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Wild man

Meet John Stansfield, storyteller and champion of Colorados wilderness


The Arkansas River, near a gateway to Browns Canyon in - south central Colorado. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • The Arkansas River, near a gateway to Browns Canyon in south central Colorado.

The wiry man with big glasses and bushy brown hair ambles along the trail in Brown's Canyon, his head tracking slightly left as a bird calls in the distance.

Pausing a second, he proclaims, "That's a silver-belly gas hawk," before continuing along.

Many wouldn't recognize that particular species until storyteller and environmentalist John Stansfield notes its more common name: a jet plane.

The location of that plane, flying in the atmosphere above the canyon, is important to him. It's as close as Stansfield would like civilization to come to this wild oasis along the Arkansas River in Chaffee County, 80 miles west of Colorado Springs.

For 35 years, Stansfield has hiked across Pikes Peak's backyard, collecting a satchel of stories and drinking in as much of Colorado's backcountry beauty as he can.

Surrounded by soaring pink granite canyon walls, stands of pion-juniper trees and snowy peaks in the distance, Stansfield is in his element. Give him a campfire and a rapt audience, and he's in paradise.

For him, the canyons and peaks of central and southern Colorado represent far more than scenery. The remaining wild places of Colorado, he says, offer an invitation.

John Stansfield, framed by Browns Canyons pink granite - walls. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • John Stansfield, framed by Browns Canyons pink granite walls.

"Landscape leads the imagination on, and leads the mind to explore and discover," he says. "You want to know, and you want to go."

Ever since he arrived in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1970 as a scrawny and shaggy young man with a new job as an elementary school teacher, Stansfield has fought to protect open space and wilderness. During the 1990s, he worked tirelessly on the campaign to pass TOPS, the sales tax that so far has raised $50 million for trails, open space and parks in Colorado Springs.

His attention now is focused on permanently protecting Brown's Canyon, one of 11 swaths of pristine wilderness comprising roughly 275,000 acres across central Colorado.

And while land is on his mind, his life's work is focused on its legacy -- the stories of those he calls "the good women and men of the American West."

A man of many stories

Polite and soft-spoken, the 58-year-old Larkspur resident nonetheless wears his passions on his sleeve. The license plate on his eco-friendly Toyota Prius reads 'TALES,' and he often can be seen dressed as a 19th-century man of adventure, bedecked in cotton, boots and a broad-brimmed hat.

"He walks the talk," says renowned Colorado photographer and naturalist John Fielder.

When Stansfield travels to area schools and libraries, he doesn't carry much with him besides his voice. High-pitched and nasal in conversation, he commands an excellent range onstage. Among his characters: an aw-shucks Texas cowboy, a laughing leprechaun, a salty Yankee lobsterman and a distinguished but troubled English gentleman named Egbert Nosh.

A master storyteller at work. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • A master storyteller at work.

Sometimes he tells tall tales, like the one he delivers in a Texas twang about a dog that splits itself in two on a scythe, only to be reassembled the wrong way by its careless owner, so two legs point up and two legs point down.

But his favorite characters include Western pioneers such as Charles Fox Gardner, one of Colorado Springs' first tuberculosis doctors, and Julia Archibald Holmes, who in 1858 became the first woman to reach the summit of Pikes Peak (wearing bloomers and moccasins).

Perhaps his all-time favorite is the man widely considered the father of Rocky Mountain National Park, and who is the subject of his most recent children's book, Enos Mills: Rocky Mountain Naturalist.

"He was a naturalist, an author, a national park advocate, a public speaker, a photographer, a businessman, a mountaineer and adventurer, a miner and conservationist," Stansfield writes about Mills.

Take out "miner," and the same could be said about Stansfield 100 years later. The two men even slightly resemble each other in appearance.

For his one-man Mills show, Stansfield dons wool pants, knicker socks, Wellington boots and a shirt and tie, and spins yarns about life on the Western frontier.

"Wrestling naked-handed with the elements"

Mills arrived in Colorado in 1884 as a sickly teenager. He made his home near Estes Park and Longs Peak and eventually became an innkeeper and nature guide there.

  • Bruce Elliott

Mills only completed 8th grade, but forged an education for himself in books by nature writers such as John Muir of California. A chance meeting with Muir during an 1889 trip to San Francisco led the young man to adopt the bearded outdoorsman as a mentor.

"Mother Nature conducts a delightful outdoor school and it is open every day of the year," Mills wrote in one of his many books celebrating Colorado's wilderness.

He called the silver spruce "an evergreen poem of the wild" and once wrote that he could find "no greater joy than wrestling naked-handed with the elements."

