Green Footprints Project: Austen Hughes

My name is Austen Hughes, and I'm running 2,500 miles and planting 2,500 trees in all 50 states while traveling in my 1977 VW bus!

Since I was a really young kid, I always loved running around and exploring the nooks and crannies of the woods near my home, building forts, wading into creeks, hunting out the strangest and most wonderful insects and amphibians I could find. When I started high school, I started running cross country, which gave me a whole new way to really get out and explore places I never would have otherwise experienced. One day, the Environmental Science class I was taking at the time had us take a survey of our daily habits to calculate the number of earths we would need to sustain everyone on the planet if they lived like I did. The result: 5 earths. I was pretty shocked, and decided then that I in addition to reducing my impact, I had to figure out how to open everybody else’s eyes to this glaring problem. 

This led me to begin pursuing degrees in Environmental Science and Math at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I also ran a program for students called Green Games, a competition with the goal of educating students on ways to live more sustainably. As time went on I slowly began to realize that despite all of the research I was conducting with the university and with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on wildlife management, fisheries practices and climate modeling, the only thing making a real impact was the Green Games competition that reached directly to the students. So, as graduation loomed, I decided not to immediately pursue graduate-level ecology research, but to figure out a way to directly promote and educate people in ways to live more sustainably. I thought perhaps that traveling and experiencing some of the awesome natural places the world had to offer would spark an idea, and in the following year did everything from hiking the rocky volcanic trails of Iceland to climbing the snowy peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro to exploring secluded red sandstone grottos of the Grand Canyon. I ended up moving out to Colorado where bought and began working to restore an old 1977 VW bus, and was running more than ever, but wasn’t making any headway for how to pursue my dream. Then one day while visiting a friend in Flagstaff, Arizona, I met a couple who were traveling from Argentina to Alaska in their own VW bus. I thought it was a really cool idea, and after some brainstorming decided to combine my two biggest passions, running and environmentally sustainable living, into my own project, which I dubbed ‘Green Footprints’. Naturally the green VW bus (named Turtle) kind of became the figurehead for the project and provided a way to live, train, and transport trees around the country. So now, I am traveling to all 50 states, running 50 miles and planting 50 trees in every state all while producing less than 1 pound of landfill waste a month to inspire people to take steps in their own lives to reduce their ‘footprint’!