Carbondale Community School students enjoyed fall colors at the Aspen Valley Land Trust's Marble Base Camp. Courtesy photo

Last week when Brian Hightower took down the white canvas tents and tucked the Chapin Wright Marble Base Camp in tight for the winter, he did so knowing that the site’s unofficial purpose had finally achieved permanence. The 47-acre camp, located two miles from Beaver Lake at 9,500 feet in elevation, is where Aspen Middle School eighth graders had been able to spend a few unstructured days immersed in nature, thanks to a 50-year agreement the school had with the land’s owners.

In late October, Gunnison County granted Marble Base Camp a permit long sought by Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT), which bought the property in 2016. The county’s permit formally designates the camp as an outdoor education site that can now bring in other local middle schools wishing to give eighth graders an opportunity to experience wilderness. Hightower was recently hired as the land trust’s outdoor education coordinator and Marble Base Camp overseer. “Getting the permit, for me, was just another necessary step forward to secure a place for local youth to experience the power of their place,” says Hightower.

He calls the camp “a turnkey operation.” Marble Base Camp provides the walled tents and, under its new permit, will construct improved outdoor cooking and washing stations plus composting toilets. Schools bring the food, first aid, teachers and kids. AVLT doesn’t charge schools for the use of the camp, and any student who cannot afford what the school must charge for transportation and supplies gets financial aid, to make sure every child has a chance to go.

What the camp doesn’t provide is internet and cell phone service. “Kids are looking down at their phones and even when they talk to one another in person they are on their phones,” says Hightower. Being completely isolated from technology for a few days and nights gives kids a chance “to be unplugged, to build in-person relationships and a culture of resilience,” he says.

“It doesn’t take much of a sales pitch to buy into the idea that kids are short on unstructured outdoor time,” says Hightower. The Child Mind Institute reported that “the average American child spends about four to seven minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors and over seven hours a day in front of a screen.” And, says Hightower, “just because we live in a beautiful place doesn’t mean the kids here are getting outside as much as they should be.”

It’s a nationwide malady that writer Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” Studies have linked it to low self-confidence, troubled relationships, low grades, obesity and indifference to protecting nature when the kids are adults. For Hightower, cultivating a sense of stewardship for the land is a more important goal than sticking to the usual classroom curriculum.

Jennifer Elpersman, principal of Basalt Middle School which participated in a pilot project at the camp, is another strong believer in taking students outdoors to learn in unstructured ways. “Rather than just focusing on science, we are providing team building and outdoor play experiences allowing students to step away from technology and get to know themselves better and be in community with others as they prepare meals together and serve others, gather wood and start the campfire, look at the stars and experiment with building shelters,” she says. For some, it’s their first time sleeping and cooking outdoors, hiking two miles from where the buses drop them off, or getting caught in a mountain deluge.

Hightower, a former Aspen Middle School teacher, happened to be at Marble Base Camp with his students one day in 2015 when he ran into a couple of real estate agents he knew. They told him the property was for sale. “It would have taken the program down,” he said. He contacted AVLT to see if something could be done. “It was AVLT that got the landowners and the realtors to pump the brakes on the sale,” giving enough time for stakeholders to raise $550,000 from private contributions and a Great Outdoors Colorado grant to buy the camp.

Marble Base Camp was AVLT’s first land purchase after its founding in 1967. The land trust, which traditionally creates conservation easements to preserve wildlife and natural habitats, made its latest acquisition last summer when it bought the Coffman Ranch on Catherine Store Road. Hightower will manage the ranch too. He is getting it ready to receive school field trips, giving students another place to go and play outdoors.

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