Running toward sustainability: A conversation with Vic Thasiah, executive director of Runners for Public Lands

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By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer | Photos by Luis Chavez

Vic Thasiah loves to run. And he loves the natural world. The California Lutheran University professor (who earned his Ph.D. at Oxford) recently merged his two passions into a single philanthropic pursuit: Runners for Public Lands. Founded on Earth Day in 2019, this inclusive community is dedicated to harnessing the enthusiasm and drive of road and trail runners to advocate for the conservation of the lands they travel on foot. Its members raise awareness about climate change and the need to take action, participate in habitat restoration, advocate for environmental and social justice and more.

Thasiah spoke with Ventana Monthly about how his work in both religious and environmental studies mesh, his love of running and the outdoors, his goals for Runners for Public Lands and more.

Ventana Monthly: Are you from Ventura County originally?

Vic Thasiah: My parents are from Malaysia, and I was born and raised in Fresno, California. I’ve lived in Ventura County since 2011. I’m 49 years old, and live in Ventura with my wife Liz and daughter Athena, who’s just about to graduate from middle school. My other daughter Eden just finished her first year of college in New York.

What brought you to this area?

A faculty position at California Lutheran University in 2011. I’m an associate professor of religion and the chair of the religion department, and an affiliated faculty member in our environmental studies program.

You’re an associate professor of religion. Tell us a little bit about what you teach at CLU, and your areas of interest.

I teach courses connecting religious studies and environmental studies, and courses on religion and violence, and religion and politics. My primary research area is on the life of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m also interested in ways Asian American perspectives on the environment can contribute to environmental stewardship in the United States.

Why did you choose that particular specialty?

I’m fascinated by the way seemingly non-religious people live their lives in “religious” ways. In other words, I’m really interested in how people organize their lives around what they consider meaningful; and how they perceive, understand and consciously relate to contemporary social and environmental problems and possibilities. I’m also interested in how broad cultural forces, including economic forces, determine what’s meaningful for people, and organize their lives for them.

When did you take up running?

I ran for exercise as a tennis player in high school, and totally got into the sport while running cross-country for Fresno City College and recreationally at UC [University of California] Santa Cruz. In 2010 I ran my first marathon in Chicago, and have been hooked on longer distances ever since. In 2019 I ran my first ultra, the Chuckanut 50k in Bellingham, Washington, and now primarily enjoy running trails throughout Ventura County and the Los Padres National Forest.

How often do you run typically, and how far?

Five-six days a week, 35-50 miles per week.

How do you maintain your strength and stamina when your demands as a professor keep you busy?

Professors can have flexible schedules. Grading and prepping at night can leave some beautiful hours during the day for running.

When did you create Runners for Public Lands (RPL), and what inspired you?

We launched Runners for Public Lands on Earth Day 2019 with a trail run and habitat restoration event at Harmon Canyon in Ventura. I was inspired by the native runners who connected running with environmental stewardship at Standing Rock and Bears Ears. They ran long distances to protect their land, air, water and communities, and inspired people all over the world to protect human and natural communities from environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change.

What do you hope to accomplish with RPL?

We plan to organize and mobilize as many road and trail runners in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties as possible for regional and national environmental advocacy and conservation work, and support a national movement of runners across the United States doing the same in their own communities.

What role do you think runners can play in conservation, and why?

Runners are the largest outdoor recreation group in the United States — 60 million strong — and likely the most diverse and widespread; and, they’re out doing their sport more frequently than any other outdoor recreation group. They’re invested in the human and natural communities through which they run, and can become powerful advocates for the safety, health and beauty of the urban, rural and farther-out environments they run and love.

Tell us about some of the things Runners for Public Lands has accomplished.

We’ve organized runner participation, for example, in: support for our county’s wildlife corridor ordinance, public comments on oil and gas leases on regional public lands, the 805 Youth Climate Strike, engaging the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture on proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, defending Pine Mountain from ill-advised logging, coastal cleanup events, and efforts to protect a West Ventura community from the expansion of a gas compressor station next to an elementary school.

