A voter in a heavily Republican precinct in Montrose, Colorado opened his door and Seth Cagin, Democratic candidate for Colorado’s State House, tried to read the scene. The voter’s arms were tattooed with military insignia and a white Fu Manchu mustache twirled off below his chin.
Cagin asked what was on the voter’s mind. Veteran healthcare, said the voter, and then, after a pregnant pause, he launched into a deep dive supporting more access to marijuana. Cagin said that he supported improving healthcare – Western Colorado’s insurance premiums are near the highest in the nation and typically 40% higher than those in Denver – and he couldn’t understand Montrose County’s opposition to recreational cannabis.
Did this mean that the man might vote for Cagin, a Democrat, in this fall’s election? Seth left a flyer and, walking away, made a note in his database: leaning favorable.
“I think I picked up ten votes today,” later said Cagin as we wound through the subdivision, “Ten votes a day is better than sitting at home complaining.”
Cagin lives in Telluride, where Hillary Clinton won more than 80 percent of the vote in 2016. But the rest of the district, which spans ranches, uranium mines and the Pinto Bean Capital of the World, is deeply conservative and handed Trump a more than 40% margin.
In the last contested election for Colorado State House district 58 in 2012, Don Coram, a Republican rancher from Montrose, won 22,071 votes, twice as many as his Democratic challenger, Tammy Theis.
So Cagin knows he’s unlikely to win his bid for Colorado’s 58th House District, but, he explained, “you can’t save America by writing half of it off.”
Believing that every race should be contested, Cagin set himself on a course to meet as many people face to face as possible. Because the district has not been hotly contested, there is limited data on voters, but Cagin used Votebuilder to identify 10,000 homes where the occupants were not known to be either strongly Democratic or Republican.
Nearly every day, he drives either north to Montrose or south to Cortez to walk a new neighborhood, armed with campaign flyers and a map displaying addresses and voter affiliations. Every door is a mystery until Cagin knocks: what does the American flag planted in their flower bed say about their political persuasion? Their Denver Broncos sign? Will they breathe fire or invite him in for coffee?
Cagin and his wife, Marta, ran The Watch newspaper for more than 20 years, following every twist and turn of local events as they grew their reach from Telluride to Ridgway to Montrose. Seth was known for his pointed OpEds, but running for office has forced him to meet voters where they are and confront their opinions and experiences directly [Ed note: Alec Jacobson worked for Seth Cagin and Marta Tarbell at The Watch].
When I walked with Cagin for an afternoon, he had already visited more than 6,000 homes and had adopted what he describes as a pilgrim mentality, knocking his way door to door as if performing his daily ablutions, seeking a sort of humble enlightenment as he is variously welcomed into homes and shooed away. “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” he explained.
One voter opened her door, Cagin introduced himself and she called her husband. “Democrat or Republican?” he asked. “Democrat,” said Cagin. “See you later,” said the husband, and the voters closed their door.
Cagin quickly entered a note that he probably had not won their votes, hustling to the next target on his map.
In the span of a couple blocks, a staunch Democrat invited us into her living room for communion. “Can you believe Kavanaugh?!” she exclaimed. She said that she couldn’t open up to her neighbors, pointing out the window to the houses where she often played cards but never talked politics.
Cagin registered that he’d likely win her vote, though he noted that he probably would have won it anyway.
“Why did Don Quixote tilt at windmills? Because he was crazy,” he told me in between houses, his Bernie-Sanders-esque shoots of white hair tucked under a logo-free hat.
After selling The Watch, Cagin joined a fledgling campaign for Bob Baer – of CNN and Syriana fame – to unseat Scott Tipton from the US House of Representatives in 2017. But after dipping his toes in the decidedly opposed waters of Colorado’s third congressional district, Baer backed down.
When Democrats swept key races in Virginia in 2017, Cagin decided to step up to the plate himself.
“There is a tendency that people have to imagine that somebody bigger, better and smarter than they are is gonna do the thing that they think needs to get done,” Cagin said as we drove through open country near Montrose.
On the porch of a middle-aged man, a massive mounted elk visible through the doorway, Cagin waxed philosophical about polarization in politics, boiling down divisions to core beliefs either in the value hard work or social justice. He admitted that he was generally driven by social justice, but explained that, as he’d met voters, he realized that, “these are both good values.” The voter, a registered Republican, nodded at times and grimaced at others, explaining that he cared most that candidates have integrity. He took one of Cagin’s flyers.
