Meet Phill Monson: An Inspiring Steward and Best Friend to Our Public Lands

This month at Nature First, the topic we’re highlighting is “Lead By Example.” This subject falls in line with one of Nature First’s principles,- Actively promote and educate others about these principles.” When thinking about others who inspire and educate, I immediately thought of Phill Monson, from Utah, whose tireless work to educate others and clean up our lands has been highly motivating. He’s not only inspired others to follow in his steps, but his positivity sends a great message that we can all be influencers for positive change. I wanted to interview Phill to learn a bit more about him and why he set out to help educate and inspire others to become good stewards to our lands.

Phill, thank you for taking the time to chat with us today! I know I speak for others and myself when I say that you have been very inspiring to follow the last few years, and thank you for all that you do to bring awareness to the issues our public lands and wilderness face and for being an amazing steward to these places.  

First, we’ll start with your background. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you started in photography?

Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat! Nature First is such an important coalition and endeavor, and I’m thankful to be part of it. 

As for myself, I like to think I’m a pretty simple guy just trying to do what I can to bring awareness to issues we are facing in the outdoors. I grew up in Idaho, Oregon, and Utah, all heavy outdoor activity states, and had Leave No Trace and stewardship principles instilled in me at a young age. I consider Utah home and am so thankful I live in such a beautiful state that you can easily be in the alpine to desert environments within a few hours. My wife and I have two amazing kids, and we all love being outside as much as possible. 

 As for photography, after graduating college, my wife and I decided to take a celebratory trip to Europe, so of course, we needed a “good” camera to document our travels. I picked up a Canon Rebel and instantly found it a rewarding experience to create images. I found photography to be a great excuse as well to spend more time in Nature documenting our incredible public lands.

As my photography has evolved, so has my outlook on it – I don’t see photography as the end goal. Photography now is more of a nice to have than a need to have. I know it might sound weird, but I don’t consider myself a photographer, rather a person that happens to take photos once in a while as I connect with Nature. My mantra over the last few years has been “Nature First, Photography Second.” 

By now, we’re are all familiar with the negative impacts that some social media posts can have on the environment. Since this month’s theme here at Nature First is “lead by example,” can you share some insight on how influencers and others that enjoy Nature can help bring awareness (and a positive influence) to help educate others in our wilderness areas?

I have a lot to say on this, so hopefully, it all makes sense! We all see the negative going on right now with increases in litter, vandalism, illegal activities, etc. It can be tough to focus on the positive with all that is going on, especially with governments not necessarily helping with reductions to monuments or clearing old-growth forests. It feels very overwhelming at times. Still, it is more important than ever (especially for my mental health) to work on the positive and use education to help with these issues. 

“…we are influencers in our own way, whether we like it or not.      — Phill Monson
I think we all have to understand that we are influencers in our own way, whether we like it or not. If you have one follower or a million, the people that follow you value your posts, thoughts, and actions, so it is more important than ever to lead by example. Leading by example is what true influence is. I can’t preach for people to pick up garbage if I, myself, am not out picking up trash regularly. I can’t promote outdoor ethics if I am not practicing what I preach. I fully support the concept that any type of change begins with ourselves, and by doing the work, it will naturally inspire others.

When it comes to helping our public lands, many think that means monetary. While monetary, of course, is helpful, there are so many ways to help, like picking up litter, volunteering for restoration, encouraging engagements with government officials, using your voice for education, etc. A favorite quote of mine from Jane Goodall is, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”  

In essence, we need to use whatever platform we have to influence for good.

I will add, in regards to influencing positively, I have drastically changed direction on education and how I approach things. I admit, sadly, that I fell into the trap of the mob-mentality and call-out justice for a while early on. I learned pretty quickly that being a jerk doesn’t get the conversation very far regarding calling people out. For my mental health and the mental health of others, I just don’t feel that’s the right way to go about things, though I understand others differ. It’s a very hard balance, and I try to follow some rules for myself when engaging with bad or illegal behavior online, such as sending a polite, educational DM – maybe the person truly didn’t know. If I see something truly illegal, I send it directly to @special_agentNPS, who have the ability to deal with those things. Another idea is that for every bad thing we see in public lands, we can be the better example with what we post.

My goal is to call out behavior vs. the individual, and I try to incorporate that into education. One reason I love Nature First so much is that it does just that – teaching correct principles and letting people make a choice to be better for the outdoors. I typically try and follow a “four E” approach of being Educational, Engaging, Entertaining, and Easily shareable. This approach is to have some humorous, tongue-in-cheek posts that focus on correcting behavior and more of a “don’t be THAT guy” process which I feel has been better received.

You recently worked on a children’s book. While the focus is usually on adults interacting in Nature, you took a different approach and focused on a fun spin to educate children. How has that been received?

