Back to the Land

Meet a new breed of athlete — fitness lovers who are leading the charge to protect and preserve access to the natural environments on which their favorite sports depend.

It’s one thing to have a passion for your sport that gets you up in the morning eager to sweat, that takes you out in all kinds of weather, that has you riding, climbing or paddling when most folks are content to settle on the couch with a good book. It’s another kind of passion that turns an athlete into an activist – one obsessed with protecting a chunk of rock, ribbon of trail or gush of water.

Or is it? Judging from the stories of the environmentally inclined athletes profiled in this story, the love of a sport and the love of the land on which that sport occurs may not be so far removed. In fact, it seems one passion may evolve rather seamlessly into the next.

On a small blue planet where natural resources and green spaces are in limited supply, where huge tracts of undeveloped acreage daily fall prey to industrial demand, urban activity and suburban sprawl, a growing number of outdoor enthusiasts are realizing that they can no longer take their beloved stretches of playground for granted. Following the example of several generations of nature-loving hunters, fishers and bird watchers who came before them, these athletes are rolling up their sleeves, opening their wallets and flexing their political muscle in order to preserve the environments on which their favorite athletic pastimes depend.

At first glance, the commitment of these athletes may seem extraordinary, but in every case, their deep environmental investment grew quite naturally out of their athletic enthusiasm. And their examples aren’t so hard to follow.

Whether you’re a trail runner determined to keep your favorite stretch of path trash-free, a canoeist determined to protect the Boundary Waters for future generations, or a Frisbee-golf enthusiast concerned about the fate of the city park around the corner, you already have the seeds of environmental passion brewing in your gut. The athletes profiled here represent just a few examples of what inspires that passion – and how it can grow.

Rock of Ages

Most climbers set out to scale cliffs, not buy them. But when protecting their vertical space meant making a more personal investment, these athletes were prepared to go all-in.

Back in 1996, Heather Furman was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. On a three-week break, she headed to Thailand for some R and R and wound up taking a few rock-climbing lessons while she was there. Little did she know that the experience of scaling limestone cliffs in a distant land would eventually inspire a love affair with some cliffs much closer to home.

Climbing in Thailand fueled Furman’s athletic spark. When her Peace Corps stint ended, she initially returned to her parents’ home in cliffless Cleveland, and for the next three years hit the indoor climbing gym there in an effort to fulfill her passion for the sport. Then a job opportunity with Maidstone State Park brought her to mountainous Vermont.

Though Heather was delighted by the prospect of a better climbing habitat, her biggest problem initially was connecting with a climbing community. “It was pretty bleak,” she says. “It was hard to find other climbers.” But by continually asking around and seeking out new climbing territory, Heather eventually stumbled into the third-ever meeting of Climbing Resource Access Group Vermont, or CRAG-VT for short.

In 1999, the then-fledgling organization of four climbers had formed out of concern for the pending sale – and potential closing – of one of the state’s most popular climbing areas, the Lower West Bolton Crag. Public land in Vermont is scarce, so the state has a tradition where most private landowners allow people to hike, mountain bike and climb on their land. But, as the sport of climbing became more popular, some landowners began to worry about their legal liabilities, and also about the potential negative impact on their land. The threat of cliffs and other climbing areas being closed forever became all too real.

“We worried that if Lower West Bolton shut down, the climbers from there would go to other areas and those would be shut down, too,” says Dave Furman, an original CRAG-VT founding member and now Heather’s husband. “We knew that protecting its access would set a much-needed precedent.”

The 260-acre plot of land, which included the beginner-friendly crag, was sold in 1999 to real-estate developer Patrick Smith. Fortunately, he continued to offer climbing access. Still, CRAG-VT didn’t want to keep relying on the good intentions of private owners. They felt that the best way to protect Vermont’s cliffs for climbers was for CRAG-VT to own and protect the cliffs themselves. Three years later, CRAG-VT offered to buy the cliff from Smith. No need, Smith told them, he would give it to them as a gift.

“I wanted to keep the crag open for climbers,” says Smith. “But I’m not going to be around forever and I knew the next person to own it might not feel the same way.”

CRAG-VT then became one of three climbing organizations, out of the total 48 in the nation, to own their own cliff. Their deed to the land specifies that the cliff will always be open and protected for climbing.

