An Earth Day Report Card for Aspen & the Roaring Fork Valley
Six Roaring Fork Valley leaders on how we are and aren’t being good environmental stewards
For the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, fortunately, doesn’t wait for Earth Day to try to do right by Mother Earth.
There are countless shining examples year-round of Roaring Fork Valley residents taking action to benefit the environment.
Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and Roaring Fork Conservancy have outstanding educational programs to nurture a connection with nature among students.
Aspen Valley Land Trust works with ranchers and other landowners to conserve vistas and sensitive lands from development. Wilderness Workshop fights to protect the most important unspoiled lands for people and wildlife.
Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, Independence Pass Foundation and Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association take pressure off beleaguered public land management agencies to maintain trails and habitat.
Local governments have also set the bar high. Pitkin County Open Space and Trails has improved the quality of life for recreationists and wildlife. Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams is taking vital steps to protect our waterways. The city of Aspen became an energy efficiency leader by switching to clean energy.
The region’s electricity cooperative, Holy Cross Energy, is a leader in the push for renewables.
The list of organizations and individuals taking notable steps for the sake of sustainability goes on and on.
But the valley has its share of environmental failures. The upper valley produces jobs but not enough affordable housing for its workers. The number of vehicles buzzing up Highway 82 to the beehive in the morning and departing in the afternoon is an embarrassment.
Opulent McMansions define conspicuous consumption because of the resources needed to build and run them.
The corporate jets whisking a handful of passengers in and out of town for an action-packed getaway make a mockery of Aspen’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.
As recreation booms, we’re loving our trails and wild spaces to death while the resort marketers continue to try to lure increasing numbers to fill the lodges, shops and restaurants.
So as we celebrate Earth Day in its 51st year, we turned to some of the area’s leading environmental voices to help take stock of how Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley are doing on the environmental front.
‘THE VILLAGE IN ACTION’
The Roaring Fork Valley excels at coming together as a village to take care of the environment that we all cherish: our wild landscapes, rivers, trails, clean air, and wildlife. Our village is unparalleled in supporting local environmental nonprofits like the Independence Pass Foundation with its volunteer time and financial backing. Moreover, our non-profits consistently cooperate and partner with each other, and with local governments, businesses, and civic organizations, to a degree I believe unequaled in America.
This spirit of cooperation and giving stands as a testament to our village’s deep commitment to taking care of this place. As one IPF board member put it, when asked about the enormous time and energy he expends on behalf of IPF and Independence Pass, “This place has been good to me.” Indeed.
But we need to work on practicing restraint. Living uncomfortably side by side with our village’s stewardship ethic is our propensity for accepting, or even demanding, enormous homes, new trails and deforested ski runs, seamless commercial and private jet access, more events attracting more visitors, and never-ending construction, among other things. We all know the results: increased carbon emissions, traffic, wildlife decline, and noise, air, and light pollution. Committed as we are to being good environmental stewards, we are no match for climate change and its attendant impacts of drought, wildfire, and beetle-devastated forests, and for the immediately tangible effects of more and more people and development.
Restraint — across all sectors, in our private, public, and political lives, for the good of our grandchildren and the living things we share the planet with — must become a value we cherish as much as direct environmental stewardship. Otherwise, we will lose the clean air and water and healthy wild lands and wildlife that brought so many of us here, and that motivate us every day to be good stewards. The entire village, including me, including those who celebrate Earth Day and those who eschew it, must get better at practicing restraint. Until we do, no one gets a trophy.
Karin Teague is executive director of Independence Pass Foundation
’WE ARE DOING GREAT. BUT WE CAN DO BETTER.’
There are three buckets the Roaring Fork Valley needs to address when it comes to climate impact: the utility grid, buildings, and transportation. Each represents about a third of regional greenhouse gas emissions. How are we doing?
On greening the grid, we’re doing as well as anyone in the nation. Aspen’s municipal grid is 100% renewable. Holy Cross is headed there. For years this change was considered impossible, but as a community, we’re almost there.
What about transportation? That’s a very difficult sector to address, as you can tell just by watching traffic at the S-curves. But the truth is, our valley is doing pretty well compared to peer communities. Guests who fly in typically won’t use cars. We have the biggest rural transit agency in the U.S. We have bike-share for first and last mile travel. And our electric vehicle-charging infrastructure is admirable, and expanding. There are, by my count, fifteen chargers just around Buttermilk and the airport.