Growing up, I had many positive examples like Woodsy Owl, Captain Planet, and so on that tried to reach children and teach stewardship. Sadly, we don’t see a lot of that around anymore. As I have witnessed litter become more and more of a problem, I began to think about where real change would be possible, and that was with kids and the next generation of outdoor lovers. If we can somehow reach children and teach them that 1) littering is wrong and 2) that if you see litter, you can clean it up, then I have some hope for the future generation. A big part of that thought process was the reason for inventing the Nigel the Litter Hunter persona. I wanted to do something that was entertaining (well, to me anyway, haha) to adults but show an example to kids. This idea was reinforced to me when several people reached out saying they watch Nigel with their kids, and it motivated them to clean up litter. Notes like that mean the world to me and help me to keep going on this quest. With all that in mind, I started thinking of other ways to teach children and felt that a children’s book was the next logical step.

“…anyone, especially kids, can make a difference for our wild places.  — Phill Monson
Not knowing anything about getting a publisher, or anything about the book-making process, I started fleshing out a rough draft of the story of a guy who goes to his favorite campground but finds it covered in trash. The story follows how he learns to leave it better and how anyone can be a hero for Nature. I wanted it specifically to make a point that anyone, especially kids, can make a difference for our wild places. I reached out to my good friend Alex who is an amazing illustrator, to see if he wanted to help me out, and thankfully he agreed! We wrote the story, did all the illustrations then put it on Kickstarter, where we had an incredible amount of support and funded the project. 

Right now, we have donated several copies to local libraries and have been able to read it virtually to several outdoor groups and public land organizations. We hope to eventually do another in the series talking about vandalism and general outdoor awareness.

You live in a state where National Parks and Wilderness areas have been hit particularly hard by litter, damage, and graffiti. I know that it can seem like an overwhelming uphill battle to make a change for the positive, but can you share an experience you’ve had where your education and leading by example has had a positive outcome?

Looking for and finding the good is essential these days, especially with how much negativity is constantly in our faces. I’ll share a few things that have happened since focusing to a stronger emphasis on stewardship:

One of the most incredible moments for me was when I announced my first group clean-up effort, and people actually showed up! People with busy lives took time to join me to clean up a canyon that desperately needed help – we removed over 30 large, 40-gallon bags of litter. It was an amazing moment, and you could feel the positivity and joy among us. One volunteer commented, “the canyon should rest easier tonight.” Isn’t that profound? 


I’ve had several notes from people saying that they have been motivated to pick up litter in their hometown or parks or have thought differently about what they post or focusing more on education when using social media.

Some of my educational posts have gone a bit viral, and 99.9% of the comments are very supportive and positive. Many of which are things like “I had no idea this was an issue, now I know!” or “I’ve done that in the past. Now that I know better, I won’t do that.” To me, that is a massive success and what I am going for – educating by bringing attention to behavior and helping others make a choice to put Nature over themselves. 

As for me, there has been a lot of positive change personally. It is easy to get caught up in everything in life and how stressful things can be. I have found that by doing service for Nature, my attitude and general outlook on things becomes almost instantly better when I focus on service vs. myself. A quote I love from Rabindranath Tagor is, “I slept and dreamt that life was a joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted, and behold; service was a joy.”

Don’t get me wrong, there are massive challenges facing public lands right now, but my hope is we can see a new trend of making stewardship and respecting these places the cool thing to do.

What are your hopes for the future of Nature First, and what would you like to see in the future?

I think Nature First is already doing such an incredible job with promoting the principles and getting photographers to adopt these ideas and make better choices. I tend to think in broader, larger terms, and I think the Nature First principles could apply to so much more than just “photographers.” I think at this point, everyone is a photographer with their cell phones, even if they don’t think of themselves as such. We are also seeing the emergence of “content creators” so having Nature First be more of a code of conduct for anyone enjoying the outdoors would be great.

Another idea is a Nature First for brands. So many right now work with influencers to get product shots that don’t follow these principles so it would be great to see a set of guidelines for brands to be on board with when they work with influencers and who pledge to be better when respecting rules in public lands and the environment in general. Something like “We’re a Nature First certified brand,” which lets people know they hold up to a better set of standards/ideals when promoting their products and who they work with.

One step at a time, I suppose. The work right now is so important and so needed. It is great to see the coalition grow and work to be the standard to which photographers hold themselves.

When problems arise during these challenging times, and Nature isn’t always prioritized, Phill really is a voice for our wilderness. We all must be this voice for our wild places and help in any way we can. Through his inspiring endeavors, it’s safe to say that Phill is a top steward and voice for our public lands and wilderness. These places are lucky to not only have Phill on patrol, but we’re fortunate for his continued positive spirit in leading by example and empowering others to do the same. Remember, it takes a village, so the more positive impact we can have by leading by example, the better off our wildlands will be. It may seem like an impossible task at times, but like Phill, take it one step at a time or one piece of trash at a time, and we’ll all continue to inspire others and gain momentum in protecting our natural and beautiful places. 

Thanks to Phill Monson for taking the time to talk with us today! To see more of Phill’s work and what he’s up to, you can visit him on Instagram: 

@phillmonson @adventureresponsibly