“If I win it’ll be the upset of the century,” Cagin said in between houses.
At another home, as Cagin leaned on the stoop, an older man engaged on issues of western Colorado’s high health insurance premiums (among the highest in the nation and 40% higher than the rates for similar plans in Denver) and Montrose’s underfunded schools. After some back and forth, he admitted, “I’m pretty conservative.”
“And I’m pretty liberal,” said Seth, “I bet we can disagree about a lot.”
“But I bet we can agree on a few things,” said the voter.
Running between evergreen pines as tall as two-story buildings, staring down a footprint-less trail coated in new snow, Clare Gallagher stops short. She’s only a few miles from her grandparent’s house in Summit County, Colorado and near the often-choked Interstate 70 that slashes east-west across the state. But even here, in the mere periphery of the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness, there’s stillness. Nothing but her raspy cold-air breath disturbs the frosted forest’s muted charm, what Gallagher calls “earth raging magic.”
“Winter in the trees after snow is a mystical fairyland,” she says, explaining how she first discovered the wild-magic as a lanky-limbed kid in suburban Denver, driving into the mountains with her family on weekends and exploring the wilderness around Summit County—home to the destination ski resorts and hiking meccas scattered between Vail and Eagle. It was in that terrain that Gallagher trained to win the infamous Leadville 100-mile trail running race in 2016. “Honestly,” she says, “this is the place that taught me what trail running is, this place created the foundation of my career.”
Over the past year, though, the wild-magic has ignited Gallagher’s senses in a new way. In January 2018, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and Representative Jared Polis jointly introduced the Continental Divide Wilderness, Recreation, and Camp Hale Legacy Act to Congress. The bill came on the dawn of the outdoor recreation industry’s multi-million dollar trade show’s debut in Denver, which, after twenty years, left Utah in favor of Colorado when Beehive state officials supported Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s review of public lands (and his eventual, controversial decision to reduce Bears Ears National Monument). If passed, Bennet and Polis’ proposal would grow the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness in addition to adding more slivers of wilderness, wildlife conservation and recreation management areas along the Continental Divide, in and around Summit and Eagle Counties. In total, it would re-designate nearly 100,000 acres of public land, including the creation of the nation’s first National Historic Landscape at Camp Hale, the roughly 28,000-acre swath of terrain where the 10th Mountain Division trained in preparation for World World II.
[blockquote3]Though land fights like Bears Ears have become national red-blue flash pointes, many of the wilderness conversations that take place every year as new bills are vetted and proposed instead boil down to a much more human scale clash between motorized and non-motorized recreationists.[/blockquote3]
“To not preserve [more of that area] is ridiculous,” Gallagher tells me one recent morning, shaking her green tea basket out from its single-serving pot. She’s been using her status as a champion runner to campaign for the bill and for the preservation of American wilderness at large.
“I feel like it’s really my duty to be sharing what I’m seeing and the importance of preserving what we have,” she tells me. “That space [along the Continental Divide], it’s no small miracle we still have that in 2018; it’s like it could have been 500 years ago. And we want to keep it like that for people 500 years from now.”
But, there is one voice of dissent.
Years before Gallagher was even old enough to step foot on a trail, Scott Jones was navigating his snowmobile across terrain around Summit County, in and out of the White River National Forest, the same forest within which Eagle’s Nest and eight other wildernesses are contained. It’s also the country’s most popular National Forest, attracting over 12 million visits each year. Jones, the president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, wishes more of those visitors could be fellow snowmobilers, but as it stands today, snowmobiling opportunities are only suitable and available in about 7 percent of the White River National Forest.
“Some areas up there are exceptional for snowmobiles,” he says. “Other areas would be exceptional.”
Jones has been legislating against wilderness designations for longer than he’d like to admit, he says, and he represents the only coalition of organizations publically lobbying against the Continental Divide bill. A letter he presented in March 2018 to Senator Bennet and Representative Polis on behalf of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, the Trail Preservation Alliance, and the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, details the motorized community’s concerns that increasing the amount of wilderness in the state will further reduce motorized recreation and stunt future growth of the industry, as motorized recreation is strictly not allowed in wilderness areas.
“With the state population growing the way ours is, we’re going to need to expand,” he explains to me. “We’re going to need to do it thoughtfully. … When it all gets designated as wilderness, it makes those types of discussions difficult.”