On buildings, we’re also doing well, with a couple of caveats. Most local municipalities — and in particular Pitkin County — have advanced their codes over the last decade, ensuring that new buildings are radically efficient. The problem is that even an efficient gas-heated building will still emit carbon monoxide for its entire lifetime. We have this beautiful green grid — we should use it! That means the next step for our valley must include electrification codes — incentives to dump gas, and eventually (gasp!) a full ban. It’s not that hard: Aspen Skiing Company just finished all-electric multi-story employee housing in Basalt, our second project after the mid-valley tiny homes. TACAW’s performing arts center is all-electric. So is the Basalt Vista housing project and Electric Pass Lodge in Snowmass Village.
The real problem the valley hasn’t solved around the built environment is that we haven’t recognized urban planning as a climate solution. Meaning that building location and character, density, how we house people, how we access land — all influence emissions. Too often, “environmentalism” is synonymous with “NIMBYism.” (Not In My Back Yard.) Just think about the next proposed development near you. The chorus is always: “Too dense! Not in character. Too high.” (Even if it’s just a mother-in-law unit, neighbors typically come out opposed.) Or you hear: “We don’t want growth!” But sensible density, in the urban core, with access to mass transit, and with ample deed restriction, prevents traffic by allowing people to live near where they work, cuts emissions and improves community life by creating economic vitality and…neighbors. Examples of what doesn’t make sense: townhomes at the base of 1A. Low density, high-end condos with only limited affordable housing in downtown Basalt; massive homes that require huge services (see: traffic) and monster energy loads.
In summary, on climate action, we are doing great. But we can do better.
Auden Schendler is Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company.
‘WILL WE BE PREPARED?’
Aspen excels in many ways in the way it cares for the environment. I believe the common denominator is the citizens who become involved, from our elected leaders to our grassroots organizations, from our many nonprofits to our local educators, from the 5 Points Film Fest to the Aspen Institute. Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley are filled with people who care deeply about the environment, and as a result, we are all better educated on the issues facing our planet, both locally and globally.
The late 1960s and early 1970s birthed an awareness about the balance between development and the environment that gave us the rise of Joe Edwards, Dwight Shellman and Michael Kinsley, whose thoughtful, brave leadership helped preserve a place like no other. Zoning laws they enacted have kept Aspen from becoming another I -70 resort.
Aspen developed an open space program that has worked effectively to protect and prevent development on some of our most treasured open spaces.
Due to citizen input and local leadership, the City of Aspen electric system uses 100% renewable energy: 46% hydropower, 53% wind power and 1% landfill gas! Our local electeds helped form CORE, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, which fosters renewable energy and energy conservation. RFTA has several electric buses and more are anticipated. The plastic bag ban, started here, has been implemented in many other communities.
Our community could improve in many ways in its care for the environment. Implementing a true community-wide recycling and composting commitment would be a good start. Getting everyone, including our many restaurants, to commit to composting is a worthy goal.
My understanding is that wildfires are currently our valley’s most urgent environmental issue. Pitkin County is the only county in northwest Colorado that didn’t experience a significant wildfire last summer. While I’m sure evacuation plans and redundant energy supplies are being looked at, it seems obvious to anyone who spends time in our forests, that our forests are overloaded with fuel, and that substantial forest thinning needs to be looked into, especially in the urban/wilderness interface.
Continued drought and more intense wildfires are predicted. Will we be prepared?
John Doyle will be sworn in as an Aspen city councilman on June 8. He stressed this is his personal view, not a view of city government.
‘TO A CARBON-FREE FUTURE’
Community support for taking care of our environment is decades-strong in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Utes who had summer camps here in the 1880s respected and revered our natural environment. Newer inhabitants began to take notice of our need to do something about a changing climate in the 1990s when global climate change began to feel real in this valley.
Collaborative and like-minded leaders founded the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) with a commitment to sustainability that would keep our communities’ economies strong, and create new jobs. Since over half of our carbon emissions come from energy used in buildings, CORE works primarily in the buildings space. Changing the energy usage in buildings requires an investment of capital, time, human resources and sometimes a leap of faith. By collaborating with the City of Aspen, Pitkin County, Habitat for Humanity, Ski Co, and many others CORE has been able to leverage resources for maximum energy savings and carbon reduction.
