Facing the 21st century in a mountain town
November 15, 2007
Recently I ventured to the 18th annual Headwaters Conference at Western State College in Gunnison, where we talked about “Resort Communities in the Great 21st Century Transition.”
One factor driving the transition is petroleum. The geologists can argue until the cows come home about whether we’ve reached “peak oil,” but no one seriously argues that the stuff is going to get cheaper, aside from the usual market fluctuations, in coming years. And even if the U.S. once built a coal-powered national transportation network that used petroleum only for lubrication, the current system relies on gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel.
So if you need tourists to support your local economy, you have to wonder how they’ll arrive. Nobody important has proposed rebuilding Colorado’s rail network to its 1914 dimensions, so we’re stuck with airports and highways. The bright side of this is that if gasoline gets significantly more expensive, there may not be any need to expand Interstate 70 because the traffic won’t be there.
That’s only part of the transportation issue, though. Our resort communities import almost everything except firewood (and in many mountain towns, air-quality concerns discourage or forbid its use). Food, clothing and the components of shelter are all transported from far away. It’s a system that is vulnerable to everything from mud slides to terrorism.
Imagining more local production isn’t hard. Around Salida there are remnants of lime kilns, brickyards, creameries, sawmills, electric-generation plants and truck farms, and that’s doubtless true of many other mountain towns.
But with elevated real-estate prices, which are based on resort values instead of productive values, could such enterprises be resurrected? And if an influential segment of your population now consists of upscale types whose delicate NIMBY sensibilities would be offended by the production of the stuff they consume, would local production be politically possible, even if the economics worked?
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It is nice in some ways to have people in town who can throw money around, but the presence of the upper crust can complicate matters for the rest of us. When I need a plumber, electrician, carpenter or mechanic, I have to compete against the wealthy for their services. I can’t blame the tradesmen for charging whatever the market will bear, because I’d do the same thing in their place, but the rising fees don’t make my life any easier.
Then there’s global warming. I remain somewhat skeptical on just how much humans contribute to this, but it does appear to be happening. Ski areas worry about shorter seasons, while water managers wonder how to refit a system that was designed to store most moisture in mountain snowpacks.
Such was the talk at this conference; resort communities worry about everything from food and water to having too many gazillionaires in town. But for a while, I felt encouraged. You always hear people saying, “We don’t want to be like Vail or Aspen.” This time around, there were other towns on the disapproval list: Telluride, Crested Butte, Breckenridge.
But nobody said, “We don’t want to be like Salida,” which made me feel better until I mentioned this to Paul Snyder of Westcliffe. “I hate to tell you this, Ed,” he said, “but I was at a meeting a couple of weeks ago, and somebody said that if we didn’t do things right, we might turn into another Salida.”
Then again, that might be a matter of some comfort, since the other mountain towns that are held up as bad examples are thriving and prosperous, with people giving some serious thought to the challenges of a changing world.