Jeff Marion, adjunct professor of natural resources recreation in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment and a recreation ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has received the Distinguished Staff Alumni Award from the Boy Scouts of America’s Philmont Staff Association.
Marion began his long-standing relationship with the Boy Scouts at age 11 and with Philmont Scout Ranch, a 214-square-mile base for high adventure in New Mexico, when he turned 14. He credits both with inspiring his deep love of the outdoors.
“The Boy Scouts introduced me to the outdoors,” Marion recalled. “In high school, I was into all the outdoor activities like hiking, camping, canoeing, and rock climbing. In school I gravitated toward biology and ecology because of my outdoor experiences. I first worked at Philmont at age 17 and served as a staffer for five summers until I started graduate school and summer fieldwork.”
Ultimately, Marion’s time in the Boy Scouts inspired him to pursue a degree in wilderness management and recreation at the University of Minnesota. For more than 30 years since, he has led research projects in the United States and abroad assessing impacts on park and wilderness campsites, trails, and cliffs from recreational use by visitors.
Marion has also been instrumental in developing Leave No Trace, an educational program that guides outdoor recreation nationwide, and bringing it to the Boy Scouts.
“Leave No Trace is about making decisions to protect the world around you,” he explained. “A lot of people think that it means picking up all the litter before you leave your campsite, but it’s much more comprehensive than that. Leave No Trace covers all kinds of how-to topics, from storing food away from wildlife, to preventing campfire impacts, to properly disposing of human waste.”
Marion has served as a member of the Boy Scouts Fieldbook Task Force, providing guidance for the book’s Leave No Trace content. He was also a founding member of the Boy Scouts Leave No Trace (now Outdoor Ethics) Task Force, which gave rise to a Leave No Trace Master Educator course. In 2014, he authored the guidebook “Leave No Trace in the Outdoors” as a resource for land management agencies, nonprofit organizations, and the general public.
Marion regularly teaches Leave No Trace principles to the young people he comes into contact with — during five years as a Boy Scout leader and 14 years as leader of a Venture Crew, a coed, high-adventure youth program offered by the Boy Scouts.
“I feel a responsibility to mentor others the way I was mentored,” Marion said. “Teaching Leave No Trace practices and outdoor ethics is an important component. I prefer teaching youth through experiential education and good, teachable moments.”
This approach seems to be paying off. According to Marion, some of his proudest moments have involved former Venture Crew members returning home with stories detailing how they shared the message of Leave No Trace with college roommates, classmates, and new friends.
“I just glow when a young woman comes back from college and says, ‘You wouldn’t believe what my roommate did while we were camping!’ They feel a compulsion to share their knowledge with their new friends. The impact you’re making with youth is more personal and tangible than publishing yet another journal paper,” Marion explained.
Marion has been encouraged by the spread of the Leave No Trace message through the Boy Scouts during the past several years, particularly at Philmont.
“Every summer, Philmont has 1,000 staff and 22,000 backpackers on 11-day trips, and they are all taught to practice the full range of Leave No Trace principles,” Marion said. “The rangers are teaching the older scouts excellent, low-impact outdoor skills and ethics, and it’s really made a big difference in the scouting movement nationwide to have the scouts modeling these behaviors when they return home.”
Despite his nearly lifelong work with the Boy Scouts, Marion admitted he was surprised to receive the award.
“It was a complete surprise. I didn’t even know I was nominated,” Marion said. “Many of the past recipients have been NASA astronauts, famous authors, even internationally acclaimed mountaineers who have summited Everest.”
The Philmont Staff Association’s Distinguished Staff Alumni Award is presented annually to a current or former staff member to recognize “distinguished or exceptional personal success or achievement on a national or international level . . . that brings honor and credit to the legacy of the Philmont staff.”
“At Philmont, I discovered my own ability to teach and to lead. Philmont prepared me exceptionally well to do my field research in graduate school and beyond,” Marion said. “It was superb training for my career, so giving back to the scouts is a natural thing for me. They turned me on to my career, and now I can pay them back.”
Marion earned his bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University in Ohio and his master’s and doctorate from the University of Minnesota. He is currently conducting a comprehensive four-year study on user impacts on the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail.