The Wilderness Workshop continues to help organize Maroon Corps’ parties and outings, though director Sloan Shoemaker says he has questioned whether it is a good fit for the land-based causes his organization champions. He is waiting to see whether the Corps rallies behind the Workshop’s latest wilderness campaign –– the Hidden Gems. So far, Shoemaker is optimistic: In late June, 25 volunteers came out to inventory potential wilderness lands.

“It was a clear success,” says Sarah Johnson, the Maroon Corps’ current coordinator. “Everyone who came went away with a map and a location to go do the inventory.” Now, Johnson has a significant e-mail list of supporters to call on at need.

Not all recreationists are behind the Hidden Gems campaign, however. The Wilderness Workshop seeks formal wilderness protection for biologically rich mid-elevation lands in the White River and Gunnison national forests and on nearby Bureau of Land Management land. Such protection might shut down some mountain biking trails and close off other areas to future development. Mountain bikers have organized in opposition, saying the wilderness proposal threatens the valley’s recreation-based economy. Conservationists reply that they have already removed about 100,000 acres from the proposal to accommodate trails. They assure mountain bikers that only relatively obscure trails will be affected, but the fight continues.

Dave Reed, development director at the Workshop and the man who laid the groundwork for the Maroon Corps back in 2005, worries that the Hidden Gems campaign could unnecessarily divide recreationists, pushing left-leaning mountain bikers away from hikers and into the arms of the right-leaning motorized ATV crowd. “I think it’s an unnecessary wedge between hikers and mountain bikers,” he says.

The problem frustrates many conservationists. Human-powered recreationists may think of themselves as environmentalists, says Shoemaker, but not many of them take action until their own use of an area is threatened. In the case of the Hidden Gems, the threat just happens to be wilderness.

“We say that the way to build advocates and to build support for wildlands protection is to get people to experience them. But at the same time you’re generating impacts,” he says. “It’s a paradox of conservation.”

At least one Maroon Corps founder, though, believes that recreationists are not that different from any other group. An issue has to touch people personally to get them involved, for better or worse. “I think there is kind of a magic formula to getting people activated, and it definitely has to be something they just intrinsically care about,” says Aron Ralston.

 

Ralston’s remark takes me back to an afternoon I spent last March at an event called the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, a backcountry ski race that starts at the stroke of midnight in Crested Butte, and ends 43 miles later in Aspen. It was mid-morning by the time I arrived, and the event was already drawing to a close. As I stood at the base of Ajax Mountain, a loudspeaker crackled out over the classic rock blaring from the PA system. Another pair of skiers had just arrived after 11 hours in the backcountry.

Patric O’Neill cruised by me with a red keg cup in one hand and a tight black ski cap on his head. He and his teammate had won the race. I introduced myself and explained that I was searching for an environmental ethic in the world of recreation. “What do you think?”

“Ski mountaineering is very soulful,” he said.” You may have guys in speed suits, but being in the mountains is the essence. It’s all about being in the trees.”

I pressed him for specifics. How does that play out? What about the big local issues: the proposal for a new wilderness in the area? The gas drilling that could take place just down the valley in Garfield County?

“I feel like the last few years have been a time for peace,” he said.

I gave up and complimented him on his sweatshirt. It was bright red and bore the Aspen Ski Co. logo -- an aspen leaf with a wavy stem like a set of ski tracks through fresh powder. On this sweatshirt, though, the tracks arced through a Grateful Dead skull.

O’Neill grinned and said that he and his teammate were yelling Dead lyrics back and forth as the sun rose, somewhere on a snowy, wind-whipped ridge off toward Crested Butte.

It sounded like fun.

Terray Sylvester is a former HCN intern and the editor of The Sopris Sun in Carbondale, Colorado.

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