“We haven’t reinvented the wheel,” says Heather, 34, “but we do feel we’ve blazed some new territory.” The generous donation gave the group momentum, and at the end of 2004 they closed on their second piece of property, the Bolton Quarry, a 100-foot-high cliff known for its excellent ice climbing. In order to purchase the land, they spent two years raising more than $60,000 (through private donations and state grants) needed to cover the land and the costs associated with its stewardship.

In addition, the group has become an educational clearinghouse and think tank for climbers and landowners alike, teaching the former how to climb responsibly and the latter about the legal and fiscal minutiae associated with donating, selling or granting climbing access to their land.

Although there have been a few hiccups – for instance, the 200-member organization, whose operating budget runs about $3,000 annually, can’t afford general liability insurance – the message they send is clear: Keeping private land open for public use can be a win-win situation for both parties.

The group recognizes that they’ve come a long way. Six years ago, while sitting around a middle-school classroom brainstorming solutions, the four climbers simply knew they wanted to protect the places where they enjoyed climbing. “We never conceived we’d start a nonprofit,” says Dave, a manager for Mammut, an outdoor gear company, “and I never would’ve believed we would actually buy property.” But their passion for climbing, combined with their ability to get others interested and their willingness to invest an impressive amount of time and energy, has brought them where they are today.

Of course, their professional expertise didn’t hurt. Heather, currently the executive director of the Stowe Land Trust, which works to preserve farm and forest land in the greater Stowe, Vt., area, has an advanced degree in land-use planning. A fellow CRAG-VT board member is an attorney who has donated hundreds of pro bono hours. But it’s the compulsion to keep climbing that brought them all together.

As Dave explains it: “Put all those elements in a jar, shake them up and you get some results.”

For more information, visit www.cragvt.org.

A River Runs Alongside It

A brother and sister team up to save one of their favorite kayaking spots in Colorado – and build an environmentally friendly village in the process.

I’ve really begun to despise cars,” says Jed Selby, 26, a professional kayaker. “If a week goes by when I don’t have to be in a car, that’s one of the best weeks of my life.”

Part of Selby’s problem with all things automotive stems from the epic road trips he took while traveling from competition to competition. (In 2002, Selby and his paddling buddies logged more than 70,000 miles criss-crossing the country in a Subaru Outback.) Today, though, his annoyance with autos has found positive expression in his current passion: South Main River Park. That’s a 40-acre parcel of land in Buena Vista, Colo., that Selby and his 28-year-old sister, Katie, recently purchased, intending to turn a big chunk of it into a central public park that kayakers, fishers and swimmers can all enjoy.

The Arkansas River is one of the best kayaking routes in Colorado, but a few years ago a one-third-mile stretch of it was in danger of being developed by a condo company whose plans would have divided the land up into a few residential lots, effectively cutting off public access to the river.

The Selbys had other ideas for the property, including their desire to build a white-water play park (a series of paddling obstacles composed of carefully placed rocks) that would offer local kayakers an accessible place to enjoy their sport. The desire eventually morphed into an ambitious plan: First, to transform the barren, garbage-ridden lot into a sustainable, 315-housing-unit community that promotes environmentalism, minimizes sprawl and reduces residents’ reliance on cars. Second, to turn a sizable chunk of the riverfront property into a public park for recreational access and use.

Although they had to act quickly to save the property from its conventional-condo fate, the Selbys note that their underlying commitment to their sport had been a long time in the making. At age 16, when most teenagers are getting behind the wheel, Jed got into a kayak for the first time and, precociously, immediately learned how to roll (a tricky maneuver that allows you to upright yourself when you tip). In 1995, he went to school at Fort Lewis College, in Durango, Colo., (a paddling-centric town), and bought a kayak his first week there. Three years later, he dedicated himself to becoming a pro kayaker.

Also at Fort Lewis, Katie Selby was initially less enthusiastic about kayaking. “I was totally freaked out the first time I was in a boat,” she says. “I swore I’d never do it again.” Four years later, though, in 1999, she gave it another chance and within a year was teaching others how to paddle.