One tale Stansfield loves to tell involves a grizzly bear-watching trip that Mills takes with a hunter friend. Caught by surprise by an angry mama grizzly, Stansfield re-enacts the panicked moment the hunter shoots and kills the bear. He then acts out the confused reaction of the two cubs that stumble onto the scene and discover their dead mother. The story is resolved when Mills later hears from the hunter, who adopts the orphan bears and proclaims he'll never hunt again.

President Theodore Roosevelt hired Mills in 1907 as a traveling spokesman for forest conservation, and on his many trips across the country, Mills developed his plan to protect what has come to be known as Rocky Mountain National Park.

After leaving government employment in 1909, Mills made more than 300 speeches across the country, gathering support. The payoff came in 1915, when Congress designated 359 square miles as the nation's 13th national park.

At that time, mountain lions and grizzly bears still inhabited the Longs Peak region. The park since has expanded to 417 square miles, but most of its big predators have disappeared as 4 million people have come to inhabit the surrounding area.

Nature photographer, Fielder knows the work of Mills intimately, having literally followed in the pioneer's footsteps while compiling his 1995 book Rocky Mountain National Park: A 100 Year Perspective. He counts Mills as one of his top photographic heroes and credits his work for inspiring his career.

  • Bruce Elliott

He says he understands why Mills also holds such fascination for Stansfield. "Mills couldn't live without nature," he says, "and I've known John some time, and I know he can't either."

A new generation of naturalists

Stansfield first feasted his eyes on Pikes Peak in 1960, as a 12-year-old, when his family camped at Woodland Park on a summer road trip from his home in Dallas.

"We bought our first sleeping bags at the Sears Southgate store and we had a tent that attached to the back of our Rambler station wagon," he says.

After finishing college and earning a master's degree in education, a teaching position in Harrison School District 2 beckoned. He leapt at the chance to return to Colorado, and kept that job for nine years before becoming a professional storyteller.

Beginning that August of 1970, he spent his weekends exploring the roads around Cripple Creek and hiking in Pike National Forest.

"The first thing that went on the wall of my apartment were the four topo maps: Pikes Peak North, Pikes Peak South, Woodland Park and Big Bull Mountain."

He wore a beard and his hair long. "Not exactly like Bozo the Clown," he says, "because it went down instead of up."

  • Bruce Elliott

That September, he attended the first meeting of the Pikes Peak chapter of the Sierra Club, a local branch of the hiking and conservation organization Muir founded in 1892.

Throughout the 1970s, as a volunteer helping the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management's program to inventory all the nation's roadless areas, Stansfield helped catalog wilderness in central Colorado. That's when he first saw Brown's Canyon.

It was also through the Sierra Club that he met his wife Carol in 1981, at a train station in Alaska. She was just about to embark on a trip into the Denali wilderness, with Stansfield as a guide.

"I had this vision of this 180-pound mountain man in Denali who was going to defend us against the grizzly bears in the wilderness," she remembers. "I got off the train, and here was this skinny guy."

Over 24 years, the couple has forged more than just a relationship. Together they've helped train a new generation of naturalists.

Carol Stansfield teaches at the School in the Woods, a School District 20 program she co-founded seven years ago. The school places 52 fourth-grade students each year on a wooded, 640-acre campus in the Black Forest, northeast of Colorado Springs.

The students there participate in a "living classroom." Reading, writing and math lessons are linked to flora, fauna and the changing seasons.

"The curriculum grows directly out of the land," she says.

Teacher John Stansfield, right, and a sixth-grade student - from Pikes Peak Elementary's Outdoor Education - Program study impacts of recent flooding on Monument - Creek in May 1973. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN STANSFIELD
  • Photo courtesy of John Stansfield
  • Teacher John Stansfield, right, and a sixth-grade student from Pikes Peak Elementary's Outdoor Education Program study impacts of recent flooding on Monument Creek in May 1973.

Students also study the lives of naturalists such as Mills, and every year Mr. Stansfield takes them on an overnight camping trip, complete with an evening of stories.

"Some of them will go on to become park rangers or biologists," she says. "My hope is that they take away a deeper love of the natural world."

Sprawling cheek and jowl

But creating a new generation of young naturalists means little, her husband says, if there's no untouched wilderness left to discover.

A lot has changed since he first explored the wild areas of central Colorado, when "hunters were the only ones who used those territories."

Now, rapidly growing cities and towns sprawl "cheek and jowl" with unspoiled areas of the Pike and San Isabel National forests. Every year, the pressure grows from oil and gas drilling interests and off-road vehicle drivers.

Three years ago, Stansfield founded an organization called the Central Colorado Wilderness Coalition. Having compiled information on 100 potential wilderness areas across central Colorado, the coalition systematically has determined the 11 most important. Stansfield calls them "Brown's Canyon and the wild ten."