Though land fights like Bears Ears have become national red-blue flash pointes, many of the wilderness conversations that take place every year as new bills are vetted and proposed instead boil down to a much more human scale clash between motorized and non-motorized recreationists.
The town of Montezuma sits just outside one of the proposed areas outlined in the Continental Divide bill. Surrounding the 68-person town is ample terrain available for motorized recreation use. It also happens to be where Gallagher’s other set of grandparents live. “Snowmobilers are everywhere there,” she says. “They’re horrible—well, they’re not bad people, but one snowmobiler can ruin the whole experience; all it takes is one engine revving.”
Snowmobile noise can actually travel up to 10 miles, depending on speed, the type of machine, and wind conditions, according to the Winter Wildlands Alliance. And though 10 miles might be an easy run for Gallagher, it’s farther than most snowshoers or cross-country skiers care to do in a day. Plus, as Gallagher mentions, those trying to escape into the mountains on foot aren’t also looking to dodge emission clouds from snowmobiles, which emit carcinogens and pose dangers to human and wildlife health. There’s enough of that along the nearby Interstate as it is.
Once, while out on a winter run, Gallagher says, “I was under a snowmobiler going above me on a slope, and it was terrifying. They weren’t [taking into account] any of the avalanche danger.” Later that day, she heard an altercation between a snowmobiler and a skier—they were arguing about particular safety issues in the area. “It was terrifying.”
The Winter Wildlands Alliance also reports most winter backcountry trails have no posted speed limits and “the most powerful snowmobiles today have from 125- to 177- horsepower engines, allowing them to travel at very high rates of speed. Snowmobiles weigh up to 600 pounds, and many can travel at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour.” Thus, a snowmobile traveling at such speed will move nearly 200 feet before being able to fully stop.
Jones, on the other hand, generally feels slighted and unheard. “We’ve been raising our concerns for quite a while,” he says, as the snowmobile population has been growing in tandem with the ski and snowshoe industries, but few new snowmobile areas has been added to any part of the state since his efforts began. Because snowmobiles can travel so far in a day (the average snowmobile outing is over 100 miles), they need an extensive network of trails and access points.
“To lose any acreage is concerning,” he says. “We’ve been really trying to get some balance in there.”
Wilderness is one of the strictest designations a piece of land can have, as it generally prohibits activities like timber harvesting, commercial activities unrelated to recreation, motorized access and permanent road or structure construction. As such, wildness bills can take years or even decades to pass in Congress, explains Scott Miller, the Southwest senior regional director of The Wilderness Society who has been involved in the fine-tuning of the Continental Divide bill for the past five years. The varied interest groups vying to use public land for different reasons—be it backpacking, hunting, snowmobiling or resource extraction—often are at odds.
This is where the story of this bill really sets itself apart. It seems that everyone, save the motorized recreators and the timber industry, are on board. No red-blue stalemate. No overt colonial oppression tactics. No desperate money grabs.
As Miller puts it, “This bill was designed through a collaborative process with forest health experts and fire managers that resulted in a constellation of designations that reflect wilderness and wildlife conservation and recreation management needs.”
“That’s [why] it’s such a robust bill in my mind,” Gallagher explains, listing examples of the industries in favor of the bill, illustrating its widespread support: Vail Mountain Bike Association, Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Fishermen, Sierra Club, Vail Resorts, Outdoor Industry Association and U.S. Army veterans, to name but a few of the hundred-plus supporters.
Julie Mach, conservation director for Colorado Mountain Club, an organization that’s been involved in the bill’s campaign since its inception, helps me think of the Continental Divide bill like the final link in a chain of natural jewels. “It captures the last iconic features in that area that aren’t already protected.”
As of 2018, Colorado contains more than 3.5 million acres of federally protected wilderness that’s spread between 41 separate areas. Every acre of wilderness in the U.S. originated as federally owned land and, at some point, was nominated for a wilderness designation either by a federal agency like the U.S. Forest Service or a grassroots conservation or sportsman’s organization. In order for land to receive a wilderness designation, it must be presented to and receive approval from Congress in accordance with the Wilderness Act of 1964—a bipartisan measure that was passed to assure increasing populations won’t “occupy or modify” all areas within the U.S. and to preserve the benefits of wilderness for present and future generations.
