Moving mountains: Behind the support for Hidden Gems | AspenTimes.com

Moving mountains: Behind the support for Hidden Gems

Photos Courtesy of Aron RalstonHikers climb above treeline on Huntsman Ridge, on the southwest rim of Coal Basin, near Redstone, on a 2008 outing in the Hidden Gems hike series.

At the height of the battle over the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign last year, foes made a huge statement with a little sticker.

Thousands of bumper stickers containing the words Hidden Gems covered by the universal symbol for “no” – a red circle with a slash through it – were plastered on vehicles in Pitkin, Garfield, Eagle and Summit counties. The symbols seemed to be everywhere, and it created a feeling that opposition to the plan to protect 342,000 additional acres of public lands in Colorado was swift and strong.

Supporters of the Hidden Gems contend the popularity of their movement mushroomed just as quickly, if more quietly. Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop – the Roaring Fork Valley’s oldest, locally-based conservation group – says its ranks of supporters and contributors has swelled since it helped launch Hidden Gems in fall 2007.

“The Hidden Gems has captured the attention of a lot of people and given us exposure in the community,” said Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker. “We were clicking away at an ‘A’ level prior to that, but clearly with an article in the paper every day, or at least once a week, it’s intrigued people and brought more members into our organization.”

Since 2007, about 5,800 active supporters have joined an email alert list maintained by Wilderness Workshop specifically for the Hidden Gems effort, he said. Wilderness Workshop was down to about 120 due-paying members in 2004, Shoemaker said, but membership is now “north of 700.”

And with more members has come more money.

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The coalition supporting the Hidden Gems has plowed more than $575,000 into the effort, not including staff time. Exact accounting is difficult because the financing is a tangled web among the partners in the effort and so much of their contribution is “in-kind.”

Wilderness Workshop has teamed with the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Mountain Club and The Wilderness Society to promote the Hidden Gems. Each of the organizations collects funds specifically for Hidden Gems and each collects dues for general operations.

When a donor gives one of the members a check for Hidden Gems, the funds are restricted. When a donor gives a generic contribution, it can be spent on the Hidden Gems or any other program.

Wilderness Workshop is the banker for the Gems effort. It administers the bank account and pays the bills, so its finances have swollen since the Hidden Gems campaign was launched in fall 2007.

The “hard costs” for the effort – ranging from contractors’ time in the field to marketing materials – come out of the common fund administered by Hidden Gems.

The four partners spend additional funds on the Hidden Gems effort via staff time and travel expenses, noted Steve Smith, president of Wilderness Workshop’s board of directors and assistant regional director of The Wilderness Society’s office in Denver.

“That kind of dollar amount is hard to track, but the exciting part for us is that this means there are literally thousands of people who are supporting this campaign,” Smith said.

Each of the nonprofit organization must fill out a Form 990 each year, detailing their finances and activities for the Internal Revenue Service.

Wilderness Workshop’s form for 2008 shows it collected $403,632 that year. Revenues than doubled the following year to $925,923, thanks to funds collected specifically for the Hidden Gems campaign.

“We got some early, big gifts that got the ball rolling and we didn’t spent it all,” said Dave Reed, Wilderness Workshop’s development and communications director. “It was like a capital campaign. We got a bunch of money up front.”

The total contributions dipped back down to $680,635 last year, according to Wilderness Workshop’s latest Form 990. The forms don’t break out revenues restricted for Hidden Gems, but they do provide a glimpse into expenditures for the Wilderness campaign.

Wilderness Workshop reported that $217,041 was spent on hard costs for the Hidden Gems effort in 2009 and another $358,466 was spent in 2010. That is a total of $575,507 in expenditures from the common pot maintained by the four partners.

What’s less apparent is the amount spent by each of the four partners on staff time and travel for Hidden Gems. Wilderness Workshop had income for its operating budget of about $530,000 last year. Its website says 72 percent of its income came from individual and corporate donations, 6 percent came via grants and 21 percent came from reimbursements from the Hidden Gems campaign.

