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Outfitter Mat Erpelding is co-owner of Idaho Mountain Guides and also a legislator in the Idaho House of Representatives. We caught up with him in 2016 near the rock cliffs by Lucky Peak, outside of Boise
What do you enjoy about being an outfitter and climbing around on rocks?
This is a place for people to do something their entire lives; climbing is included in that. It's a family activity. You can introduce children to it, help them grow confidence.
But then the other piece is taking people out into this environment and introducing them to the outdoor world as a way to use the authority of the resource, the beauty of the resource, to create interest in conservation, to reconnect them with the idea that we have open space for a reason, and we need to protect it.
Most outfitters don't naturally think about climbing.
Climbing was an accident. I came to Idaho State University, and didn't do well running college cross country and track, and kind of fell into climbing. And it went from being an activity that I love to a career that I've done for over 20 years; anything from expedition leadership, high altitude climbing, to doing what I do today, which is day guiding.
Are there certain climbs you're most proud of?
I've done five trips on Denali in Alaska. I've summited four times. I think that that's something to be proud of. I've climbed all over Yosemite. But the reality is, I think the thing that I'm most proud of is in my work at university level, where I used expedition leadership to train really high quality leaders that have gone on to do great things. And we used the outdoors as a mechanism for developing that ability to lead others in environments that are ambiguous or challenging. That translates directly into the business world.
So there's a higher calling to climbing. It's not just having fun?
Having fun is a part of it. That could be considered a higher calling. In today's hubbub and our economic environment, having people take the time to celebrate their leisure time in a way that's both healthy and creates a connection with the environment is a higher calling. So I think that is something that I'm really proud of, that outdoor recreation provides to the community.
I represent an outfitter and guide service that's actually an urban guide service. We're 6 miles from downtown Boise, where we have kids today who may be less connected with their natural world simply because of urbanization. And so this idea of a "nature deficit disorder" goes to getting people to come out, do activities, whether it be rafting, rock climbing, hunting, whatever the activity it is, to help them create a connection with nature. And I have a belief that that actually creates a more healthy mind and body.
Talk a bit more about "nature deficit disorder" with this younger generation.
This idea that we have a nature deficit disorder has real bearing, because young kids, when they're able to be out in open space and play, generally, seem happier and have a good time, and that builds their life moving forward.
I think the Boise School District uses the McCall Outdoor Science School for introducing kids to the outdoor world.
We know that people who experience the outdoors are more likely to have an interest in protecting it, whether it be the Ridge to Rivers System in Boise, the cliffs out here, Sawtooth Wilderness Area, any of those places. When somebody goes there, afterwards they have a special connection with it, which is what impels them to have an interest in ensuring that our environment's protected.
Have you ever seen a child change because of their involvement in the outdoors?
I think me. I joke a lot that I went to Catholic school because I was difficult to manage. But the truth is the place where I found the most solace was riding my bike in the mountains of Colorado, with my family. That was when, on the weekends, I felt the most relaxed and the most focused and the most refreshed. It wasn't playing baseball, it wasn't watching television, it was being out in the outdoors on a bicycle, with a high heart rate, doing something that you wouldn't think of. But that's when I was most healthy. And we know that that's common with a lot of kids.
The difference between football and baseball is those are not lifetime sports; those become spectator sports as you get older. But being in the outdoors, hiking, backpacking, climbing, those are lifetime sports that not only affect your health, but they affect your overall sense of wellness.
You wear two hats, as an outfitter and a lawmaker. That's got to be interesting.
It is interesting, because what should be a collaborative or a shared environment with regard to traditional uses of our public lands sometimes turns into a push pull relationship.
We know that there's room for all aspects of the economy, whether it be traditional extractive resources, and the more non-traditional, non-consumptive use, such as climbing or rafting. But the important thing is that we recognize that there is a place where we can protect the environment, we can create jobs, and we work in a way that there's enough room for all of us.
What are some of the issues legislators face in dealing with the outfitting industry?