At the moment, at least nine states have wilderness bills pending in Congress. Colorado has three; one of which, now known as the Colorado Wilderness Act of 2018, has been reintroduced in different iterations at least every two years since 1999 by Congresswoman Diana DeGette. The Continental Divide bill is now in its fifth iteration after nine years of work, and 2018 is the first year Senator Bennet felt like he’d garnered enough support to join Representative Polis’ endeavor and also introduce the same version to the Senate.
Mach admits refereeing between different public land users isn’t easy, especially as the spaces are meant for all people to enjoy. While skiers and snowshoers claim motorized impacts of noise, exhaust and safety concerns have infiltrated opportunities for quiet and quality recreation, snowmobilers counter that their access to forest lands is slowly growing extinct. “It’s a challenging balance to strike between motorized land users and non-motorized users. At some point we have to think about what really makes the most sense for the landscape,” she says.
According to a 2015 analysis of motorized and non-motorized winter recreation opportunities in National Forest lands by the Winter Wildlands Alliance, participation in both motorized and non-motorized activities have double in popularity since the ‘80s. Within that, however, data shows that for every one snowmobiler visit to National Forest lands in Colorado, there are two cross-country/backcountry skier and snowshoer visits. In the White River National Forest, the report shows almost 9 times as many non-motorized users visit the forest than motorized, though there are slightly more than twice as many non-motorized acres. “The consequence of this disparate situation is unequal opportunity for skiers, snowshoers and other quiet winter recreationists when compared to OSV users and escalating conflict between motorized and non-motorized uses on National Forest land,” the report concludes.
In any case, Mach says, “Most acres [proposed in the Continental Divide bill] are not high priority for snowmobiles; it’s steeper slopes than most can’t get up.”
So, really, what’s the bill’s hold up? Can this wrestling match produce a winner? Jake Kuhn, a field director for Conservation Colorado, paints the bill’s current situation clearly: “I don’t think there will be any movement until after the [midterm elections],” he says. “There’s tons of local support, and now we’re just waiting for a hearing. Senator Gardner (Senator Bennet’s Republican counterpart) is kind of neutral right now, we want to keep him neutral and not push him towards opposing.”
Until then, Gallagher says, the fight to preserve her mountain backyard might not be so different from her other endurance efforts; it’s the land, ultimately, that suffers and someone needs to stand up for it. “This bill, even though its a wilderness preservation bill, it’s a climate change issue,” she says. “Even if there aren’t extraction industries in this area, making it so land can stay as-is is supporting climate change mitigation.
“If we start ripping these places up and not making it clear that there’s truly wild places left in this Front Range mountain mecca, we’re doing Colorado a disservice.”
[blockquote3]Inside Western Colorado’s Indivisible D3 Movement[/blockquote3]
Call it fuel for the fire.
On the day Brett Kavanaugh becomes a Supreme Court justice, a glossy flyer lands in mailboxes across Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District – a vast rural district the size of Florida that covers most of western Colorado.
“DIANE MITSCH BUSH IS A SOCIALIST,” the flyer blares in bright red all-caps. On the flip side, it reiterates, “DIANE MITSCH BUSH wants to take our country down a path towards Socialism.”
There’s a photo of the 68-year-old Democratic candidate from Steamboat Springs – with her long gray hair and folded arms and serious smile and PhD in Sociology – who hopes to soon topple Republican incumbent Scott Tipton in her bid for U.S. Congress. A menacing red tower with giant loudspeakers has been photo-shopped in behind her, straight out of some weird North Korean nightmare.
Midterm season – with all its nasty-grams, fear-mongering and bizarre attack ads – is in full swing. And the foot soldiers of the Resistance in western Colorado have one thing to say: Bring it on.
Each of the 6,000 or so chapters of the Indivisible movement – the grassroots movement at the heart of a nationwide effort to thwart the Trump agenda – has its own unique story of origin.
This one started with a flurry of text messages around Thanksgiving time in 2016. United in outrage at the election of Trump “and this feeling that we had to do something,” five women from the small town of Ridgway, Colo. came up with a plan to sit in silence together for 30 minutes on the day after Trump’s inauguration.
Soon, their plan grew into a whole day of grassroots community action.
Word spread, as it has a way of doing in small towns. And on a snowy January day in 2017, as millions of protesters marched in cities around the world, dozens of Ridgway-ites also marched, then meditated by candlelight, and finally packed into the Kiva Room at the Chipeta Solar Springs Resort to break bread together in the Trumpian dusk.
Toward the end of the evening, a newcomer to the community – a distinguished former senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University by the name of Dr. William Steding – offered a few words of courage to those in the room whose hearts were seized with panic.