The Colorado Environmental Coalition (CEC), based in Denver, reported on its 2009 Form 990 that its top expense was a program that included work on the Hidden Gems campaign. The coalition said it spent $485,228 on public lands and energy issues. CEC noted it is part of “a small group of organizations that is the leadership of a statewide effort to secure wilderness designation for wilderness-quality lands in Colorado.”

The Golden-based Colorado Mountain Club had $2.03 million in total expenditures in 2009, the latest year that a Form 990 was available. Its third largest program was “conservation” at $221,895.

The expenditure for the Hidden Gems by The Wilderness Society, a national environmental organization based in Washington, D.C., wasn’t available.

Wilderness Workshop officials said they do not know the total spent by the four partners in the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign above the $575,507 spent from the common pot.

“We don’t track what the other organizations are spending,” Shoemaker said.

The amount of time devoted to Hidden Gems by the Wilderness Workshop staff varies. He estimated it has been as high as 50 percent at time over the last couple of years, but it’s much lower at present.

Much of the heavy lifting with Hidden Gems has been completed, at least for now. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis has introduced a bill to add Wilderness lands in Eagle and Summit counties, which are in his district. The congressman has been careful to avoid saying he is introducing a Hidden Gems bill, but what he proposed dovetails closely with what the conservation groups sought.

The conservation groups hope to see a bill introduced for Wilderness protection of lands in Pitkin and Gunnison counties as well as a small portion in Garfield County. Those counties are in the 3rd Congressional District. The Hidden Gems coalition lost an ally when John Salazar was ousted last November by Republican Scott Tipton. They have held extensive meetings with Tipton’s staff on the proposal and hope to see a bill introduced. Shoemaker said Tipton hasn’t committed one way or another.

Smith said Wilderness bills always require time for approval, regardless of whether the targeted amount of land is small or big. It just comes with the territory.

Wilderness Workshop would like to see approval, in part to “reward all those people that bought into this,” Smith said. “But partly because we’re so confident that once this is in place, the broader array of people will be happy. I just don’t hear too many people say, ‘Dog gone it, why do we have the Maroon Bells Wilderness? That is such a stinky deal.'”

Shoemaker suggested it is just a matter of time until Wilderness is added in the Central Colorado mountains. Regardless of the cost, which is likely greater than $1 million, the amount of money invested in the Hidden Gems campaign will be low on a per acre basis of Wilderness added, he said.

Even if no Wilderness bill is approved, the Wilderness Workshop officials insisted their effort was not for naught. Shoemaker said representatives of Hidden Gems engaged in extremely details negotiations with more than 130 stakeholder groups – from motorcycle clubs to water rights owners – to adjust boundaries of proposed Wilderness.

In many cases, Smith said, Hidden Gems was endorsed by those groups after negotiations were completed. He believes Wilderness Workshop is stronger for its efforts in Hidden Gems not weaker, despite some controversy. There is now a “much stronger relationship” with the International Mountain Bike Association, for example, he said.

Wilderness Workshop’s leaders said the organization’s focus in the last two years on Hidden Gems hasn’t come at the expense of its other programs. The organization has collaborated with the Forest Service for years on a program to monitor air quality, water quality, weeds and human affects on Wilderness for years

“That hasn’t changed. In fact, it’s probably grown,” Shoemaker said.

It is also working with Thompson Divide Coalition to protect roadless areas from oil and gas development.

Wilderness Workshop will launch a habitat restoration program this month. It is rallying members to pull thistle out of Stein Meadow in Maroon Valley on Saturday, July 23. That will be the first of many anticipated efforts to get its members out in the field to repair damage that’s been done in Wilderness.

Smith said the Wilderness Workshop board has had “a lot of conversations” about the amount of time it puts in Hidden Gems compared to the other programs. Board members support the division of duties.

“Hidden Gems takes additional effort,” he said. “That’s why we have more staffers, longer board meetings and more supporters.”

scondon@aspentimes.com