Public Lands Trailblazer: Ashley Korenblat
As a bike tour company owner and community strategist, Ashley Korenblat builds bridges that create protections for public lands.
Photo by Whit Richardson
THE NON-PROFIT TRAILBLAZER: Ashley Korenblat
WHERE SHE’S BEEN:
Korenblat attended Dartmouth College during the same period as fellow Trailblazer Sally McCoy, and both worked in the college’s Outing Club. Korenblat, however, won Dartmouth’s coveted Most Outstanding Woman in her Graduating Class award, in part for helping to organize a nuclear arms conference and “getting a lot of leaders in the field to come speak at it,” she says. That was one of her first experiences gathering passionate people with competing viewpoints, and it’s an approach she’s used often in her professional and advocacy work after college.
Early in her career, Korenblat worked for Merlin Bikes as CEO, where she coordinated building the first titanium-frame mountain bikes and, according to her bio in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, forged one of the first company cultures that promoted self-directed work teams operating on a flex-time system. One thing she learned that would later instruct her advocacy: “When you get enough passionate, free-thinking people in one room, you quickly see that someone might have a better idea than you,” an understanding she brought to the New England Mountain Bike Association. That’s where she had her first advocacy success, getting trails open to mountain bikes in city parks, and where she began to narrow her focus to access while expanding her range of impact. From the regional NEMBA, she went on to work with the International Mountain Bike Association, with whom she has collaborated on 30 public land bills, including one that adjusted a 1964 Wilderness boundary to increase the size of the Wilderness area and open a singletrack trail, “creating a win / win situation for everyone.”
In 1997, Korenblat started Moab-based Western Spirit Cycling Adventures, which leads multi-day road and mountain bike trips across the U.S. As of 2012, she balances ride time with advocacy through her non-profit Public Lands Solutions, which brings together various stakeholders to solve public land conflicts around recreation, economic development and resource extraction.
WHERE SHE’S GOING:
On the clock with Public Lands Solutions, Korenblat is helping communities from Utah to West Virginia find ways to build and optimize their recreation economies, which in turn leads to the protection of public lands. In her free time, she’s trying to educate mountain bikers about why fighting to amend the Wilderness Act will lose more trail access than it gains. “Wilderness-related trails represent less than one percent of all bike trails, and in the era of climate change, mountain bikers need to help protect public land, not jump in bed with politicians intent on selling off and developing the lands where we ride.”
PUTTING HER WORK IN CONTEXT:
Currently the Trump administration is eyeing (and actively pursuing) millions of acres of public land for energy development including fracking and drilling. Its latest directive (issued last month) eliminates public input, slashes public comment time, and ends the designation of “master leasing plans,” which aim to steer fracking and drilling away from communities, cultural artifacts, endangered species, recreational and other sensitive lands. And the administration’s 2019 budget proposal aims to cut the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses royalties from oil and gas drilling to buy land for public use, like bike trails and conservation projects, by 90 percent.
Everyone—from the Trump administration to environmentalists to mountain bikers—can get what they need by dispensing with philosophical conversations and “sitting down with the map” instead.
Yet exploitation of public lands depends on “people clinging desperately to the past versus people willing to take a risk on the future,” says Korenblat. “The past looks like private ownership and resource extraction while the future looks like shared public land as a driver for quality of life and generations finding ways to live more sustainably.” Korenblat believes all stakeholders—everyone from the Trump administration to environmentalists to mountain bikers—can get what they need by dispensing with philosophical conversations and “sitting down with the map” instead.
HER NORTH STAR:
Reshaping public opinion in Western communities that believe extraction is the only viable economic engine. Places like Utah’s San Juan County, and Farmington, New Mexico, can observe and learn from towns like Vernal, Utah, which is working to diversify its economy. They have massive oil and gas development, but they’re also looking to increase their recreation assets in the next 10 years. And her favorite county commissioner is from Twin Falls, Idaho. “He brags about the Chobani yogurt factory and the Clif Bar bakery they brought to Twin Falls, precisely because of the nearby mountain bike trails—‘and the hunting, fishing, skiing, and base jumping—have you seen that?,’ he says with a twinkle in his eye. He may only partake in a few of those activities, but he understands the economic power of land in its natural state.”
More people visiting and living near public lands will translate to greater public lands protection. But Korenblat thinks we also need to hear from large, non-endemic companies that are locating in places like Utah precisely because of the quality of life afforded by access to public land and recreation infrastructure. “We need industries beyond [our own] promoting conservation,” she says. “As companies like Amazon, Adobe and even Goldman Sachs compete to attract the best and the brightest, they are locating in places like Boulder and Salt Lake City precisely because of the access to the great outdoors. So there’s a huge opportunity for mainstream businesses to weigh in on the conservation issue. But we also need to keep developing outdoor recreation in small rural towns, because the macro trends show that people want to live where they can get outside.”
HER CALL TO ACTION:
“Join your local bike club or IMBA or both. Be part of the solution by riding your bike. Let your elected officials know what’s important to you. In fact, become an elected official, and ride bravely into a sustainable future that cherishes shared landscapes.”