Environment Report vol1:1

Going Neutral: Telluride’s Road to Carbon Reduction

Photo by Alec Jacobson


This August, Telluride’s Town Council voted to raise the bar on climate action. In the forth paragraph of a short resolution announcing that Telluride will join 6 counties and 16 other towns around Colorado to fight global warming, a single sentence declares a target that has been years in the making: “the Town of Telluride intends to adopt a goal for the entire community of becoming carbon neutral.”

This bill came immediately on the heels of Mountainfilm Festival’s New Normal campaign that focused on battling climate change and headlined representatives from Ashton Hayes, a village in England that has famously set its sights on carbon neutrality.  But Telluride has been working to shrink its carbon footprint for nearly 15 years.

“The town government is now carbon neutral, and the Telluride community is meeting its goal to be 20 percent below 2010 levels,” said Town of Telluride Environmental and Engineering Division Manager Karen Guglielmone, who tracks municipal emissions and implements the government’s reduction efforts.

Telluride’s government has so far led the charge to reduce the community’s emissions, experimenting with a variety of programs that range from investing in renewable energy production to adopting the Green Building Code.

“I wonder if carbon neutrality is aspirational,” admitted Guglielmone. Still, “In the next few years, given what’s going on across the country with the Tesla Solar Roofs and battery technology, we’ll see great opportunity to do what we do, and to do it better.”

Guglielmone’s follows a string of recent successes that have cut Telluride’s emissions by 25%.  But it took the town years of trials and errors to find a winning strategy.

Telluride’s first stab at emissions reduction followed the same, low-tech strategy that many of us might follow in our own homes.

A 2004 report studying 2003 electrical use at municipal facilities recommended 40 cheap and relatively simple steps, including weatherizing buildings, replacing old lightbulbs, powering down computers at night, installing smart thermostats and putting a VendingMiser beverage machine in the Public Works office to replace an old machine that was responsible for “one notably large plug load.”

The report estimated that these changes would reduce energy consumption in the studied town buildings by 20-25% by 2010, noting confidently that with, “a modest dose of perseverance, [we] can achieve this target.”

In 2005, with that early certainty and some baseline emissions data, the town signed onto the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement and also agreed to support Aspen’s Canary Initiative, committing the government to reduce municipal building and operations emissions by 7% by 2012 (to match the Kyoto Protocol goal from which the US withdrew in 2001) and to invest in alternative energy sources.

But those ambitions targets didn’t generate results. In 2005, emissions rose. In 2006, emissions dropped 1% below 2004 levels which, wrote Gugliemone in memorandum summarizing the year’s energy use, “is not very terribly impressive.”

So, the government doubled down on the strategy of chasing quick and cheap changes, initiating a community outreach program, Telluride Unplugged, that included lectures, a series of articles in the newspaper, and an ongoing awareness program emphasizing energy efficient lighting, local food, recycling and transportation. This was designed as an “annual, local information ‘fest,’” that would help to “[train] ourselves to think differently throughout 2007 so that the new thought patterns will stay with us into the future.”

The same plan that outlined Unplugged also called for a more ambitious emissions goal, setting the Town’s sights on dropping its emissions 15% by 2010 and another 15% by 2015. And the town also included reducing emissions in the 2006 Master Plan.

Nonetheless, emissions remained above baseline levels as the town increased its staff and services alongside Telluride’s growing population and tourist visits. “Six (6) years of analysis and implementation of efficiency measures indicate that the Town Government is not likely to meet these goals with current programs,” noted a 2009 memorandum. As a result, staff recommended that, “the Council take this opportunity to regroup and reassess the town’s strategy.”

The same year, Telluride adopted a new goal, aligning with a target set by Colorado’s Governor, Bill Ritter, to reduce community-wide emissions by 20% by 2020 with the hope that it would be useful to be on the same track as other communities around the state.

EcoAction Partners then led the charge to expand the baseline emissions data beyond municipal facilities and services emissions, surveying the greenhouse gas emissions of the Telluride community as a whole, as well as the surrounding population of San Miguel and Ouray Counties.

The largest portion of Telluride’s emissions come from the electricity and natural gas needed to power and heat homes and commercial buildings. The Town had spent years targeting efficiency within those structures, but, after 2009, they expanded their vision and started to move upstream to target the efficiency of the energy supply chain.

Telluride mayor Stu Fraser joined with his Mountain Village counterpart, Bob Delves, to pose an informal “mayoral challenge” to their respective communities to derive 100 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020.

The town installed solar panels on the roof of the wastewater treatment plant, funding the facility through a San Miguel Power Association (SMPA) rebate program.  When the solar array came online in 2011, it generated 184 megawatt hours of electricity. SMPA owns the offset credits associated with the project, so they do not count to reduce Telluride’s total emissions.

The town then started to target other renewable energy projects, seeking to purchase more solar panels and to implement a hydro power project at the historic Bridal Veil power plant.

The 2012 Energy Use and Carbon Footprint Summary proudly announces that the government facilities and services are “halfway to our 2020 goal.”

But then, in 2014, the Town entered into an agreement to purchase renewable energy credits (RECs) from a new hydro facility down the road in Ridgway and, suddenly, Telluride was ahead of the curve.

RECs are a means of subsidizing the production of electricity from renewable energy sources. In the case of the Ridgway hydro plant, Telluride pays $1.38 for ever approximately 1,100 kilowatt hours of energy produced, offsetting one metric ton of carbon that would have been produced by a nonrenewable source.

And this has significantly altered Telluride’s carbon accounting. In 2010, the community emitted 86,800 metric tons of carbon dioxide, while 2016’s emissions have been calculated at 65,400 mtCO2; a 21,400 mtCO2, 25% reduction. Last year, the Ridgway hydro plant produced 14,684,700 kWh of electricity, and Telluride paid $18,355.88 for 13,255 mtCO2 credits. That is to say that 62% of Telluride’s success at reducing its carbon footprint comes from that one purchase each year.

Telluride’s other renewable energy investments – the solar on the wastewater treatment plant and the credits from the Bridal Veil hydro plant – account for another 264 mtCO2 of reductions in the town’s carbon accounting.

The exact calculus of how a REC purchase offsets emissions versus justifying greater emissions can raise some eyebrows. However, Guglielmone pointed out that without the town’s demand for RECs, certain local renewable energy projects would not have been built in the first place.

“The Town of Telluride only buys local RECs,” she said. “The RECs we are buying from Bridal Veil are electrons that never make it out of Telluride. My thesis is that because they are local RECs, they matter. They’re real.”

Being local, they have a bigger impact on Telluride’s footprint than just the giant reduction from the credits. The projects supported by these RECs have contributed to the trend of growing renewable electricity across Tri-State Generation and Trasmission’s operations that supply Telluride. This has lowered the carbon emissions of each electron of energy that enters the valley. Since 2010, the blend of electricity that Telluride purchases become almost 12% less carbon emitting.

Greening of the system accounts for an additional 21% of the community’s emissions reductions. This paints a clear picture that, as Telluride targets carbon neutrality, growing the network of renewable energy options will be a key strategy.

According to data produced by EcoAction Partners, the carbon footprint of the surrounding region has stayed nearly flat (their report from 2017 shows an increase of 1% against the baseline emissions in 2010). According to Kim Wheels, their Energy Programs Coordinator who tracks emissions, the report from Telluride – given its rising population and growing tourist visits – would likely look similar if the community had not started to build renewable energy sources and to purchase RECs.

“I think that [carbon neutrality] is very realistic if the Town of Telluride is willing to look at a combination of solutions,” says Brad Zaporski, chief executive at the local power coop, San Miguel Power Association. “The combination of solutions would have to include net metering, community style [electricity] generation, utility style [electricity] generation, offsets, and, most importantly, efficiency and conservation.”

