ACES: Maintaining Aspen’s critical connection to nature
ACES' Family Suffers Tragic Loss
The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies family suffered a tragic loss Jan. 21 when education director Arin Trook was killed in an avalanche.Trook, 48, was caught in the slide while on a ski outing at the Markley Hut. He was ACES’ education director since September 2013. He was also a naturalist and educator at the environmental education group from 1996 to 2000. He was ingrained in the ACES family and remembered for his passion for the outdoors. He had a unique talent for melding his environmental knowledge with guitar-playing and storytelling skills, according to his colleagues. “Arin was a light in our community, an unforgettable educator, and an inspiring force for good throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond,” ACES staff said in an email to members Jan. 23. “He championed environmental and social justice issues, and passionately worked to build community and inclusivity across boundaries through education and kindness.” The Arin Trook Memorial Fund was created to assist his wife and two children. Donations can be made by going to gofundme.com and searching by Arin’s name or at any Alpine Bank. Donations can also be mailed to Alpine Bank, Arin Trook Memorial Fund, Attn: Stefan Reveal, 600 E. Hopkins Ave., Aspen 81611.
Chris Lane has an image of Elizabeth Paepcke seared in his mind, though one he never actually saw.
The CEO of Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Lane envisions Paepcke marching along the bluff overlooking Hallam Lake in Aspen, broomstick in hand. The matriarch of modern Aspen is determined to come down and give a good whack to any fishermen or dogs who have ventured into the off-limits nature preserve she helped create.
The image blends metaphor and reality. Tom Cardamone, ACES’ former executive director who has been an integral part of the organization after 44 years, said Paepcke was one of the “fierce female protectionists of Hallam Lake.”
“She would kind of patrol the boundaries to make sure it wasn’t disrupted,” Cardamone said recently. She kept a BB gun handy at her house above the lake to shoot at cats trying to eat birds in the sanctuary.
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Paepcke and her husband, Walter, started many of Aspen’s institutions after World War II and invented the Aspen Idea — creating a place to nurture mind, body and spirit. Hallam Lake became part of the formula almost by chance. Cardamone said she told him that she looked out her window one day and said, “Walter, who owns Hallam Lake?” They ended up buying the property from the DRC Brown family and she eventually pursued the idea of starting an environmental education center at the preserve (see related timeline).
Jim Kravitz, director of the ACES’ vaunted naturalist program since 1996, is immersed in the past, present and future of Hallam Lake. He said the property was probably a series of beaver dams and wetlands for centuries before the arrival of miners in what became Aspen in 1879. The property is spring fed and constantly replenished. Miners built a levee on the northern side to prevent the water from reaching the Roaring Fork River. Even back in the mining days, the property was valued as a natural sanctuary, he said. Blue spruce wasn’t good for mine timbers, so lots of trees were spared on the property.
“In the days of industrialized Aspen, you probably needed this, even if you were surrounded by wilderness,” Kravitz said. “This was sort of your idea of a park.”
Industrious miners also found utility on the property.
“They cut ice from the back so there was sort of an economic piece involved,” he said.
During the Quiet Years after mining went bust, the lush grass surrounding Hallam Lake was grazing land for dairy cows and horses, Cardamone said. A portion was also used for a town dump.
Paepcke acquired 25 acres, with the lake taking up 5. She turned to her friend Stuart Mace, who with his wife, Isabel, built Toklat in Castle Creek Valley in 1948, for advice on what to do with the preserve. Mace “swooped in and guided the educational direction,” Cardamone said.
Paepcke had the vision for Hallam Lake; Mace figured out how to achieve it. He started using Hallam Lake as an education center before the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies was formally operating.
ACES was certified as a nonprofit organization in 1969. The first board of directors, which included Mace and John McBride, convened in 1971, according to a timeline of important dates compiled by the organization. One of their first decisions was to erect a fence around the property to keep the anglers and roving bands of canines common in Aspen at the time out of the wildlife refuge.
When Aspen native Jody Caudill Cardamone returned to the upper valley, recently married and fresh out of Cornell University with a degree in ecology and environmental education, she visited Toklat, a place she had always loved as a kid. Mace inquired about her plans and ended up taking her to Hallam Lake and introducing her to Paepcke. The board was looking for a married couple to care for the property and oversee the environmental education program.
Jody Cardamone was hired as ACES’ first director. “My role was as a prerequisite mate,” Tom said.
That didn’t last for long. Tom was elevated to co-director later that year. Jody stayed ingrained in the organization while also focused on raising their family starting in 1982.
In 1990, Tom became executive director, a post he held until Lane was hired as CEO in 2012. The initial plan was to keep Tom directly involved in operations for a decade.
“Once I saw what a powerhouse that Chris Lane is, I said, ‘I can do something else,’” Cardamone said. He and Jody maintain close ties to the staff and operations.
