Praise for Gene Zimmerman

Chris Braunlich

Gene ZimmermanWhat kind of person would spend more than ten years volunteering thousands of hours for an environmental nonprofit, without drawing attention to himself and his contributions? We have such a person in our organization, and I decided this is the right time to call him out. Behind his back some people have called him John Wayne. You know the type, the big guy who doesn’t say much, but when he does talk, you figure you better listen. Since he is Chair of our Board of Directors, in our Board minutes, he is officially Gene Zimmerman. But on the trail, he is just plain old Gene.

Two of our three founders, Rich Tobin and John Hollinrake, are highlighted in the video on our website which describes the origins of ConservationVIP®. I’ve tried to corral Gene, to get his perspective and contributions on the record, but somehow he seems to have slipped my net. So, I decided to write a bit  about him and hope it stirs up comments from others who know him, to fill out the picture. Maybe I can even prod Gene into commenting!

I met Gene when I was a volunteer on a trail maintenance trip to Torres del Paine National Park in 2007, before I became the CEO of ConservationVIP®. He was one of the trip leaders. I learned that he was from Montana, which gave him a gold star in my book, based on my love of Glacier National Park. I remember hearing that he was retired from Forest Service, but I didn’t pay much attention to that. I was mainly there to see the park. As long as the trip leaders got us to and from the park safely and didn’t work us too hard, that was good enough for me. When Gene, Rich and John twisted my arm to join the Board, I decided I should learn more about them and the organization before taking the leap. Only then did I learn that Gene has a very impressive history in the Forest Service, he has established other nonprofits, and he is nationally recognized for his work in establishing volunteer programs.

Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time working with Gene as a Board member. Most of our contact is via email and phone calls. He has weak points. The man can’t type, so good luck getting more than a short paragraph from him in writing. His life is busy, so he doesn’t always make the phone call when he promised. However, much more importantly, I find his experience and good judgement to be extraordinarily valuable, and I know I can count on him to step in when it really matters.

Gene in Torres del Paine in November 2017I have also worked with Gene in person on several volunteer trail maintenance trips which he has led to Torres del Paine, where I was his assistant trip leader. Gene makes trip leadership look easy. His ability to organize a project, to spot skills and match the right person to the right job, seems effortless. He quietly manages to keep volunteers safe while helping them fulfill their personal goals. Gene routinely earns top praise from our volunteers. I have learned a lot from “studying his moves”. I’ve not been as successful at emulating them. He almost always get better reviews than I do. Clearly, he is technically more experienced and competent in the trail skills department. As far as “people management”, I’ve seen Gene say “suck it up, buckaroo” when volunteers complain and get people laughing. I could never pull that off.

On a recent trip, I was rated as highly as Gene. Good for me, Go Chris! Or not. Unfortunately, Gene and I got the same rating because we were both rated as the worst of the worst. That was painful. Over 10 years of running volunteer trips, ConservationVIP® has never received such a terrible review for miserable trip leadership. We’re human, and volunteers have wildly divergent opinions about what constitutes a good trip leader, so we occasionally fail to please people. But this experience was off the charts bad. Gene and I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how this happened and what lessons we can learn for the future. We know what we did, what we tried to communicate, and why. That combination has more than satisfied most past trip participants, so I find it hard to place all the blame on us. I have spent sleepless nights trying to figure it out, but at the end of the day I have decided to accept that it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time.

Personally, I think I can handle the criticism better than Gene. What worries me is that Gene seems deeply hurt by it and I don’t blame him. He volunteers an enormous amount of time before, during, and after each trip, freely giving his time and expertise to help the environment and to help people have a great volunteer experience. He deserves much better than he got.

If Gene had an impact on your volunteer experience – leave a note in the comments. Maybe we can gather enough kind words to show Gene how much we all appreciate him.

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Agree! Gene is the greatest leader! Always kind, gentle, passionate about conservation and intentionally personable!

Dick Miner

My wife and I were lucky enough to work with Gene in the Virgin Islands and I Scotland. He is the best. He cares about everyone in the group and is a stickler for safety. Also, Gene is a fabulous teacher. His experience is invaluable. Gene – Don’t listen to those negative reviews. Keep on doing what you do best.
Dick Miner

Peter Levine

I was on the spring 2017 Torres del Paine trip. Two things impressed me about Gene as the trip leader. The first is that when he looked at the weather forecasts, he made sure that the days when we volunteers could go hiking, as opposed to spending the day working on trails, were the days with the best weather. He wanted everyone to have an all-around good experience and enjoy the best that Torres del Paine had to offer. He didn’t regard us as just workers on a trail crew.