Telluride’s government is prepared to continue to lead the charge to reduce the community’s emissions. But, Karen Gugliemone cautions, the entire community will have to participate if there is any hope of reaching carbon neutrality, particularly if there is any hope of reaching that goal before it is too late.

The Global Carbon Project released their 2017 report this month with an unsettling fact: after three years of flat emissions that many thought to signal a peak, global emissions are poised to hit a new record high this year.

Everyone in Telluride, says Gugliemone, will have to do their part to stem the tide.



Correction: the original edition of this article published on November 28, 2017 mistakenly noted that the Town of Telluride brought researchers from University of Colorado at Denver to expand the baseline municipal greenhouse gas emissions survey to the surrounding community.  EcoAction Partners actually did the research for the expansion and the University of Colorado’s Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Systems then prepared the report.

Letter from Editor vol1:1

Small Towns, Big Voices

At the end of 2015, we launched the San Juan Independent out of Telluride with the core belief that the small towns of our region have big stories that deserve rich coverage. Sometimes, it’s critical to dive deeply into a single moment in time, while, in other cases, it’s useful to back away from the day to day decisions to look at the full arc of a complicated issue.

Here, in our first edition of the Mountain Independent, we aim to do both as we look at how our small, rural mountain communities relate to one of the biggest issues of our time: climate change.

In Aspen, the Canary Initiative has already measured an average temperature increase of 2.4°F since 1940 as well as a 34 day increase in the number of frost-free summer days since 1980. In Jackson, the Charture Institute has measured growing aridity, as rising temperatures have caused more rain in the winter, and faster evaporation and transpiration throughout the year. Following the same warming trend, the Mountain Pact lobbying group, notes that wildfires have burned 57% more land in the last decade than in the previous 40 years.

And this year, ski resorts around the West have delayed opening their slopes by weeks.  In Telluride, where I live, we have only 37% of the snow that we would normally have to date and it has stayed too warm at night to fill in the gaps with the snow guns.

[pullquote]Learn what Jack Watson, Whitehouse Chief of Staff to President Jimmy Carter, thinks about the Paris Climate Accord  >>[/pullquote]

At the same time, while mountain economies are threatened by climate change, our carbon footprints are above the national average.

Nonetheless, our communities are well positioned to make a meaningful contribution based on the same small town/big story premise of this publication.

From the Cool Climate Network at UC, Berkeley.


[pullquote]Learn how Sun Valley is becoming resilient >>[/pullquote]


[pullquote]Learn how Telluride is aiming at carbon neutrality >>[/pullquote]


[pullquote]Learn how the Pinhead Institute is targeting efficiency in Telluride >>[/pullquote]


As small towns, where everybody knows their neighbors and every vote counts, we are nimble. If we decide to make changes, there are fewer hearts and minds to shift and fewer variables to adjust. Every vote counts and every voice can make a difference.

[pullquote]Learn everything you ever wanted to know about eco-friendly lumber>>[/pullquote]

Even more importantly, when we move, people notice. Our communities are hotbeds of global intellectual activity, hosting heads of state and thought leaders at events like the Aspen Ideas Festival, Telluride Mountainfilm and Allen & Co.’s annual Sun Valley conference.

[pullquote]Learn about Lake Tahoe’s long road to recovery >>[/pullquote]

And because we are in a position to lead, we must continue to take significant action. Not because climate change threatens our sacred powder turns but because the same shifts are already driving conflict, mass exodus and massive destruction from the Sahara to the Maldives to America’s Gulf Coast.

In this first issue of the Mountain Independent, we cannot offer a comprehensive guide for our many communities to lead the charge against climate change, but we hope that we can, with the case studies presented, offer governments, organizations and individuals some paths forward and the inspiration to follow them.

We are small towns, but we have big voices. What will you do with yours?

[pullquote]Learn how the Rainbow Family of Living Light views the world and makes pancakes>>[/pullquote]

Economy Report vol1:1

Tahoe’s Hot Commodities: Unraveling Decades of Development to Protect the Future

Illustration by Stephen Rockwood
Illustration by Stephen Rockwood


[blockquote3]Still grappling with the bad planning decisions of the past, Tahoe looks to incentivize redevelopment.[/blockquote3]

There are few places that highlight the long-term impact of bad development decisions like the Lake Tahoe basin. It started, as so many poor planning choices do, with the Olympics.


Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Olympics in 1960 and that year, for the first time, the International  Olympic Committee sold broadcast rights to the Games.  CBS broadcast hours and hours of coverage that shone a spotlight on the beauty of Lake Tahoe. Shortly after the Games, development boomed in the basin. At one point there was a plan on the books to grow the regional population from 25,000 to 250,000, put a four-lane highway over the lake and a bridge over Emerald Bay.


Although that project never made it off the ground, plenty of others did, including the Tahoe Keys, a private marina community of more than 1500 homes, most with their own boat docks.  Built on wetlands critical to the health of Lake Tahoe, it is ground zero for nearly every invasive species in the lake, from Eurasian millefoil to abandoned goldfish.


But Tahoe had long been a focus for conservationists–John Muir formed the Sierra Club after a vacation to Lake Tahoe in 1888 during which he saw the damage of industrial logging and fishing–and the area was still home to at least as many environmentalists as developers.  Activists reacted quickly to curb irresponsible development after the Olympics. Colonel Max Fleischmann, heir to the massive Fleischmann’s Yeast fortune, worked closely with his friend Lester Summerfield (a Reno attorney widely known as Nevada’s “Mr. Republican”) to bring both California and Nevada to the table in order to reign in the chaotic growth that posed a threat to the Lake. Around the same time, League to Save Lake Tahoe (the folks responsible for all those Keep Tahoe Blue stickers) formed and mobilized against the freeway development project mentioned above, which was also set to include  additional casino districts and heavily populated urban centers around the lake. Both groups also worked to stop the dumping of sewage in Lake Tahoe; at the time (in 1961), the Nevada Department of Health was forecasting an “average of 30 million gallons of sewage per day and at times 50 million” spilling into the Lake.


In 1969 California governor Ronald Reagan and Nevada governor Pat Laxalt drafted a bi-state, bi-partisan compact, ratified by Congress, to govern the Lake Tahoe. The compact triggered the creation of the Tahoe Regional Planning Association (TRPA), a bi-state agency with the authority to approve transit and development plans in both California and Nevada on both sides of the lake. The TRPA put a building moratorium in place for environmentally sensitive lands, pulling the rug out from under landowners who had bought their dream plot in Tahoe only to find that they could no longer build on it.  When the California Tahoe Conservancy formed in 1985 it spent its first several years buying up those parcels.   

With the prevailing mindset of curbing growth, TRPA put forth its first Regional Plan in 1987 and unveiled a complex system of development rights (often referred to as commodities) used to govern development decisions in the lake.


First, the organization created a “land capability” rating system, which rated how much development could reasonably cover any particular plot of land depending on soil type, and proximity to streams and wetland.  It then created commodity units for each type of development—residential, tourist, and commercial—determined the number of units the basin could handle (including existing development), and capped the number of commodities across the board. The system worked.


TRPA was able to dramatically curb growth and irresponsible development. Planners from all over the world began to visit Tahoe to study how it was able to arrest the decline of clarity in the lake and impose a responsible growth strategy on the basin. They still do.


“We have a map in our office with pins in the countries we’ve had visitors from, and it’s really a lot of people from all over the world,” Lotshaw says.


By 1997, Tahoe had attracted federal attention and President Bill Clinton visited the lake for the first Lake Tahoe Summit. The Tahoe Restoration Act, a federal bill providing funding for restoration at Tahoe, was passed shortly after that summit and over the next two decades the decline in clarity at Lake Tahoe (a key indicator of pollution) was stalled and reversed.