“Vacation’s over,” he said. “You are right and you know you are right. Don’t be intimidated. Step out, stand up, speak up, act up. This will not be easy. Presidential power is very big. ‘Huge,’ as another person would say…”
Steding then conjured “six words to write on the wall” – six principals of resistance to buoy all would-be activists in the room:
[list_item icon=”ss-pointright”]Authentic: Embody your beliefs, convictions and purpose.[/list_item]
[list_item icon=”ss-pointright”]Resilience: Take a hit and bounce back.[/list_item]
[list_item icon=”ss-pointright”]Gonzo: Channel your inner Hunter S. Thompson. Understand the rules of the game so you know what not to do. The rules are designed to keep those who are in power in power.[/list_item]
[list_item icon=”ss-pointright”]Transcendent: Rise above the rabble. Don’t get mired and stuck in your own little social political bubble.[/list_item]
[list_item icon=”ss-pointright”]Stealth: High profiles are dangerous in periods of crisis, and the period of danger that follows. There are many people who enjoy health, wealth and happiness who never stick their head in front of the camera. Be like them.[/list_item]
[list_item icon=”ss-pointright”]Grace: Beautiful things are the most durable in world. Bring people together in a way that makes people say ‘Wow, that’s beautiful,’ or just plain cool. Bring people together in just the right way to ensure your destiny. Then, you are in a state of grace.[/list_item]
The Kiva Room crackled with energy. You could almost smell the ozone in the air.
“We were so inspired that we felt compelled to move forward and create something that would be more lasting than this single day of action,” recalls Erika Moss Gordon, a poet, film festival coordinator and yoga teacher who helped organize the event.
The only question was: “What’s next?”
The five friends met incessantly over the next few weeks to figure out the answer to that question. Then, on a cold, dark night in early February – 19 days into Trump’s presidency – they unveiled their plan to a standing-room-only crowd at the old Sherbino Theater in downtown Ridgway.
Drawing inspiration from the viral Indivisible Guide – the “Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda” that was sweeping the nation – the women proposed to create not just a local Indivisible chapter in Ouray County, but an umbrella organization for other fledgling resistance groups across western Colorado’s sprawling 3rd Congressional District.
There would be policy-tracking committees. Daily actions, distributed via email or text message. Field trips to congressional offices. Activist social hours. Craftivism – activism through artistic expression – and much, much more. All with the goal of becoming a Western Slope hub for resistance in the age of Trump.
Sure, it was ambitious. “But if the goal is to take action on a congressional level, it makes sense to represent the congressional district we are in,” the women argued. “There is a lot of power in connecting groups throughout our congressional district to work together. If we can create the structure to do that, we’ll be successful.”
Thankful for a direction in which to channel their free floating outrage, the crowd loosely organized itself into teams to help herd the movement forward. District 3 Indivisible Colorado was born – D3 for short. And 150 or so newly minted activists dispersed into the night.
Within a week or so, a sleek D3 Indivisible Colorado website had gone live, and the movement was off and running.
March 20, 2017
Day 60 of the Trump presidency finds the founders of D3 huddled around a kitchen table in a quiet Ridgway neighborhood for their weekly strategizing session and a shared meal of soup, bread and red wine. Candles twinkle on the table. Jazz music softly slinks around the edges of their conversation.
Ranging in age from 30s to 50s, these five women are many things – yoginis, graphic designers, a psychotherapist, a restaurant owner. Athletic, outdoorsy, college-educated, well-traveled. Some are moms. None are Ridgway natives. Indeed, they are part of the reason that Ouray County has shifted from red to bluish over the past dozen or so years.
The mountainous, rural county and its two small municipalities – Ridgway and Ouray – are a microcosm of Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District as a whole, with its roots in ranching and mining, growing outdoor-and-adventure-based tourism economy, and rapidly evolving demographics that have made Ridgway more progressive by the year, even as other corners of the county remain deeply conservative.
Old buildings that were featured in John Wayne’s True Grit have been transformed into coffeeshops, eateries and art galleries. Yoga and Pilates studios coexist with hardware stores, and the town boasts equal parts Asian restaurants and burger joints, liquor stores and pot shops. Marijuana farms flourish alongside historic ranches, as the cow pastures near town slowly fill up with neighborhoods like the one where the women of D3 have gathered on this night.
