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Sandy Mason: A stalwart conservationist leaves his mark on the Teton Valley

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Sandy Mason, a founding member of the nonprofit Valley Advocates of Responsible Development, was unapologetically committed to preserving the Teton Valley. He raised millions to preserve wildlands and waterways in the valley while logging countless hours on the frontlines of conservation. | Jeannette Boner, EastIdahoNews.com

DRIGGS — When Mary Mason needed a quart of milk, she never sent her husband, Sandy, to pop into the store for a quick purchase.

“He could be there for hours,” said Mary with a small knowing laugh. “The man knew everyone, and he liked everyone he knew.”

On Dec. 26, 2020, Sandy Mason died at home on the north end of the valley, which some affectionately referred to as “Sandyland.” Known for his gregarious laugh, bright white beard, and oft-worn Hawaiian shirts, Sandy was an icon in the community who frequently bridged the gap between old and new ideas. He was a founding member of the nonprofit Valley Advocates of Responsible Development. In that role, he was unapologetically committed to the preservation of the valley.

“Sandy has always been someone who genuinely likes and respects people,” Mary said of her husband of 40 years. “This community was divided because of history and religion, and Sandy didn’t like that. He reached out to everyone and developed relationships — true lasting relationships. There were times when VARD would say, ‘You’re not aggressive enough.’ And Sandy would say, ‘No, you have to listen. You have to work with people.’ That was why Sandy was so effective.”

Most recently, he was the force behind the Teton Creek Corridor Project through the Teton Creek Collaborative. Over the years, he helped raise millions that worked directly to conserve thousands of acres of farm and wildlands, wildlife, and waterways in Teton Valley.

“His love of that valley was unmatched, and the people, the landscape, the wildlife — it was very much who he was,” Max Ludington of LegacyWorks Group said.

Ludington worked closely with Sandy through the regional conservation group that made the Teton Creek Corridor Project a reality.

“He cared about the valley — even the people he furiously disagreed with,” Ludington said. “His compassion was known by the way he carried himself and the importance he placed on relationships in the valley. That was his impact.”

Sandy grew up in New England. His earliest years were shaped by his grandfather and uncle who ran an outdoors camp for boys, Camp Agawam. He was unconventional and grew his hair long and wrecked his motorcycle. He dropped out of college and then went back. He spent seven years on and off a 52-yard ketch sailing around the Horn of South America, nearing death from a shipwreck in the south Atlantic and finding redemption in a cradle of paradise in the south Pacific.

Sandy found his calling, however, on a planning board in the Berkshires. He would take this experience and passion for the wild places to the Rockies as he and Mary charted a new life in the Tetonia area, pulling noxious weeds on their conservation easement, setting up a raptor pole for nesting and adding a sign at the end of the driveway that read, “Caution: Marmots run from March to August, drive slowly.”

‘Big group hug’

He and others founded VARD in the early 2000s. This was during a big time for the Teton Valley. Speculators and developers were buying up land, and the area seemed poised for major expansion. Often during that time, Sandy could be found speaking on behalf of conversation well into the early morning hours of government meetings.

The meetings were often contentious as developers and conservationists battled over the future of the valley. One of the worst of these battles was in 2007 when members of the Teton County Commission voted for a moratorium on development — a move that Sandy supported.

Many disagreed, however, and it became one of the most divisive moments in the valley’s history.

The contention didn’t last forever, though. After the weeping and gnashing of teeth, reconciliations were made, and Sandy was among the first to mend fences with the leaders of the failed recall effort.

“Let’s have a big group hug,” Sandy is quoted as saying in an Aug. 7 issue of the Teton Valley News. The issue describes how Sandy met with the leaders of the recall to begin the process of moving forward. Afterward, he continued to forge relationships for the sake of the greater good, and this became a mainstay of his legacy in the community.

In 2011, he told the Valley Citizen newspaper, “The more you sit across from somebody, the more faces from the crowd emerge as individuals, and then you are able to have conversations of value, then it’s not a strident conversation anymore.”

“His rare passion was the stuff that creates great communities,” said Shawn Hill, VARD executive director. “If you have a bunch of really smart people working together, you’ll have a good community, but when you have people like Sandy Mason, you have a community that goes from good to great, and that’s why we need people like Sandy Mason in the world.”

The future

Three years ago, Sandy was diagnosed with the cancer that would ultimately take his life. It was at that time that the Teton Creek Collaborative was formed to include partnerships with VARD, the Teton Regional Land Trust, Teton Valley Trails and Pathways, Friends of the Teton River and LegacyWorks Group. In less than two years, the group secured grant funding that has worked to protect more than 300 acres and has added Teton Creek restoration initiatives and a new pathway construction.

Ludington said, however, that Sandy plotted his vision for the project well before the group was formed.

“He laid out that vision early on and the steps that needed to be taken,” Ludington said. “It was his ability to recognize a community vision, and that’s why that project is on track.”

Looking at the creek project and the future for that matter, Mary is hopeful.

“The Teton Creek Project is a substantial project that points to hope for the future,” she said. “My hope too is that people will be aware that they have to support our nonprofits that are protecting our waters, the landscape, the wildlife, all of which were supremely important to that man.”

Mary said, in the meantime, she will be out weeding after the snow is gone and will continue to plant seeds and take care of creatures that Sandy loved to protect.

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