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Wilderness Workshop eyes “next phase” in its evolution

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By John Colson

Sopris Sun Correspondent

The Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop organization, founded some 48 years ago, is heading in new directions, as indicated by Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker in a recent press release about a change in the organization’s relatively small staff and a conversation with The Sopris Sun.

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The press release concerned the recent hiring of Lindsey Palardy as the organization’s public information officer and lead fundraiser, replacing long-time employee Dave Reed, who left recently to become executive director at the Western Colorado Congress in Grand Junction.

Palardy, who holds a master’s degree in environmental studies, a degree in environmental law and most recently was a fund-raiser for the Aspen Youth Center, will “help launch us into the next phase or our evolution, wherever that may take us,” Shoemaker predicted in the press release.

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But exactly what that “next phase” will entail is not entirely clear, Shoemaker and other Wilderness Workshop officials told The Sopris Sun in a recent interview.

“If we track the arc of Wilderness Workshop’s evolution,” said Shoemaker, “we’ve come a long way from an all-volunteer organization that focused on local wilderness … to an organization that isn’t solely focused on wilderness anymore and has a professional staff.”

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Originally created in 1967 by a group of Aspen wilderness advocates — Joy Caudill, Dottie Fox and Connie Harvey, nicknamed the “Maroon Belles” for their dedication — and named Aspen Wilderness Workshop, the organization was deeply involved in winning wilderness designation for the Hunter-Fryingpan and Collegiate Peaks wilderness areas, in getting the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area expanded, and in passage of the Colorado Wilderness Act that brought designation to other areas in the region.

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In the years since, the Wilderness Workshop has dropped its Aspen moniker, moved downvalley to the Third Street Center in Carbondale, and dived into a broad array of wilderness-

related activities and some activities involving areas that may not technically fit the wilderness criteria but are at least “roadless” and exhibit a variety of wilderness-type characteristics.

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A key focus in recent years has been in preventing oil and gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area, which encompasses 221,500 acres of remote terrain in five counties. The Workshop and a sister organization, the Thompson Divide Coalition, have concentrated on leases issued to energy companies in a 105,000-acre area to the southwest of Carbondale.

While sharing the overall goal of protecting Thompson Divide and other regions, one of the Workshop’s key roles is to do detailed, highly legalistic “administrative” work that primarily is the province of attorney Peter Hart, who splits his time between the Carbondale office and one in Grand Junction.

“We’ve been working on these (administrative issues) all along,” said conservation director Will Roush. And that work, mostly managed by Hart, has “put Wilderness Workshop on the front lines” of detecting and moving to block efforts by energy companies to get the Thompson Divide drilling underway, Shoemaker added.

It was largely that kind of work that uncovered deficiencies in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s issuance of 65 Thompson Divide leases in 1993, based on what a court ruled were inadequate environmental studies, and led to the BLM’s having to put the leases in a kind of bureaucratic limbo while new studies are conducted.

“We have to keep holding the line, holding the line,” as energy companies try new ways to get their drilling programs underway, and conservation organizations move to block those efforts, Shoemaker pointed out.

Other tasks that the Workshop has taken on recently include an effort to create a new, single-track backcountry trail between Basalt Mountain and Gypsum, open to user groups from motorized dirt bikers to mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians, over U.S. Forest Service lands.

Roush, who is the Workshop’s point man in that effort, said he is working with forest service officials as well as the Colorado Backcountry Trail Riders and other recreation groups in “almost a facilitator’s role … bringing folks together” to discuss the issues involved.

“The goal is to come up with a management plan” that satisfies the USFS interest in safeguarding wildlife and the environment, but still allowing motorized, pedal-powered, hikers and equestrian users.

Other projects, Shoemaker said, include the idea of using fire as a management tool in wilderness areas.

“It’s a hot topic, so to speak,” he said half-jokingly, noting that fire is “a more cost-effective way of doing forest management, [better than logging or] other mechanical treatments,” particularly in an era when USFS budgets have been cut virtually in half.

He cited the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park as an example of fire’s potential for beneficial management. Those fires scorched about 1.2 million acres of the park and initially left the world with the impression that the world’s first national park, created in 1872, had been irretrievably ruined.

Today, it is acknowledged that the park benefitted from the scorching, as new growth started appearing almost as soon as the ground cooled.

“We don’t characterize the fire as causing damage to the park,” conceded park superintendent Bob Barbee in a 2008 interview with National Public Radio.

WW turf

Still, Shoemaker said, despite Wilderness Workshop’s evolving role, “Our turf, if you will, is that we are all about public lands,” working with such diverse groups as the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative and the Grand Mesa/Uncompahgre/Gunnison national forests (known as G-MUG for short) on a variety of management initiatives.

One project, the hotly contested Hidden Gems proposal in 2010 to give wilderness designation to small areas the Denver Post called “the overlooked spots of Colorado,” is no longer the subject of bitter controversy that spawned a bumper-sticker war between proponents and critics.

Instead, the controversy proved to be a “catalyst … to get the conversation started in Congress,” which has resulted in several wilderness proposals now on the table.

“And some of it rises above that,” added Palardy, “to [Washington] D.C.-level advocacy work,” such as sending Shoemaker to testify before committees of the U. ( S. Congress on wildlife and other wild-lands issues.

With an annual budget of about $550,000 and its staff of six paid personnel and numerous interns and volunteers, “We sort of punch above our weight,” Shoemaker said, using a boxing metaphor.

The three Workshop staffers noted that the organization sponsors or benefits from a number of activities and events every year, including Wild Fest, a celebration of wilderness values; an upcoming Ragnar Trail running event in Snowmass Village that has picked the Wilderness Workshop as it local beneficiary; the Artists In Wilderness program that puts artists to work in a back-country cabin and generates artworks that can either be included in national shows or sold by the Workshop at fundraising auctions; and periodic trail hikes into wilderness areas to acquaint participants with the land and generate supporters for future wilderness protection and preservation.

“The things we work in are very long-term,” said Roush.

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