Building a Career in Eco-Friendly Travel, One Trip at a Time

By Matt Wastradowski

The 2017 wildfire that engulfed about 50,000 acres of the Columbia River Gorge rocked many of us to our core—but it had an especially profound impact on Kieron Wilde.

Once a fire ecologist, Kieron Wilde is the founder and “chief expedition leader” of First Nature Tours, small-group travel outfitter.

Up until the wildfires, Wilde had spent his career working in fire ecology (among other fields) before shifting to tourism and launching First Nature Tours, his own small-group travel outfitter where he is currently founder and “chief expedition leader”. So when the wildfire burned through Columbia River Gorge forests in September and October 2017, he knew what the impacts would be—both before the fire was ever extinguished and in the months to follow Wilde knew it would take volunteer crews years to rebuild trails and improve safety—removing hazard trees, reinforcing steep slopes, and reinstalling bridges that had been gnarled in the fire. But as a tour operator, he also knew that hikers, campers, and sightseers would flock to areas in the Gorge that hadn’t closed after the fire—which would have the unintended effects of putting added stress on those resources; essentially, making a bad problem worse.

In a sense, it was a microcosm for what Wilde hoped to accomplish with his career: understanding the problems facing our environment, anticipating the secondary and tertiary impacts of those crises, and educating travelers about all that along the way. And as Wilde comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s rethinking what eco-friendly travel has to look like, where he can be most helpful, and how to help travelers have new experiences. And he’s working with a brand-new program, spearheaded in part by the Willamette Valley Visitors Association, to make that happen.

Eager to “Save the Planet” From a Young Age

Growing up in the ‘90s, Wilde remembers hearing about a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica—and the dire climate warnings that represented. It inspired Wilde to pursue a career in environmental activism. “I was all about being an ecowarrior; I didn’t even know what that meant, but I knew I wanted to go into a field where I was helping save the planet,” he says. “As corny as it sounds, the most general word I could come up with is that I wanted to shape the planet with my life and my career.” 

Wilde earned a degree in restoration ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2002 and spent the next several years working in the field for various organizations and government entities. That included working on salmon habitat restoration for the Washington State Department of Ecology and spending time as a fire ecologist in Washington’s state’s North Cascades region.

A few years into his career, Wilde was leading crews of restoration technicians, planting trees, and climbing the ranks within the industry—all important tasks, but not the big-picture work Wilde had envisioned for himself.

Along the way, Wilde developed an interest in tourism—the industry’s negative impacts on the environment (in the form of, among other things, airplane fuel emissions) and the many ways the tourism industry could be a force for change. “Tourism is a really high-impact industry in a negative way already, and there are so many ways to make it a positive impact—or to at least offset those impacts,” he says.

That’s when he discovered Evergreen Escapes, an eco-friendly group-tour company that paired Wilde’s desire to do right by Mother Nature with a burgeoning interest in tourism; almost instantly, Wilde saw a new career path open before his eyes. “It was a really awesome epiphany that I had,” he says. “I didn’t have to be out planting trees, one by one; I could use the assets I had that were more effective.”

He began working with Evergreen Escapes as a guide in 2007 and eventually became the organization’s director of sales and lead guide in 2011. Those were roles he’d hold until 2014, when he left to begin his own outfitter: First Nature Tours, which focused on merging Wilde’s interest in the environment and sustainability with luxury, small-group travel. 

In 2014, Wilde started First Nature Tours, merging his interest in the environment and sustainability with luxury, small-group travel.

Epiphany Leads to Pandemic Pivot

When he launched First Nature Tours, Wilde knew he wanted to immerse his guests in nature and create strong bonds with the world around them—but those first few years were all about “making money and staying afloat,” he says. Wilde led private, luxury-minded tours—but found that those who could afford them didn’t always want to stay in an eco-friendly lodge, take on volunteer projects, or learn about the environmental issues that had informed Wilde’s career path to that point.

And then 2020 happened.

Bookings dried up as the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on—and as people headed outdoors, on their own, in record numbers. When he couldn’t lead any outings, Wilde took time to step back and reflect on where he’d been—and where he wanted to go with First Nature Tours. “That was a bit of a reconciliation that I had to do to come up with a solution to the demands of the industry—making money and making ends meet, but also feeding my own personal desire to make an impact and affect positive change in the world.”

For Wilde, it went beyond the bottom line. “The money doesn’t matter,” he says. “You’ve gotta do what you’re passionate about and fulfill your destiny to make a bigger difference.”