The two have left their mark on the sport: Jed is a two-time member of the U.S. Whitewater Team, while Katie recently won the 2004 Colorado Cup Championship, a series of seven events across the state.

While the accolades they received as kayakers were fulfilling, Jed was feeling restless. “I was getting to the point where I really wanted to have a real home and a bed to sleep in most nights,” he says. The Selbys come from a family of real estate investors, so while competing on the road, Jed was constantly scoping out rivers and adjoining lands. When he stumbled across the stretch of land in central Colorado in 2002, near the Arkansas, the second river he ever paddled, he was sold.

“The river is a great setup for a white-water park,” he says. “And the town was definitely undiscovered.” Jed called Katie, who was spending the winter waitressing and snowboarding in Alaska at the time, and also contacted their father, Buzz, whom they hoped would be their main financial contributor. “When I first told him about it, my dad thought I was crazy,” says Jed. “He took a lot of convincing.”

Just as Katie and Jed were making headway with their father, they found out another offer had already been made on the land – by a condominium company that planned to block off the river’s access to the public. This prompted them to discuss just how serious they were, and whether they were ready to change their lives in order to pursue this project for real. “We realized, while it was great fun to be roaming around the country, we weren’t producing anything,” says Jed. They realized they wanted to create a park, he says, and “once we made that leap, we never looked back.”

Buzz decided to invest in Jed and Katie’s project. Katie then wrote grant proposals to help cover the construction costs of the white-water park (approximately $225,000), the majority of which came from Great Outdoors Colorado, a trust fund that helps fund projects that preserve the state’s open spaces. They have also received several thousand dollars from other sources.

Funding, planning and construction for the project are still in process, but the vision is clear. As South Main River Park begins to materialize, each of its 315 units will be constructed to adhere to “Built Green Colorado” environmental standards, comprehensive guidelines that cover everything from the efficiency of the heating and air-distribution systems to the fibers in the carpets to the size of the house (less than 1,500 square feet, excluding crawl space, is ideal).

Katie, a self-described “lifelong environmentalist who basically hates development,” would have it no other way. She believes that development doesn’t have to be so destructive to the surrounding area. “Land is such a precious resource, and seeing the devastating way that it is being obliterated by sprawl, and the lack of integrity of nearly all developers, I realized that being a responsible developer was one of the best things I could do,” she says.

The Selbys are also actively living the principles of New Urbanism, a concept that minimizes sprawl and segregated neighborhoods in favor of more concentrated and environmentally friendly communities that incorporate work, home and play sites all within pedestrian-appropriate distances.

For the Selbys, this means integrating living spaces in a variety of price ranges (including regular single-family homes, work/live spaces and apartments) with convenient areas for local commerce. It also means Xeriscaping – planting water-conserving, sustainable landscapes. Most important, it means devoting 20 percent of the land (about 8 acres) to parks and other public areas.

The appeal of their plan is evident. The first block of 22 lots at State Main River Park was reserved (mostly by the Selby’s kayaking buddies) before ground broke in March and there are 30 more reservations on the waiting list, ready for the second block.

The entire process, which began nearly three years ago, has definitely been an education, admits Katie. “We were a little naive going into this project. There are so many details that go into building a neighborhood. You have to meet with and get approval from everybody, from the department of transportation to the folks who oversee waste management.”

“It’s pretty unreasonable what we set out to do,” adds Jed, “but I think that it’s when you allow yourself to be unreasonable that you accomplish the most.”

For more information, visit www.southmainriverpark.com.

Trail Blazers

A trio of bikers launch a grassroots effort to rebuild and expand 71 miles of mountain trail – because the “riding is that good.”

For any fat-tire fanatic forced to spend his days inhabiting a cubicle instead of piloting his mountain bike, Mike Ferrentino has The Job. Employed as editor-at-large for Bike magazine for nine years, Ferrentino, 39, has traveled from Switzerland to his native New Zealand while checking out the world’s best mountain-biking trails. He’s qualified: Ferrentino has, more or less, lived on a mountain bike since 1984, when he moved to Los Altos, Calif., just as the mountain-bike movement was taking off. He got swept up, dropped out of San Francisco State, spent a handful of years working as a bike mechanic and dabbling (rather unsuccessfully) in the racing scene.

