Of Bikes, Bureaucrats and the Backbone of our Local Economy
Colorado attracts adventurers with its mountains, rivers, lakes, trail systems, wildlife, changing seasons and a laid-back but purposeful lifestyle. When they first get here, the first question is usually, “What adventure do I do first?”
What sometimes fails to rate a second thought is the impact that adventure has on our environment and economy—both positive and negative.
Colorado is one of the few states thinking about this. Only Colorado, Utah and Washington have official state directors for the outdoor industry. Governor Hickenlooper launched the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC) in 2015 because Colorado’s outdoor industry accounts for $34 billion in consumer spending.
Luis Benitez, who was appointed to direct OREC in June 2015, may have one foot behind a desk, but he keeps the other outdoors. Benitez has scaled the highest points on each of the world’s continents a total of 32 times. He guided a blind mountaineer, Erik Weihenmayer, to the top of Mt. Everest. One of Luis’s favorite Colorado outdoor adventures involved shepherding students across the knife ridge on Capital Peak when he was an instructor for Outward Bound. Because lightning was rolling in, he says it was “sort of spicy.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the outdoor industry is getting disparate groups to understand that they all need to be pointing in the same direction, rather than at odds—as is the case with dirt bikes and mountain bikers, for example. “We must learn how to preserve and protect it [the outdoors]. We have to get to a place where we can start talking about pay-to-play options,” said Benitez. “For too long, we have relied on the non-profit sector to take care of these special places. We have to find ways to deepen the conversation.”
To that end, Benitez has formed a 24-member advisory council consisting of gear manufacturers, land-management agencies, conservation groups, hunters, mountain bikers, and motorized-vehicle enthusiasts. Penn Newhard, founder and managing partner of Backbone Media in Carbondale, and Bill Gamber, of Big Agnes/Honey Stinger from Steamboat Springs, have both been named to the council, which seeks to find common ground on potential wedge issues—issues like wilderness access and trail repair in an era of strangled Forest Service budgets.
One of OREC’s big successes is reflected in the Forest Service’s September announcement expanding the permitting process to invite wider access. OREC has also played a key role in persuading a few outdoor companies to move to Colorado, and in a few of Colorado’s academic institutions creating degree programs focused on portions of the outdoor industry.
While Benitez is blazing trail in promoting the outdoors industry as a state official, seeing emerging trends with SUP’s and Ebikes, he’s following in the footsteps of many local adventurers who opened up outdoor sports that form the backbone of our local economy.
Mirte Mallory & We-cycle
In 2013, Aspen introduced the WE-cycle program, a community-supported bike share that has now expanded and made its way to Basalt and El Jebel. The brainchild of Philip Jeffries and Mirte Mallory, its current executive director, the program currently has placed 190 bikes and 43 stations in our valley. There’s more to come. A partnership that would aid the Glenwood Springs Bridge Project’s pedestrian bridge is in the works and could appear by the summer of 2017. Mallory has noted that “Regional planning doesn’t take place with one tool or one solution. Much like the hub of a bike, we have a lot of different spokes that collectively make us roll.”
“The success of a bike-share program is having enough bikes at enough locations,” said G.R. Fielding, Pitkin County engineer, who is a mountain biker and skier extraordinaire and was also a local grant administrator for the Aspen WE-cycle program. Bike-share programs rely on local ridership and offer many benefits: It’s faster than walking, reduces traffic, noise and pollution. It connects the community and it’s good for short trips. The next progression to our valley could be the e-bike or electric bicycles, a bike that has a battery or motor.
Jon Delk & Roaring Fork Cycling
Jon Delk is an outdoor enthusiast, traveler and educator. He spent three years in ski school management at Eldora Mountain Resort and three summers running outdoor education-based summer camps for the YMCA of Boulder Valley. After that, it was another 3-1/2 years of endless winter shuttling back and forth between Queenstown, New Zealand and Aspen, Colorado.
After deciding to settle in Aspen, Jon was coaching downhill mountain biking at Snowmass Bike Park and was asked to attend a coaches’ summit held by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).
Aspen High quickly invited Delk to help coach their mountain bike team. Although Delk saw a small team supported by a lot of passionate parents, he soon discovered that there were no organized youth cycling programs in the area. Twenty other states are home to leagues filled with thousands of kids who join in bike events and races, which adds recreation dollars to their local economies.
Delk quickly hit upon the idea of forming a local nonprofit, Roaring Fork Cycling, to offer free after-school cycling education. For Delk, the evolving nonprofit offers a way to give back in the way he knows best, by getting young athletes excited about cycling. He hopes to get the program into every school in our valley.
Smart Guys on Idiot’s Loop
Last summer, after a few drinks, local adventurers Ian Anderson, a partner and PR director at Backbone Media, and Rob Russell, a Groundsprouts, LLC architect in Carbondale, decided to ride the “Idiot’s Loop”. While looking at a map of Colorado, Russell said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to start from Carbondale and ride a big mountain loop over McClure, Kebler, Cottonwood and Independence Passes in a single day?”
Anderson was the only “idiot” who volunteered to join him.
Beyond the mileage (238 miles) and the elevation (more than 22,000 feet of climbing), this adventure required more than 17 hours of time in the saddle. The trip was self-supported so the adventurers had to plan their refueling stops carefully.
The pair reached the top of Independence Pass around 7 p.m. under beautiful, clear, blue skies. It was almost all downhill from there.
Asked if he’d do it again, Ian Anderson made clear that this was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. “No, it was good to get the monkey off our backs after three tries,” he said. “Next year we want to find a different epic to attempt.”