"If you stand on top of Pikes Peak, you can see all of the wild ten," he says. The areas form a massive 'G' around Pikes Peak. His organization is asking that these areas be declared wilderness by Congress, a designation that would prohibit the construction of roads, the use of motorized vehicles and any drilling.

Browns Canyon and the wild ten: a 275,000-acre - proposal to protect canyon country wilderness across - central Colorado.
  • Browns Canyon and the wild ten: a 275,000-acre proposal to protect canyon country wilderness across central Colorado.

Combined, the areas make up an area slightly larger than Rocky Mountain National Park. They include:

Badger Creek -- 19,250 acres

Beaver Creek -- 38,450 acres

Brown's Canyon -- 35,000 acres

Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Additions

-- 32,300 acres

Farnum Peak -- 17,800 acres

Grape Creek -- 44,200 acres

Enos Mills, known as the father of Rocky Mountain - National Park, in the shadow of Longs Peak. Mills became - an early advocate for nature protection, and John - Stansfield has written a book about him. - COURTESY OF DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY, WESTERN HISTORY DEPT
  • Courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Dept
  • Enos Mills, known as the father of Rocky Mountain National Park, in the shadow of Longs Peak. Mills became an early advocate for nature protection, and John Stansfield has written a book about him.

McIntyre Hills -- 17,900 acres

Pikes Peak West -- 18,500 acres

Table Mountain -- 20,000 acres

Thirtynine Mile Mountain

-- 12,500 acres

Weston Peak -- 20,600 acres

Of all the areas, Brown's Canyon has seen the quickest action. Buoyed by strong grass-roots efforts, Colorado Springs congressman Joel Hefley plans to introduce legislation to declare 20,000 acres of Brown's Canyon wilderness forever off-limits for all but primitive recreation, such as backpacking or horseback riding, as well as some grazing.

The canyon stretches along the Arkansas River south of Buena Vista, along one of the most popular whitewater rafting runs in the world. Above the river, alpine meadows and a tributary's headwaters overlook monster aspen groves and a primeval forest.

John and Carol Stansfield have helped train a generation - of naturalists. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • John and Carol Stansfield have helped train a generation of naturalists.

But the area's most important feature, characteristic of most of the "wild ten" lands, is that much of it lies below 9,000 feet. Although more than 3 million acres across Colorado have been designated as wilderness, the bulk of that is considered "rock and ice" wilderness, because of its high altitude.

Brown's Canyon typifies more sparsely protected "canyon country" wilderness, where many species spend the winter. "It provides key low-elevation habitat" for species such as elk and bighorn sheep, Stansfield says.

The federal Bureau of Land Management put part of the area off-limits in 1992, designating it a "wilderness study area," but efforts to make it a permanent wilderness area have languished.

Congresswoman Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat, included Brown's Canyon in a 1.6 million-acre Canyon Country Wilderness Bill first proposed in 1999. But the measure hasn't gone far in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.

Building bridges

Meanwhile, the threat from motorized recreation and drilling is growing.

"You're seeing tens of thousands of off-road vehicles a year being registered," says Michael Kunkel, a founder of Friends of Brown's Canyon. "When an area becomes roaded, it can't qualify as wilderness anymore."

Kunkel's grass-roots group has organized a broad coalition of rafting outfits, horseback riders, fishermen and Chaffee County commissioners to protect the canyon. "We showed Hefley and the commissioners we had local support," he says.

While Stansfield can't be considered part of the Chaffee County group's campaign, Kunkel describes his contributions, including guiding tours of the canyon for lawmakers, as invaluable.

"I see John as an elder statesman of the environmental movement," he says. "He has that perspective to bear down and protect the land because it'll be gone in a generation."

That loss would be a tragedy for Colorado, Stansfield says. Unlike those in the urbanized eastern states, Colorado citizens still can enjoy some of the same wild joys and tranquil solitude experienced by their hunter and trapper forbears.

"What they were experiencing, we still have," he says. "But we have it in smaller amounts."

Some remain skeptical that Hefley will be able to protect the canyon, particularly because his environmental record is mixed. Hefley recently voted for a revision of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which many environmentalists say is little more than a giveaway to developers.

"We'll have to see how well it's written," Fielder says. But with the nation at war and Congress turning a tin ear to tree-huggers, wilderness advocates need to be realistic about their expectations and to work hard to build bridges. "We've got to do one at a time," he says.

And when building those bridges, few have been more successful than Stansfield, City Councilman Richard Skorman says.

"He's the kind of environmental advocate even the conservatives in this community can like," he says, adding that with his storytelling, Stansfield "takes people into a whole different world."

Stansfield himself might encourage people to spend more time there. To quote his hero, Mills, "Nature's storybook is everywhere and always open."

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