Conservation for the adrenaline crowd
by Terray Sylvester
Perched on a blue exercise ball behind a busy desk, Clare Bastable speaks with a fierce but good-natured energy: "I don't know what happened. At first it was a really exciting new concept, but over time it's hard to maintain a level of commitment." She pauses, and then says wistfully, "Gosh, there was so much excitement around it!"
The 34-year-old program manager for the Western Conservation Foundation, which disburses grants to conservation groups, is talking about the Maroon Corps, a group she helped launch amid fanfare back in 2006, but has since left. Though the Maroon Corps is still alive, it has slipped dangerously close to the crevasse of good intentions. Its leaders continue to struggle with a common challenge: How do you get the younger, recreation-crazed generation involved in environmental activism?
Bastable doesn't blame disengaged recreationists for the group's troubles. But she does wonder if a measure of appreciation for the landscape and its ecosystems is lacking in today's most ardent climbers, mountain bikers and skiers, making them less likely to fight for causes that don't directly protect their sport of choice.
Bastable has strong ties to both the recreation and conservation camps. A dedicated mountain bike racer and backcountry skier, she has taught environmental issues at the college level. She helped shape the now-defunct Colorado-based Wilderness Education Institute, an outdoor education program designed to instill high school students with an appreciation for conservation issues. She has also served as conservation director for the venerable Colorado Mountain Club. In her experience, she says, it is easier to get gray-haired hikers to call or write Congress or the U.S. Forest Service than 30-something Lycra-clad mountain bikers. "You reach a certain threshold where I think it becomes a little bit less about the experience of enjoying nature and being outside and embracing that context, and a little bit more about being hardcore and beating this time.
"There is almost a void of (environmentally) active people in my generation," says Bastable. "We like to get quick feedback, instant gratification. We're an adrenaline generation."
The Maroon Corps' founders were well aware of these characteristics when, in the fall of 2005, they were first brought together by The Wilderness Workshop, the Roaring Fork Valley's oldest conservation group. The original focus group included about 15 people, many of whom were recreation addicts themselves. In addition to Bastable, there was Chris Davenport, an award-wining extreme skier who's schussed through ski-porn films by such big names as Warren Miller and Matchstick Productions; there was Peter McBride, an accomplished photojournalist, climber and adventurer; and Aron Ralston, then in the national limelight after his harrowing 2003 escape from a Utah slot canyon, during which he had to amputate his own forearm.
The focus group laid the groundwork for an organization based on its own members' lifestyle: The younger generation does want to get involved, they believed, but it wants causes presented to it -- preferably in the context of a party. "There are more than a hundred nonprofit organizations in our valley. I think it's tough to figure out how to get involved and who to get involved with," Bastable says. "So we thought, 'OK, we're just going to streamline it. We're going to come to them.' "
Ralston called many of his friends, urging them to come to the first meeting, which was held in April 2006. At least 50 people turned out for cocktails, appetizers and a sales pitch. The group's steering committee had joined forces with an ad-hoc group called Citizens for Roadless Area Defense, and party attendees were invited to help inventory Colorado land for the state's roadless rule. Memories are hazy, but somewhere from 20 to 60 people turned out to assist the inventory.
Every few months, Maroon Corps hosted a similar "party with a purpose," each time working with a different nonprofit to inspire the crowd to concrete action -- writing or calling legislators or land-management agencies. The energy went out into the community: Over the first year and a half, attendees spread the word about climate change, organized against gas drilling on the Roan Plateau, rehabilitated riparian areas, attempted to bring a climate change message to the X-Games in Aspen, and taught local students about renewable energy.
But by 2008, that energy was waning. According to Maroon Corps organizers, they never again achieved the numbers or enthusiasm involved in the initial roadless inventory effort. Only about 20 people attended a party in early spring, and a significant portion of them worked for environmental organizations. The party was designed to line up volunteers for trash cleanups on the nearby Crystal and Fryingpan rivers, but few signatures landed on the signup sheets. The evening ended early, and the mostly full keg was hauled back out to someone's car, destined for a different purpose. A couple of weeks later, only five or six people showed up to help with the river cleanups.
The Maroon Corps should have been an overwhelming success. Carbondale sits along the south bank of the Roaring Fork River, which flows past the four resorts owned by the Aspen Ski Company, through popular whitewater rapids, below rock-climbing crags and miles upon miles of mountain bike and hiking trails. The river passes the homes of some of the people who've shaped the way non-government organizations influence public-land management. And the Roaring Fork Valley is home to an uncommon number of nonprofit organizations. Sitting in Bastable's office, you can watch people pass in and out of the headquarters of two outdoor magazines located across the hall: Trail Runner and Rock and Ice; and you can overhear snippets of discussion from the adjoining suite, where the employee of another nonprofit works to protect public parklands.
Accepted wisdom -- and many an outdoor gear company's advertising campaign -- holds that there's a direct link between outdoor recreation and a strong conservation ethic. "Is there a difference between the outdoor recreation community and the lay person in the U.S.?" asks Auden Schendler, sustainability director at Aspen Ski Co. and an avid backcountry skier. "I think there is because, at the very least, whether you're a skier or a kayaker, you think of yourself as an environmentalist. Now, how you define that and how it's reflected in your own personal action -- there may be a big gap there."
And it's not always easy to bridge that gap. Many locals bring a single-minded focus to their recreational pursuits. But even the most avid skier or biker has to struggle to make a living in a place as expensive as the Roaring Fork Valley. It's a complex balancing act all too familiar to Randy Young, whom I met at the early spring party. Young -- who looked to be about 30 -- said that he'd recently taken a job at a construction site, where he steered a vacuum cleaner and listened to news on his iPod. Dire reports on climate change and other environmental disasters had inspired him to devote more time to activism. Rearranging his schedule, however, was proving difficult: He had hoped to attend both river cleanups, but couldn't make the Fryingpan River cleanup because it conflicted with an already-planned ski trip.
The early leaders of the Maroon Corps have also struggled to fit the group into their lives. Aron Ralston moved away from the Roaring Fork Valley in 2007, taking his fame with him. Clare Bastable left shortly after because of burnout: "It was something I took on outside of work and it was really successful at first. But when we were getting less participation, I did a cost-benefit analysis with my time, and ... " She trails off.
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.© High Country News