Ridgeway's reputation as one of America's best- known adventurers was built less on daring deeds (John Roskelley, Ed Viesturs, and Alex Lowe all have more ascents) than on his unique ability to pick compelling expeditions and to live to tell his story in print and on film. Over the years he has written six books and produced 30 documentaries, one that won an Emmy.
"He's very, very driven," says Gordon Wiltsie, an outdoor photographer who traveled to Queen Maud Land in Antarctica with Ridgeway in 1996. "He knows what he wants and what will get him there. None of the outdoor types like to be thought of as executives, but expedition leaders have that quality, and Rick certainly has it too."
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," Soulésays. "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.