Actually, several events combined to spark Hicks' idea for the Headwaters Institute, a non-profit organization working toward bettering the education and communication between national river communities and the general public.
First, a raft guide on Costa Rica's Pacuare River told Hicks about the issues endangering the watershed. After that, American river issues that had been there all along began to come out from under his nose. "I had a ÔSave the Arkansas' sticker on my car for like five years before I knew it was in trouble," remembers the veteran raft guide.
Probably the most powerful factor to induce him to do something in the conservation realm was his internship at American Rivers, a national conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring America's river systems and to fostering a river stewardship ethic. The organization was founded in 1973 to expand the number of rivers protected by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Along with its conservation efforts, American Rivers promotes public awareness about the importance of healthy rivers and the threats that face them.
"But," says Hicks, "they didn't have access to the whitewater community, so they didn't have access to their natural audience." As there seemed to be a common overlap, the entrepreneurial river guide started a pilot project in 1996 on New Mexico's Rio Grande, where guides from the Kern, American, and Arkansas rivers were hooked and signed on to lead similar seminars on those rivers in 1997. Colorado River guides joined up in Ô98, while the Snake and Kennebec rivers will host programs in Ô99.
In beginning the institute, Hicks spent the first year on the phone with an advisory committee of experts such as Friends of the River director Laurie McCann, author Tim Palmer, and Mark DuBois, co-founder of Friends of the River and the International Rivers Network.
The institute organizes and sponsors guide interpretive seminars, connecting guides with experts who provide quality info that highlights the natural, human, and environmental history of a particular watershed. Once trained, these guides become "River Jedi," outdoor educators able to broaden the public's appreciation of rivers and their watersheds.
"I have an amazing profile of guides from across the country. They're a nomadic band that branches out all over the world," marvels Hicks. And they're the people who really make this work, he insists. "No matter your level of inspiration, you can't do it alone."
In the U.S., there are 14 rivers, on which 1.5 million people whitewater boat every year, and there are about 4,000-5,000 guides who take them down those waterways. "In one or two years, we hope to have contact with 750,000 more of these people," says the 30-year-old Headwaters executive director. "Before this, there has been no connection between the conservation issues and the public," he adds.
In 1999 alone, the Headwaters Institute has educated more than 600 guides, who will have contact with more than 240,000 people.
By instituting the River Trust, Hicks is taking guide outreach and pointing it toward conservation, focusing on three supportable issues: wildlife habitat, recreational value and open spaces clean water. Almost all river users, guides and clients alike, can appreciate that rivers provide at least these three benefits.