In addition to raising money for regional environmental organizations such as Los Padres ForestWatch and for relief work related to the Australian wildfires last year, we’ve hosted a number of educational events for runners to learn about, for example: local flora, fauna and geology; regional environmental stewardship challenges and efforts; national public lands; climate change; our local watershed; composting; and recycling.

What are some of the vulnerable areas that you’ve tried to support? what makes them in need of help?

Two examples: protecting Pine Mountain and protecting West Ventura.

Last year, when the U.S. Forest Service announced plans to thin out over 750 acres of old-growth forest and chaparral on Pine Mountain in Ventura County, threatening these habitats and trails, we took action. The agency released the proposal in late May using loopholes to approve and rush the project without any environmental assessment. With our Indigenous Chumash friends and many others, we advocated for an environmental review. Working with Los Padres ForestWatch, we helped contribute to over 10,000 public comments and fund a defense that was instrumental in stopping progress on logging plans.

This year, we joined Ventura’s Westside Clean Air Coalition to stop the poorly planned toxic soil removal and expansion of a dangerous compressor station across the street from an elementary school and after-school club in our community. Efforts are ongoing on this front.

Do you see any parallels between your work as a professor of religion and your environmental advocacy?

Yes, absolutely. Religion is about our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the natural world. For millennia, religious people have reflected on these relationships and have determined what’s good, bad, right, wrong, virtuous, corrupt, etc. with their communities, for their communities and others. Environmentalism, involving human and natural communities, and cultural and natural histories and futures, parallels religion in considering these relationships. Given the human and beyond-human stakes of global climate change, environmental degradation, and biodiversity loss, religious people (over 80% of the world) and non-religious people will have to come together on the biggest questions of life.

In your Trail Runner magazine profile, there was mention of RPL’s work with Diversity Equity and Inclusion. Can you elaborate on that?

Last year, our board of directors went through Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training, and has committed to requiring all board members to do at least a day-long training. Our primary project has been to recruit a full board of directors reflecting the Ventura and Santa Barbara counties we serve. In April 2021, we completed that recruitment process. Since then we have followed the work of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC) to keep learning, and we initiated what became a recently released joint statement with RIDC on runner support for transgender youth  (runnersforpubliclands.org/runners-support-transgender-youth/).

Do you engage with the natural world in ways other than running?

Nature is wondrous, and I try to enjoy it everyday. My wife, Liz, a passionate gardener, and I take long walks through our community daily. I’m also an avid backpacker, and take California Lutheran University students to Anacapa Island when I can to work on habitat restoration projects with the nonprofit organization Channel Islands Restoration (CIR).

What are some of your favorite places locally to go on a run? How about areas outside of Ventura County?

I love running up, down and through the Ventura hills, around where I live. Outside of Ventura County my favorite places to run are in Santa Cruz. During college there I fell in love with the natural world on runs through the Santa Cruz Mountains forests.

Where do you see yourself and Runners for Public Lands in 5-10 years?

I see Runners for Public Lands becoming a national organization, connecting runners to environmental stewardship across the United States. We’re currently working on setting up a national advisory council and creating simple toolkits to support running clubs and cross-country teams across the United States in connecting running with environmental stewardship.

What is your pie-in-the-sky vision for yourself? For your conservation work?

My hope is that through the work of Runners for Public Lands, kids growing up in the United States in the future will naturally connect identifying as a runner with active involvement in caring for the environmental and social conditions that make running possible and safe for everyone, and their communities flourish.

Anything else you’d like to share about RPL?

Runners for Public Lands is led by a remarkable board of directors, and three amazing teams working on advocacy and education, events and outreach, and development; and we’re all volunteers. On June 2, 2021, Global Running Day, Runners for Public Lands launched its membership program. To support our work, we encourage everyone to become a member!