Sunday Profile: Conservation-minded Sarah Johnson helps to create community in Carbondale
Throw a stone anywhere in the Roaring Fork Valley and you’ll probably hit someone who says they care deeply about community building and the environment.
For Sarah Johnson, 36, those interests led her to work in conservation education and immerse herself in the eccentric activities of her adopted hometown, Carbondale.
Her passion is for water conservation and building civic engagement, and she sees the Roaring Fork Valley as the perfect place for that.
“You can create anything in this community that is fun-loving and contributed joy in this world. And this community will embrace it,” Johnson said.
One of her creations was the Renegade Marching Band in 2011 which delighted the town with eclectic costumes and high-quality band music for several summers.
“I am pretty darn good on the clarinet,” Johnson said. She wanted to play, but feeling intimidated by the jamming musicians and missing the structure of sheet music, she took it upon herself to find others who owned band instruments.
“I wandered about the park during Dandelion Day in 2011, asking people if they played instruments and could read music, and by the end of the day, I had a full clipboard of people, from eighth graders to 75-year-olds.
“We had four practices, then debuted on the Fourth of July parade in Carbondale. That’s one of my claims to fame,” Johnson said.
EDUCATION BUSINESS BLOSSOMS
Lately, though, Johnson has been less involved with the many extracurricular activities the mid-valley has to offer, and has focused on her paying job as founder and sole employee at Wild Rose Education, LLC, along with an unpaid intern.
Wild Rose is best known for organizing the Youth Water Leadership Program, which hosts the Healthy Rivers Youth Water Summit each fall. Pitkin County hired Johnson’s company to facilitate the program.
She works out of the Third Street Center in the suite belonging to Clean Energy Economy for the Region. She has a small office surrounded by the remote controlled, solar-powered racing cars that Solar Rollers, also part of CLEER’s suite, makes for local high schools.
Her office is filled with maps, flat and textured, which she uses to demonstrate the local watershed flows into the Colorado River. She’s there, in the winter months, from about 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“I’m not being paid enough to not go cross-country skiing,” Johnson said.
Johnson says the West is in her blood. She was born in Denver, but raised in Missouri since she was a baby.
During college at Missouri State University, Johnson took a semester off, interning with the Student Conservation Organization at the Black Canyon of Gunnison, where she fell in love with the Western Slope.
Her final semester of undergrad was through Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff in what’s called the Grand Canyon semester. That’s where her career path began to solidify, she said. There, she discovered “how to learn a place.”
Her first job in the Roaring Fork was with ACES in Aspen. She later worked to build education programing with the Roaring Fork Conservancy, moving to Carbondale in 2008.
On the last day of ski season that year, she hurt her leg and spent her first summer in Carbondale on crutches.
Johnson formed her education business and conservation consultancy in 2015, and renamed it Wild Rose Education in 2016.
Johnson’s work focuses on both students and teachers. With the Youth Water Leadership programs, she will work with students and advise on projects, but a lot of her work now involves teaching teachers how to best teach environmental issues.
“I think a lot of people in the world recognize there is a need for greater democracy, and stronger civic engagement,” Johnson said.
“I’ve figured out how to meld my passion for civic life, as well as my knowledge and love for water in the west,” Johnson added.
DOWNSIDE TO A small town
While Carbondale’s community is broadly very rewarding, Johnson says her experiences dating in the Valley have been more troublesome.
She attributes the dating difficulties partly to the smallness of the community and partly to the type of young people the region attracts.
“There’s a large number of individuals who aren’t interested in a long-term committed relationship,” Johnson said. She says many are “here as part of the bigger-higher-faster club,” with a focus on personal achievement to the exclusion of other pursuits.
Dating in a small town is comical, she said, when you’re not in the middle of it. “Someday I’m going to write about small-town dating relationships,” she said.
Apparently most of those stories will be saved for the hardcover, but Johnson indicated that seeing exes about town and being friends with them creates entertaining situations.
“It’s not everywhere you stop dating someone, and a few years later end up as the maid of honor in their wedding,” she said.
Johnson is proud she’s been able to build a business that allows her to live in Carbondale, but she faces the same challenges many in the area face regarding the future. She still rents her home, and buying a house in the midvalley doesn’t look like a feasible option in the near future.
Without having a “life plan” or even an exhaustive business plan, she said she’s pleased with how well things have come together.
She attributes the success to “divine intervention, faith, hard work, tenacity, and a big commitment to relationships and being part of the community.”
And, being her own boss gives her certain flexibility many larger environmental organizations don’t have.
“Being a one-woman show, there’s less layers of bureaucracy, decision-making and chains of command, so I can be more flexible, more nimble,” Johnson said.
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