The outfitters licensing board in Idaho has the ability to license and regulate guides, which is actually a good thing, because what it does is it creates a safety net.
Some of the challenges that we've faced have been a push to eliminate regulation on private land, which I think is a questionable practice. I think guides have a professional practice or a best practice, whether you're on public land or private land. But the private landowners didn't feel that way, and they had more sway.
But the larger issue is the struggle over making sure that we keep our lands public. This is a shared resource. So if I'm up here with private climbers, my goal is to never be in their way, never impinge on them. If they're on a route, I'm going to go to a different route. So we're second to what the public has access to. But we bring the training, the knowledge, the ability to help keep this place a little more safe for those people that want to invest in the education side of it.
And those pieces are important. But the public land fight that has been occurring in the legislature is of real concern to most outfitters.
So in some ways outfitters are the first line of defense when accidents occur in the backcountry.
So there's a misconception that guiding is just about taking people out and showing them a day and sending them home. But I would say that what our real purpose is, is to really educate people to be able to do things autonomously in a way that is more safe or approaching best practice so we mitigate or we minimize accidents.
And a lot of times guides are the first folks who are on scene of an accident, are also involved in search and rescue; so the guiding community does represent a public service. But it's also a capital enterprise. It is a way to build a career doing something that you love. And as a capitalist Idahoan, I think that that's something to be proud of.
I imagine being an outfitter requires a certain set of skills that the outfitting board expects of you.
So what the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board has as regulations would be considered a bare minimum in any other state in the country. So they represent this is the absolute minimum that you can have. It would be very uncommon that a guide service would just have the minimum.
So all of us exceed any of the standards that the state expects from us. So Wilderness First Responder, American Mountain Guides Association training, really focusing on what is best practice and how can we make sure that our clients have a great experience, find a way to really enjoy themselves, but, also, have an incident free time in the mountains.
How is the Legislature doing in regards to outfitting?
I think the legislature has done a disservice to the outfitting and guides in Idaho by having an outfitter and licensing board that's underfunded in a way that it cannot effectively guard against people cheating the system.
And the legislature could do a better job by fully creating an environment that allows Fish and Game and the Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board to make sure that they're enforcing the laws, which is that you cannot pirate guide on public land. You have to have a permit, you have to have a license, you have to be bonded. And if you guide on public land without those things, there needs to be a way to enforce that. That was its whole inception.
It's very difficult for them to do that, given the resources they have. I think they do the best they can with the resources that they have. But they have been underfunded, just like education, just like any number of services in Idaho, thanks to the legislature.
Was it difficult to get permission to operate on this land here at the Black Cliffs outside Boise.
This land that we're on right now is BLM land. And the first thing I had to do was approach the Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board, which is a state regulatory agency, and tell them I'm interested in guiding. So I had to fill out some paperwork. And then I had to go to the Bureau of Land Management, located out by the airport, and apply for a permit.
Because this area never had a special use permit, it really took a long time to figure out how to do the permit, how to regulate a climbing company at the Black Cliffs. So it was really an exercise in patience, because I would have liked to have been guiding right then and there, but I wanted to make sure that I went through the appropriate channels.
And so, ultimately, Idaho Mountain Guides has an incredible relationship with the BLM. We really want to help protect this resource, whether it be picking up trash, improving the trails, managing the safety equipment on the rock. And then we kind of work with the Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board. But I really feel like the land manager is the agency that I want to have the relationship with, which is the BLM.
Last question: how does the future of outfitting in Idaho look to you?
The future of outfitting in Idaho is nothing but the sky. We have more free flowing rivers; we have rock all over. You have Sawtooth Mountain Guides in the Ketchum area; you have Idaho Mountain Guides down here. There's enough room for recreation to be something that is a huge part of Idaho's economy. Recreation will be, and continues to be, a made in the USA product, and Idaho should be one of those places that 300 million US citizens are coming to check out. It's a hidden gem.