The People Behind the PCTA: Ian Nelson, Southern Oregon/Northern California Regional Representative

Note: This story also appears in the Summer 2022 issue of the Communicator magazine.

In 2004, Ian Nelson was in his second year as an associate regional representative for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) when he applied to be the first regional representative for the Pacific Crest Trail.

After the full process, Mike Dawson, another former ATC staffer and then Trail Operations Director at the Pacific Crest Trail Association, called Ian to offer him the job. Then,“It was a no-brainer,” Ian recalls, and in 2005, he became one of the first PCT regional reps and remains PCTA’s Southern Oregon/Northern California Regional Representative today.

Ian Nelson and his wife Amy at Humphreys Basin in the High Sierra.

A Mid-Atlantic native who grew up in Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay, Ian learned about backpacking and camping in the Boy Scouts and had seen some of the West’s iconic outdoor places on summer motorhome trips with his grandparents. His early backpacking experience was on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.

At Virginia Tech, Ian studied forestry and wildlife. The school’s southwestern Virginia location was a big influence on his career.

“Virginia Tech was the right place for me,” he says. “It was next to big national forests, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I was climbing in West Virginia’s New River Gorge before most people knew what it was — and it’s a national park and preserve now.”

Ian got involved in the outing club at Virginia Tech, which maintained a 30-mile section of the AT. This is where he got his first experience as a trail maintenance volunteer. “I got chain saw-certified in college and was out on the trail clearing blowdowns and cutting brush. And it was then that I realized I wanted to work in conservation for trails.”

It was also during this time that Ian met Mike, who was the AT’s Southwestern Virginia Regional Rep and spoke at outing club meetings where he’d advise the students on trail maintenance.

After college, Ian spent six years in California teaching environmental education. He also met his wife, Amy, who has been his partner and supporter ever since. He and Amy moved back East in 2003 when he was offered a position working for the ATC.

Ian credits Karen Lutz, the ATC’s former Mid-Atlantic Regional Director, with helping him to see the value of the work for the national trails community. And Ian knew Mike had moved west, first working for the Pacific Northwest Trail and then the PCT.

“Mike is a legend in the trails community,” Ian says. “I don’t use that word lightly, but the national trails as a whole are better for his work, particularly on the PCT. I remember getting a lot of sage advice from him when I was in college, walking the AT, some of my earliest trail management conversations.”

It was Amy, though, who actually found Ian‘s PCTA position.

“We joke that she called me at work and said, ‘You’re gonna apply for this job, right?’”

Lutz, Ian’s mentor at the ATC, was supportive. “She said that if she were in my shoes, she’d do the same thing.”

So in January 2005, Ian and his father drove across the country to meet Mike in Ashland, Oregon. “My parents were awesome. They helped Amy pack up and sell our house so she could fly out and join me.”

Ian and Amy in Steens Mountain Wilderness, Oregon.

Today, Ian’s region of the PCT spans 460 miles, from McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park in Northern California to Windigo Pass in central Oregon. Originally his region was farther south and included Lassen Volcanic National Park, but he and Amy wanted to live in a larger city, partly so Amy, who is a nurse, would have more job options. They settled in Medford, Oregon.

“All of the PCTA reps are quite proud of our regions, but I’m pretty fortunate in a lot of respects,” says Ian. “It’s an incredible part of the world to live in, and I live just a few hours from both the northernmost and southernmost boundaries of my region, so it’s very manageable.”

Ian is proud that he was a part of Mike’s legacy of building the PCTA’s regional presence throughout the trail. “First and foremost was building our regional offices but also crucially important was building relationships with volunteers and land management agencies. Mike really instilled the idea that we were the champions of the National Scenic Trail. He brought a wealth of knowledge regarding the history of the National Trails System and the law and policy behind it. And he encouraged us to educate ourselves in that law and policy.”

Moving forward, Ian believes the PCTA has plenty of work to do managing the PCT along with agency partners to address many challenges. But he also says the trail operations team is incredibly strong, ready and willing.


Author: Scott Wilkinson

Scott Wilkinson is the PCTA’s Content Development Director. A former professional musician, Scott has 20+ years of experience in almost every marketing role. Before joining the PCTA he was a marketing/creative director at West Virginia University and the University of Oregon. A serious outdoor addict, Scott is an experienced whitewater paddler, hang glider pilot, flyfisher, mountain biker, and (of course) hiker and backpacker.