But that wasn’t the end of the story. The same system that masterfully halted destruction of the lake back in the 1980s has now unintentionally impeded progress. Because of the complexity and cost of redevelopment in Tahoe, those old blighted 1960s developments are still hanging around, polluting the lake. And new, sustainable developments are hard to push through. “It’s too hard, too expensive, too difficult,” says Meea Kang, of Domus Development, the only developer to build new affordable housing in Tahoe in decades. “We had to have twelve different entitlement processes and then we had to go jump through everyone’s hoops.”


Plus, the context of development rights has changed—while residential and tourist accommodation units were once very obviously different things, those two types of development have converged thanks to services like VRBO and Air BnB. Recent studies around the basin have found that more than half the homes in South Lake are now being used as vacation rentals, while 65% of homes in the north and west shore are second homes or vacation rentals.


“Tahoe rules require that every hotel room has a tourist accommodation unit, which is a commodity that costs thousands of dollars,” explains Jesse Patterson, deputy director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. “Rather than do that, why don’t I just buy a house and turn 6 bedrooms into a vacation rental? Then I don’t have to follow any of those rules.”


Environmental impact reports haven’t been updated to reflect this new context either. “With most second-home developments, they assume only about a 20 percent occupancy most of the time,” says Alexis Ollar, executive director of Mountain Area Preservation, a local environmental nonprofit. “But thanks to AirBnB and VRBO, it’s more like 80 percent occupancy most of the time–we’re not accounting for the impact of those occupancy levels.”


The combination of costly, expensive development and the rise of technology-enabled vacation rentals has also contributed to a housing crisis in Tahoe. “We have plenty of buildings in Tahoe, they’re just not being used for the right things,” Patterson says. “You’ve got residents living in motel rooms that were never meant to be permanent residences, and tourists renting houses.”


To address these issues, the TRPA brought together a development rights working group that met throughout 2016 and has continued to meet this year, with a final proposal for an updated system due at the end of the year. Updates aim to make the development rights system less complicated to navigate, and to provide commodity swaps and “bonus unit” incentives to encourage the consolidation of development in a few key hubs around the lake, restoration of environmentally sensitive land, and sustainable redevelopment of run-down buildings. The idea is that a property owner could tear down their rundown 20-unit motel that’s sitting atop environmentally sensitive Tahoe land, sell that land to either the local jurisdiction or municipality or a nonprofit land trust like the California Tahoe Conservancy, and earn up to three times as many Tourist Accommodation Units (TAUs, the commodity assigned to hotel rooms in the basin) for a development in one of a handful of designated town centers around the lake. “The idea is to turn the land-use regulations on their head, and use them to incentivize getting rid of the old stuff and building new, more sustainable stuff,” says Patrick Wright, executive director of the Conservancy.


“The development rights initiative is really focused on taking what is a very complex, difficult to understand system that a lot of folks have never encountered anywhere else in the country – a system that adds complexity and cost to projects – and trying to streamline the system, make it easier to navigate, and to facilitate environmental redevelopment at the end of the day,” Lotshaw says.


Still up for debate in the working group? Where the AirBnB-type rentals sit, what to do about them, and whether it’s the job of TRPA or local jurisdictions to figure it out. It might seem like an irrelevant issue, but Patterson (who sits on the working group) says it’s not.


“There’s so many motel rooms and then permitted vacation rentals, and then all the AirBnBs, we’ll never get to a point where a hotel could pay an employee enough to live here,” Patterson continues. “When workers are living outside the basin and commuting, that’s more vehicles on the road and more emissions contributing to loss of clarity in the lake. It’s all tied together.”   


The final proposal from the TRPA Development Rights working group is due at the end of this year, and TRPA hopes to present an alternative development rights system to its board for approval in 2018.  


But even as this new plan moves forward, a new set of environmental challenges is emerging for the Tahoe basin as climate change makes past efforts slightly less effective. The lake is warming faster than scientists estimated it would. Summers are longer and since 1968, the amount of time when the lake exhibits summer-like conditions has increased by almost 26 days. The date of first spring snowmelt — March 29 in 2016 — has also moved up by 19 days since 1961. That means that it’s getting harder to curb the spread of invasive species, and that maintaining the lake’s trademark clarity is becoming more challenging as warmer waters lead to an increase in algal blooms. The lake’s health is generally measured by its clarity, which had been declining rapidly before the first Lake Tahoe Summit attracted federal attention and funding (in the form of the Tahoe Restoration Act) in 1997. In the 20 years since,  efforts to curb stormwater runoff and erosion, and restore previously degraded wetlands, arrested the decline in clarity and even repaired it a bit. Now climate change is telling conservationists they need to work even harder. The most recent “State of the Lake” report found a nearly 17-foot drop in clarity for 2016. The first test of lake clarity, conducted in 1968, found visibility down to 102 feet. Recently, the yearly average was at 69 feet and holding. For 2016 it dropped to just 56 feet, a dramatic difference from the year before.  “With our longer summers now, the lake starts to warm much earlier,” said Geoffrey Schladow, director of the University of California at Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, which puts out the annual report. “And when it warms, that light water floating at the top helps trap light algae there.”


All of which means that the successful conservation work that’s taken place around Tahoe over the past several decades, from stormwater projects to wetlands restoration, not only needs to continue, but also must be augmented by projects that curb auto emissions and erosion, and be prepared to nimbly adapt as the situation evolves in the future.


op-ed vol1:1

Farming Carbon: How the Pinhead Institute is Clearing the Air in Telluride

Photo by Alec Jacobson
Photo by Alec Jacobson


Telluride, like ski towns everywhere, is climate dependent and, surrounded by so much spectacular nature, it’s easy to imagine that we are an eco-friendly fairy camp that can do no wrong. But, when we put pencil to paper, we discovered that Telluride’s per capita carbon footprint is twice the national average: 33 metric tons of carbon pollution (mtCO2) per person each year. And this is the story in many other mountain towns. Aspen, for example, has been working to knock down their footprint from a 2004 baseline of more than 50 mtCO2 per person.

But mountain towns are not fundamentally predisposed to having huge carbon footprints. So, we, at the Pinhead Climate Institute, have recently joined local peer institutions to add our expertise into the mix to take an honest look at the size of our climate impact and commit to making some measurable changes. We all know that the first step in addressing a problem is acknowledging the problem.  (Learn about Telluride’s long road to reducing its carbon footprint.)

According to the Telluride regional greenhouse gas inventory, the two largest tranches of our community’s emissions are electricity and natural gas consumption to power our homes and commercial buildings (45%) and transportation fuels (25%). Changing the carbon footprint of our electricity consumption will require significant policy change with our power provider, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, and reducing natural gas consumption is, generally, the most challenging behavior to address by with a technological change. We hope to tackle those challenges over time, but, at the Pinhead Climate Institute, we saw transportation fuels as the obvious starting point for real emission reductions in the near-term. We were looking for early-stage winners to make significant reductions to rally community support for more complicated challenges in the future.


A summary of emissions in San Miguel and Ouray counties prepared by <a href="">EcoAction Partners</a>.
A summary of emissions in San Miguel and Ouray counties prepared by EcoAction Partners.


To change the carbon footprint of Telluride’s transportation fuels (gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel) we needed to either identify viable non-polluting solutions that make economic sense or match each ton of carbon pollution with an equal ton of carbon removal from the atmosphere. While some individuals in our community can – and have – purchased electric cars, we quickly realized that such a capital-intensive expenditure is not an option for our public transit fleet: economically viable electric buses capable of navigating our narrow ice-covered streets don’t yet exist. Additionally, the slice of the pie chart that accounts for the emissions from our airport cannot be solved (yet) with zero emissions airplanes.

So, we built a local marketplace for reputable, Colorado-based carbon offsets so that we can take action and remove carbon from the atmosphere while we wait for the next generations of transportation technology.

