When Gregg Treinish set out to hike the Andes at the age of 24, there was a lot he didn’t know. First, he didn’t realize that he and his hiking partner, Deia Schlosberg, would be the first to do so. Or that their 22-month, 7,800-mile trek would earn them international recognition.
He also had no idea what he wanted to do next – but he sure had a lot of time to think about it.
Treinish eventually decided to combine his love of outdoor adventure with his desire to make a positive impact on the world. The result is nonprofit Adventure scientistswhich he founded in 2011.
The organization enlists the skills of adventurers, who often travel to remote or hard-to-reach locations to collect data for scientific studies focused on solving environmental challenges. For the past decade, Adventure Scientists have helped collect information on pikas, pine martens, plastics and more.
I believed that there were more people like me who would like to make a difference if they were given an easy opportunity to do so.
We spoke to Treinish about combining passion and impact, why this work can be a catalyst for major changes in life, and what exciting projects await him next.
TH: How did you start adventuring?
GT: I grew up in suburban Cleveland and didn’t spend much time hiking or backpacking. My parents are not outdoorsy people. But when I was 16 I went on a backpacking trip in British Columbia and just fell in love with the mountains and traveling that way. Then I went to college in Colorado and started being outdoors a lot more.
I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2004. I was really passionate about being outdoors, but I felt selfish on that trip because I wasn’t doing anything beneficial. After that I went and worked in wilderness therapy for a while, taking kids out who were struggling. It furthered my experience and skills in the backcountry.
After that [Deia Schlosberg] and I embarked on this journey to hike the Andes without knowing that we would be the first to do so. I thought hundreds of people would have done it or would do it. We just settled on South America after looking around the world on various long trails.
There wasn’t actually a long track in South America, but it was clear that we could connect things. So we did. We blogged and wrote about it as we went. We had a couple of sponsors and somewhere along the way people started following along. We got some magazine articles and wrote some articles. Then National Geographic spotted us in a parking lot after we finished and named us adventurers of the year. It opened up all the possibilities in the world for us.
When did you combine that passion with the idea of having a scientific impact?
One of the things that I love most about long trekking adventures is that there are just endless hours to think about. It is really a mind game to do such expeditions. For me it was “What’s next?” and “What am I going to do with my life?” The same questions we all ask ourselves, but while hiking in the Andes, I actually had a lot of time to figure it out and think about it.
When I graduated, I really wanted to study animal behavior and learn how to help species survive and thrive. Lions were where I was focused. There’s a guy here in Bozeman named Scott Creel who studies predator-prey interactions in Africa and applies the carnivore-prey relationships that he learns about there to this ecosystem because there are a lot of implications.
I called him and said, “Hi, I’m in Patagonia, I just finished walking here from Ecuador. Can I come and study with you?” And he said, “Of course.”
[Deia] was also interested in a film program here. So we moved to Bozeman. I got a bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology, and before I ever got to Africa with him, I got a job tracking lynx, wolverines, and grizzly bears here.
This incredible guy named Steve Gammon taught me tracking, taught me what I was looking for. It’s not rocket science to do that, so we started engaging the public. We would hold these weekend retreats and have people come out and learn to track with us.
Once we had a reported sighting, I would go find the tracks and collect DNA. I also had other tech jobs where I worked in California with spotted owls. I worked at Fort Peck Reservoir on the Missouri River studying pale sturgeon.
It was great. I loved being out there, using my outdoor skills and actually helping – feeling like I was making a difference. I believed that there were more people like me who would like to make a difference if they were given an easy opportunity to do so. And then there were also a lot of scientists who needed data. So I combined the two.
Every project we do is designed in collaboration with one or more scientists. They are the ones who say, “We need this data to solve this problem or to solve this problem.” We couldn’t do this work without incredible scientists trying to solve really big problems.
What kind of projects have Adventure Scientists done?
Early on we did research on white-tailed grouse. We did a pika study which led to a major publication in Nature. Somewhere around 2014 or 2015 we transitioned to doing much smaller but much deeper work.
Since then, we have worked to restore pines to the Olympic National Forest with Betsy Howell of the Forest Service. We partnered with Harvard Medical School to collect scat samples from more than 100 countries, which were then used to narrow the search for the genes responsible for antibiotic resistance in enterococci that have applications in other bacteria. We have assembled the largest data set in the world for microplastics with Abby Barrows.
We are currently working with the Forest Service to collect chemical and genetic reference libraries across tree species. They are used by the Ministry of Justice to prosecute timber theft.
It has been a very wide range of projects. I would say the commonality between them is three things: Is there a big environmental problem that is data constrained? Is there a path from collecting data to doing something about the problem? And is there a clear need for involvement from the outdoor community?
What motivates the volunteer adventures?
Each volunteer probably has a slightly different motivation, but I think in general it is that we are lucky enough to get to play in the open air. We are lucky enough to even have the ability, let alone the resources and time to do so. So how can I give back? There are so many different types of volunteering, but I think the really cool thing about it is that you combine passion with giving back. I think that really resonates with people.
We’ve had volunteers say that this has been the catalyst to wake them up to these issues, to dedicate their lives to them, to pursue a career in conservation. People have gone on to get graduate degrees. Others have started their own nonprofit organizations focused on the topic they have worked on.
I think the other big thing is that a lot of our projects really require a focus on the environment, like looking for a particular species of bird. Once you learn to look at the environment that way, it never goes away. The people that I used to take the tracking out of would say this, and the people that focus on specific tree species say that every time you walk through a forest, from that point on, you have a different set of eyes.
I’m sure someone has come up with a name for this, but it’s like you’re walking along and you see this one purple flower you hadn’t noticed before. It is so beautiful and you look at it, try to identify it, but then you take your head and realize that they are growing all around you. This is the kind of thing that happens. [Our volunteers] start seeing the forest by actually tuning in with a different lens. It is a catalyzing experience for them.
As for specific issues, we’re working on a really exciting study of wild and scenic rivers with three federal agencies and over 40 state agencies that will benefit from the data. I hope this project will continue far into the future. We also have work to do with forests, climate change and biodiversity.
We must also expand internationally. We were very international at first, but as we focused on more in-depth work, many of our projects became focused on North America. But we have a lot of experience and knowledge to gain from working internationally, and that will be a big focus for us in our next round of growth as an organization.
I’m really excited about it for two reasons.
One is that the promise of this organization has always been international, and I have built it in the belief that we will always be global. And I want to make that true.
The second is that the issues we work with are international. Illegal forestry, e.g. I think 1% of illegal logging is in the US and the rest is happening all over the world. And it is true with climate change. In the Global South, people are disproportionately affected by these problems.
We want to be where we are most needed. We want to be where we can have the greatest impact.
This piece first appeared in The Revelator and is reproduced here with permission.