op-ed vol1:3

The Arid Southwest And the River It Depends On

[blockquote3]“Record-setting drought reduced flows on the Colorado River by nearly 20 percent…[so far] this century…”
– Shaun McKinnon, The Republic |[/blockquote3]

On the Upper Great Plains where I grew up, folks dreaded winter, complained about having to shovel snow and rejoiced when spring arrived. Here in the mountains, it’s different. We welcome winter and worry when there isn’t enough snow.


The more the better.


In the San Juan Mountains where I live, we expect abundant snow in winter and a big thaw in spring that lasts well into the summer. We expect “mud month” to start sometime in April and run into May, although exactly when it happens varies from year to year.


Mud month was abbreviated in 2018 because there was so little snow to melt. If it gets much shorter we will have to start calling it mud week or, God forbid, mud day.


The streams that usually run strong in early summer were down to a trickle in June. By the Fourth of July, some were bone dry for the first time in recent memory.


We often ignore problems that don’t directly affect us—until they do. It’s human nature. When my cistern ran dry in August, I became acutely aware of how dependent we all are on a reliable water supply. We imagine that water is limitless and tend to take it for granted because all we have to do is turn on a faucet or push a button on the washing machine.


Nowhere in America is public awareness of water as a finite resource more critical than in the Southwest, a rapidly growing arid region with sprawling cities largely dependent on a single source of fresh water: The Colorado River.


[blockquote3]“The Colorado River is the most dammed, drained, depleted river on the planet.”
– Gary Wockner, Director, Save the Colorado[/blockquote3]


Under the Colorado River Compact—a deal struck almost a century ago and still in effect—the lion’s share of Colorado River water belongs to six other states in the region. At the time, the river seemed to have a nearly unlimited supply of water, and the compact divided it equally between the Upper and Lower states.


The four Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico) and three Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) each get a total of 7.5 million acre-feet per year.


The Lower Basin states were given the right to an extra million acre-feet if necessary. After all, it’s just water.


That attitude is perfectly understandable in the context of the early 1920s when populations were low, the Rockies were snowcapped year-round and the flow rate in the Colorado was strong and steady. It was hard then to imagine that it would ever be “depleted”.


[blockquote3]…2000 to 2014 [is] a period marked by one of the worst droughts in modern history. The river’s flow during those years declined by 19 percent, about 2.9 million acre-feet per year compared with the long-term average from 1906 to 1999.” – Shaun McKinnon, The Republic|[/blockquote3]


In 1948, the Upper Basin states agreed on a water-sharing formula in which Colorado’s share is 51.75 percent. (Utah gets 23 percent, Wyoming 14 percent, and New Mexico 11.25 percent.) Colorado gets roughly a quarter of the total (half of the Upper Basin’s half). The rest goes south and west.


As much as two-thirds of Colorado’s share is diverted across (or under) the continental divide to the Front Range. The water diversion started in 1985 with the Windy Gap Project.


Climate change is not the only or even the major reason why so much Western Slope water is diverted to Denver and other cities on the East Slope. Rather, it’s a reflection of a problem that will not go away even if we get normal or above-normal precipitation levels in some of the coming years.


The real problem is too many people in too many of the wrong places—thirsty cities and crops in desiccated landscapes.


When the Colorado River Compact was hammered out almost a century ago California’s population stood at four million or just 10% of its present population; the rest of the Southwest (minus Texas) did not reach four million until the early 1950s. In 2016 it had climbed to 21 million.


Massive metropolitan areas— most notably Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, among others—have grown exponentially, creating an ever-increasing need for water, but as is true of many overpopulated and arid regions, California’s own water resources are relatively inelastic Today, 55-65 percent of southern California’s water comes from the Colorado River which forms the state’s border with Arizona.


Much the same is true of the other two Lower Basin states. Las Vegas and Phoenix are two examples of outsized cities located in a desert where the term “drought” has no place because lack of water is a natural and permanent condition.


In December 2007 the seven original compact states signed a new “historic” agreement. The AP gushed, “Seven Western states signed a sweeping agreement on Thursday to conserve and share scarce Colorado River water, ending a divisive battle among the thirsty rivals” and noted “…the drought plan lets the lower-basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona use the vast Lake Mead reservoir behind Hoover Dam to store water they conserve or don’t need for use later.”


Problem solved, right? Not so fast: In mid-August of this year Lake Powell measured 49% full and Lake Mead a meager 38% full. Neither “lake” would exist without the Colorado River.


Closer to home, the Blue Mesa Reservoir west of Gunnison—the largest reservoir entirely contained in Colorado—is 77.41 feet below Full Pool (or 32.88% of Full Pool). It’s jarring to see it now.


