Each year, the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau recognizes eight active and community-minded individuals, businesses and nonprofit organizations in the Wood River Valley. Candidates are brought to the attention of the chamber through nominations from local citizens whose lives have been touched through the actions of the nominees. The Mountain Express is recognizing each of the winners in the weeks preceding the chamber's awards dinner Saturday, April 21.
The next time you head out for an afternoon of fun on one of the Wood River Valley's many backcountry trails, take a moment to consider all the time and effort it must take to keep the paths open and so well maintained.
Across the United States, few places can boast of such an extensive inventory of truly world-class single-track trails as those that ply the many ridges, creek bottoms and slopes of this isolated mountain valley oasis.
Having considered this, then stop and remember that the existence of this recreational resource is largely due to the dedicated work of Big Wood Backcountry Trails volunteers and the group's primary organizer and spokesman, Ketchum resident Chris Leman.
In recognition of his dedication to the valley's trails, Leman was named the 2006 Environmental Advocate of the Year by the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau.
Recalling the phone call he received from the chamber's executive director, Carol Waller, notifying him of the award, Leman admitted being a little dumbfounded by the honor.
"It's a thrill," Leman said during an interview Thursday morning. "I was just so excited to get the call."
His excitement aside, Leman is quick to place much of the thanks and reason for the group's success on the backs of its extended ranks of volunteers.
For Leman, the award is more a culmination of a decade's worth of work, than recognition for achievements in the past year. In 1996, Leman and a group of dedicated Wood River Valley residents stepped in and filled a crucial gap in the budget of the Ketchum Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service.
The endeavor was unique in that it brought together nature enthusiasts from all walks of life, including hikers, mountain bikers, motorcycle riders and equestrians.
At the time, the Forest Service was facing the likelihood of having to close many of the valley's trails due to a lack of funds to hire trail crews. In the ensuing years, the funding situation hasn't improved, but has actually gotten worse, Leman said.
The agency has faced an average budget cut of about 20 percent per year every year since, he said.
The group has even taken over most of the management of the Forest Service's local adopt-a-trail program.
"We pretty much run that program for the Forest Service since they're so broke," Leman said.
Just last year, 150 Big Wood Backcountry Trails volunteers logged some 1,500 volunteer hours working on various Wood River Valley trails, he noted.
With the help of the group's volunteers, Leman also maintains an informative trail conditions blog that can be accessed through the group's Web site at www.bwbt.org. The group maintains a lengthy e-mail list of some 400 volunteers who receive trail work notices and help update their trail conditions report.
In recent weeks, the group has been primarily concerned with posting trail closure signs to keep recreationists off muddy trails in the early season.
The group is constantly looking at ways to improve or reroute local trails onto less environmentally sensitive areas. Typical projects include moving trails away from riparian areas and prime wildlife habitats.
One of the things Leman is most proud of is the group's accepting, all-inclusive philosophy.
Rather than concentrating on who's causing certain trail problems, the volunteers at Big Wood Backcountry Trails prefer to look at ways of fixing the resource issue.
"We want to be inclusive. We're for sustainable trails," he said.
Leman's background as a bicycle guide with Backroads Bicycle Tours out of Berkeley, Calif., no doubt influences his current volunteer work with Big Wood Backcountry Trails. Working for the company also led him to meet his wife, Laurie, who was also a guide for Backroads.
These days, Leman works as a construction superintendent for Design Build LLC, based in Ketchum.
So, with so much of his time devoted to his full-time job and hours of volunteering, is Leman actually able to get out and enjoy the fruits of his and the Big Wood Backcountry Trails' labors?
"I definitely get my riding in," he said. "I'm not deprived of fun, that's for sure."