The second thing that impressed me is the day he walked up and down the trail as we worked and asked people how they felt. He seemed to sense that some of us were tired. I told him that I was. He responded by saying that we’d go back to the lodge early that day so that people could rest. He obviously cared about our health and safety and made that a high priority. I respected him greatly for that.


I think Gene is fantastic. He was my trip leader spring 2015. He looked after us, always making sure we were doing alright and had what we needed. He was engaging and got to know each of us. And he loved what he was doing. He is a conservationist at heart and that had shown through. It’s inspirational to meet people who do what they believe in and love. Who wouldn’t want to be around that? This is how I remember Gene.

Chris S.

Gene’s leadership and friendship were key to my rewarding Patagonian experience. Over the two week trip, I found Gene to be someone who cares deeply about CVIP’s mission and possesses that rare combination of significant life achievement and unpretentiousness. He shared his wisdom with a sense of humor, and was always attentive to the well-being of volunteers. While we all wanted to be as productive as possible, Gene thoughtfully kept an eye on our energy levels, and would call for breaks when he sensed any fatigue. After a long hike on a free day, I’ll always remember seeing Gene waiting at the refugio window, breaking into a big smile and giving a thumbs up as we returned. I couldn’t have asked for a more caring, knowledgeable, and personable trip leader.

paula maybee

Gene is the epitome of what a “Good Man” is. His integrity, kindness and humor being the best of the best. I have had the extreme honor of knowing this man personally for many years and I have had the pleasure of working along side him on the Conservation VIP Virgin Islands trip. During our trip to the Virgin Islands, my husband and I found that Gene and all the CVIP staff did as much as they could possibly do with the resources available to make our experience and work there a positive one.

Is any trip “perfect”. No, and neither are we humans. If you willingly put yourself out there and try your best to make a positive difference in this world that should be “perfect” enough. If negative things happen, then they happen. But to focus on that is taking away from the positive intention of your decision to take this “trip” in the first place. Be the change you wish to see in the world. If this experience and this company were not good enough for you, then perhaps you should look within for the answer as to why that was.

I would take a trip anywhere with Gene and his staff. In fact, my husband is about to leave for Torres Del Paine Feb. 19th. He can’t wait!


Gene was fantastic. He was our trip leader spring 2015. He got to know each of us and was always making sure we had what we needed and were doing okay. Gene is a true conservationist at heart and that had shown through. It’s inspiring to be around people who do what they love and what they believe in. Who wouldn’t want to be around that? This is how I remember Gene.

Mike Pierce

Gene’s lifetime service to preserving our environment and educating others on the importance of this mission gives me hope that future generations will enjoy the great outdoors. The many days of conservation work, long conversations during bus rides and evening meals offers a unique opportunity to experience Gene’s dedication to our environment and his leadership. Gene is the consummate role model – smart, dedicated and caring! Our ConservationVIP trip to Torres de Paine bonded exceptionally and created lifetime friendships because of Gene’s leadership. That trip is still actively shared by all participants as if it happened yesterday. Thank you, Gene!

Bruce Ahlbom

I was also on the spring 2017 TDP trip. I’m surprised by the rating.
Gene was my bunk mate for 2 weeks with 5 others in the YDP Refugio. More than enough time and little space to recognize a leader.
I was inspired daily by hearing Gene’s feet hit the floor minutes before any alarm went off at 6 am (Inspiration).
He always showed a passion for his work and what we were doing. After a lifetime outdoors I actually learned quite a bit with Gene showing his passion for what he did (Passion).
The first day on the work crew we discussed what our goals were for the next 2 weeks and how we were to accomplish them. Explained very well and very simple goals. At the close of the day we all gathered to discuss, measure and analyze what we had done that day. (Results Oriented)
Through out the work day there was a constant feed back loop with Gene and the other workers regarding how we were doing. I can personally say any and all issues were addressed (Feedback Loop).
After two weeks I felt that we all left with an incredible feeling of accomplishment, life long memories and true friends. This speaks for all the leadership qualities highlighted above and shown by Gene and all the other leaders.
Thank you Gene!
PS. Can I suggest a review of the survey and the rating system used? That could very well be the root cause of the rating…

Jonathan Stewart

I have worked with Gene on a variety of volunteer projects intermittently for over the past 40 years. Our duties have included supervising a variety of volunteer and youth crews on National Forest lands, helping construct cabins and clearing logjams in a remote corner of British Columbia and most recently, working with CVIP volunteer trail crews rebuilding trails in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.

