By Kaitlin Hill

At just 29, Warrenton native Callie Broaddus has already built an impressive résumé. With journalist, photographer, National Geographic book designer, board member, and lifelong environmental activist under her belt, her latest project adds founder, professional conservationist, and youth advocate to the list. Launched in August, Reserva: The Youth Land Trust is the culmination of all her experiences, personal and professional, and a return to nature where her multi-faceted career started. 

Broaddus credits her early-formed affection for the natural world to her Warrenton upbringing. Broaddus reminisces, “I was lucky enough to have five or six girls in my neighborhood, and we would run around in our meadow with butterfly nets to catch butterflies and watch them. I think that was my first immersion into nature.” Elementary school at Linton Hall was reinforcing too. She shares, “We had an outdoor class every other week called OCEW, Outdoor Conservation Ecology and Wildlife, and it was extremely formative for me.” 

(Above: Callie Broaddus with the “Still Wild” Exhibit. Photo by Kaitlin Hill.)

She expands, “We learned about ecosystem health and our local native wildlife. And over the past 20 years, I’ve seen a lot of the nature that I grew up loving disappear. That fostered in me a very deep concern for nature, not only globally but in my hometown.” 

For Broaddus, concern quickly turned into action. In fourth grade, she started her first conservation-focused group: The Nature Nuts. She remembers, “There was a Killdeer nest next to the blacktop where kids played knockout…So my Nature Nuts friends and I took it upon ourselves to guard the nest. Back then, I remember thinking that only we had the skills necessary to keep this bird safe.” She finishes, “Now that I look back, that was a real milestone in my career as a naturalist… I think that impressed upon me the importance of doing what you can to protect your piece.” 

One of the skills necessary would prove to be photography, a hobby, like environmental activism, Broaddus picked up in childhood. “As I kid I would walk through the woods, carrying my little, tiny camera and try to take pictures of woodpeckers. They would wind up being a millimeter in size in the middle of the frame, but it was an obsession from an early age.” 

As she matured, her passion for environmental activism and photography only increased. She explains, “I graduated high school in 2008 and went to UVA for four years to get a Bachelor of Science in architecture and a minor in urban and environmental planning, but I knew I didn’t want to be an architect. I wanted to get back to those roots in nature if possible.” 

Out of college, she found a natural fit at National Geographic. She remarks, “While I was there, my love of photography grew further…And I realized that photography could be a really powerful conservation tool.” She adds, “I started to think about photography more through the lens of how we can save animals and convey conservation methods.” 

(Frog by Callie Broaddus.)

While at National Geographic, she was asked to join the Rainforest Trust Council in 2018. Not only an honor, this invitation proved to be a step towards launching Reserva. Broaddus admits, “I didn’t understand why they would ask me. I didn’t have ‘doctor’ or ‘former ambassador’ or something fancy in front of my name. So I spent a few good weeks thinking about how I might be able to contribute something valuable to this group that I appreciated so much and felt so grateful to be a part of.” 

“It was then that I realized of all the people on that council, I was the only one that had a significant interest in youth and nature. It sort of hit me like a brick that no one had ever asked young people to be a donor constituency in the conservation space.” 

“I decided to pursue this idea of creating the world’s first entirely youth-funded nature reserve.” Armed with a mission, refined photography skills, and the support of her friends, family, and co-workers, Broaddus left her beloved book designing post and pursued Reserva full-time in August 2019.

Broaddus and her 50-person youth council (26 years old and below) are working towards creating the first entirely youth-funded nature reserve, specifically, a 1,219-acre site in the Ecuadorian Chocó Cloud Forest. “The idea of Reserva is not to be the world’s largest land conservation organization. Our goal is to be the most impactful youth empowerment organization in this space. Through storytelling we can take the impact that we have and amplify it.” 

(Orchid by Callie Broaddus.)

Though her project is undeniably ambitious, Broaddus knows first-hand the power of youth, thanks in part to her sister Finley. Broaddus shares, “Six years ago, my sister was diagnosed with an aggressively fatal cancer. She was an environmental advocate. She was completely obsessed with fighting climate change. And when she was diagnosed, she realized the toughest thing for her was that she couldn’t be making hands-on changes when she was confined to a hospital bed.” 

Finley started Finley’s Green Leap Forward Fund and set her sights on raising $18,000 by her 18th birthday, all to be donated to combat climate change. She raised $70,000. Broaddus adds, “Finley passed away on June 2, 2014 after a five-month battle with cancer, but before she died, she knew her fund had reached $100,000 and she was able to give out two grants to organizations fighting climate change.” She finishes, “While this experience was incredibly heartbreaking and affecting for me, it showed me that young people can transcend boundaries that science has not been able to, and that a young person’s passion can convey urgency where no scientific paper has been able to.” 

Like her sister, Broaddus’ most admirable quality isn’t necessarily her ambition, but her optimism when facing difficult times. Broaddus argues that this character trait, so often exhibited by youth, is crucial to success and fundamental to the conservation storytelling approach at Reserva. “A big part of this whole initiative, of Reserva and my own personal belief system, is that we are more productive at fighting this big challenge, tackling this enormous challenge of ecological crisis, if we are optimistic. And we are more optimistic if we can actually hear stories and see images of our chances of success.” 

(Above: Youth Council Members by Callie Broaddus.)

“When we learn about new species being discovered, that gives us a glimmer of hope. When we learn about landscapes that are so utterly wild that you can still see animals behaving in their real raw, wild, natural ways, that gives us hope.” Vital to Reserva’s brand of storytelling is making it equitable and accessible. For Broaddus, that means, “empowering youth where perhaps they need to be empowered the most.” 

The organization’s One Million Letters campaign is just one example of how Reserva is giving a platform to those who might not otherwise have one. Broaddus collects letters submitted by youth from around the world detailing what they love about nature and why their governments should do more to protect it. Each letter is met with a three-dollar match. Swelling with pride Broaddus explains, “It’s a wonderful thing, for example, to be able to tell an eight-year-old girl in Ecuador that even though she has no money, that we were able to match her letter with three dollars and that her voice is really worth something. That three dollars can protect a classroom-sized area of rainforest. To a kid, that’s enormous.” 

The accessibility aspect of Broaddus’ vision of conservation storytelling is largely accomplished by photography. At the start of 2020, Broaddus curated an exhibit of her photos from out in the field to bring the wild into the homes, and more importantly, into the hearts of the general public. Her gallery, which currently resides at Goodwin House in Bailey’s Crossroads, is a collection of inspiring, haunting, and breathtaking images of at-risk wildlife she has captured from her trips around the world. 

(Above: Cloud Forest by Callie Broaddus.)

“My goal through this exhibit is to tell stories that remind people that there are still wild places left to be discovered, species left to be discovered and to fight for…We can still take action to conserve these spaces and protect them for future generations.” The exhibit titled “Still Wild” is open to the public and will remain at Goodwin House through March 16, before moving to The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and later, the Janelia Research Campus. 

Broaddus shows no signs of slowing down when she addresses her plans for the future. She confesses, “Our dream at Reserva is, in five years, to have a network of youth-funded reserves around the world and a council of 100 youth that represents every corner of the globe.” With optimism, sheer determination, and conservation experience stretching as far back as adolescence, Broaddus is certainly prepared to keep fighting the good fight. 

“If you’re trying to tackle a problem, or go into battle against something as big as the biodiversity crisis that we’re in, you don’t take just one approach head-on. You flank the enemy from multiple sides…We are not just protesting for change. We are leading by example with what little we can. And if we can tell these stories, then perhaps we can influence change at a larger level.” ML

This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Middleburg Life.