The Cardamones instituted many of the programs ACES is famous for, focusing first on bringing scores of students down from the former locations of the middle and elementary schools just up the slope and immersing them in nature at Hallam Lake. They started the naturalist programs that have utilized hundreds of college students and graduates in environmental sciences to lead such diverse activities as snowshoe tours on the back of Aspen Mountain to summer hikes on the Lost Man Loop.
Tom said the credit for ACES’ successful formula goes to hundreds of trustees, staffers and visiting professors who have been part of the organization for 50 years.
“We were in charge of the compass to make sure it stayed on course,” he said.
There have been some key decisions over the years. The area between North Mill Street and Hallam Lake was initially a “dusty former switching yard” for a defunct railroad, so Hallam Lake was hard to find. The Cardamones decided ACES naturalists needed to get out to where the people are — Maroon Lake, Ashcroft, Aspen Mountain and Snowmass.
In addition, Hallam Lake would have been overrun if ACES tried to accommodate all students there as the Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley grew, so strategic growth has occurred, such as the purchase of Rock Bottom Ranch in 1999. The 113-acre midvalley ranch serves as an education center for sustainable agriculture and how it co-exists with nature. It hosts thousands of downvalley school kids every year.
Cardamone took a moment to reflect when asked what Elizabeth Paepcke would think of ACES today. She died in 1994 at age 92.
“I think she’d be delighted to see how many people ACES reaches,” he said.
Elizabeth Paepcke’s influence is still being felt at ACES even though she passed away 25 years ago.
CEO Chris Lane said the staff determined a few years ago that they had to change a long-winded, hard-to-remember mission statement.
“Here’s what’s cool, that change was to something Elizabeth Paepcke said — Educating for environmental responsibility,” Lane said. “So we stole it from her and said, ‘That’s our mission statement. Why are we anything but that?’”
So what is ACES? It’s easier to start with what it’s not. They aren’t firebrand environmental activists, pouncing anytime a national issue flares up. ACES officials are careful not to wade too deep, if at all, into political battles in the Roaring Fork Valley that revolve around the environment.
“I think what makes ACES most unique is we don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, Muslim or Christian,” Lane said. “Everyone can relate to clean air, clear water, clean food, a stable climate.”
Cardamone said Paepcke was very opinionated and had strong feelings on various topics, but she agreed from the start that the emphasis was education, not activism.
“Well-informed people can come to their own conclusions,” he said.
ACES touts its school education program as a science classroom without boundaries. The 2018 annual report said 11 full-time ACES educators had contact with 65,000 students from 64 schools and youth organizations last year. That outreach included 2,700 in-school classes and more than 400 field trips.
Lane credited education director Arin Trook with taking ACES “to a new level of education.” The accolades were given roughly a week before Trook tragically died Jan. 21 in an avalanche (see related story). Other colleagues called Trook the spiritual leader of the staff.
Go to Hallam Lake any given weekday and chances are you will see a classroom of roughly 25 kids divided into two groups and led around the grounds by ACES educators. The amazing thing about kindergarten students one recent day was that they were all engaged in the educational game their hosts had them playing. No one appeared distracted.
As director of the naturalist programs, Jim Kravitz has observed that power of Hallam Lake and other outdoor settings for years.
“Kids love being outside,” he said. “They forget that devices even exist when they’re outside and they’re looking at things. You just need to get them outside.”
And it’s not all about kids. ACES naturalists interact with a mix of adults and kids. There were 4,460 participants in naturalist-guided walks at Maroon Bells, Snowmass and Aspen Mountain in summer 2017. There is a staff of 20 naturalists during the summer and 11 in the winter.
“We’re going to where the people are,” Kravitz said. “If you’re going to Maroon Lake, you’re going to interact with one of our guides when you get off the bus. If you go up on Aspen Mountain, when you get off the gondola you’re going to see one of our guides.
“We’re sort of ambassadors for this place.”
ACES’ power to educate was on display Jan. 2 when it kicked off its Potbelly Perspectives program for the year with a presentation by Neal Beidleman, an Aspen native and world-class climber. A standing-room-only crowd in excess of 450 people packed Paepcke Auditorium for Beidleman’s slideshow and description of a trip last year where his party climbed Mount Everest and Cho Oyu, the first and sixth highest peaks in the world, in one Herculean effort.
Beidleman made matter-of-fact observations of how human development and climate change are affecting the high Himalaya. It couldn’t help but make an impact on the audience.
The Potbelly Perspectives is a weekly winter feature where people, usually Roaring Fork Valley residents, talk about their outdoor adventures around the world or in Aspen’s backyard. It allows observers to expand their boundaries and perhaps find inspiration in outdoor adventure.
ACES and Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop team to present a weekly presentation in Aspen and Carbondale by scientists that is an expert in a leading topic of the day, from drought to forest health.
ACES concept is simple — engage the mind and the heart will follow.