You may ask, how does the offset program work? The key is to verify that purchasing an offset actually supports an action that actively removes carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere. Such actions must pass through the scrutiny of a carbon offset registry and a third-party verifier – no easy task!

In our case, Pinhead purchased more than 7,000 tons of carbon offsets from Dallas May, a conservation-minded rancher who owns a 16,000 acre ranch in Lamar, CO. May has signed a 100-year agreement — brokered by Ducks Unlimited and Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust — to keep his family’s ranch intact and managed to build, rather than deplete, soil carbon stocks. The May family will continue to run cattle on their land, but they will meticulously manage grazing practices to cultivate native grasses. They agree to keep their soil “sod side up” (not tilling it into crops which would release carbon rather than sequester it), and to carefully track and monitor these activities. Every ton of carbon that is verifiably sequestered in the May’s soil through this system can then be sold as a carbon credit after verification and discounting. This adds a new component to the May’s business: after generations of farming cows, they have now deliberately started to farm carbon too.

We bought our 7,000 offsets at $9.50 per ton of carbon and we sell them for $15 per ton (or at face value for those of you considering purchases of more than 1,000 tons), using the $5.50 margin on smaller volume sales to run climate education programs for children in our region of rural Colorado. Price transparency is critically important for our Telluride Values project so that we can jumpstart regional and national carbon pricing program.

Telluride’s public busses, the Galloping Goose Fleet, are now entirely offset with agriculture-based credits and we have also worked with Telluride Regional Airport to sell offsets to everyone who flies in. Additionally, we are working with Mountainfilm Festival and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival to help our loyal visitors and Festivarians reduce the atmospheric impact of their festival attendance. And every other day of the year, offsets can be purchased through the Pinhead Institute website by anyone else looking to counteract their flights or other transportation.

So how can you use these offsets, you might ask? Here’s an example, if I fly on a roundtrip commercial flight from Telluride to New York City, my carbon footprint is approximately one ton of CO2 emissions. I can then purchase one ton of emissions offsets for $15 and have a net neutral visit with my grandmother on her 97th birthday. Dallas May’s carbon removal benefits (carbon sequestration) funded by my $15 equal the emissions associate with my trip to grandma’s house. There is a net zero emission of long-term carbon pollution in the Earth’s atmosphere – yes, it is really that simple.

There are numerous winners in this business relationship: there are zero net emissions to the atmosphere, the rancher in eastern Colorado can continue ranching while receiving benefits from the carbon offset revenue, Ducks Unlimited protects critical wetlands and duck habitat, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust helps to protect a working ranch from fragmentation, children in rural western Colorado receive supplemental science education from Pinhead, and the carbon footprint of one resident [me] is decreased. To top it off, in Telluride we have begun to establish a price signal on carbon which is something that the federal government hasn’t been able to accomplish.

From there, we go back to where we began, applying the annual carbon offsets to Telluride’s greenhouse gas inventory reducing per capita emissions. Carbon accounting utilizes the same principles as economic accounting, with debits and credit. Carbon offsets are provided as credits that reduce our net carbon footprint similar to carbon sequestration activities by trees and healthy soils. As a country we have performed this exercise annually since 1992 in the National Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks and now we are doing it in Telluride!

Carbon offsets are one tool that we realized could be used to quickly reduce our community’s carbon footprint. There are many more strategies and some viable options for direct pollution reductions.

Next up, we are working with our rural power cooperative to demand 100 percent renewable electricity which will zero-out the carbon footprint of our electricity consumption. In the future. we will also gently address the challenging discussions of reducing the natural gas heating demands of vacant second homes. We plan to press local planning departments for passive solar building requirements for houses that have large structural and carbon footprints.

The State of California has successfully decoupled carbon pollution from economic growth and I am confident that mountain towns can take aggressive climate actions as well. It’s going to take serious strategic actions and significant Drawdown efforts; these near-term actions are much less expensive than the future costs associated with inaction. If we kick the can down the road, there is still a trashy can in the road – it’s time to clean up our atmospheric trash and begin decarbonizing the atmosphere before it’s too late. Through our actions today we have the power to preserve a few epic powder days for our grandkids.

Environment Report vol1:1

Building Green Can Be Bewildering: The Eco-Lumber Conundrum

Illustration by Stephen Rockwood
Illustration by Blake Suarez


A globetrotting couple decides to settle down and build a home in rural southwestern Colorado. It’s a big decision, and they want to do it right. They choose an idyllic setting on a country road in Ouray County, surrounded by lush, irrigated ranch land, with the Uncompahgre River flowing nearby and gorgeous mountain views in all directions. Not only do they want something that is beautifully located and beautifully designed; it is also important to them for their new home to be environmentally sound. So along with many other eco-friendly options, their architect encourages them to look into using certified lumber – lumber that has earned a seal of approval from a third-party certifying organization as coming from responsibly managed forests.

That sounds like a no-brainer.

The couple does a little research about the Forest Stewardship Council, one of the best-known and most widely respected organizations that certifies lumber and other wood products from around the world. Then they call up a large commercial lumberyard in Montrose, CO, a commercial hub 35 miles to the north, to see if they carry FSC certified lumber.

The guy they talk to doesn’t know what that is.

The next lumber yard they call has actually heard of FSC lumber, and says they can get it, but quotes a price that is three-and-a-half times more expensive than the uncertified equivalent due to shipping costs – because, they say, it would have to be trucked to Montrose from a lumberyard in Durango, CO (100 miles and three mountain passes to the south).

That kind of a price markup seems absurd, and is way beyond the couple’s means. But by now, they have become obsessed with solving the problem. Surely there must be someplace in Colorado where they can get certified lumber at a reasonable cost. They broaden their search, get in touch with some lumberyards in the Denver area. And it’s the same story everywhere they call  – the lumberyards don’t carry it any more because there is no demand and it’s too expensive.

The whole experience leaves this well-intentioned couple – who asked to remain unnamed in this story to protect their privacy – scratching their heads about the Forest Stewardship Council; who are they, and did they create this standard to be commercially viable, not just environmentally pure?


Photo by Alec Jacobson



The Forest Stewardship Council was founded in 1993 on the heels of the Rio Earth Summit and pioneered third-party forest certification. A group of environmental NGOs, alarmed by the rate of global deforestation, teamed with industry leaders in Europe to see if they could improve the way forests are managed by setting global ecological standards for the cutting and milling of timber.

Rather than taking a regulatory approach like the Clean Water Act or Endangered Species Act, the FSC is a voluntary, market-based system that tries to use demand to create an incentive for land managers to adopt a higher environmental standard than they otherwise would.

“We create an incentive for people to do the right thing,” explained Brad Kahn, communications director for Forest Stewardship Council US. “Ultimately our mission is about protecting forests.”

FSC has three certification systems that help it to accomplish this mission: Forest Management certification, Chain of Custody certification and Product Label certification.

Forest Management certification looks at what it means to manage a forest well, from identifying habitat for rare and endangered species, to leaving buffers of trees to keep waterways from being destroyed by logging activities, to tightly restricting the use of herbicides that the timber industry sometimes uses to kill off species that compete with their trees of choice.

A variety of auditors, such as the Rainforest Alliance, examine the work of FSC forestry members, determining whether landowners are meeting the FSC standards. If they do, the wood they produce receives FSC’s Forest Management certification. As soon as ownership of harvested wood changes hands, it goes into FSC’s Chain of Custody (CoC) certification standard, which traces the path of products from forests through the supply chain, verifying that FSC-certified material is identified or kept separated from non-certified material throughout the chain. Any company in this supply chain, from harvesters to retailers, needs to be FSC certified themselves, in order to be able to label or promote their products as FSC certified.

If all of the steps have been followed properly, the end product – be it a dining table or a box of tissues or a plank of lumber – then wins the FSC product label.

