Sustainable Settings brims with visitors | AspenTimes.com

Sustainable Settings brims with visitors

Charles Agar
Aspen, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE ” Sustainable Settings, a Crystal River Valley nonprofit focusing on environmental learning, is growing so fast the toilets are backing up.

That’s why founder Brook LeVan went before the Pitkin County commissioners asking for permission to add a $40,000 solar compost toilet and handwashing station for visiting school groups.

“We are victims of our own success,” LeVan said.

LeVan, who came to the Roaring Fork Valley in the late 1990s along with wife Rose as visiting artists, had long had a yearning to build a model, sustainable community. Inspired by a one-year study of village life along the Yellow River in China, LeVan opened the nonprofit in 1997 as part of the Community School in Woody Creek.

Since its inception, Sustainable Settings has been a model of growth, spilling over the Woody Creek site before landing on a 244-acre conservation easement on the historic Thompson Ranch near Carbondale in 2001.

LeVan raised $2.35 million to purchase the ranch, thanks in large part to a contribution from Peter and Adam Lewis of Aspen. And his goal is to find a way to keep agricultural land productive and provide a learning center for valley residents.

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Since moving to the Carbondale area, the nonprofit has more than doubled its number of visitors ” from 3,700 visitors in 2005 to more than 8,000 people in 2007.

Sustainable Settings runs a retail outlet, where staff sell organic produce, meat and poultry, and visiting groups pay a small fee to visit.

However, most of the nonprofits revenues come from private donations and grants. In 2006, $211,000 of a near $270,000 budget came from donors.

“We’re really here to teach about sustainable human settlement,” LeVan said, and that means more than agriculture, but models for energy use and conservation.

“We’re living in an unprecedented time,” LeVan said. And having used 60 percent of the earths fossil fuel, solving the worlds energy needs is vital.

“We add 80 million people a year to the planet every year,” LeVan said, and overpopulation is fueled by a false “carrying capacity” caused of fossil fuels.

The Roaring Fork Valley, LeVan said, is a perfect microcosm of what’s happening worldwide.

“If we didn’t have trucks bringing our food to us, what could we support?” LeVan asked. “We believe we’re six times larger than we should be.”

Studying such issues is part of Sustainable Settings’ mission, LeVan said.

Sustainable Settings owns the Carbondale land outright, the only way the nonprofit could survive, LeVan said. And staff grow all they need on some 90 acres of irrigated land.

LeVan, his wife Rose and two full-time staff run the place with help from a handful of interns. And LeVan pays himself $36,000 annually. His wife Rose earns $15,000.

The Carbondale site welcomes everyone from local elementary school kids to University of Colorado Boulder architectural students.

“There’s a lot of support for what we’re doing,” LeVan said. While other counties have special zoning LeVan called “agritainment,” Pitkin County commissioners in 2001 approved the sight as a public facility with special provisions for doing agriculture.

“We’re public, but we’re also a farm and ranch,” LeVan said. The site plays host to lectures and functions throughout the year. “We’ve got a lot of different things going.”

But LeVan struggles to make ends meet.

“We’re interested in making this place fiscally sustainable, and for any business that’s a challenge,” LeVan said. “We’re here to preserve and steward the land.”

Whether for eggs and veggies or “knowledge and skills,” the public “really wants to be here,” LeVan said. Staff take food to a farmer’s market, and a trial co-op for 12 families has proved a huge success and now has a 50-family waiting list, LeVan said.

LeVan added two staff members in 2007, and ongoing costs of capital improvements, new farm equipment (including a $55,000 tractor) make continued fundraising important.

The nonprofit raised $460,000 for a new barn LeVan hopes will be home to a new dairy some time in 2008. And in the future, he hopes to build a cluster of employee units run entirely on solar power.

While LeVan called the planned Whole Foods outlet in Basalt “just another grocery store,” he said the new organic provider will “educate people to higher quality food.”

Today, if a local farmer wants to sell someone a chicken, the bird has to make a round trip to Fort Collins before landing on the plate in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“We really need to re-establish the local agricultural infrastructure,” LeVan said.

Currently, the Carbondale ranch is off-line to large groups until LeVan can produce a plan to get the property up to speed with a new toilet and sanitation facilities.

He’ll go before Pitkin County commissioners in February.

cagar@aspentimes.com.