Rick Ridgeway, adventurer and author, has been called the real Indiana Jones by Rolling Stone magazine. His latest challenge is trying to get the western states to implement migratory corridors for iconic animals.
The man who once spent 68 consecutive days above 18,000 feet and more than three months without a bath—has not only cleaned up, but somehow inched his way to the levers of actual power.
Ridgeway, now 59, has embarked on a quest along with the Patagonia clothing company to save North America's iconic wild animals—grizzlies, caribou, wolverines, and others—from extinction. His admittedly ambitious goal is to turn "migratory corridors" into a household expression and in the process fundamentally change the way Americans think about wilderness. "Freedom to Roam is the biggest campaign we've ever tried to pull off," says Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard.
Freedom to Roam is a new type of challenge for Ridgeway, an initiative based on the idea that in order to survive, big animals require hundreds of miles of interconnected, undisturbed habitat. The concept started with Michael Soulé, a professor emeritus of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Soulé's research, beginning in the '60s, indicated that the sprawling development severing these corridors posed a real threat to many species. But it was a hard sell: More than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, and when they visit Yellowstone—a Serengeti of moose and elk and bears—it's tough to convince them that a crisis is looming.
But in the bigger continental picture, Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres don't account for much. North America has three major wildlife corridors: the Atlantic from Maine to Georgia, the Continental Divide from the Yukon through the Rockies and into Mexico, and the Pacific, from the Cascades to the Sierras. If we preserve just pockets of habitat, Souléwarned, the historical routes linking species to the north and south will be severed, and migratory species will be unable to adapt. A study issued this October by the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature warned that, due largely to habitat loss, one-quarter of all the planet's mammals are threatened with extinction in the near future. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted equally dire results if animals remain trapped in designated wildlands while their habitats change due to warming temperatures.
In 1991 Souléco-founded the Wildlands Project, a nonprofit in Florida, which began publicizing the idea of wildlife "linkages" through a campaign called Room to Roam. Similar programs sprang up, including American Wildlands in Montana, Yellowstone to Yukon in Alberta, and the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project in Colorado. But they could only do so much. "We were a bunch of scientists," Soulé says. "We had trouble reaching an audience beyond other scientists and environmental groups."
Enter Patagonia and Ridgeway. "What we do in our business is create brands," says Ridgeway. "And we wanted to create a brand for the preservation of big, wild, and connected landscapes."
Freedom to Roam, is bold, quixotic, and maybe even naive, but that's exactly how Ridgeway does things. If saving the moose requires making nice with the suits, so be it. In a life of epic journeys, Ridgeway's path from dirtbag to power broker may prove the grandest of them all.
Read about Ridgeway's adventures at this link: National Geographic Adventure Magazine. He's really lucky to be alive. Maybe he can relate to the big animals he's trying to save.