So Wilde resolved to return to the roots of why he entered the industry to begin with, vowing to make impactful travel a top priority. “Moving forward, no matter what, it’s going to be part of our ethos; it’s going to be part of our actual on-the-ground work out in the field,” he remembers thinking. “Once I set that intention, the universe just stepped in.”

Wilde received grants to develop tours and programs around sustainable travel, connected with similar-minded organizations, and rethought what his trips should look like in a post-pandemic world.

First Nature Attempts to Navigate a New Normal

We may remain in the midst of a pandemic, but Wilde’s bold new direction has already taken shape.

In the spring and summer of 2021, for instance, Wilde teamed up with a few organizations—including Global Family Travels, Cascade Volunteers, and the Willamette Valley Visitors Association—to spearhead a series of tours along the McKenzie River. The goal was to educate tour participants on the danger (and importance) of wildfire, and to give travelers the chance to help clean and maintain popular trails in the Willamette National Forest. (Learn more about those travel programs here.)

As Wilde explains it, travelers eager to help couldn’t do so in the wildfire-impacted areas—but they could have impacts elsewhere in the outdoor recreation space. (This was a lesson he learned in the wake of the 2017 Columbia River Gorge wildfire.) With numerous trails along the McKenzie River impacted by wildfire closures, for instance, he knew more visitors would visit a smaller number of areas—hastening the need for more maintenance on trails that remained open to keep visitors safe and protect those ecosystems.

So rather than planting trees in fire-damaged areas, those tours in 2021 involved teaming up with Cascade Volunteers and the Willamette National Forest to lop trees alongside Clear Lake, remove rocks from paths to improve safety near Sahalie and Koosah Falls, cull invasive plant species, and more. “It’s not always ground zero that needs the actual work,” Wilde explains.

In turn, the tours gave Wilde the chance to discuss the realities of wildfire—their historic importance to forests and why we’re seeing smokier summers than ever before—to help educate and inspire a new generation of travelers. “One of the benefits of getting people out in this kind of work is talking about why this happened in the first place,” he says. “How did we end up here? How did we end up having fires like we’ve never seen in human history in the Pacific Northwest?”

Wilde Outlines Plans for 2022 and Beyond

In 2022, Wilde is planning a similar series of outings along the Willamette River—giving visitors the chance to paddle the iconic river, enjoy local food and drink from regional producers, and learn about the importance of the watershed to residents, farmers, Native American tribes, and more.

Beyond that, Wilde remains unsure of what’s next in an uncertain world. “What worked in 2021 might not work in 2022,” he admits. “Nothing’s normal, and nothing’s consistent—except inconsistency.”

Whatever comes next, it will be done with the Transformational Travel Council and the Willamette Valley Visitors Association, both of which are leading a first-of-its-kind Regenerative Destination program in the Willamette Valley.

Wilde is a regenerator in that pilot program, which means he’s a thought leader and changemaker who’s working to create a thoughtful, more intentional travel experience throughout the region. “My main desire for the Regenerative Destination program, and what I feel like First Nature can help with, is increasing connectivity between these different elements that already exist and incorporating them into the bigger tourism landscape,” he says.

Wilde hopes to do that, in part, by leading more nature-minded tours (perhaps for shorter periods of time and at lower price points to make them more accessible to a larger swath of travelers) and working with corporations to make good on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) promises they’ve made as racial-justice issues have come to the forefront in recent years. “Everybody’s quick to hop on the buzzword bandwagon when it comes to marketing, but there needs to be actual real accountability when it comes to what the work is actually doing,” he says.

It’s all part of a bigger plan to create connections between visitors and various aspects of the tourism industry to offer richer, more in-depth experiences. “Traditional tourism activities are just sticking with the hotels, destinations, wineries, and restaurants we have to offer, but there’s this huge variety of experiences to be had and really meaningful engagement that can take people way deeper,” he says. “There are a lot of benefits to creating that connectivity.”

But whatever that next step may look like, Wilde knows that education and engagement—really grappling with the issues that matter most, and doing the work to address them—will be at the forefront. “If there’s one takeaway from the work we’re doing, the ability to talk about collaboration, the opportunities to create this kind of a project anywhere in the world, and to collaborate with hoteliers, outfitters on the ground, and other organizations,” he says. “That story needs to get out there so people can understand that this work is not only essential, but it’s not that hard to put together.

Everybody can be a part of it.”