When Gregg Treinish set out to trek across the Andes at age 24, there was a lot he didn’t know. At 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 journey would earn them international recognition.
He also had no idea what he was going to do next – but he certainly had plenty 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 the non-profit organization Adventure Scientists, which he founded in 2011.
The organization harnesses the skills of adventurers, who often travel to remote or hard-to-reach places, to collect data for scientific studies focused on solving environmental challenges. In the last decade, Adventure Scientists have helped collect information on drops, pine martens, plastics and more.
revealer spoke with Treinish about the combination of passion and influence, why this job can be a catalyst for big life changes, and what exciting projects lie ahead for him.
How did you start the adventure?
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 I 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 the outdoors, but I felt selfish on that trip that I didn’t do anything worthwhile. After that I went and worked in wilderness therapy for a while, taking kids out who were struggling. This furthered my experience and skills back home.
then [Deia Schlosberg] and I embarked on this journey to hike the Andes, not knowing that we would be the first to do it. I thought hundreds of people had done it or would do it. We just settled on South America after looking around the world on different long tracks.
There wasn’t really a long trail in South America, but it was clear that we could tie things together. So we did. We were blogging and posting about it as we went. We had a few sponsors, and somewhere along the way people started to follow. We got some magazine articles and wrote some articles. then National Geographic saw us present in a parking lot after we finished and were named Adventurers of the Year. This opened up every opportunity in the world for us.
When did you combine that passion with the idea of making a scientific impact?
One of the things I love most about long-distance hiking adventures is that it’s just endless hours to think about. It really is 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 was 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 he learns there to this ecosystem because it has so many consequences.
I called him and said, “Hey, I’m in Patagonia, I just finished hiking here from Ecuador. Can I come study with you?” And he said, “Sure.”
[Deia] was also interested in a film program here. So we moved to Bozeman. I got an undergraduate degree in wildlife ecology and then, before I ever went to Africa with it, I got a job tracking lynx, wolves and grizzly bears here.
This incredible guy named Steve Gammon taught me how to track, taught me what I was looking for. It’s not rocket science to do this, so we started engaging the public. We would host these weekend retreats and have people come out and learn how to track with us.
As soon as we had a reported sighting, I would go and find the tracks and collect the 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 wonderful. I loved being there, using my outdoor skills and actually helping – feeling like I was making a difference. I believed there were more people like me who wanted to make a difference if they were given an easy opportunity to do so. And then there were also many scientists who needed data. So I combined the two.
Every project we do is designed in partnership with one or more scientists. They say, “We need this data to solve this problem or address this issue.” We couldn’t do this work without incredible scientists who are trying to solve really big questions.
What kind of projects have Adventure Scientists done?
At first we did studies of the white-tailed ptarmigan. We did a study on the dots, which led to a major publication in Nature. Sometime around 2014 or 2015 we transitioned to a much smaller but much deeper work.
Since then, we have been working on pine marten restoration in the Olympic National Forest with Betsy Howell of the Forest Service. We collaborated with Harvard Medical School to collect small samples from more than 100 countries, which were then used to help narrow down the search for genes responsible for antibiotic resistance in enterococcal bacteria, which have applications to other bacteria. We’ve collected the world’s largest dataset on microplastics with Abby Barrows.
We are currently working with the Forest Service to assemble chemical and genetic reference libraries for tree species. They are being used by the Department of Justice to prosecute timber theft.
It has been a very wide range of projects. I would say that the commonality between them is three things: Is there a big environmental issue that is limited by the data? Is there any way from collecting data to doing something about this issue? And is there a clear need for involvement from the outside community?
What motivates the adventures that volunteer?
Each volunteer probably has a slightly different motivation, but I think in general it is that we are so lucky to get to play in nature. We are so lucky to even have the ability, let alone the resources and time to do it. So how can I give back? There are so many different types of volunteering, but I think what’s really cool about it is that you’re combining passion with giving back. I think it really resonates with people.
We’ve had volunteers say that this was the catalyst for them to wake up to these issues, to dedicate their lives to it, to pursue careers in conservation. People have continued to get degrees. Others have created their own non-profit organizations focused on the issue they worked on.
Josef Quitslund investigates a yellow cedar tree near Petersburg, Alaska for the wood tracking project. Photo: Stephanie Hayes
I think the other big thing is that a lot of our projects really require an environmental focus, like researching a particular species of bird. Once you learn how to look at the environment that way, it never goes away. People who used to track would say that, and people who are involved in specific types of trees 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 it, but it’s like you’re walking by and you see this purple flower that you hadn’t noticed before. It’s so beautiful and you look at it, try to identify it, but then you look up and realize that they are growing around you. This is a thing that happens. [Our volunteers] start seeing the forest by actually tuning in with a different lens. This is a cathartic experience for them.
What is expected next?
In terms of specific issues, we’re working on a really exciting wild and scenic river study with three federal agencies and over 40 state agencies that will benefit from the data. I hope that this project will continue in the future. We also have work to do with forests, climate change and biodiversity.
We will also expand internationally. We were very international at first, but as we focused on more in-depth work, many of our projects 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 am very excited about this for two reasons.
One is that the promise of this organization has always been international, and I have built it believing that we will always be global. And I would like to make it true.
The second is that the issues we are working on are international. Illegal forestry, for example. I think 1% of illegal logging happens in the United States and the rest happens all over the world. And this is true with climate change issues. In the Global South, people are disproportionately affected by these issues.
We want to be where we are needed most. We want to be where we can have the most impact.
This story originally appeared on The Revelator and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration that strengthens coverage of the climate story.