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Mary Austin Crofts Left Imprint on the Wood River Valley
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Saturday, March 18, 2023
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

Mary Austin Crofts, who championed so much of what is good and unique about the Wood River Valley, has passed away.

Austin Crofts had been in good health until she contracted COVID a week ago. She suffered a couple strokes and a massive heart attack a few days later, according to a family friend. The 73-year-old was life-flighted to Boise where she passed away Wednesday evening.

“Her contributions to the community never stopped,” said Sarah Michael, who worked with Crofts on numerous projects. “Her communications, leadership, management and fundraising skills made a big difference whenever she got involved and she will be terribly missed.”

Indeed, Crofts’ contributions to the Wood River Valley over the past four decades have improved the quality of life for valley residents and visitors.

“We wouldn’t have had the Wood River Trails System, Blaine County Aquatic Center, the North Valley Trails, the Harriman Trail, numerous parks and parking access to public lands without Mary Austin Crofts,” said Keith Perry, who served with Crofts on the Galena Advisory Committee. “She was instrumental to the community efforts to save Galena Lodge. And she served as chair of the Committee to Save the Bike Path when a $3.5 million tax levy was needed to repave the Wood River Trails.”

From a town in Minnesota that staged a Running of the Turkeys at Thanksgiving, Crofts traded a cutthroat advertising job in Kansas City for a more laid-back lifestyle working as the marketing director at the Sun Valley Health Institute in the early 1980s. Armed with a degree in business and journalism, she jumped at the opportunity to head up the fledgling Blaine County Recreation District. But only after Bob Rosso pulled her resume out of the wastebasket after others had rejected it because she had no recreation experience.

“I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” she recounted of her 20 years with the BCRD. “The Recreation District plays such an important role in helping people live healthy active lives. The people in this community care so much about trails and public access. And the kids’ programs—people tell me stories of how our programs changed their lives that bring tears to my eyes all the time.”

When Crofts started, there was no paved bike path, no swimming pool, no groomed ski trails between Ketchum and Galena Lodge, no playgrounds, no teen center. Residents feared they were losing public access along the Big Wood River and up the canyons.

She and her staff of 12 created 130 kilometers of groomed ski trails. They created 30 miles of paved bike path looping around Sun Valley and running from Ketchum to Bellevue. And they partnered with the Sawtooth National Forest to create the Harriman Trail, a 19-mile Nordic trail from SNRA headquarters to Galena Lodge that serves mountain biking, horse riding and hiking in summer.

Crofts was also part of the efforts to save Galena Lodge in the early 1990s when there was talk of the rustic lodge being razed.

“She put her heart and soul into everything she did as executive director of the BCRD,” said Jenny Busdon, also on the Galena Advisory Committee. “She worked closely with our Help Save Galena committee, attending our meetings and giving great feedback.  When Dick Hare and I co-chaired Power for Galena she was right there with us selling raffle tickets for a car to raise funds. She also joined me in 1996 in organizing the Galena Benefit to raise funds to operate the lodge and groom the ski trails, even though there were no other big-scale benefits at the time to model ours after.”

Crofts retired from the BCRD in 2004 to move with her beloved husband Kim Crofts and their dogs to an island off the coast of Panama where they made a home near the beach in an are surrounded by mangrove trees.

Her decision to retire at age 55 shocked BCRD employees and community members.

“I look at Bald Mountain, I look at the trail system and I look at Mary Austin Crofts—those are three things that I thought would be eternal in our community. It’s like somebody took away one of the stool legs that this community rests on,” said then-Blaine County Commissioner Len Harlig.

“Whenever we had a project, Mary was either in front, besides or pushing from the rear to see that it got done. She’s been a tremendous asset and not just for the Recreation District, either,” he added. “For instance, she worked with the school district on asset building programs. She’s always gone beyond just looking at recreational issues to the heart and soul of the community to see what she could do to make it better.”

Crofts, an avid birder, relished watching large majestic red-billed tropic birds diving for squid and red-bodied Montezuma Oropendola creating pendulous 6-foot nests out of vines and bananas fibers. She and Kim watched dolphins at Dolphin Bay, perused brilliant red-flowered heliconia flowers that resembled lobster claws, and took in nearby attractions like Red Frog Beach and a bat cave.

But four years later their paradise was shattered when Kim Crofts, a native of the Wood River Valley, was gunned down by an intruder who had mistaken their home for the one he intended to rob.

Crofts returned to the Wood River Valley where she adopted as a companion a humongous Great Dane/Labrador retriever named Jake who wagged his tail so vigorously that he broke it twice.

She wrote a book, “The Love of Her Life: One Woman’s Journey of the Heart,” which she called a story of hope about her love for her husband Kim and how she overcame the trauma of his murder through counseling and eye movement desensitization. And, as she began to heal, she jumped back into the fray.

She served as executive director of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival from 2009 to 2016, during which time National Geographic recognized the festival as a Top 7 Fall Festival and msn.com travel recognized it as one of the Top Ten Fall Festivals in the World.

She also served as the executive director of the Hailey Chamber of Commerce and the Crisis Hotline. At the time of her death, she was working with the Wood River Wolf Project, which experiments with non-lethal deterrents to keep wolves from killing sheep, and the Greenhorn First Responder Campaign to get affordable housing for firefighters.

She also recently completed a coffee table book detailing the legacy of “The Wood River Trail System.”

"Mary Austin Crofts was a good friend to our family and an inspiring leader of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival," said John and Diane Peavey, who started the festival. "As the Festival’s director in its mid-life, she took on this growing event whose future at the time admittedly was in jeopardy. She reshaped it here and there, beginning the serious move to the professional and inspiring weekend we know today.  She cared deeply about 'her girls,' she’d say as she patted an ewe or two lovingly on the head.  But it was more…her heart was there, in the landscapes and in the stories and lives of the old timers--and especially friends and sheepmen like John Faulkner and John Peavey. 'They know what sheepherding is really all about,' she explained."

“She was a force to be reckoned with and her heart was in it for good, for kindness, for community,” said Lili Simpson.

Crofts is survived by her stepsons Tyler and Ryan Croft. A celebration of life will be scheduled in summer  2023.


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