They are all a little stunned at how their original idea for 30 minutes of silence has grown so quickly into a collective yawp that sounds out over the rooftops of District 3 – one of the geographically largest congressional districts in the United States, where Tipton has held onto power for the past eight years.
“We did the march, had half an hour of silence, and community potluck and Dr. Steding gave this insane speech that became our manifesto,” recalls Gordon. “It has become more political than we knew it would be, and very quickly we have become the unifying voice of the district.”
None of the women have engaged in political activism until now, but they have a lot to show for their work over the past few months.
They’ve created a framework and a tool set for Indivisible groups throughout District 3. They’ve convened an advisory board headed up by Steding. They are fielding a slew of daily emails, and leading regular conference calls with other Indivisible chapters from Pueblo, Alamosa, Durango, Montrose, Grand Junction, Aspen, Paonia, Carbondale, the Yampa Valley, the Roaring Fork Valley, the San Luis Valley.
“Most of the groups are led by women, which is rad,” Gordon says.
She has become D3’s de facto spokeswoman. The rest of the women of D3 ask not to be identified for this story. “We are a wee bit shy about getting our personal names out there into the world,” one of them explains. “I think we all feel cautious in that regard.”
The business owners among them worry about burning bridges and scaring off potential customers and clients. More than that, though, they’re concerned for their personal safety, and that of their families, after the leader of the “Mesa County Deplorables” recently tweeted that D3 was an “anti-American, anti-rural, left-wing, Soros-funded extremist hate group.”
“All in the same tweet,” Gordon sighs. “They had undercover people come to our meetings. They posted pictures of our stuff on their social media.”
The women laugh about it now. But, Gordon adds, “I do check my door locks at night. More than once. I am conscious of that.”
“We need handles, code names,” one of the women suggests.
Gordon doesn’t think so. “Anonymity isn’t as powerful as putting your name on something,” she counters. “You have to stand up. I do believe this is not about us. It’s about the movement, not about the individuals. But I want to feel super-comfortable standing up and telling people what I believe right now. To avoid conflict – there’s no time for it anymore.”
[blockquote3]“We were so inspired that we felt compelled to move forward and create something that would be more lasting than this single day of action.” – Erika Moss Gordon[/blockquote3]
GONZO part 1
April 7, 2017
Trump has been president for 78 days. D3 Indivisible members have been emailing and calling Congressman Tipton on a daily basis to express their outrage at Trump’s agenda. At best, they get nothing more than a generic email in return and an assurance on the phone that their messages will be relayed to the congressman.
Finally, Tipton agrees to hold an official town hall meeting – on friendly turf – in the conservative town of Montrose just north of Ridgway.
Dozens of progressives from across Colorado’s Western Slope crowd into a church in Montrose on the appointed day to review their game plan before heading over to the high school gym where the town hall is scheduled to take place.
An hour later, they’re jammed on bleachers like awkward students at a school assembly, armed with blue and red “AGREE” and “DISAGREE” print-outs that Gordon has passed around. The crowd numbers in the hundreds.
The conservative congressman from Cortez stands before them like the school principal, in his trademark jeans, blazer and white button-down shirt – blue eyes blazing, thatch of caramel-colored hair combed neatly to the side, polished cowboy boots widely planted on the polished gym floor.
A couple of uniformed policemen stand beside the push-bar doors. A “God Bless America” sign hangs above the drinking fountains in the nearby hallway.
Tipton smoothly delivers a few opening remarks then shifts into Q&A mode. His brawny field rep holds a microphone out in front of a petite, older woman in a white sweater who’s been selected to ask the first question.
“There are a lot of representatives who are not holding town halls and we are appreciative that you came,” she begins, politely, reading from her notes. “It seems your district may be becoming more progressive. How will you represent your district’s preferences? Will you poll us? How do you want us to let you know how we feel about individual issues as they come up over the next two years?”
Tipton tells her he may not see eye to eye on many issues with many of his constituents. “But it’s important to hear your thoughts,” he adds, and points out that he has several field offices across the district.
“Do you think the Russia-Trump connection should be fairly and vigorously pursued wherever it leads, with the only objective being total truth?” another questioner asks.
“Yes,” Tipton says, sending a tsunami of blue “AGREE” signs into the air. But he quickly loses traction with the crowd after that, as he alternately answers and deflects their barrage of questions on energy policy, environmental regulations, public lands, health care, budget priorities and ‘The Wall’, revealing his unwavering support for Trump’s agenda.