Today, Kahn said, FSC certifies 500 million acres of forest around the world, representing some 10 percent of working forest land – more in some countries and less in others. In the US and Canada, 170 million acres of forest are certified – 130 million acres in Canada, and the remaining 35 million in the US.

Although the average consumer might not know it, there is a vast swath of products bearing the FSC label – from Patagonia’s first FSC-certified wetsuit (made from latex that comes from FSC-certified forests) to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cartons and myriad other solid wood or pulp and paper products. Huge companies like Unilever, Proctor & Gamble and Ikea all use FSC certification for at least some of their products.

“In the US the pulp and paper sector is growing more dramatically than the solid wood sector, but we are working hard to grow the solid wood side,” Kahn said. “FSC has have reached the point now where it is in every major store. You can find FSC products wherever you are shopping.”

Well, maybe not everywhere – as the aforementioned couple in Ouray County can attest – especially when it comes to lumber.



Strait Lumber was the first FSC-certified lumber yard in the Denver Metro area, but it dropped its certification and stopped carrying the product last year. “The value is just not there, and it is kind of a headache, to be honest with you,” said Strait Lumber general manager Tyler Korbe.

The FSC Chain of Custody certification is work-intensive to obtain and expensive to maintain, he explained, and FSC inventory can’t be co-mingled with non-FSC-certified products. This leads to price markups that many consumers find untenable – especially when it comes to big purchases such as the lumber package for a new house.

While Korbe says there is still is a local market in the commercial construction sector in the Denver Metro area, he sees FSC-certified lumber as possibly going by the wayside in the future.

“All indications I witness point in that direction,” he said. “It is something that has definitely lost its pizzazz. I used to do two or three orders a week and now I don’t even get an inquiry all year.”

But businesses can play an important role in whether or not customers buy their FSC products, Kahn countered.

“Across all businesses, we are finding the companies that are successful are the ones that are leaning into it,” he said. “They are thinking about who their customers might be. They are not just waiting for someone to walk through the door. They are going to people – whether that’s architects, builders or owners, and saying ‘This is what we’ve got, here’s the lead time, here’s the pricing,’ and they are actually making sales.”



Indroneil Ganguly, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and associate director of the school’s Center for International Trade in Forest Products, concurs that the FSC system is viable – if there is demand.

Ganguly has seen up close how FSC certification works, from the timber plantations of the Pacific Northwest to the jungles of southeast Asia. When it comes to Chain of Custody certification, he said, most facilities such as sawmills or furniture factories in the developing world process both certified and uncertified wood on the same machinery, running separate lines and maintaining physical separation between certified and uncertified wood by keeping the certified wood in a shed until a special order comes in.

This may sound pretty complicated, but “if people in the developed world demand FSC, then the guy with the sawmill in Vietnam will run an FSC line,” Ganguly pointed out. “The problem is that there simply isn’t enough demand for FSC-certified products. They have the shed, and it’s covered in cobwebs.”

Another flaw Ganguly sees with the FSC system has to do with lack of awareness among consumers. “I teach this class of undergrads who have some environmental interest,” he said. “And when I ask ‘How many of you have heard of FSC?’ perhaps only ten percent of them raise their hands. If that’s the awareness level of the ‘environmentally aware’ population, what would be the awareness of the general population who don’t think about the environment so much?”


Photo by Alec Jacobson
Photo by Alec Jacobson


A Clear-Cut Alternative

Apart from the lack of awareness, perhaps the biggest challenge FSC faces is the commercial timber industry’s competing Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certification system, created by the American Forest and Paper Association the year after FSC was founded.

Many environmentalists have denounced the SFI as a fake eco-label that greenwashes forest-degrading timber-cutting practices. Among other things, they say, SFI certification allows for large clear cuts, the replacement of complex forest ecosystems with monocultures/plantations, genetically modified organisms, and logging practices that harm water quality and imperil fish and wildlife by using hazardous chemicals such as the endocrine-disrupting herbicide Atrazine.

SFI supporters, meanwhile, counter that SFI program participants have invested over $1.1 billion in forest research, and over $55 million to support community programs such as education and training for loggers and foresters. Timber companies must earn profits, they say, to keep the industry thriving, and in order to do so, they need to rely on practices such as clear-cutting and herbicide application, in order to produce ongoing jobs in the woods and revenues from timber-cutting while thwarting pressure to convert forest lands into subdivisions or other developments.

In spite of its drawbacks, even some opponents acknowledge that the SFI system has improved over time and is at least a step in the right direction. SFI-certified lumber has gained a broad market share in the US and an international seal of approval from the industry-friendly umbrella program, Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.

Photo by Samantha Wright
Photo by Samantha Wright

It’s also won the seal of approval from more and more budget-conscious homeowners, as Tyler Korbe of Strait Lumber can attest.

“Every homeowner we had, we would estimate their total lumber cost through our regular SFI-certified product versus what the price of FSC would cost, and every single one of them who had a green idea in mind said ‘We can’t justify the additional cost, when it’s the same lumber,’” noted Korbe. “A board is a board is a board, and once you put it on paper, people ask themselves, ‘Should I pay 30 percent more for the exact same thing?’ Most people aren’t going to do that.”

FSC, meanwhile, maintains its coveted status – for now – as the only certification that is fully accepted by the prestigious and lucrative US Green Building Council LEED program. But even here, SFI is making inroads, winning a pilot LEED alternative compliance path from the USGBC in 2016, along with several other competing certification programs.

“There is a lot of infighting. The politics is brutal – it’s a full-on turf war between certification lobbies,” said Ganguly. “If you ask an environmentalist, ‘Is FSC better than SFI?’ they will probably say yes. But, the difference in how much good they are doing for the environment is minimal here in the US, and more significant in the tropics.”



Kahn is the first to admit that it’s been an uphill battle to create a robust and sustainable market for FSC certified lumber in the housing sector. It’s a multifaceted problem, he says, whose roots can be traced not just to FSC’s rigorous certification process and competition from SFI, but also to prevailing consumer and business attitudes, and trends in the housing market and construction industry.

Most home buyers in the US would rather get more house for their dollar than more environmental value, Kahn said, and large-scale homebuilders are simply catering to this desire. “It’’s been tough, frankly,” he admitted. “You drive through any suburb in America, and you see massive homes on quarter-acre lots. That’s what the market is. We haven’t really cracked that nut, to be honest.”

(Housing data from the US Census Bureau underscores this trend, showing that new US homes today are on the average 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973 and living space per person has nearly doubled.)

In the US, Kahn acknowledged, the notion of asking for environmental values in the construction of a home is still growing. But he is hopeful about the next generation of homebuyers. “Those values are permeating decisions millennials are making about what they buy and where they spend their time and money,” he said. “Hopefully that will translate into what they are asking about their homes.”

Global climate change could also play a factor in public perception of the value of green lumber in the near future. Kahn points to a newly released study from the Portland, Oregon based environmental watchdog group Ecotrust showing that FSC-certified forest management sequesters anywhere from 35-100 percent more carbon than industrial management. <

“We see FSC as a tool for tackling climate change,” Kahn said. “If we had a carbon tax, a national cap and trade system and forestry was included, there would be a significant new revenue stream for land owners to do the right thing.”


Photo by Alec Jacobson
Photo by Alec Jacobson


Going Local

Of course, eco-certified lumber isn’t the only consideration when it comes to building an environmentally friendly house. There are plenty of other ways to look at sustainability.

In some cases, the greenest choice might be to opt for lumber that has been locally or regionally harvested and processed, whether or not it bears a third-party certification label.

In southwestern Colorado, Phil Gould has carved out a niche harvesting and milling trees that have died from insect infestation and disease. “The best analogy (for eco-certified wood) would be organic food,” he said. “You can get a lot of stuff that is labeled organic, but it’s not the same as going down to the farmers market and buying fruits and vegetables that were grown right in this area.”

