How Geoff Rowley Became Pro Skateboarding's Nature Warrior

Former "Skater of the Year" talks about his conservation efforts

"The worst slam is the one that's coming next, because I'm fine right now," says Geoff Rowley. Credit: Anthony Acosta for Vans

In the most remote and rugged California desert, a man scouts alone, for days on end, tracking animals to gain intelligence on their whereabouts; where they live; where they feed; where they sleep. He'll cover dozens of miles on foot, setting camera traps, plotting maps, and sleeping beneath the sky. And while this sounds like an adventurer's dream, it is only a skilled outfitting guide that can survive the wild in this manner – the desolate topography and unforgiving climate in places such as the Mojave Desert can quickly have the advantage over someone who has planned poorly. In these conditions, the man presses on relentlessly with a cause close to his heart: to protect and maintain populations of wild desert sheep, elk and deer in a seemingly antithetical way – ultimately, to guide hunters for the opportunity to "harvest" an animal.

It's not the setting or activity Geoff Rowley is famous for, but it's one he's deeply passionate about. 

Rowley, the Liverpool-born professional skateboarder and former Thrasher "Skater of the Year," initially took notes and inspiration from his childhood heroes – skate legends like Jeremy Wray, Danny Way and Matt Hensley. The young prodigy would poach his sister's roller skate wheels for his own skateboard, and ride at his local skatepark in hopes of following in their footsteps. It was during these early sessions that a skate pal, who also happened to be game warden in the U.K., introduced Rowley to the outdoors; awakening a revelatory interest in wildlife and hunting. The two would venture into the high country, into the fell, to stalk red and roe deer. Over time, Rowley became consumed with learning everything about the outdoors, from reading volumes on botany, ecosystems, and topography; to studying what animals do and why they do it. "That's why I hunt," says Rowley. "Because I'm interested in every aspect of it."

By the mid-Nineties, Rowley had made his first pilgrimage to California – where he had come to skate. Within two weeks of his visit, he was featured on the cover of Transworld. Shortly after, Rowley made a permanent move to Huntington Beach, California and began to explore outward. "In the times I was on skate trips, I would sneak in and camp in areas that I wanted to hunt," recalls Rowley. "There are a lot of drainage ditches and banks out in the foothills – excellent for skateboarding – but the foothills also offer great wildlife."

Over the next several years, Rowley became notorious for attacking skate spots with unyielding resolve, seeking out the biggest handrails, staircases and gaps he could find – and conquering them. In 2000, he was crowned Thrasher Skater of the Year and subsequently dropped some of the most quintessential skateboard video parts to date – Sorry, Really Sorry and Extremely Sorry. And while his contributions to skateboarding have since remained consistent and palpable – including a Battle Commander part on the Berrics and numerous Vans video parts – it was out in the California desert, while guiding for KIKA Worldwide, when Rowley discovered something that made him uneasy.

"I saw some stuff while I was guiding that made me feel uncomfortable," says Rowley. "Sick animals. Dead animals. I wanted to help." He had become aware of a rapidly spreading disease – strains of pneumonia that are decimating populations of desert bighorn sheep. Rowley reacted by donating financially to the Wild Sheep Foundation and since has become an ambassador to help in educating the public on the positive role that hunters and outdoorsman play in wildlife conservation. In addition, Rowley put forth the film Wild Sheep, where he documents how the donations are spent in hopes of shedding light on the positive role of the foundation and it’s supporters.

Rolling Stone recently visited Long Beach, California, where Rowley works to refine the development of products manufactured by his company, Civilware Service Corp – a manufacturer of tools and knives used in the outdoors. During our visit, Geoff describes what skateboarding was like for him as a teenager growing up in Liverpool, what compels him to jump from perilous heights, and offers a perspective altering look into the seemingly conflicting worlds of hunting and wildlife conservation.

What was the skateboarding scene like in Liverpool when you grew up there?
It's a tough city – run down and dangerous. At that time, Liverpool had the highest unemployment rate and highest teenage pregnancy rate in the United Kingdom. It was really run down and dangerous; and we got messed with almost everyday. We got rocks thrown at us and we would get punched or beaten up by gangs of guys—adults beating up kids. So it was tough, but we had this creative, resilient skateboarding community made up of punkers, hippies, guys with Mohawks, guys into rap and hip-hop, kids from both impoverished families and wealthy families. In that sense, we were fortunate – we were family. We powered through it all and we won.

Since moving here, you became a United States citizen, correct?
That's right. I'm proud to say that I'm an American citizen now, and I love this country. I moved to the United States when I was eighteen. I first came here with a couple of friends, who were starting a skateboard company, but I had no real plans – I wanted to skate and see what America was like. I had $153 in my pocket, a plane ticket and I wanted to skate the smooth concrete and painted curbs, because we didn't have that in England. But what I have come to love most are the public land opportunities and resources we have access to – accessible to everyone, whether rich or poor.

You lived in California in the Nineties during the notorious Warner Avenue days in Huntington Beach with Ed Templeton and a heavy list of skaters. What was that like?
I spent a lot of time with Ed Templeton, Andrew Reynolds, Dustin Dollin all those guys from that time period. We had a fairly healthy industry and an influx of people from a lot of different places. We were very natural, everyone was skating all day long, everyday, just trying to progress what skateboarding is. I'm blessed and thankful too that I was able to skate with guys like that, with no bad vibes. That's all I've ever known.