If you’ve driven by a receding reservoir lately and wondered where all the water has gone, have a look at a good map of Colorado’s river systems and you’ll get the picture. On the Western Slope where I live, the Uncompahgre is a tributary of the Gunnison which flows into the Colorado River, which no longer reaches the Sea of Cortez. If that doesn’t answer the question, look again.


[blockquote3]California had it own Zero Day not long ago when, in Tulare County in the Central Valley, an area of corporate farms, something like a thousand wells went dry…more than seven thousand people…[were] occupying houses where you would turn on a tap and nothing came out. – Alec Wilkinson, Esquire[/blockquote3]


In 2010, California needed 38 billion gallons of water per day—a 116.617.7 acre feet—to sustain its population and economy. About 80% of Colorado River water is used to irrigate 3.5 million acres of farmland in the arid Southwest. It would take California only about a week to drain the Blue Mesa Reservoir at Full Pool.


Water for food and profit accounts for 80% of California’s water consumption. Almond production alone takes 10% of the total. At a water cost of one gallon per almond, that’s more water than Los Angeles and San Francisco together use.


We can’t make more water and there’s not going to be enough to go around. It’s true that there’s a vast amount of water in our world—salt water. Less than 3 percent is fresh; two-thirds of the fresh water takes the form of ice or permafrost. That leaves less than 1 percent for all the planet’s existing fauna and flora.


Meanwhile, elected officials get failing marks for water leadership. Few ever dare to engage in straight talk about overpopulation or water conservation, and virtually never talk about the vital relationship between these two major challenges in the 21st century.


Campaign contributions (PAC money) and raw politics (bitter take-no-prisoners partisanship) trump sound public policy. Too many members of Congress care too much about being re-elected and too little about breaking the gridlock in Washington and getting things done.


Bottom line: this November, make an effort to find out where candidates on the ballot stand on water-conservation, clean energy, and climate change, and vote as if planet earth and life as we know it depends on the outcome. Because it does.

op-ed vol1:3

The Outdoor Party

When speaking in terms of money, the outdoor industry is bigger than pharmaceuticals. The outdoor industry is also bigger by some measures than oil and gas, which runs Washington, D.C. And if we’re calling it how we see it, it’s a lot cooler than those two industries as well. I believe it is high time we, the outdoor industry, started acting like we own the place because we do.


With over $887 billion in consumer spending, the outdoor recreation sector of the United States needs to get organized. If the industry lobbied as carefully as they curated an Instagram feed or packed a backpack, we’d be running the United States as a modern day Bull Moose Party amongst the donkeys and elephants. The outdoor party wouldn’t be a third-party, we could be a major party—The Outdoor Party. Everyone loves an outdoor party, but alas that dream will not happen overnight.


On a sunny autumn day, as leaves change color and the Truckee River runs at a low, steady pace, snowboarder Jeremy Jones walks-in to Dark Horse Coffee. The shop, originally founded in San Diego, is a quiet alternative to the more popular establishments in the cozy mountain town. Jer, as friends and family call him, lives nearby with wife Tiffany and two kids.


For the last two decades, Jones carved out a name as the single greatest big mountain rider in snowboarding history, awing viewers with gnarly lines and gigantic pursuits. His latest film, Ode To Muir, is due to be released in fall 2018. Jones is known for a calm, steady presence, not unlike the river this time of year.


In addition to his professional riding career, Jones is the founder of Jones Snowboards, a backcountry snowboarding brand specializing in split boards. And he is the founder of Protect Our Winters, which is why we’re meeting today at Dark Horse.


I’ve been a quiet critic of Protect Our Winters. Until now I’d never publicly spoken or written about my qualms. Mostly, I am irked by a lack of knowledge in what they’re actually doing with the money donated to them. Are they representing me? Are they pushing politicians to be climate champions? It wasn’t until a recent Instagram post by an anonymous critic of professional skier Caroline Gleich set me in the direction of learning some truth.


The account, @socialmediaskier, called out Gleich for what they saw in their eyes as a moral contradiction. Gleich, an accomplished ski mountaineer, travels the world via plane and is also a vocal advocate for Protect Our Winters. The account, often a tongue-and-cheek joke poking fun of the social media habits of professional skiers, raised a valid criticism.


How does POW expect to be credible when the very athletes promoting a reduction of carbon footprints have a much larger carbon footprint than the average snowboarder or skier? What’s with all the selfies in front of the Capital Building in Washington, D.C.? Do they actually meet with politicians? And what does the non-profit actually do?


Since 2007, Protect Our Winters, or POW (not to be confused with the military designation P.O.W. or prisoners of war), strove to raise awareness and encourage activism for the issue of climate change. With a global community stretching several millions of impressions via social media and outdoor partners in Burton, The North Face, Cliff Bar, REI, and Patagonia, to name a few, POW has positioned itself as the de facto leader in an industry in desperate need of one.


