In an era of nonprofits spread too thin, opposing viewpoints regarding climate change, and threatened public lands, Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop has done something unusual. The organization, established in 1967 as the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, has brought together people from all walks of life and crossed party lines to protect public lands. And that, says Sloan Shoemaker, who stepped down as executive director in October after 21 years with the organization, has made Colorado a bellwether for public lands conservation in the West.

The mountain lifestyle attracted the South Carolinian here in the mid-1980s. Shoemaker left the valley to attend graduate school at the University of Denver, where he earned a degree in environmental policy and management, and returned in 1997. Soon after, he attended a community meeting regarding a planned timber sale on top of Basalt Mountain. (That timber makes up the old-growth forest that survived this summer’s Lake Christine Fire.)

“I went and applied all my newfound knowledge and started raising hell in the public meeting,” recalls Shoemaker. His efforts resulted in a job offer from a local Sierra Club group and Aspen Wilderness Workshop to help draft an alternative to the White River National Forest’s management plan. In work that he calls “the perfect launch to my career,” Shoemaker traveled to surrounding communities, learning about geography, politics, biology, ecology, and sociology in the process.

He became Aspen Wilderness Workshop’s first full-time employee, living and working out of a rented, two-room space. As the issues became too many and too complex to run from a kitchen table, the organization got a new home, first in Aspen, then in Carbondale (along with a shortened name) as Shoemaker realized that the next big projects involved land in the midvalley.

Now with a staff of seven and offices at Carbondale’s Third Street Center, Wilderness Workshop is the only nonprofit that’s dedicated to protecting the White River National Forest, the Roaring Fork watershed, and surrounding public lands—almost 4 million acres—full-time. Which is why it came as a surprise to many when Shoemaker announced his retirement earlier this year. The reason is simple, he says. “My work here is done. It’s time to hand it off to the next generation.”

During Shoemaker’s tenure, he’s helped accomplish significant gains on the local, state, and national levels. While being on the frontlines of the bark beetle epidemic, working to protect the Thompson Divide from oil and gas drilling, navigating the divisive battle over the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal, and helping to form and lead the Southern Rockies Conservation Alliance, he has learned to make headway by listening, finding shared values, and creating a common language. 

That approach took time to develop. Of his early career, Shoemaker says, “I had an education that gave me all these tools to go do battle. But the only place you actually make a change is in the human mind, and I was woefully unprepared for that.”

Being a part of the local community helped him forge the ongoing connections needed to change minds, as did Wilderness Workshop’s growing reputation for facilitating no-nonsense, face-to-face conversations. “We can all appreciate clean air, clean water, bountiful wildlife, and ample recreation activities,” he says. “What I wanted to do early on was to take public lands conservation out of the perceptive realm of radical tree huggers into a mainstream value, ultimately as a strategy for enhancing conservation success.”

“Everybody who doesn’t know Sloan well thinks he’s a bulldog. And he is, when it comes to prioritizing and prizing wildlife and wild places,” says Karin Teague, Wilderness Workshop’s board president.  

What’s next for this champion of our environment? Shoemaker plans to spend time with his wife and their two kids (ages 12 and 14) and get out into the wilderness he’s been defending for the last two decades.

“We will miss Sloan terribly,” says Teague, “but we’re hugely happy the wilderness warrior gets to rest.”

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