Andrew Reynolds described a scene to me where they rarely skated, that they were partying all of the time. You've been recognized as a catalyst for change during that era—going out and attacking everything.
I can only speak for myself, but skateboarding has always been in the center of everything that I do, and that I want to do. So when I was twenty years old in the Nineties, dang right I'm going to go out and skate, and push myself, because that's what I like to do and that’s the way I skate. That's the only way I’ve ever been able to learn tricks, through repetition – spending time on the board. I've never had periods where I didn't skate. I've never I slowed down – maybe while healing. I've broken as many bones as there are guys out there. When you're recovering from broken bones, torn ligaments, internal bleeding or whatever it might be, you slow down a little bit.

You go after some seriously daredevil shit – the container gap, the roof gap with the spiked fence. What drives you to that sort of stuff?
When I was growing up I wanted to be Matt Hensley, Natas, Danny Way and Jeremy Wray. Jeremy was knocking down doors. He could ollie really high, really far – he hit big rails, big stairs, big flat ground gaps with flips. And Danny was pushing the physics on transition, and on bigger ramps and combination stuff. I wanted a piece of that – I wanted to be balls-to-the-wall and learn everything, all the techniques frontside and backside, front side tail slides, backside tail slides and as fast as I could go. I wanted to do that in street skating. I wanted to go as fast as you can go, and then even faster with no pads, and get away with it.

What’s the worst slam you've taken?
I've seen worse slams that I've taken – broken necks, hands, arms, legs, hands, torn urethras – some seriously bad slams. But the worst slam is the one that's coming next, because I'm fine right now.

Let's talk about your interest in wildlife management. How did you get into conservation and become a hunting guide?
I grew up with a game warden in England, my friend Andrew Warrington. He also skated for a famous old skate company. We would go out into the high country, into the fell, and we would stalk red deer and roe deer. That's how it started. After that, I started to pursue the side of the outdoors that I was interested in: the animals, the trees and the logistics of where animals live, where they sleep and what they feed on. I would study what they do and why they do it. That's why I hunt, because I'm interested in every aspect of it. The act of taking an animal's life is not something that's a focus for me – it's only one part of the process. But it's also very personal. When you take the life of an animal, the animal deserves respect. If you take an animal's life for meat, then it deserves the effort of removing all of the usable meat, and that requires a good shooting, not to damage the meat.

You're a guide for KIKA Worldwide Outfitting. What does this entail?
I'm a hunting guide for KIKA. People book us for hunts to pursue a particular species of animal and we will guide them. We will take them out and do everything we can to help them be successful in harvesting the animal. We specialize in hard-to-draw tags. I cherry pick particular hunts to improve on my personal skillset in that space. I'm green – I've been guiding maybe four years, but I've spent a lot of time in the outdoors and I'm comfortable navigating through wild country. It's a lot of map work and the hunts that we do are very endurance driven. There might be one tiny spring in the entire range and you have to get to it. But that's my role, I'm a hunting guide and I help the company from a branding standpoint – getting position in that space and networking to help gain support from brands that could support our outfit.

How does this integrate with your skateboarding?
I do it to stay in shape. My work as hunting guide is very endurance driven. I guide for desert sheep and some of those hunts can be extremely grueling, tough and physically demanding. Ultimately, it has a huge effect on my skating. I can skate for hours upon hours, more than I could when I was twenty-three – that's where I gain from my outdoor experience. My knees and ankles swell up because I've fucking broken them so many times, but my lungs don’t give out.

Wild Sheep from Civilware Service Co. on Vimeo.

In the Wild Sheep film, you describe a paradigm for the future of the desert sheep and a call to action. How did you get involved with this project?
The desert sheep and big horn sheep just don't seem to get a lot of attention, and they're the toughest animals that live in the desert southwest; and if we value our natural resources, we better fucking take care of them. And so, I saw some stuff while I was guiding that made me feel uncomfortable – sick animals, dead animals. I wanted to help. I felt compelled to educate people on what's going on, and so I've dedicated time and money to make this film on the wild sheep populations, particularly desert sheep populations in Arizona, Nevada and California. But it was also important for me to show the positive role that hunting plays in conservation – through funding of hunting tags and through hunters’ donations.

There seems to be a conflict between hunting and wildlife conservation, but you describe it as a critical pairing for the future of the species?
The Wild Sheep Foundation, through funding of hunting tags and donations, raised over six million dollars this past year for on-the-ground wild sheep conservation. To put that into perspective, the state of California allocates between $150,000 and $200,000 annually into wild sheep conservation. One single tag at the big sheep show in January sold for $235,000 this year – from a donor that knows he's giving back. I see a lot of people turning their noses up at someone who spends a few hundred thousand dollars to buy a tag to kill an animal. They think it's over the top, or ridiculous. Well hang on a second; if the death of one animal can double an entire state's revenue for conservation of the species as a whole – well, that's a beautiful thing. My response also to that is – If that's not a viable method to bring in revenue, then what is? What are you going to do?