Gould points to transportation as a significant environmental culprit in today’s timber market. “That’s where most of the environmental damage comes from – trucking and moving stuff around,” he asserted. “It seems like the closer to the source, the better. People did that for hundreds of years until huge mills opened up in the Northwest and that became a standard.”

Another, lesser-known benefit of harvesting local beetle kill is that it is already quite dry, so it doesn’t have to be dry-kilned prior to the milling process. “That’s a huge savings in resources,” Gould pointed out. “All that stuff in the Northwest is incredibly wet and has to be kiln-dried using millions of gallons of propane or wood burners”

Yet in spite of its obvious environmental benefits, Gould has not seen huge demand for his product on Colorado’s Western Slope. “It’s more of a novelty,” he said. “People seem to be more into the reclaimed stuff that is hundreds of years old. It’s more acceptable and trendy.”

Even when customers want to use locally sourced material, it isn’t always that easy to get ahold of. Clint Estes, the only LEED-certified contractor in Ouray County, related the story of a recent client who wanted to source local lumber for his new home in Ridgway from a mill in Montrose that processes wood harvested on the nearby Uncompahgre Plateau.

“But none of the suppliers in Montrose sell locally milled products,” Estes said. “We had to source his wood from suppliers 200 miles away, even though it was logged on the Plateau.”

As for FSC lumber, “I always offer it to my clients as an option, and basically, it proves to be a cost block,” Estes said. “I’ve put pressure on local lumberyards, but that’s as far as I’ve gone, working with my local salesman and expressing what’s important.”

Typically, he said, he gets a noncommittal response. “’Sounds good – we will look into it.’ But then it’s business as usual. For them, it’s not broken so why change it? It’s not going to get them a bigger return.”

When it comes to green lumber, Estes concluded, it’s up to consumers to drive the market to the point where it becomes more reasonably priced and more broadly available.“ What it ultimately takes is buy-in from not only the builder but the clients, the people building the houses,” he said.

Boulder-based environmental design consultant David Johnston made the same point fifteen years ago in an opinion piece for Mother Earth Living magazine.

“Certified wood needs to fly out of the bins while the ‘regular’ wood sits there untouched,” Johnston wrote. “Every wood product we buy needs to be identified as sustainably harvested, or we will tell the store manager we’re taking our business elsewhere. You would be surprised how few inquiries it takes before a lumberyard or a hardware store starts buying certified products. Always ask. Always bring the issue to the manager. Write letters to the company buyers or, even better, to the CEO.”



For many green-minded homeowners, their new home’s carbon footprint and energy efficiency are more important considerations than where their lumber came from. And those considerations can be just as complex and bewildering as the certified wood conundrum.

“I like to approach it from an embodied energy carbon footprint standpoint rather than pure efficiency,” Estes said. “If you are building to a high efficiency standard, that doesn’t mean you are lowering your carbon footprint. Instead of using two inches of foam board, you have four to five inches under the slab – more and more foam and petroleum products. It would be interesting to do a carbon calculation of a LEED certified home. How many years would it take to offset?”

Then there’s the whole other end of the spectrum– building with recycled concrete blocks or straw bales. “All of those products have limitations, but they are 100 percent post consumer byproducts or recycled products,” Estes said. “There is a lot to it, a lot of facets to consider.”

No matter which way you slice it, building a home is a resource-intensive process that is going to have a lasting impact on the skin of the planet.

“When I have a client driving a Prius and they say they want their house to be environmentally neutral, it is not feasible,” said Ridgway builder Brad Wallis, a proponent of a high-efficiency European design criteria known as Passive House that lessens the overall impact a home has on the environment – not just as it is being built, but over the entire course of its lifetime.<

“Cement, polystyrene foam and wood, they are all products of a consuming process, not a neutral process,” Wallis said. “But if it’s done well, and it conserves energy and doesn’t need to be replaced in 30 years, you are doing the best you can in a generally consumptive process.”



In the midst of such a tangled web of options, what is an environmentally conscientious yet budget-conscious homeowner in southwestern Colorado (or anywhere else, for that matter) supposed to do?

To help balance their own cost-versus-environmental equation, our couple in Ouray County put solar panels on their house – expensive, yes, but over the long term they anticipate the panels will pay for themselves in saved energy costs. They also looked into using reclaimed wood from midwestern barns – super environmentally conscious, but aesthetically unsuitable for the clean, modern look of the house that they were building.

In the end, they decided to go with SFI-certified lumber instead of the more expensive FSC. “It’s a much lower standard,” they acknowledged. “But we thought it’s still better than nothing. The guy at the local lumber yard told us all their stuff is SFI-certified. Maybe that is a common standard now. It seemed very reasonably priced.”

Their house isn’t finished yet, but “so far it’s looking really nice,” they added. “We have done a good job of balancing things we care about without going way over budget.”


Photo by Alec Jacobson
Photo by Alec Jacobson
op-ed vol1:1

Saving the Planet Without the Help of Our President

Illustration by Stephen Rockwood


December 12, 2015 was a momentous day in the history of the world, politically, diplomatically and socially, because, on that day, 194 nations plus the European Union signed the Paris Climate Agreement dealing with the global mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. It was a stunning and unprecedented achievement of international accord in a world rife with competing national interests. The accord represents a world-wide recognition both of the dire threats that global warming and climate disruption pose to our planet, and of mankind’s responsibility to do something about it.


Citing his “America First” slogan, but lacking any facts to support his decision, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the agreement, calling it a “draconian” international deal that threatened the U.S. economy and undermined our national sovereignty. Thankfully, without exception,  the other signatories to the agreement reaffirmed their commitment to it.


Immediately following the president’s announcement, the governors of California, New York and Washington announced that, notwithstanding the President’s decision, their states would remain fully committed to the goals of the agreement and to meeting or exceeding the targets of the federal Clean Power Plan initiated by President Obama. To date, ten other states and Puerto Rico have joined them, giving the now 14 members of the “U.S. Climate Alliance” an aggregate population of over 107 million with a GDP of over $7 trillion.


In addition, the day after Trump’s announcement, thirty U.S. cities, more than 80 university presidents, and over 100 major U.S. companies announced their formation of a coalition to uphold the international accord, saying in their press release: “Americans will honor and fulfill the Paris Agreement by leading from the bottom up—and there isn’t anything Washington can do to stop us.”


Uninformed and ill-advised as it was, President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, is, unfortunately, only part of his administration’s broad-based effort to undermine protection of the national and global environment. His proposed 2018 budget  calls for a 31% cut in EPA’s budget, including massive cuts in scientific research, personnel, and a wide range of environmental programs designed to protect our air and water. He has signed executive orders to increase commercial mining, drilling and natural gas extraction on public lands and increase offshore oil exploration and drilling; revoked a rule that prevented coal companies from dumping debris into local streams; cancelled a requirement for reporting methane emissions; rolled back limits on toxic discharge from power plants into public water ways; and approved the Dakota and Keystone XL pipelines, to cite only a few examples.


He has also called for an unprecedented review and possible modification of 27 National Monument designations by former presidents from 1996 to 2016. On August 24th, following his six-month review of the designated monuments, Interior Secretary Zinke submitted his recommendations to the White House, but those recommendations and the president’s reaction to them have not yet been made public. Our public lands are treasures of inestimable historic, scientific and cultural value that belong to the people of America, past, present and future. We must continue to protect and preserve them as the irreplaceable legacies they are to us all.


Given the Trump administration’s assault on environmental protection, the question is, what can state and local governments and we as individuals do to protect our public lands and offshore waters,  to say nothing of the water we drink and the air we breathe?


We can start by paying attention to the concerted efforts of this administration to erode and dismantle the bi-partisan environmental policies and protections of the last fifty years, and by realizing that what we say and do about it matters. Protection of our precious and amazing planet is not a liberal or conservative issue, it’s a universal human issue. Clean air and clean water are not political issues, they are the essential elements of life for all living things on earth.


