading, gardening, traveling and “maybe finally learning to play the ukulele.” But she’ll also keep up the fight against public lands grazing, which she calls one of the most ubiquitous and destructive practices impacting the American West.
“I want to become more invested and active locally instead of constantly looking out,” she said. “We all need clean air and water. I think people take for granted that conservation organizations are taking care of those things. People have to step up and get involved.”
“It was an honor to work with Rose for two years. It was fun. Sometimes exhausting. She has a very high level of energy,” said former Executive Director M.B. McAfee, who hired Chilcoat. “Passion alone doesn’t always succeed, but passion and knowledge is hard to beat. Rose is a pillar of the environmental community, not just in Durango but in the wider region.”