What do Rio+20, the UN Mountain Partnership, and the Aspen International Mountain Foundation have in common? Lots.


By Jay Cowan

That mountains are important to humans seems manifestly self-evident to anyone who lives in and loves them for their beauty and majesty, their cultures and diversity, their ability to soothe the soul and sustain the world.

Incredibly, as of December 2011, no report on the state of the mountains of North America was going to be included in the huge Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil in June. A follow-up to the landmark 1992 gathering that ultimately helped produce such important environmental achievements as the Kyoto Accords, Rio+20 will examine choices and directions for the planet's survival. Were it not for the Aspen International Mountain Foundation (AIMF) and the Telluride Institute, the heads of state and numerous delegations from around the world who will be in Rio would be reading nothing about why mountains matter for North America. 

As the AIMF report explains, mountains are estimated to provide nearly half of the world's fresh drinking water. The biodiversity that mountains shelter and succor in their forests and wildlife is some of the greatest left on earth, and they are rich with other resources such as precious metals, coal, oil, and gas. As economic drivers and psychological stimulators, the recreation and tourism industries generated in the mountains are demonstrably vital. And so on. With such promise, of course, comes great responsibility, and the challenges to our mountain environments and culture are as extreme as any we face. 

When no one else had stepped up to cover all of these things for North America, "We felt it was just unacceptable," says AIMF founding secretary Rebecca Wallace. "So we looked into it, and we ended up partnering with the Zoline family and the Telluride Institute to take it on." Wallace spearheaded the nearly sixty-page report, gathering data from around North America. "We started writing on December 10, and four weeks later we were done." They had to be.

"It was meant as a placeholder document," says AIMF founding president Karinjo DeVore, "but now it's the official report for North American mountains in Rio."

That AIMF exists to be able to do such work is thanks to a happy confluence between the United Nations and the Aspen Sister Cities Program. Starting in the 1990s, Aspen Sister Cities committee members Karinjo DeVore and Pat Fallin began organizing and participating in a series of Sustainable Mountain Communities conferences here and abroad, including ones in Chamonix, France, and Shimmukappu, Japan. John Denver performed for the latter, and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) was a cosponsor. When the UN decided to declare 2002 the International Year of the Mountains, the organization contacted DeVore and Fallin about doing something significant in Aspen.

"Since the Sister Cities program had begun to focus on student exchanges, we decided to create AIMF in 2002," says DeVore. "Our goal was to be a forum for conferences, workshops, and community events to distribute information about mountain ecosystems and promote sustainable development in mountain communities." 

In December 2002, AIMF partnered with the Aspen Institute to host a comprehensive celebration of the International Year of the Mountains at Paepcke Auditorium. A 2011 event in Aspen at the Wheeler Opera House was even bigger and featured local experts such as Peter McBride, Chris Davenport, Randy Udall, Jerome Ostenkowski, and the staff of Aspen's carbon-reduction-focused Canary Initiative. Sponsors included Patagonia, the North Face, and Marmot.

Following the Year of the Mountains, the UN Mountain Partnership (MP) was formed with fifty countries, sixteen intergovernmental groups, and more than 120 major NGOs, including AIMF. Backed by UNEP and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, MP is partly funded by the governments of Switzerland and Italy, and recently received a grant from the World Bank. With a mission to protect mountain environments and improve the lives of mountain people around the world, "It's an excellent fit for us," says DeVore, "and we advocated for Aspen, Basalt, Telluride, and Park City to join." 

After attending a plenary session presented by AIMF at the second Women in the Mountains conference in Utah in 2011, Doug McGuire, the director of the MP secretariat, was invited to Aspen. Impressed, he proposed that Aspen become the North American hub for the organization, which already has hubs in Europe, Central Asia, Asia/Pacific, and Latin America. Now AIMF is attempting to raise the money to fund such a move.

It's hard to imagine the mountains of North America not being represented at Rio+20, or there not being a North American hub for the UN's Mountain Partnership. But with a little help, it's easy to see Aspen and the AIMF taking the lead in filling both of those voids. 

This article appears in the Summer 2012 issue of Aspen Sojourner