Home for Ferrentino, who spends about 12 hours a week in the saddle, has to be in a place where trails are both accessible and challenging enough that he can ride them today, and when he’s finished, still be excited about another jaunt tomorrow. Four years ago, after spending most of his adult years in the urban Bay Area, Ferrentino found his dream home in an unlikely place: Downieville, Calif., population 300. It’s a former mining town nestled in the middle of the Tahoe National Forest, in the Sierra Buttes, one of the northernmost points of the Sierra Nevadas.

“Yes, the riding is that good,” Ferrentino says, justifying his move to this out-of-the-way place. The 71 miles of trails near Ferrentino’s home are lined with pine and oak trees, stalked by eagles and mountain cats, and more often than not, the trails deposit you at the shores of a clear blue lake for a refreshing end to an exhausting, but exhilarating, ride. “The trails have plenty of technical sections, and if you’re not climbing, you’re probably descending. You have to think all the time while you’re riding here. It’s like playing chess on a mountain bike.”

Ferrentino isn’t the only one enamored with the trails. Seven years ago, the forest survey did an audit and found that 15,000 mountain bikers used the trails on a regular basis. Current estimates put the figure at around 30,000, according to Ferrentino. The growth in popularity was accompanied by a seismic jump in trail impact.

Some of the trails were built 150 years ago for mining or hunting purposes, and as a result, they’re not stable enough to handle herds of mountain bikes. They are also seriously prone to erosion. For example: Four or five bikers riding at high speeds on a windy, wet trail this past summer rendered it largely unusable for the rest of the season. “The trail was just ripped up,” says Carl Butz, a fifth-generation Downieville resident. “We’re talking 18-inch trenches.”

The local district of the forest service has just two seasonal people employed to maintain and restore more than 300 miles of trails in the greater Sierra Buttes area, and funding, always minimal, has recently become practically nonexistent for a number of administrative reasons. The lack of resources became especially apparent after the winter of 2002–03, says Ferrentino. “There were trees down everywhere, so we asked the forest service to help. They didn’t have an employee on staff qualified to use a chain saw, so we did it ourselves.”

Ferrentino, along with Greg Williams, the owner of Yuba Expeditions, a local mountain-bike shuttle service, and Mark Cosby, who occasionally works in the local bike shop, logged 120 hours clearing the trails that spring. “We had fun, but we realized nobody was going to do this heavy-duty trail work for free forever,” he says. “That gave us the impetus to start working on a long-term solution.”

There was some additional motivation: Seven rivers come to confluence in the nearby north Yuba River watershed, so environmental organizations watch the area closely to keep it as natural and pristine as possible. “We knew we had to do something about the impact soon,” says Ferrentino. “If we didn’t start becoming proactive, somebody would come along in the future, look at the damage the mountain bikes had done, and shut us out forever.”

In October 2003, Ferrentino, Williams and Butz founded Sierra Buttes Trails Stewardship, a nonprofit organization. Their immediate mission was to maintain and improve access on the trails by raising enough money to employ six to eight high school kids to work on the trails for an entire summer. Their eventual aim was to restore and reopen seven trails, then begin building some new ones.

To raise awareness of the amount of work the trails required, the stewardship hosted three “trail daze” events in 2004. These were bring-your-work-gloves days where volunteers, some from more than 200 miles away, cleared and rebuilt trails that are used by bikers, hikers and hunters. In addition, the group sponsored three epic fundraising rides, each of which successfully doubled their membership numbers, bringing them to their current level of 125.

So far, they’re off to a strong financial start, according to Butz, who serves as treasurer. With funds collected through the rides, contributions from the mountain-bike industry and donations from individual members, they raised approximately $20,000 in 2004. Of course, there have been a few administrative stumbles, including missed deadlines and grant complications. But Ferrentino says that he and his nonprofit colleagues are committed and encouraged by the success they’ve had so far.

“The best rides I’ve ever had are a combination of scenic beauty, the flow and rhythm of a trail and the surrounding culture, which, ideally, is mountain-bike friendly,” he says. “Downieville is one of those places, and it’s our goal to keep it like that for many, many years to come.”

More information, visit www.sierratrails.org.

Freelance writer Dimity McDowell lives in Santa Fe, N.M.

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