[blockquote3]“Last year, 146.1 million Americans participated in an outdoor activity at least once. Many of these are passionate outdoors people, who know how to set goals and have the stamina to take on big challenges,” – Mario Molina, POW Action Fund Executive Director[/blockquote3]


There’s an old saying in the outdoor industry that it is three miles wide, yet only three inches deep. In other words, there has never been a collective voice representing all of outdoor in terms of lobbying or getting the stance of outdoor recreation into the country’s zeitgeist. Protect Our Winters might be the industry’s best chance at breaking through the noise. Perhaps when the Outdoor Party eventually forms, the founders will look back on POW as the founding fathers and mothers of the movement. Or maybe it’s all a sham.


Jones isn’t afraid of the criticism, he says over a coffee. Since the election of a climate change-denying president, Jones says the organization has seen more support.


“On our end, in terms of dollars and in terms of engagement, we’re seeing deniers are truly in the minority,” says Jones. “Seventy-percent of Americans want to see more renewable energy. The deniers are a much smaller group that the news would have you believe.”


Jones has heard the critics before. He’s taken to not checking his Instagram comments. He doesn’t find them constructive, but his climate post following the election was his single most-liked post of the year, a small metric, Jones admits, but uses it to show the needle is moving in the right direction in terms of public sentiment.


“We all have a carbon footprint, and of course we all want to try to keep reducing that every year, and we have all these opportunities to do that, which is great,” says Jones. “We need to always go on that path. But it is the fossil fuel industry, the propping up of the fossil fuel industry that has gotten us to where we are today. It is not because of a bunch of people riding a chairlift, or going and hopping on an airplane that are melting our polar ice caps…it is our reliance on fossil fuels.”


In September, POW created the Protect Our Winters Action Fund, a sister organization. POW Action Fund will train supporters on how to talk about climate change on the chairlift or with family members still unsure of the science. They register people to vote for the November 2018 midterms and beyond. Most importantly, says Jones, the group aims to elect climate champions. Their first endorsements were incumbent Montana Senator Jon Tester and California Fourth Congressional District Candidate Jessica Morse.


“Last year, 146.1 million Americans participated in an outdoor activity at least once. Many of these are passionate outdoors people, who know how to set goals and have the stamina to take on big challenges,” said Mario Molina, Executive Director of the POW Action Fund, in a press release. “That’s a powerful voting bloc. At the POW Action Fund, we will be supporting their efforts by providing practical ways to get involved and advance climate action.”


For Jones, he believes the critics within outdoor need to get past their, in his words, tiny gripes.


“Don’t let perfect get in the way of good,” says Jones. “We need to stop making villains out of someone like [professional skiers] Caroline Gleich or Brody Levin. They are not what is ruining the world. We really need to get out of this little bubble, and that line of thinking, and start coming together and collectively. If we do that, it’s like we’re hummingbirds fighting this dragon. We need a lot of hummingbirds. We can’t be picking apart the hummingbirds if they fly the wrong way or do what they do.”


As the river hums by, Jones says he finds time each day to get outside, to find clarity in the outdoors. With his company, his career, and POW and POW Action Fund, Jones is running at a slow, steady pace, in hopes of making a giant impact on the future of climate politics. Critics be damned.


Is Jer the perfect champion lobbyist who we’d all choose to represent the Outdoor Party? Perhaps not. Maybe, ideally, we’d combine his charisma with the deep knowledge of an Auden Schendler and the data gathering energy of the Outdoor Industry Association. But, for now, Jer’s who we’ve got. Maybe in 20 years, when Outdoor Party members sit in the President’s cabinet and hold high office, we’ll look back on this early era as the foundation of a movment.

op-ed vol1:2

Sin Fronteras/ENTERATE

There is a divide in Telluride between our endearingly funky, ostensibly inclusive (though statistically homogeneous) community and what is often distinguished as the Latino Community.  This is not news and it is not unique, but we at the Independent have realized that we have to begin to address it in order to do our job effectively.  When we have tried to assign stories that might touch our latino neighbors in Telluride and in other mountain towns, we’ve tended to founder: the journalists in our region do not tend to speak Spanish and they do not tend to be connected to many Spanish speakers.  So, we’re launching an experiment to bridge the divide by starting a small-scale Spanish-language newspaper that will draw on community reporters.


In the short term, this is likely to take the form of a single, double-sided sheet of paper filled with stories that are more personal narrative and opinion than hard news.  We’re going to print it on our office inkjet and distribute it as often as we can to a few central locations.  But our goal is to build a roster of consistent contributors who are interested in telling the stories that are critical to the latino community for the latino community.  As the publication develops though, we plan to have content cross between the Mountain Independent and it’s Spanish counterpart.  If this model proves successful, we will work to expand, testing Spanish papers in other mountain towns.


