Giving Thought: Ecological literacy and responsibility in 2018

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

As climate change continues to alter weather patterns and endanger people around the globe, it’s arguably more important than ever that Americans understand the workings of the natural world.

The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies has spent nearly five decades introducing adults and children to the ecology of the Rocky Mountains. CEO Chris Lane worries daily about the global environment, but also draws deep satisfaction from ACES’ continuing effort to inform locals and visitors about the dynamics of nature and humans’ impact on natural systems.

Lane spent roughly 16 years in the world of “corporate sustainability,” first for Aspen Skiing Co. and then for Xanterra Parks & Resorts before taking the ACES helm in 2012.

“Now I work for a nonprofit, trying to educate for environmental responsibility,” he says. “They’re very different pursuits, but they’re equally powerful and important.”

Aspen Community Foundation: Give us a brief history of ACES and its mission, with an emphasis on the educational aspect.

Chris Lane: In 1968, almost 50 years ago, Elizabeth Paepcke conceived the idea of educating for environmental responsibility and founded ACES on 26 acres at Hallam Lake in the center of Aspen. We like to call it the heartbeat of Aspen, because it’s where Aspen’s life-blood flows, so to speak. There are 13 springs at the lake and the lake is where not only the wildlife gathers, but also the community.

Tom and Jody Cardamone were the first employees of the organization, and we’ve been doing environmental science education ever since. We have about 68,000 student contacts every year and we see 1,700 students per week for in-school classes. We provide a hands-on, experiential curriculum that develops STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills at a time when funding for K-12 science is shrinking.

Overall, we partner with 57 schools around the Western Slope that send their kids to one of our learning centers. We call these our field programs, and they’re a big part of what we do. We get these kids into the outdoors and teach them all kinds of things — flowers, birds, animals, sustainable food production, renewable energy systems, you name it. Most days we get a few busloads of kids, usually 40 or 50 of them.

ACF: Do you work directly with local schools? If so, how?

CL: Today we’re full time in the Aspen, Basalt and Carbondale elementary schools with two teachers in each school. We have 11 full-time educators who teach in local classrooms and also lead our field programs. We teach life, Earth and environmental sciences while also helping schools meet state science standards.

This is absolutely a leg up in science for our local kids. Most U.S. kids can recognize more than 100 corporate logos but can’t identify 10 plant species in their own backyard or local parks. That’s just an example of the work we have to do as a country in science and ecological literacy.

A specific program I want to mention is called Tomorrow’s Voices. It’s a high school-level program in environmental civics that lasts three hours every Monday night and includes college credit. Students learn about and debate environmental issues, and it teaches them to be responsible, ethical advocates for the environment.

ACF: As an environmental leader, what keeps you up at night and what brings you to work every day?

CL: Unfortunately, what keeps me up at night are things like our federal environmental regulations being undone, our exit from the Paris Climate Accord, and protections for our air and water being undone. I think the big picture of our planet is pretty dire if things don’t change, especially with the human population going up worldwide. We live in this amazing bubble of the Roaring Fork Valley, but it’s a different world outside.

What gets me up in the morning is this: If we can educate the world in science and ecology, then everything will change. We’ll do what’s best for the planet, which I believe is what’s also best for humans. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like clean air, clean water and clean food. There’s common ground, we just have to find it.

ACF: It’s Jan. 2, 2018. Have you made any resolutions or plans for the New Year?

CL: Well, we just finished our new strategic plan. It will be our 50th anniversary soon, and we plan to move the ecological literacy movement farther down valley in places like New Castle and Rifle. We’ll also have a capital campaign in the future so that we can be prepared to do this important work for the next 50 years. We want to make this the most eco-literate region in the state.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation and its Cradle to Career Initiative.