Are we doing a good job caring for the environment with this work? Some days my answer is yes, some days, no. There is just so much work to do. We continue fiercely tackling the hurdles and opportunities in front of us — embracing new technology, work force training, equipment costs and on and on, whatever gets thrown at us. Our eyes are trained to look over the horizon at what will be needed to reduce the energy demand of buildings that dump carbon into the atmosphere and relying more on the sun’s energy to power buildings and transportation. And that isn’t enough. We have to search out other opportunities that will help get us to a carbon-free future.
Despite decades of hard work, the clock is still ticking. Our communities, together with other communities, other nations are joined in a race to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions before it’s too late. We still have 9 years, let me repeat, 9 years, to reduce global carbon emissions by 50% from 2020 levels to reach Colorado’s goal. This goal feeds into the global goals. That will be the mark when we will truly know that we are caring for the environment.
Mona Newton is executive director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency
‘A HUGE CHALLENGE’
The valley is excelling in fire and fuels management, but we need to improve
We on the White River National Forest are privileged to manage 2.3 million acres of some of the most spectacular and diverse public lands in this country.
We benefit from the high level of support and advocacy from a very engaged public and community partners in the Roaring Fork Valley. One very timely example is the large amount of support we receive for our fire and fuels management.
Here in the Roaring Fork Valley, we’ve collaborated with many partners and local residents in recent years to reduce hazardous fuels via prescribed fires in highly visible places like Hunter Creek, Basalt Mountain and Braderich Creek. We have more burns planned this spring if conditions allow.
These carefully planned prescribed fires reduce fuels, help lessen the intensity of wildfires and provide firefighters places to engage more effectively. They also provide a large benefit to wildlife habitat.
We partner with other agencies and organizations in the valley to fund these projects. We also rely on them – along with nonprofits and engaged public in the valley – to help spread the word about how these prescribed fires help us reduce wildfire risk, and how they are truly critical right now.
And while we have had these important successes, we need to do more. Much more.
Last year we saw the three largest wildfires in Colorado history and the largest fires in the history of the White River National Forest.
These large fires are here to stay. More than a century of fire suppression has left us with a tremendous amount of fuel that continues to build. We have thousands of homes in and around our forests, which are getting warmer and drier. We must double and triple our efforts to restore ecosystems and reduce fuels. We must become more comfortable with using fire to manage vegetation on the landscape, through prescribed fire and, when and where appropriate, naturally ignited fires. We must do more with mechanical and hand-thinning methods to reduce fuels and improve wildlife habitat. This requires collaborative planning, funding and, most importantly, the support and social license of our communities. This is a huge challenge and we cannot do it alone.
Lisa Stoeffler is deputy supervisor in the White River National Forest
‘JUST, EQUITABLE, DIVERSE AND INCLUSIVE’
For over half a century, community activists throughout the Roaring Fork Valley have engaged in generational work to protect the spectacular public lands that surround us. This work has required perseverance, political and ecological expertise, and dedicated collaboration. Whether it’s securing designations for Wilderness and Roadless Areas, or cancelling oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide — protecting public lands is part of our ethos in the valley and something we should be incredibly proud of and grateful for! And it’s an effort we know must continue. To address the dual climate and biodiversity crises, the science is clear we must protect 30% of lands and waters by 2030 (a goal commonly called 30×30). Public land bills now under consideration, such as the CORE Act, are a great start but more protections are needed; I’m confident our community will once again rise to the challenge.
One area for improvement is building a just, equitable, diverse and inclusive environmental movement. By first acknowledging that the environmental community has systematically failed to engage and ignored the concerns of people of color and low-income communities we can then work to both address the injustices of the past and chart an equitable future. One way we can do this locally is by deeply and authentically engaging the Latinx community. The valley’s Latinx community has been here for generations and makes up 30% of our population, yet our environmental community and priorities have yet to reflect this reality.
Key to this work is listening and understanding both the priorities of the Latinx community and the systemic barriers which impact everything from peoples’ ability to access public lands and environmental education to fully participating in the political and decision-making processes around environmental impacts and benefits. Latinx engagement efforts by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, the exciting work of groups like Voces Unidas de las Montañas on advocacy and civic engagement, and our 3-year-old Defiende Nuestra Tierra (Defend Our Land) program make me hopeful, but much more work is needed. It is imperative and urgent our community will rise to this challenge as well.
Will Roush is executive director at Wilderness Workshop
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