For now though, our most important function is to provide a framework that allows new journalists to emerge and helps them grow.  We’re partnering with the Tri-County Health Network’s Community Outreach director, Kody Gerkin, to organize story jam events to help craft and record the narratives of those have never written before. A local hiker hopes to write the first trail guides in Spanish, encouraging his neighbors to get out in the woods to experience the beauty that he’s come to love since moving here from Guatemala.  We’ll see what else comes in and work to craft it into the strongest pieces possible.  We’ve solicited names from community members – Sin Fonteras and ENTÉRATE – and will leave the decision up to a vote.


If you have any insight or advice, or if you want to help, don’t hesitate to reach out to


And if you want to support the effort, click on the donate button and let us know.







op-ed vol1:2

A Fact-based Immigration Policy

Illustration by Stephen Rockwood
Illustration by Stephen Rockwood

The immigration debate has divide America and paralyzed our Congress for decades, never more egregiously than in the last two years. Driven by passions more than thoughtful analysis, far more heat than light has been generated on the subject, with the sad result that the true interests of the nation have been all but lost in an endless fog of misinformation and xenophobic demagoguery.


The presence of millions of people in the United States who entered the country illegally is a serious national issue that requires a comprehensive and just solution. The security of our borders is vitally important to the safety and well-being of our nation and its people, and one of the duties of our government is to secure our borders against people who reject our values and intend us harm. As to these facts, there is virtually unanimous agreement in the country, irrespective of political label or party.


Immigration policy, like all policies of national importance, should be based on facts, informed debate, and rational and fair consideration of all the competing interests involved, including, of course, the national interest. In an effort to give more than lip service to the proposition that “FACTS MATTER,” here are some facts about immigration in this country.

  • The National Academy of Sciences estimates that the average immigrant contributes, in net present value terms, at least $92,000 more in taxes than he or she receives in benefits over their lifetime.
  • In 2013, 29% of all research doctorates in science, engineering and health were awarded to immigrants, and an astonishing 48% of all PhD’s in computer science and mathematics were awarded to immigrants.
  • According to the National Foundation for American Policy, in the last seventeen years, immigrants have won 39% (33 of 85) of the Nobel Prizes awarded to “Americans” in Chemistry, Medicine and Physics. All six of the U.S. Nobel Prize winners in 2016 were immigrants, and of the ten Nobel laureates in the last two years who live and work in the U.S., only one was born in the United States.
  • Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, and overall crime rates are lower in areas where immigrants live. A Cato Institute study released in March of last year found that, relative to their percentage of the population, the incarceration rates of immigrants, including unauthorized immigrants, are less than those of native-born Americans. The so-called “Dreamers” (people illegally brought into the U.S. as children who have lived here all their lives) have the lowest crime rates of all – only one quarter of one percent have ever been convicted of any crime.
  • Since June 2008, more Mexicans have left the U.S. to return to Mexico than have come to the United States. From 2009 to 2014, more than a million Mexicans and their families left the U.S. for Mexico, most of them of their own accord.
  • 42% of the approximately 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. didn’t sneak across the border, they overstayed their visas.


Notwithstanding these facts, President Trump and others continue to demagogue and distort the immigration issue by demonizing immigrants and mischaracterizing their contributions and role in American society. The President continues to insist on building a wall on our southern border that has little, if any, practical justification, and that will cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars. His latest “take-it-or-leave-it” immigration proposal to Congress calls for, among other demands, creation of a $25 billion trust fund to pay for a wall that is more political monument and symbol than anything else.


The President’s current proposal also calls for cuts in legal immigration approaching 50%, which Joel Prakken, Co-Founder of Macroeconomic Advisers, estimates would reduce the rate of U.S. economic growth by about 12.5% from currently projected levels. As David Bier and Stuart Anderson of the Cato Institute have pointed out, this problem worsens as the U.S. population ages and we need more immigrants in the U.S. labor force to maintain our economic growth.


In the face of these realities, Trump persists in seeking to cut legal immigration even more. He wants to end the Diversity Visa Program, which allows 50,000 permanent resident visas each year to people from countries that are underrepresented in the U.S. More significantly, he seeks to prevent citizens and lawful permanent residents from sponsoring their parents and siblings for immigration consideration.


The protection, education and support of American workers and their families has historically been, and always should be, one of our nation’s highest priorities, but we should not view the future as a zero sum game. Since the earliest days of our country, immigrants have benefitted our nation with their work ethic, their skills, their cultural diversity, their ambition, and their dedication to the idea of America and the principles and values it has always embodied. We can, and should, in the nation’s interest as well as our own, make room for people from other countries who aspire to and cherish the American dream and who bring to our shores a constant flow of new ideas, new perspectives and new energy.


For a change, why don’t we approach the issues, challenges and opportunities of immigration policy with open minds and hearts, common sense, informed self-interest, and an abiding appreciation for the value of facts. Who knows what we might come up with?

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.

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.

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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.