Craig area environmental reps share passion for work |

Craig area environmental reps share passion for work

Brian Smith
Luke Schafer, left, and Sasha Nelson, right, employees of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, stand with Soren Jespersen, of The Wilderness Society, at the base of Cedar Mountain. The three local environmental reps have come to rely on each other when addressing local issues, and developed a friendship in the process.
Shawn McHugh

Whenever public land uses are at issue in the West, “inherent controversy” exists, Soren Jespersen contends.

As the Northwest Colorado wildlands coordinator for The Wilderness Society, it’s Jespersen’s job to mitigate that controversy — often a stressful task, he said.

But, Jespersen isn’t alone in his responsibilities for advocating for a balanced approach to environmental issues.

The 33-year-old Salt Lake City native shares an office in downtown Craig with a similar organization and two like-minded people.

Colorado Environmental Coalition staffers Luke Schafer and Sasha Nelson also occupy the office on Yampa Avenue.

Jespersen works closely with Schafer and Nelson on various regional environmental issues.

The office, it seems, serves as a hub of environmental activism in the area.

The three employees have come to rely on each other when addressing environmental concerns and have developed a strong friendship in the process, he said.

“It is already stressful and if you had that same stress and animosity in the office, it would be impossible to function,” Jespersen said. “By being great friends and knowing a lot about each other, it really helps us during those hard times.”

‘The right manner’

The Wilderness Society, a national organization, was founded in 1935. The organization has led efforts to protect about 110 million acres of land in 44 different states, according to its website.

Jespersen said the organization deals mostly with public lands and agencies like the National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

The Colorado Environmental Coalition was founded in 1965. The organization deals with a variety of state environmental issues, including wilderness, air quality, water quality, solid waste, land use, and transportation, according to its website.

Recently, the organizations participated in the development of the resource management plan for the BLM’s Little Snake Field Office and advocated for Vermillion Basin to remain untouched by energy development, Jespersen said.

The organizations also keep watch on sage grouse and big-game habitat, as well as rivers, public lands and other issues.

Schafer, 29, grew up in southeastern Michigan. He is the CEC’s northwest campaign coordinator and has worked in the Craig office for about six years.

The three employees in the shared office space function well because both organizations “do things in the right manner,” Schafer said.

“It has been that way all along,” he said.

Because the two organizations work closely together, most who work in the office or are involved with the organization have come to rely on each other and share a bond, Schafer said.

“We are in such a unique profession, that you will always have those ties that might not necessarily be the same in other professions,” he said. “It is highly specialized and we really fill such a small little niche that most folks don’t even know exists.

“That is a tie that binds, without a doubt.”

Not always an easy job

Nelson, 36, grew up in Craig and calls Northwest Colorado home. She has been with the CEC for almost three years as the organization’s northwest organizer.

“There are much easier ways to earn a whole hell of a lot better living than (what) we do,” she said with a laugh.

Nelson said the work the two organizations do can be difficult at times because of the political nature.

“Right now, this decade seems to be one of the more contentious decades,” she said. “There is a lot of tension, there is a lot of fear and anxiety out there. There are a lot of knee jerk responses, and we feel the brunt of that.”

Nelson said friends and family understand the environmental principles the group works toward, but are left wondering how she can do the job considering the local political climate.

At times, Nelson can become discouraged in the work she does, she said.

“A lot of times I get told … ‘You environmentalists, you tree huggers, are taking the money from our wallets, the food from our tables, and the socks from our grandbabies’ feet,’” she said.

But, thinking beyond self-interests, and showing concern for the future of the land is what keeps Nelson doing her job, she said.

Schafer said stereotypes exist about people with jobs like his.

“I think that the idea that every single tree hunger is a Birkenstock-wearing, granola-eating hippie is just an unfair stereotype or is just plain stupid,” said Schafer, an avid hunter and fisherman. “We come from all walks of life. We all have different backgrounds.”

A ‘harbor’

Jespersen, a self-described “child of the West,” said while the three members of the office have different perspectives, they “care deeply” about what they do.

That passion, he said, has shaped the office and the two organizations’ presence in the area into a “harbor for those that have been quiet.”

Schafer said, true or not, Craig has a reputation for being a “rough place,” where residents may be against any approach to conservation — a notion he “strongly” disagrees with.

Jespersen also disagrees with that notion.

“I heard a lot of stories when I was going to move to Craig about how it was fairly reactionary, scared of change and not very conservation minded,” he said. “I have seen the opposite.”

In his six years in the area, Schafer said he has never had a “cross word” spoken to him because of how both organizations do business.

“The door has always been open, the phone lines have always been ready,” he said.

Schafer said people may disagree with what the organizations advocate for, but “it has never been a case where we can’t get together and go have breakfast.”

“The ability to disagree, but not to be disagreeable, is an important aspect of this work and I think that we all hold that,” he said.

Despite occasional disagreements with residents about the area’s environmental issues, Schafer said there is a “reason why we are here.”

“One of the most prominent critiques of the conservation community, especially on the Western Slope … has been it is essentially decisions and wishes from afar,” he said. “That these folks don’t understand the community. It is a bunch of folks from Boulder, a bunch of folks from Denver, a bunch of folks from D.C.

“That ain’t the case. We live here. This is our home.”

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