Sloan Shoemaker reflects providing fierce voice for environment in Aspen
Sloan Shoemaker was executive director of Wilderness Workshop for less than two weeks in May 2003 when he dropped a bombshell on Aspen Skiing Co. and Aspen Highlands base area developer Gerald Hines.
Shoemaker claimed in a letter to the U.S. Forest Service that a proposed Skico gondola connecting Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk was just a ploy to boost the value of Hines’ property. While the goal was understandable, public lands shouldn’t be part of the scheme, Shoemaker wrote to officials at the Aspen Ranger District.
The gondola was never built, but the brief confrontation established there was a clear, unwavering voice speaking for the Aspen-area environmental movement.
Shoemaker, 57, announced his retirement last month — 21 years after he joined Wilderness Workshop and 15 years after he was promoted to executive director.
At a time when many environmental organizations stay in the middle of the road for fear of offending donors, Shoemaker never has shied away from taking position front and center on public policy issues. He said he felt it was part of his job description to be a strong voice for the environment.
“It’s our mission. That’s what we’re employed to do,” he said from his office recently. “We’ve found it’s a voice the community supports.”
He thinks time has shown the Roaring Fork Valley environmental community wanted a firm voice speaking for wildlife and the ecosystem.
Wilderness Workshop’s budget basically covered his salary when he was appointed executive director and there were roughly 100 dues-paying members, mostly aging hippies and tree huggers.
Now the organization has an annual budget of $900,000 as well as 800 dues-paying members and more than 5,000 people signed up on its email list. Instead of a one-man operation there is a staff of seven with legal interns.
Shoemaker said that growth speaks volumes.
“The community is hungry for a voice that doesn’t pull punches when the issue is clear,” he said.
Chris Lane, executive director of Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, has worked alongside Shoemaker on numerous issues.
“Sloan moved the organization out of Aspen and made Wilderness Workshop a regional, and even statewide, force for public lands protection and wildness,” Lane said. “He made Wilderness Workshop an effective environmental watchdog organization, giving a voice to wild things that have no voice. His style was that of dogged and fearless determination, never backing down from a fight for protecting wild places.”
Wilderness Workshop previously had little public presence. It fought its battles through the Forest Service’s bureaucratic mechanization and occasionally the courts. Now it’s hosting public gatherings at Carbondale bars, leading hikes and employing other ways to rally the public around causes while still waging battles in official processes and courts.
“We’re trying to tell our story in a way that gets the community aboard,” Shoemaker said.
Not that it always worked. One of his biggest lessons he learned while at the helm was over the Hidden Gems proposal to expand designated wilderness in western Colorado.
Wilderness Workshop and its allies were out-hustled by opponents from motorized forest users and mountain bikers who didn’t want additional lands designated as wilderness. They were more effective at getting opponents to public meetings than proponents. The ensuing debate was “divisive” and “ugly,” Shoemaker said.
“The conversation got off on the wrong foot,” he said.
While Hidden Gems was quietly abandoned, components of it remain active. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat whose district includes parts of the White River National Forest, introduced a bill in Congress that would add protected lands in eastern Eagle County and Summit County that were once part of Hidden Gems.
On the flip side, one of Wilderness Workshop’s biggest victories was working with the Thompson Creek Coalition to help ease if not end the threat of gas drilling in Thompson Divide, south and west of Carbondale. Both organizations worked to cobble together a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, ranchers, snowmobilers and others to oppose natural gas extraction. Wilderness Workshop also legally challenged the legality of oil and gas leases. The Obama administration eventually canceled 25 of the leases.
The White River National Forest also determined it won’t make new leases available in the area.
Shoemaker noted that the lease cancellation faces a gas industry legal challenge and the Forest Service decision could be altered in the future.
“The last die is not cast on that yet,” he said.
Shoemaker never intended to be the face of the local environmental movement. He came to the Aspen area to ski bum in 1984, getting his first job with Ski Photo. He eventually volunteered for a slope stabilization project being undertaken by Bob Lewis, a legendary environmental leader who has since died. Lewis asked him to be his summer project manager, a position Shoemaker kept through 1993.
In the mid-1990s, Shoemaker attended a public meeting as a citizen to speak against the Forest Service’s proposed timber sale on Basalt Mountain. The then-executive director of Wilderness Workshop, Beverly Compton, was impressed enough to offer him a position crafting a biodiversity alternative for the White River National Forest Plan — a document that would guide management for decades.
“That was a great way for me to get started,” he said. He learned the intricacies of the Forest Service involvement process and the art of compromise to get ideas accepted, as they were in the Forest Plan. For example, the plan started the process to add 62,000 acres to wilderness, which prohibits motorized and mechanized uses.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said he has enjoyed working with Shoemaker and Wilderness Workshop the past 8½ years.
“We didn’t always agree on every issue,” Fitzwilliams said, “but I could always count on him to be straightforward and collaborative.”
When asked if Shoemaker and Wilderness Workshop have affected management of the national forest surrounding Aspen, Fitzwilliams said without a doubt they have.
“From his tenacious involvement in the development of the Forest Plan to the many partnership projects we have worked together on, Sloan’s leadership has made a positive impact on White River,” Fitzwilliams said. “Sloan is very tuned in to an important part of the community. I appreciated the insight brought to the table on issues.”
One big change from the days when Shoemaker took the helm is the environmental group’s relationship with the ski industry and specifically Aspen Skiing Co.
“When I started the environmental community was at war with the ski industry,” he said. Aspen Skiing Co. “changed direction” under former President and CEO Pat O’Donnell. He implemented the environmental ethic of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and gear manufacturer where he had previously worked.
“I have a lot of respect for the guy,” Shoemaker said.
Shoemaker acknowledged there are plenty of environmental issues on Wilderness Workshop’s plate, so why leave now?
“I noticed that my focus and energy had peaked,” he said. He didn’t want to be the kind of guy that stayed in a position on automatic pilot.
“The Workshop is as strong as we have ever been,” he said. “I didn’t want to ride that thing downhill.”
The organization’s board of directors already has appointed Will Roush, the current conservation director, as the next executive director. Shoemaker will help with the transition in coming months.
Shoemaker has children who are 12 and 14 year old as well as aging parents, so he said he has plenty to keep him busy. He also wants to support his wife, Beth, who is expanding a business. She helped him throughout his career, he said, so now it’s his turn to assist her.
When asked if he thought Lewis would be proud of what Shoemaker has accomplished so long after those years they worked together, Shoemaker reflected for a minute.
“I suppose so, yeah,” he said. “In this policy arena, we moved the needle slowly and surely.”
He said he is proud of Wilderness Workshop’s constant pressure for “keeping things on the wild side.”
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