“We think the way to get to where everyone wants to get to — clean air, clean water, clean food — is through education and awareness,” Lane said. “You can chain yourself to a bulldozer, you can kiss wildlife, that all has a place and that all makes sense at certain times, but you avoid all that if everyone is environmentally aware and has a culture of environmental management and environmental sustainability.”
Later this year, ACES plans to convene as many of the 410 naturalists who have passed through its doors since 1978 as possible for a meeting in Aspen. Lane said numerous naturalists have gone on to do amazing things, locally and throughout the country. In the valley, former ACES naturalists hold the executive director posts at Aspen Valley Land Trust, Roaring Fork Conservancy and three alumni are part of the city of Aspen’s Canary Initiative program.
Suzanne Stephens was not only an ACES naturalist, she grew up in the valley and visited Hallam Lake as a school kid.
“I have very distinct memories of stomping down the hill from the Yellow Brick (former school building) to Hallam Lake,” she said.
The experiences created lifelong memories and quite possibly inspiration for her college education and career, she said.
“It was the first place I went when I came back to the valley,” Stephens said.
Aspen Valley Land Trust celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017. It is renowned for its efforts to preserve open lands through working with landowners to secure conservation easements. Stephens noted the parallels between ACES, which educates people on why natural habitats need to be preserved, and AVLT, which works to preserve those habitats.
“ACES and AVLT are almost the same age. They’re almost the opposite sides of the same coin,” she said.
Tom Cardamone imagines Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ four main properties as buildings perched around a classic New England village square.
Hallam Lake is the school while the Catto Center at Toklat is the church, anchoring opposite sides of the square. He envisions Rock Bottom Ranch as the grocery store and Spring Creek, a former fish hatchery in the upper Fryingpan Valley, as the hardware store fleshing out the edges of the plaza.
Those components are the foundation that enables ACES to provide the opportunity for every resident and every visitor in the valley to connect with the natural world.
“It’s a connection to nature that should be a model for every community,” Cardamone said.
He and his wife, Jody, called Hallam Lake the wild heart of Aspen in a previous interview with The Aspen Times.
The organization is as financially healthy as it has ever been, according to CEO Chris Lane. So what’s next to tackle? He said the organization plans to do more of what it’s doing.
“We’ve expanded the legacy that Tom and Jody Cardamone started,” he said. “We’ve taken that and run further with that.”
There are plans to enhance each of the four cornerstone sites, but Lane said ACES would move slowly and strategically on any changes.
Hallam Lake is a nearly unbelievable sanctuary in the middle of an urban area. Wildlife has always managed to find the few gaps in the fence that Mrs. Paepcke erected, as was intended.
The sanctuary’s value to wildlife keeps increasing. Elk appeared and even started calving there in 2008, a really big snow year, according to Jim Kravitz, director of the naturalist programs. The descendants of those elk continue to return.
“That was really cool because no one had seen elk in this reserve until 2008 and now they’ve been seen every season, including just last week,” he said in mid-January.
Kravitz knows the property as well as anyone. He started at ACES in 1995 as a naturalist and has been director of naturalist programs since 1996. He has lived onsite, off and on, for a total of 15 years. The property is special to him, part of his soul.
There are deer, mountain lions, pine martens, weasels, waterfowl and a huge diversity of birds, he said. The springs that feed Hallam Lake produce warm enough water that the lake doesn’t freeze, making it a magnet during winters.
ACES staffers have reported seeing a sow bear wrestling with three cubs. They’ve seen bears swimming in the lake. A camera captured video of a coyote carrying a gnawed beaver head in its mouth.
So, nature’s perfection needs little attention. Lane said there is a plan to dredge the lake in the next couple of years to make it an ever better habitat for birds and fish. It was last dredged in the late 1980s.
The ACES staff plans to remodel the Catto Center at Toklat — though with the respect for history it deserves. The plan, which still needs approvals, is to lift the roof to expand the primary room. It needs a larger meeting space and better functionality. The building will remain on the same footprint.
“It does have a magic to it,” Lane said. “It really does.”
Lane can’t contain his excitement over expanding the opportunities at Rock Bottom Ranch to teach children and adults about sustainable and environmental-friendly agriculture.
“We want to be the best sustainable ag (operation),” he said. “This could be national level. It really could.”
He credits Rock Bottom Ranch site director Jason Smith with accomplishing cutting-edge farming at 6,500 feet in elevation that produces little or no carbon emissions.
ACES’ accomplishments expand past its boundaries. It’s helped on numerous restoration projects of wild lands with various partners, ranging from stream restoration at Northstar Nature Preserve east of Aspen to prescribed burns in Hunter Creek. ACES has also established an index to measure forest health in the Roaring Fork Valley and produces an annual report on the conditions it finds.
Following the Cardamones was no easy assignment. When he was hired in 2012, Lane said he viewed it as his responsibility to honor the legacy, maintain the culture created at ACES and retain its partnership with the community.
“We cannot lose the soul of ACES,” he said.
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