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Gregg Treinish studies wolverines in northern Mongolia. (Photograph by Jim Harris)

Trailblazer: Gregg Treinish

Saving the planet, one scat sample at a time—that’s not the slogan for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, but it could be. Founded by Gregg Treinish as a way to benefit the environment through adventure sports, the organization plays matchmaker between information collectors and thrill-seekers and guides groups through the backcountry.

Treinish funneled his energy into conservation after years of chasing adventure highs, such as hiking the entire Appalachian Trail and trekking 7,800 miles down the spine of the Andes Mountains.

Here the National Geographic emerging explorer shares some of his latest highlights, from Montana to Mongolia:

Wild Things: I’ve tracked spotted owls in California’s forests, grizzly bears in Montana, and sturgeon in the Fort Peck Reservoir. We discovered 17 new species of single-celled algae called diatoms. While tracking an unknown population of wolverines in the northernmost region of Mongolia, Darkhan, we cross-country skied for 230 miles through remote terrain, surrounded by Siberia on three sides, and collected 33 DNA samples from 27 sets of tracks to establish the first knowledge of this population.

Data Entry: The science community is underfunded and desperate for data, without outdoor skills or the time, money, or ability to get into the remote places where the information is. That’s where adventurers are going anyway. We identify scientists who are actually creating change now, and we teach adventurers how to collect useful information, from snow and water samples to DNA from scats and hairs.

Roads Diverged: So much of what happens in the woods, or while traveling in other ways, pushes limits. I’ve taken youth who struggle with drugs and family issues backpacking in the wilderness. Far out of their elements, these kids came into their own as they learned about the beauty of a peak and the confidence that comes from self-reliance.

Glacial Pace: I recently spent 11 days in Iceland. Many people do the Ring Road, but I wanted to focus on a small area, so I went to Vík and slowly hiked my way back across the glaciers, collecting samples of carbon deposits along the way. I saw puffins and explored a cliff edge that I’m probably the first to have climbed. The landscape is unlike anything I’ve seen before: lava combined with glacial carvings and lush green grasses, thermals, and puffins, whales, and marine life. You can hike for days without seeing anyone.

Value Added: Adventurers and travelers think big and dream outside of the box. There’s always an opportunity to make a difference while you play outdoors. That includes everybody, whether you’re an Everest climber or hiking a trail or looking for birds. When you collect data, you’re no longer an outside observer. You’re intimately engaged, learning about the issues a place faces and what it takes to preserve it—and that stays with you for the rest of your life.

This piece, written by Katie Knorovsky, first appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.