Here are some of the things we, as individuals, can do, irrespective of the actions and policies of this administration: reduce our carbon footprints by buying locally whenever we can, thereby reducing the enormous carbon costs of transportation; eat a more plant rich diet and reduce our prodigious waste of food; drive fuel-efficient vehicles and carpool and use public transportation when we can; properly insulate our homes and businesses, adjust our thermostats and use energy-efficient appliances; reduce junk mail by removing our names from direct mail and catalog lists; unplug our chargers and other gadgets when we’re not using them, and use energy-efficient light bulbs in our houses. One of the most important things we can do is elect people to state, local and federal offices who care about these issues and are informed about them.


Paul Hawken, the renowned author, entrepreneur and environmentalist, wrote a   fascinating book entitled, “Drawdown – The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming,” in which he describes the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming, all based on sound, peer-reviewed science. The book vividly demonstrates that we can solve the climate crisis if we simply act together in sensible, determined ways. Many of the solutions – wind turbines, solar farms and roof-top solar, regenerative and conservation agriculture, afforestation, geothermal energy, managed grazing – are already widely and successfully employed and ripe for massive expansion. Others such as controlling world population by increasing awareness of family planning and by educating women and girls throughout the world generally– are less obvious but hugely important.


Edmund Burke once said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” It’s good advice for us all, especially now, faced as we are with the dangerous, misguided attitudes and policies of this administration.

op-ed vol1:1

Turning Risk into Opportunity: Building Resilience in Sun Valley

Photo by Mike Lewelling, National Park Service
Photo by Mike Lewelling, National Park Service


Sun Valley was founded in 1936 as the first destination ski resort in the country, a haven in the wilderness at the end of a Union Pacific rail line. Since then, it has become famous for its natural beauty and outdoor adventure opportunities, as well as for being a global hub of intellectual inspiration and innovation. In its finest moments, our little corner of the world feels absolutely idyllic.

But, in 2013, we faced a frightening reality check when the Beaver Creek fire scorched over 100,000 acres throughout the west side of the Wood River Valley including parts of iconic Bald Mountain. The blaze burned through Blaine County, choking visibility in Sun Valley down to one block, forcing evacuations and blocking both of the two roads out of the valley for a time.  Ultimately, the fire caused $40 million in immediate economic losses.

The destruction shook our community awake to the many threats to our home. We were at risk, not only from direct shocks like fire, but from indirect, mounting stressors that were undermining us over time (as they were to most mountain towns): outdated water laws, extended drought, increasingly unpredictable weather, and domestic and international economic volatility. Our mountains, climate and relative isolation make Sun Valley a special place, but the same factors also leave the region vulnerable to shifts in the global economy, climate change and external disruptions to our imported food and energy.

And so we realized we needed to try to get ahead those problems in a comprehensive, systemic way.

To start, we turned to the Rockefeller Foundation which champions “resilience” as the critical underpinning for its economic development efforts globally, seeking to build, “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change.”

Resilience has become a guidepost in Sun Valley, serving as a core planning principle that has moved us to seek out out weaknesses and work to turn them into strengths.  In 2015, we founded the Sun Valley Institute, where I currently serve as director, to build resilience, to strengthen our community, identify regional economic and environmental risks, and to leverage policy leadership, public engagement and community investments to turn risks into opportunities.

We began by addressing how we were purchasing, consuming and producing energy: it was brittle and insecure, environmentally harmful, and economically a drain on our community.

Sun Valley is situated at the north end of a single transmission line, fed by two aging transmission lines, both to our south. This presents a great risk from outages, be it from wildfires or winter storms (many still remember Christmas of 2009, when a snow squall caused a 24-hour power outage that shut down our chair lifts and the spirits of our visitors in the midst of our holiday tourist high-season that is critical to our economy).

Given the risks this system posed, we asked if instead it could be an asset: could we invest locally to generate clean renewable electricity and increase our security, create local jobs, save money, and benefit our environment?

Central Idaho is blessed with just 10-percent less solar insolation than Texas, which meant that solar was a smart investment even with our snowy winters and lack of state policy support (we locals quip about solar “if we can do it in Idaho, we can do it anywhere”). After exploring our potential solutions with the Rocky Mountain Institute’s “Electricity Innovation Lab,” we hired our energy program manager, Katie Bray, who we met at the eLab and who had run eight “Solarize” programs elsewhere in the country. Bray had spent summers near Sun Valley and was eager to return.

We launched Solarize Blaine in early 2016. Although it was the first Solarize program in Idaho, with over 300 such programs across the nation, hosted primarily by nonprofits and municipalities, we knew it could produce results. To ensure our success, prior to launching our program, we reached out to our city and county decision makers to improve our solar permitting rules for home and business owners, both reducing the fees and shortening the wait time for project approvals.

We conducted a request for proposals, qualified installers (including agreement to local hiring minimums) and negotiated a reduced cost offering for installations by both home and business owners. We also identified the only solar incentive program in Idaho, a low-interest energy-specific loan offered by the state, and engaged a local bank to be the conduit for this offering.

Armed with reduced prices, a straightforward contract, qualified installers identified, and possible access to a low-interest loan along with a LOT of public outreach – posters, mailings, town hall and grocery store information sessions – our group-purchasing program led to over 250 inquiries and 41 residential and commercial solar systems installations.

In all, this was a five-fold increase in the number of installations from the previous year and over $1 million dollars was channeled directly into the local economy. The Blaine County solar industry now can’t keep up with demand, which has driven business mergers and acquisitions, and, in turn, a hiring spree.

From a liability undermining our quality of life and economy, our energy sector is becoming a source of quality local jobs, including for the 40% of our population that relies on public assistance to survive.

Looking to 2018, energy remains a centerpiece of our efforts: we are building a more comprehensive digital blueprint of our electricity system with the Idaho National Laboratory and we are collaborating with local leaders to identify critical infrastructure in Blaine County (such as fire and police stations, water systems, and hospitals) that will benefit most from cost-effective local backup systems (like solar-plus-storage).

Over time, working together, we can will build distributed energy resources and grow the efficiency of existing systems, with a network of renewable energy, battery storage, and electric vehicles.  These upgrades will strengthen the reliability of our public services and also powerful new investment opportunities for private investors.  The Institute will bridge the gap between public and private, providing the financial analysis, business models, project management support and potentially access to capital.

Along with energy, we have found similar risks and opportunities in our food system. Blaine County is in the top ten most expensive counties in the nation to buy food despite its abundance of arable land.  This is partly attributed to the fact that we import 95% of our food and export 98% of what we grow, primarily alfalfa, cattle, and barley. This compromises our pocketbooks, water quantity and quality, and air quality, all while producing too few jobs and underusing a valuable asset: our productive land.

Recognizing this disconnect, our Local Food Alliance is working with major food buyers such as schools and restaurants to increase their sourcing of local foods, keeping our food dollars in our region. We are also collaborating with landowners to evaluate how to shift agricultural production from export crops to local food production, including potential private investments in solar greenhouses and geothermal greenhouses along with potential other income- and job-growth uses such as solar energy production, affordable and middle-income housing and conservation easements.

By taking on these energy and food projects, as well as many more, we have come to discover that resilience is a powerful lens through which to consider our economic development, turning our risks into opportunities.

To increase access to capital for investing in this resilient prosperity, the Institute has partnered with local investment expert Michael Shuman, author of The Local Economy Solution, to publish handbooks on local investment.  The first shares how to self-direct personal IRA resources to local investments.  And the next is the first in a series of state by state handbooks that takes in each state’s unique local investment opportunities and regulatory environment.  Shuman’s model often offers low risk investments that offer viable returns on tangible projects that you can see, touch and evaluate right here at home.

