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By Andrés Escalante, NatureBridge Manager of Partnerships and Wilderness Programs

Now a thriving partnership among the National Park Service (NPS), Yosemite Conservancy, and NatureBridge, WildLink began in 1999 with the goal of expanding access to and opportunity in our public lands.

WildLink welcomes high school students from communities that historically have experienced systemic barriers to accessing the outdoors. It invites them to explore Yosemite Wilderness and career opportunities offered there through immersive wilderness expeditions, community stewardship projects, family weekends, and alumni summer internships in the park. Thanks to Conservancy donors, more than 2,000 students have participated in more than 200 WildLink expeditions during the past 24 years, spending more than 800 nights in wilderness.

Why Wilderness?

Wilderness ranger Andrés Escalante and WildLink participant James Gonzalez clear trail debris in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias during a 2019 restoration project. Photo by NPS.

Wild places provide a place for students and teachers to reflect, to disconnect from everyday life, to be challenged, to feel connected to nature, and to be safe, inspired, and renewed. In Yosemite, we are able to consider our place in the wilderness — while growing as leaders, stewards, and friends.

WildLink focuses on access, exposure, equity, diversity, and inclusion. The program fosters experiences that help participants develop a relationship with wilderness that reflects personal experience, identity, and culture. This can help support lasting connections and ensures wilderness truly is, as stated in the Wilderness Act, “… for the permanent good of the whole people.”

“I have supported WildLink for several years now. It reminds me of all the wonderful years I was blessed to have visited Yosemite in my youth. I am so happy the teens of today have the opportunity to experience Yosemite through WildLink groups. What a great program.” —Cyndy Smith, Yosemite Conservancy Donor


An Agent for Change

With Wilderness rangers and NatureBridge educators side by side with students, participants reflect and engage in historical and cultural connections and representation, challenges, and values — inviting long-term relationship- building with wilderness. The experiences of backpacking to remote lakes or feeling humbled under grand night skies strengthens students’ understanding of the wider natural world, and how wilderness could relate to experiences back home and to their lives in Stockton, Turlock, Modesto, and other California towns and cities.

Community stewardship projects cement and validate the experience by sharing it with communities in collaborative reflection. Past projects have seen participants organize community willow tree planting initiatives at local nature reserves, river cleanup and camping trips where they teach their community Leave No Trace ethics, and student-to-student mentoring programs where WildLink alumni help guide the next wave of participants.

WildLink students gather around the campfire, savoring community and sweet treats. Photo by NPS.

Together, WildLink alums and staff are working to create a pipeline where the untapped potential of communities with barriers to the outdoors can shine through, and the next generation of wilderness ambassadors can develop and hone their skills.

As WildLink rebuilds in-person programming post-COVID, it has an added goal of focusing on more local communities and creating deeper, more sustainable relationships. Staff are reconnecting with groups that participated in the past, forming new connections, and putting on a full year of programming in 2024. They’re working to ensure WildLink remains an agent of powerful positive change, forges strong connections with our local communities, and introduces a diverse population of youth to the wonders and opportunities of Yosemite National Park.

This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2024 edition of the Yosemite Conservancy Magazine. Learn more about WildLink on the NatureBridge website.