“Vast and majestic, mountains embrace your shadow; broad and deep, rivers harbor your voice.”
T’ao Ch’ien’s words echo in Vic Thasiah’s mind as his feet hit the ground. It is almost as if his favorite lines of Chinese poetry were meant to describe one of his favorite places to run and protect—the Ventura River Preserve.
Through his Ventura County-based nonprofit, Runners for Public Lands, the executive director works to defend, and ensure all runners have access to, places as peaceful as the preserve.
“It seemed to make sense to protect the very things that make running possible and enjoyable,” Vic says. “Runners For Public Lands comes out of making a connection between that passion for running and that passion for the natural environment.”
Runners, Vic says, are the largest outdoor recreational group in the United States, numbering over 60 million.
So the 49-year-old Ventura resident was shocked when he could not find a national environmental advocacy organization that represented runners. He approached a few friends about starting his own.
The running community is the community he knows best, and mobilizing a specific group, Vic says, is especially effective.
On Earth Day in 2019 Vic launched the nonprofit environmental organization.
When forming the organization, Vic says, he was influenced by indigenous runners.
“When they run, they carry prayer, and they carry the petitions of their people to protect the places they love and live and work and play,” he says. “That was a key inspiration.”
Groups of Native Americans, for example, ran to Washington, D.C., in 2016 to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline and to Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument in 2018 to resist government threats to public lands.
“A lot of the land that we run (on) is stolen land,” Vic says. “Learning the ethics of stewardship from people who’ve been here for so long and were here first seems like a no-brainer.”Above, Jess Rogers, Runners For Public Lands’ board president. Photo courtesy of Runners for Public Lands.
Although raising money to defend public lands is a major element of his work, the most important—and sometimes the most challenging—aspect is educating others about environmental justice.
Those with the privilege of not living in compromised environments, Vic says, may have a limited view of what an environment entails, focusing on scenic destinations rather than everyday neighborhoods.
“It’s nice to run in places with clean air and clean water with beautiful scenery,” he says. “But wildlife is much more than scenery—it is life itself.”
To build environmental literacy, the nonprofit hosts events and provides resources with the hope that runners will spread the mission within their own communities.
Also at the core of RPL’s mission is ensuring that all runners and, more importantly, all people, have safe outdoor spaces.
“Land protection and preservation means nothing if equitable access isn’t part of that equation,” says Jess Rogers, president of RPL’s board of directors. “We are dedicated to the land and the people, and without focus on that intersection, we won’t succeed.”
Jess learned about Runners for Public Lands after meeting Vic at the finish line of a race in Montaña de Oro State Park near San Luis Obispo.
“I not only needed a running community but felt passionate about giving back to the trails that had given me so much over the years,” she says, adding that she hopes her work will benefit her toddler’s future. “I was motivated by the places I run and a sense of urgency that time was slowly running out to do more.”
The pandemic highlighted the importance of access to nature for both physical and mental health, but many people, especially those in underserved communities in overlooked urban areas, do not have sufficient outdoor space.
Even worse, low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to live in areas with poor air quality.To build environmental literacy, RPL hosts events and provides resources with the hope that runners will spread the mission within their own communities.
Achieving environmental justice must start from within the organization.
Before addressing climate change’s disproportionate impact on marginalized communities, Vic and Jess believe those communities must be represented in RPL’s leadership.
“The running community reflects a broad and diverse community of runners,” Jess says. “Without elevating all of the needs and voices of our community in harmony with the land and helping to organize them to get involved, we won’t go very far.”
An accomplishment Vic says he is especially proud of is RPL’s membership in Ventura’s Westside Clean Air Coalition— an organization dedicated to stopping the expansion of a natural gas compressor station in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood.
The compressor station, which is at risk of leaking harmful gases or exploding, is across the street from an elementary school, an after-school club and dozens of homes.“When you can work with others in a community for the protection of the environment, it drains away some of that grief and despair,” Vic says.
The fight against the climate crisis can leave a person feeling overwhelmed and powerless. But Vic and Jess find hope in working with people they care about for a cause they care about.
Both agree that what started as an effort to protect the environment continued because of the relationships built in the process,
“When you can work with others in a community for the protection of the environment, it drains away some of that grief and despair,” Vic says.
He hopes to expand the volunteer-based Runners for Public Lands from a regional movement to a national one.
“What we’re working on is a culture change in the running community,” he says.
Ultimately, Vic dreams of a world in which every runner prioritizes environmental stewardship.
Learn more at runnersforpubliclands.org.