Gordon finally gets her turn at the mike. She could pass for a teenager in her favorite blue hoody, her long blond hair in a messy bun. “If Trump’s found guilty of collusion with the Russians, will you vote to impeach him? It’s a yes or no question,” she says.
“Let’s let the facts go where they may,” Tipton shrugs. “We’ll see what happens.”
And so it goes. For the progressives in the audience, the 2018 midterms – and the chance to vote Tipton out of office – can’t come soon enough.
Gonzo part 2
April 20, 2017
Trump has been president for 91 days. And on 4/20 – the unofficial national holiday for cannabis culture – D3 Indivisible hosts a town hall meeting in Ridgway with Colorado’s junior U.S. Senator Cory Gardner.
The problem is – Gardner never accepted the invitation. Nobody thinks he will show up. And nobody is surprised when he doesn’t. Like many Republican members of Congress, he’s avoided his progressive constituents ever since Trump got elected, alleging that the flood of calls and emails to his office are coming from paid protesters as opposed to genuinely concerned constituents.
In spite of the fact that Gardner’s a no-show, a hundred or so people have poured into the Ouray County 4-H Event Center for the occasion, which is being live-streamed on Facebook.
Someone wheels in a caged chicken to serve as Gardner’s stand-in. The crowd cracks up as the chicken is humanely whisked away. Gordon then steps forward to bring them up-to-date on what D3’s leaders have been up to lately – including a recent sit-down with Gov. Hickenlooper at the capital in Denver.
Yet even as D3 Indivisible has gained recognition and momentum over the past few months, there is a growing sense of impending doom as Trump’s agenda continues to relentlessly unfold.
“We all are feeling the weight of the daily news, the tensions, the legislation that challenges our environment, the planet and woman’s rights,” Gordon acknowledges. “The battery of information is super-disheartening. We in the beginning had an initial wave of adrenalin, as all of you, I’m sure, have. But it’s become exhausting, and we have a long way to go.”
Local attorney Roger Sagal, a D3 advisory board member, takes it from there, doing his best to rally the troops.
“Let’s get a sense of who you are and why you came tonight,” he says. “In a very unscientific study… how many here among us live in Ouray County?” Most of the hands in the room go up.
“San Miguel County?” A few more hands. “They’re probably at 4/20,” Sagal jokes of the missing folks from nearby Telluride. But there are several people from Montrose County. One from Silverton. A handful from Palisade and Grand Junction.
“How many here are native-born Coloradans?” Sagal asks. “Native-born Western Slopers?” Just a smattering of hands.
“How many here are involved in the ranching industry? Mining?” No hands at all. “Anybody retired military?” A lone hand goes up in the air.
“Anybody here a paid radical despot because George Soros wrote them a check?” Everyone laughs, and Sagal ploughs ahead.
“How many of you woke up the day after the 2016 election and thought ‘Holy Shit?’” A sea of hands.
“How many woke up and thought to themselves, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’” A sea of hands, again.
“That’s why you’re here,” Sagal says.
July 20-22, 2017
In the summer of 2017, six months into the Trump world order, D3 hosts its biggest gathering yet – a summit conference in Ridgway.
The event includes educational forums on topics like how to engage millennials, how to get out the vote, and Activism 101; a panel discussion on district issues specific to D3; and a candidate’s forum with Democratic hopefuls including Diane Mitsch Bush.
The summit is a huge success. “We expected 50 attendees and there were around 200,” Gordon says. “It was the first time in a long time that progressive leaders from the district and state came together to discuss issues.”
One of the most significant outcomes of the summit was the creation of a regional D3 board that continues to hold monthly meetings via conference call. Since the summit, D3’s leaders have also taken the time to carefully refine their policy statements in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm election.
“Drafting them was the work of over a year of listening and distilling – really having to think about our stance on things and needing to be succinct,” Gordon says. “Although we are nonpartisan, we need to have a candidate that supports our policy statements.”
Posted on the D3 Indivisible website, the statements reflect the group’s progressive stance on civil rights and the rule of law, education, energy and the environment, gun violence prevention, healthcare, immigration, national security, public lands, science, women’s rights and gender equality.
People in high places have taken notice. Colorado’s senior U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat, recently traveled to Ridgway to sit with D3’s leaders around Gordon’s kitchen table. “He read our policy statements and said they are some of the best he’s ever read,” Gordon says with pride.
