Sitting on his horse, Cinnamon, with his dog, Mojo, nearby, Dave Willis sweeps his gaze across the vast expanse of land in southwest Oregon that he fought hard to turn into a national monument. Willis echoes the pioneers who once traversed a corner of the monument’s border on the Applegate Trail, but he is a pioneer of another sort.
By presidential proclamation last year, 52,000 acres of this ecological wonderland became the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument—the culmination of 20 years’ work for Willis. The land features a corridor between two mountain ranges, where both wildlife and rare plants thrive. Working with the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council and the Siskiyou Project, Willis has led countless guided horse treks through the region. His treks allow politicians, journalists, scientists, and others to marvel at its wildflower meadows punctuated by butterflies, towering pines, firs, old Garry oaks, hidden waterfalls, and steep canyons.
But with only 52,000 acres of it designated as a monument, Willis’ work is not done. When he’s not guiding treks into the wilderness to save it, he’s persistently writing letters to politicians, tirelessly speaking at rallies, or flying to Washington, D.C., seeking protection for yet more wild lands. For renewal, he simply returns to the wilderness he loves.
Willis’ work is all the more noteworthy for the fact that, on a climbing expedition to Mount McKinley 25 years ago, he lost both feet and his fingers to frostbite.
Born in Fullerton, Calif., Willis grew up in Corvallis, Ore., and now lives with his dog in Lincoln (pop. 6,889) near the heart of the monument. Wild Hope, Willis’ nonprofit expedition outfit, leads “Sierra Treks” into the wilderness, while his “Littlefoot Expeditions” escorts those desiring to help protect wild places.
When he was 11, Willis was initiated into backpacking. Mountain climbing began at 17. “It was a lot more fun to roam and climb than to hit a ball with a stick,” the 48-year-old says today. “It was less confining and got me in touch with something bigger than myself.”
Before earning a degree in sociology from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., Willis already had taken the first step toward his lifelong mission, when, at 19, he worked as a guide on treks into California’s High Sierra. But four years later, on a testing climb of the highest point in North America, he suffered a setback.
Starting out with nine others, Willis climbed Mount McKinley in Alaska. Only two in the party managed to reach 300 feet below the summit: Willis and one other. But his companion was so exhausted he could neither advance nor retreat. “So I chopped a platform into the steep slope we were on,” says Willis, who gave his sleeping bag to the man. “And then I got in between the snow bank and him.” He recalls, “It was a chilling experience. It was the first time I’d ever been on a high-altitude arctic mountain, and I had no business being there. I was not prepared to bivouac and take care of somebody else at the same time.”
When Willis awoke the next morning, his hands and feet were frostbitten. After seven months of hospitalization and surgery to survive life-threatening gangrene, Willis was simply grateful that he could leave the hospital and enter a new life.
He began a journey into the depths of his faith, and in the process gained a master’s degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. His beliefs evolved to a conviction that “the essential human task is to serve the Creator by serving and guarding creation.” Consequently, his work does not feel like a job.
“When a wild place is at stake, giving up is not an option,” he says.
Across the street from his home, Willis rents a small office from where he prepares strategy for more wilderness protection in the West. He’d like the current boundaries of the new monument to expand and is asking the government to acquire private land within it when sellers are willing. Clearly, borders are not boxes for Willis, nor is being outside the norm.
“It’s enabled me to withstand criticism,” he muses, “because I’m already used to not fitting in.”