We hope that this book, paired with the lessons we’ve learned from the Institute’s programs, can help other communities in the mountains and beyond to investigate their own risks and see if there might be way to turn them into opportunities.

Economy Report vol1:1

Tour Tahoe’s Local Food Hub


Ride along with Amy Westervelt on a tour of the edible landscape around Lake Tahoe.


About vol1:1

About the Mountain Independent

The Mountain Independent is a hub of rich information and analysis, bringing together contributors from mountain towns around the world to dive deep into local environmental, social and economic issues. We are a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News.

For all inquires about the Independent, contact Alec Jacobson at or at (802) 578-6339.

We endeavor to find a broad diversity of sponsors and are deeply grateful that they support our unflinching pursuit of the truth in the public interest.  We operate with absolute editorial freedom and aspire to the public perception of entirely unbiased journalism.  Our reputation is our most important currency.

Here are the people and institutions who have supported that mission with a contribution this year:


Anonymous | Todd Brown | Meredith Cooper | Rose Gutfeld and Peter Edwards

Elsbeth Mode | Karen Risch | Jack Watson









Founding Team

Alec Jacobson, Executive Director, lives in Telluride, CO. He is a National Geographic Young Explorer and has covered slow stories around the world as a photojournalist. | 802-578-6339

Samantha Tisdel Wright lives in Ouray, CO. She won the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Breaking News from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on a double-fatality at the Revenue Mine near Ouray, has won over a dozen awards from the Colorado Press Association as a reporter and editor at the Ouray County Plaindealer, and is a two-time runner-up for the Mark Fischer Poetry Prize.

Barbara Kondracki, web developer, graphic designer, and occasional editor, has more than a decade of experience in editorial design. She has built all of the web and graphic assets we’ve got.


Contributor Roster

Andy Bardon lives in Jackson Hole, WY, and is a National Geographic Young Explorer. As a photographer and videographer, he has contributed to publications including National Geographic.

Brent Gardner-Smith lives in Aspen, CO, and is the Executive Director of

Amy Irvine is based in Telluride, CO.  She is a Faculty Fellow at the University of Southern New Hampshire’s Creative Writing MFA program and her journalism and essays have appeared in Orion, Climbing, High Desert Journal, and in numerous Western, nature, and environmental anthologies.

Karen James lives in Telluride, CO.  She graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has contributed to the New York Times.

Louise Johns lives in Bozeman, MT, and is a National Geographic Young Explorer. As a photographer, she has focused on the relationship between people and wilderness around the world, winning two Hearst Awards, a Society of Professional Journalists award and, in 2016, was named one of National Geographic’s “20 under 30 Explorers: The Next Generation of National Park Leaders.”

Max Lowe lives in Bozeman, MT.  He is a photographer and filmmaker, and a National Geographic Young Explorer.

Hans Ludwig lives in Mammoth Lakes, CA.  He is Powder Magazine’s Jaded Local.

Gordy Megroz is based in Jackson, Wyoming. As a correspondent for Outside magazine and contributor to Men’s JournalMen’s HealthBloomberg BusinessweekSKI, and Skiing, he writes investigative pieces, as well as profiles of athletescompanies, and places. He also extensively explores the latest gearhealthnutrition, and fitness trends. And he’s never afraid to sacrifice his body for a good story.

David Page lives in Mammoth Lakes, CA and has written for the Los Angeles Times MagazineMen’s JournalSkiSkiingPowderThe New York TimesEsquireOutside, and many other publications. He is the author of the Lowell Thomas Award-winning Explorer’s Guide to Yosemite & the Southern Sierra Nevada(Countryman Press/W.W. Norton), now in its second printing.

Corey Robinson lives in Dolores, CO.  He is a cinematographer, photographer, producer and editor, and has worked on productions for National Geographic, Discovery Communications, Smithsonian Networks, Travel Channel, Canoe & Kayak Magazine, the American Canoe Association, Potomac Paddlesports and various non-profits. He is a National Geographic Young Explorer.

Mike Rogge lives in Tahoe Vista, CA.  He has contributed stories to Vice, Powder, ESPN among other publications.

Becca Skinner lives in Bozeman, MT and is a National Geographic Young Explorer.

Jill Stanford is based in Truckee, CA.   Her writing has been published by Teton Gravity ResearchThe ClymbRoots RatedMoonshine InkTahoe QuarterlyOnly In Your State, Sierra Heritage Magazine, South Sound Magazine, 425 Magazine, the Mountain Democrat, Mountaineers Magazine, and more.

Derek Taylor is based near Ogden, UT.

Evan Vann is based in Ouray, CO.

Amy Westervelt lives in Truckee, CA, and routinely contributes to the Guardian UK and the Wall Street Journal. She is the co-creator of The Range podcast.

Elliot Wilkinson-Ray lives in Carbondale, CO.  He is a filmmaker and photographer who has contributed Peloton Magazine and has worked with commercial clients including Columbia Sportswear and Hoka One One.

Tyler Wilkinson-Ray lives in Telluride, CO and is a National Geographic Young Explorer. He is a filmmaker and his work has been screened by National Geographic and at festivals including Telluride Mountainfilm and Banff.


Board of Directors

Ben Tisdel, Board President, lives in Ouray, CO.  He is a lawyer and a Ouray County Commissioner.

Joan May, Board Secretary, lives in Mountain Village, CO.  She is a San Miguel County Commissioner.

JT Thomas, Board Treasurer, lives in Ridgway, CO.  He is an award-winning science journalist who has contributed to  the New York Times, WIRED, Smithsonian, Discover Magazine, High Country News and been shown at the International Center of Photography and the United Nations.


Advisory Board

Laura Colbert is formerly contributed stories to NPR from China and was a staff reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio.

Rose Gutfeld was the managing editor at Congressional Quarterly and spent 15 years as a staff writer and editor at the Wall Street Journal.

Judy Muller is an Emmy, Peabody and Dupont-Columbia award-winning journalist. She was a longtime correspondent for ABC and is a regular contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition.


More about Us

Rural community newspapers across the United States share some common constraints. Nudged by limited advertising revenues, many papers stick to bread and butter reporting, covering weekly meetings, weekend sports, and daily happenings in an incremental, low cost, low risk way. These factors, combined with increasing corporate ownership, steer local papers away from tough stories and fragment complex issues into more pieces than can be viewed as a whole. The inadvertent end-result is a series of barriers that inhibit many residents in our communities from becoming informed and engaging critically in local and regional issues. Every vote counts in every election in a small town, but decisions are more likely to be made by relationships and politics than by careful consideration and informed research.

So, in 2015, we launched the San Juan Independent to complement the existing publications in our region by diving deep into more complicated issues. We hold journalism to be a public service that fuels debate and democracy, and seek to give our neighbors the best information possible. Our story on a workforce-housing-related ballot measure drove rich conversation, our local take on the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 landed in Senator Michael Bennett’s office and a piece on the complexities of the Ouray Ice Park won a 2016 Society of Professional Journalists award.

But we’ve noticed that our work is still missing something: context. Other mountain regions, centered on places like Aspen, Jackson Hole and Sun Valley, share similar challenges and opportunities and all of these communities have demonstrated eagerness to learn from each other. So, we’re launching the Mountain Independent to build a hub of rich information and analysis to connect mountain regions.

We are mountain journalists. We travel the world in pursuit of the truth – writers about powder, recorders of the environment, photographers of the vulnerable – but we have all buried our hearts in the hills and made our homes among them. We care about their future, and so we’re turning our global lens on the local.

Embedded in our home towns, we collaborate to bring our rich bodies of knowledge and storytelling expertise to the task of contextualizing critical issues to engage our readers in educated, impactful action.

Our neighbors are our primary audience, but we know our towns punch above their weight and we expect our journalism to do the same. Our goal is positively impact the local where every vote counts big in a small town. But we plan to bend the arc on global conversations, leading from the high points of middle America.