Gene is a consummate good host. always looking out for the safety and well being of the volunteers and his co-workers. His first priority is always maintaining the health and high quality of the experience for the volunteers. He recognizes that the physical labor of rebuilding a trail is often a challenging new learning experience for many of the volunteers, so he always balances it out with a good sense of humor and regular breaks. He understands that the work often involves sore muscles and, especially in Patagonia, drenching rain and strong winds, so he constantly adjusts the work schedule around the physical and emotional needs of the group. Over the past decade this has resulted repeatedly in very positive reviews.

I personally find it a bit dismaying to see that a single individual can undermine Gene and Chris’s amazing legacy of high quality work constructing trails, bridges and boardwalks in Torres del Paine with one negative review. Group dynamics are challenges that every leader is forced to deal with and it is not uncommon to occasionally stumble upon individuals who perceptions of the experience do not coincide with the reality.
I find it particularly dismaying when a lone individual, by using social media, can undermine a high quality program by censoring the individuals who lead it with little or no consequences for their action. But we regularly see the same dynamics play out in Twitter on our national stage, so ridiculously low rankings shared by one upset individual in this case, is not especially new or particularly dismaying. But I do find it disturbing when it strikes out at generous individuals like Gene and Chris who have volunteered so much of their lives to create a unique and valuable volunteer program like CVIP. They do not deserve such acrimonious censure. They have given their heart and soul to the program. I hope that others can see how patently absurd attacks like this are given over a decade of very positive statements by hundreds of volunteers who generously donated their time and energy through CVIP.
. .

Kathy Giraud

I was lucky enough to be on Gene’s crew at Torres del Paine in February 2016. Bottom line: I would follow Gene anywhere. He brings out the best in people, inspires them, pitches in, doesn’t judge or complain, checks the ‘pulse’ of the group often, laughs easily, and grabs everyone’s attention by speaking in a quiet voice. He is extremely humble. A real mentor. It was a privilege to have him as our trip leader.

Carol Green

Gene was our leader on the Spring 2015 Patagonia trip, he worked incredibly hard during the entire trip to keep the work end of the trip running smoothly while getting to know all the volunteers personally. His expertise in the field was amazing while at the same time he took the time to answer questions and patiently explained the ‘what and why’ of trail building. Several volunteers had prior trail building experience and Gene was open to new ideas and having more experienced volunteers partner with those less experienced. Any concerns we had were thoughtfully and carefully addressed.

Gene took the time to get to know all the volunteers and worked harder than many of us. The work and weather on this trip were challenging but this was a “volunteer work” opportunity and not a ‘vacation’. It was clear from the trip description that you would be working in a spectacular natural setting, you would have a couple of days off (typically not consecutive days) and you definitely needed to be flexible because of the challenges in working in a remote area. Many volunteers had guide books to the country, the park and the flora & fauna which they were happy to share, but the purpose of the trip leaders was to keep us all safe and engaged and they both did an excellent job. Although the volunteers had different abilities (hiking pace, working pace etc) due to differing ages and physical abilities, we were all encouraged to go at our own pace, work and hike safely, and the leaders were careful to keep the entire group between them while hiking. No mean feat. Over the years, we have volunteered with at least 10 different organizations and CVIP did much more to ensure volunteer safety than any other organization.

The trip with Gene remains the trip of a lifetime for us, most especially because of the efforts of Gene Zimmerman.

Anna Stryczny

It was a privilege to be able to travel with and work under Gene’s leadership on that trip. His passion and concern for the environment that we were working to maintain were evident and inspiring. His enthusiasm motivated the team, at the same time that he never pushed anyone beyond what was comfortable for them (of course, considering that we knew what we were signing up for). Gene cared very much that each person had a great experience and left with the same passion and enthusiasm he had, but he also made it clear it wasn’t his job to ensure us a great experience, it was our choice in our own attitude. As Kathy stated above (Torres del Paine, 2016), and I could not agree more with the sentiment, “I would follow Gene anywhere”!

Seetha V

I had the privilege of being on the 2018 Torres del Paine trip with Gene as one of our trip leaders. I can unequivocally vouch for what a great leader he was. He worked with us every day and always made sure that we were all doing well as it was physically taxing work. He checked on us every evening and insisted that I not work on the last day of our stay there when I injured my knee. He definitely was not slacking off while making the volunteers do all the work. I especially was thrilled when he picked me to accompany him for marking the trail path beyond where we stopped our work for 2018 for the team following us to install the boardwalk. It was a fantastic experience as I expressed in my review of the 2018 soon after returning from my trip. Thank you Gene for all your work and for showing us how it is done.

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