Profile: Eli Smith

By Dawne Belloise

Eli Smith feels lucky to have landed in Gunnison instead of somewhere else in Colorado because, “This is the best part of the state.”

His love of the outdoors, public lands and his education and experience made him the perfect candidate for the fellows internship with High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in conjunction with Western Colorado University’s (WCU) Master of Environmental Management program. Since May 2022, he’s been employed full time at HCCA as stewardship program director. 

Eli was raised in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina where generations of his family lived their lives. He spent his childhood in a small neighborhood just outside of Morganton where his mom did lab work in a pediatric clinic and his dad built furniture. “We had a creek in the backyard and I spent a lot of time exploring. The ground cover was moss and there were a lot of salamanders,” he recalls. Eli felt lucky to have a clutch of free-ranging neighborhood friends who would bounce around to each other’s houses. It was a safe place to be where the kids were allowed to be outside without supervision, and he spent most of his time outdoors in every season, learning much from his environment.

As he got older and cars expanded the sphere of their environment, Eli and friends would find more hiking trails, paddle rivers, and “just drive around,” as most teens do. In Cub Scouts since second grade, Eli earned the rank of Eagle Scout in Boy Scouts which, along with his parents, encouraged him to pursue and expand his interests. “Looking back that did give me a lot of confidence with outdoors skills and leadership too.” He graduated from high school in 2013.

Eli enrolled in a college close to home in Boone, North Carolina. He took a class in Recreation and Park Management because he could see himself having a career in that field, and added a minor in Geography and Sustainable Development. Still living in the mountains, Eli became interested in public lands, especially after a summer internship with the National Park Service along the Blue Ridge Parkway. “It’s a scenic route that travels the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.” 

He lived in a small town in Virginia called Fancy Gap, “known for its really thick, dense fog. I worked at an historic grist mill interpreting traditional southern Appalachian crafts. I learned how to blacksmith onsite, the process was pretty cool. My favorite was learning how to weave on a 100-year-old loom. I weaved a lot of rugs and baskets,” he says of the position. “It was more on the cultural side of natural resources and of the connection between people and place.” He feels it was a highlight living within the boundaries of a national park. 

After graduating from college in 2017, Eli wanted to keep exploring his ever-expanding field of environmentalism, and discovered that AmeriCorps served western North Carolina. “It’s a federal program dedicated to community service, sort of a domestic Peace Corps,” he explains. “People commit to a year of service in a community chosen by AmeriCorps.” Since his focus was land conservation, Eli’s position was trail coordinator for the Polk County government of North Carolina, which entailed coordinating volunteers with the goal of building and maintaining an interconnected trail system. They had identified a need for more community engagement, so he’d plan volunteer trail building events. “I had really fun jobs. I was able to tour around a new area that I had not explored, and I loved coming into a new community and being in service to that community.” 

Eli enjoyed the work with AmeriCorps so he began looking into other AmeriCorps programs. He discovered a similar position based in Amherst, Massachusetts. In his initial job with AmeriCorps, Eli partnered with a lot of land trust organizations, but he now wanted to work in the nonprofit sphere, as opposed to the government side. “Massachusetts has a long history of land conservation,” he tells. “It was the birthplace of that movement. Boston Common dates back to the 1600s in preservation of a piece of land for public use. I loved all the charming little towns and it’s all so town-centric.” He worked for the regional Kestrel Land Trust for two years. 

            li tells that one benefit of working for AmeriCorps is that they offer an educational award at the end of service. As he became more interested in learning about land conservation and outdoor recreation, he began looking at potential master programs with an environmental focus, and WCU popped up on his radar. “I had never even heard of Gunnison, Crested Butte or the college before.” But he applied to their Master of Environmental Management degree program because it was a project-based program instead of being thesis based, and the AmeriCorps scholarship was matched by the WCU master’s program. 

Eli had never been to Colorado, and the exploration of a new frontier was thrilling to him. He arrived in Gunnison in August 2020. “I was blown away by how much sky there was and the expansive view, hundreds of miles in all directions at times. I remember driving alongside Tomichi Creek and seeing all the unique rock formations and the sage brush. When I got into town, I could really feel how dry it was. It felt like such a clear and abrupt transition for a new season of my life.”

Eli had no trouble building a social group with other students in the program. They went camping every weekend, exploring different places like Mesa Verde, the Great Sand Dunes and other sites all around the region. That first week at his new home, he drove to Crested Butte and discovered, “The mountains were a lot bigger up there. I was amazed at how quickly the landscape transitioned from Gunnison to Crested Butte. I was learning so much about the American West, both physically, by exploring the landscape, and in my classes.”

Although he confesses he’s not a winter sports enthusiast, Eli learned to Nordic ski and skied the south rim of the Black Canyon. In March of 2021, when it was time for Eli to decide on his master’s project, HCCA announced it was seeking a stewardship fellow for an internship. “The goal was to develop their new fledgling stewardship program. They identified a need for ecological restoration in the valley on the ground projects that volunteers could do, such as wet meadow restoration and other riparian restoration.”

His task was to create and strengthen partnerships with the local land management agencies. “And with this stewardship program,” he says, “we help facilitate an opportunity for people to give back to the landscape that gives to all of us.” That position turned into a full-time job as stewardship program director. 

Eli, his girlfriend Mackenzie and their cat Durango live down valley. “I get the best of the valley living in Gunnison and working in CB. I love exploring the Gunnison Valley public lands. I love heading south of the Powderhorn and La Garita areas. I like it because it’s so different and otherworldly for me. I can’t believe no one’s developed a La Garita Margarita yet,“ Eli laughs. “I feel a lot of mental clarity in these landscapes that are arid and the high pressure weather systems. I’m all about the deep vertical connections instead of the shallow horizontal ones. And I love really getting to know one place and putting my time and energy into what I’m connected to,” he says.

Eli absolutely feels connected in this valley. He is motivated by the landscape: “Living in a landscape, we are a part of that landscape. We breathe the same air and drink the same water as the landscape itself, and as the trees and animals and even the clouds and the mountains, too.” Eli loves serving this landscape and being in service to the beauty of this place. He concludes with a quote from the American author Edward Abbey, environmentalist and anarchist of political views: “It’s not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it.”

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