Schendler: Fundraising doesn’t solve problems |

Schendler: Fundraising doesn’t solve problems

Auden Schendler is an American businessman and author of Getting Green Done. He is the Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company.
Charlie Samuels |

Aspen Skiing Co. has become increasingly concerned about the practices of American Rivers, an environmental group that has worked on local issues in the past and which receives a good deal of funding from donors in the Aspen area. We would like to raise our concerns so that supporters in the region understand our perspective on this organization.

Residents may recognize American Rivers as the national nonprofit that spearheaded opposition to the proposed Castle Creek hydroelectric project. There were legitimate viewpoints on both sides of that conversation, but we question American Rivers’ motives for participating.

American Rivers, an almost $14 million organization, certainly raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, fighting the Castle Creek project. Indeed, the cause was worthy of funding, both for supporters and opposition. But why did this nonprofit focus on Castle Creek and not show similar concern about any of the other highly endangered rivers around Aspen such as East Snowmass Creek, Lincoln Creek, Brooklyn Creek, New York Creek or Hunter Creek, all of which are swept dry or almost dry? What about protecting the Roaring Fork, the upper reaches of which dry up every year, from Front Range interests with future plans to divert another 20 percent (which will certainly dry the Roaring Fork through the center of town)?

Shouldn’t water-focused nonprofits care about all waterways, not just the high-profile ones that raise the most money for the organization? This approach is doubly disappointing because American Rivers has been enormously progressive and helpful in support of small hydroelectric projects and legislation to help foster those projects. This work is needed and well-done. The organization clearly operates fairly and functionally in some areas.

But it seems to have found Aspen so lucrative that fairness goes by the wayside. The organization has continuously attacked Skico in the past year or more and most recently in the past few days over our support for a bill to address a new Forest Service water rule. The recent attacks are against “Aspen Snowmass and its ‘hydrofracker allies’” (seriously?) who want to “privatize rivers that run through public lands.”

But the bill in question would simply stop an odd and unprecedented Forest Service rule (since retracted) that would have required ski resorts operating on public lands to transfer their privately held water rights to the Forest Service without compensation, undoing 150 years of Western water law and throwing the region into legal chaos. (The request by the Forest Service is akin to a federal agency asking you for your car and house. Just like your personal property, water rights are paid for and owned.)

Skico, the National Ski Areas Association and its Western members opposed the rule and support legislation to ensure no similar rule is ever passed. This is necessary because we can’t plan investments in the face of uncertainty, and no ski resort wants to operate under the threat of a water grab at some future date. While the proposed legislation isn’t perfect, even as written it does not threaten instream flows or the Endangered Species Act, meaning it is not a license to dry up rivers, nor would we ever support such legislation. And the National Ski Areas Association and Skico both support modifications to improve the bill.

The unfortunate result of American Rivers’ strategy is that it eliminated the possibility for real dialogue concerning water rights, water use and stakeholders’ legitimate interests. American Rivers has never acknowledged the existential threat the Forest Service rule poses to the industry. It has ignored the concerns of ski resorts. Yet a conversation, versus an attack-and-smear campaign, would be a path to compromise, and Aspen Skiing Co. would be the first to come to the table with an honest partner.

Our organization has a long history of successful partnerships and dialogue with environmental groups, including virtually every environmental nongovernmental organization in the Roaring Fork Valley as well as state and national organizations such as Conservation Colorado, Forest Ethics, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Western Resource Advocates and Protect Our Winters, among many others, over many years, on issues ranging from climate change to wilderness to marriage equality. We haven’t always agreed, but we’ve always managed to work together. And yet, American Rivers singled us out for attack among all Western resorts, last year running an ad saying that Skico was “claiming to fight for climate legislation” while supporting the water bill. But Skico wasn’t just claiming to fight for climate legislation — we were actually fighting for climate legislation in Washington, D.C., which we’ve done for years now.

This gets to the key point: There’s good, hard work to be done on water issues. That work requires collaboration and conversation. For our part, Aspen Skiing Co. and our peers in the ski industry are willing to discuss water use, water rights and riparian protection in serious, honest ways in good faith with other stakeholders, conservationists and our regulatory agencies. We invite that conversation to begin at any time, but we will not stand by silently when others publish complete fabrications about our intentions.

Slanderous attacks, wild accusations and material misstatements might bring in the money, but they don’t solve problems. And organizations that take this approach should not receive your dollars. Instead, you should support any number of organizations in Colorado that prioritize conserving and protecting water over fundraising and dialogue and solutions over slings and arrows.

Auden Schendler is vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co.

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