Now, Bennet’s office routinely reaches out to D3 to get input on issues he must consider in his role as senator.
Oct. 23, 2018
Trump has been president for 642 days. Not that anyone is keeping track of that time-smear anymore. These days, it’s all about looking forward – toward the midterm elections.
The outburst of political activism in western Colorado in the early months of Trump’s presidency seems like ancient history now. Success for progressives in 2018 hangs on the ability of groups like D3 Indivisible Colorado to take hit, after hit, after hit, from the barrage of daily news, and still bounce back – translating their early activism and energy into a blue wave at the ballot box.
In Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, Diane Mitsch Bush is outraising Tipton, and FiveThirtyEight (the national news organization that specializes in poll tracking) has declared the contest to be a “true coin flip”. Every vote – and ounce of activism – could make a difference.
But as the midterm elections loom ever-closer, attendance at monthly Indivisible meetings in Ouray County has dwindled to just a handful of diehard activists.
“It’s kind of disappointing,” says Taylor Chase, a young teacher who stepped up to run Ouray County’s local Indivisible chapter when D3’s founders shifted their focus toward running the regional umbrella organization. “But you have to tell yourself, ‘There is attrition. Okay. What do you do with the people you have around?’”
With the midterms just a few weeks away, the answer is pretty simple: get out the vote. As Chase puts it, “We have transitioned from doing a lot of policy tracking that resulted in ‘Call your legislators,’ to ‘Let’s get them out of office in the next few weeks.’”
Toward this end, the few remaining active members of Ouray County’s Indivisible chapter are laser-focused this fall on voter registration drives, voter outreach and getting people aware of the issues.
“Thinking about our little corner of the world here, it’s never been a huge bastion of political energy,” Chase reflects. “Sometimes it’s easy to say ‘We are going to hide away in our mountain corner and not deal.’ But from where we were two years ago, we are well ahead of the game. There are a lot more doors being knocked on, a lot more conversations being had.”
Attrition has also struck at the heart of D3; three of the five women who founded the organization back in the early days of the Trump administration have since stepped off the working board and are no longer actively involved.
“It’s exhausting,” Gordon says. “Everyone feels it. The initial rage and shock and despair was fantastic fuel…and then there is life. It’s totally okay. One of the great things that we have facilitated for each other, is that if someone needs to take a pause, that pause is 100 percent supported. Everyone does what they can. That’s the only sustainable way for all of us to engage. We have to parent. We have to work. We have to live our lives.”
But Gordon is still all in. “I need my kids to know I did everything I could. You know?”
Beyond its core group of founders, the regional D3 board is still very much alive, holding regular conference calls and partnering with other progressive organizations such as the Western Independence Project to increase its reach and resonance across the state.
Perhaps most importantly, D3 has recently hired Neal Morgan, an experienced electoral field program coach who worked on the Obama and Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns, to train Indivisible leaders across CD3 how to increase voter turnout.
Morgan focuses strictly on the two things that have been proven to make the most difference in winning elections: training volunteers to have authentic conversations with other voters – by knocking on doors or making phone calls – to persuade and mobilize them to vote; and building capacity by getting those same volunteers to bring even more people into the process to do the same thing.
“He talks a lot about the things we do that are wastes of our time – how many meetings do we need to have?” Gordon says. “We need to collaborate. But, people need to be voting. We need to get everyone we can to vote. And the second the 2018 election is over, we have to regroup for 2020. Big time.”
William Steding will be there to help. The man who helped launch D3 with his fiery speech back in early 2017 sees the group’s current mission and platform as a remarkable achievement. “The energy of outrage has been channeled into meaningful and responsible political engagement,” he says. “D3 Indivisible is a stellar example of how democracy is supposed to work.”
As the women of D3 have worked to transform the political landscape of western Colorado over the past two years, their activism has also transformed their interior landscapes in mysterious ways – as Gordon recently discovered when her car broke down and she needed a two-hour tow.
When she got into the tow truck with the driver, she became uncomfortably aware of an initial wave of judgement toward him – she could tell they belonged to different political tribes. But as they started talking, they discovered that they had something in common: they were both single parents.
“And right away we got into a very intimate conversation about our lives, kids, things we had to overcome as parents,” Gordon says. “He told me some incredible stories. We immediately were very human with each other.”
Eventually, inevitably, the conversation came around to politics. In the past, Gordon says, she would have backpedaled. But because of her activism over the past two years, she went right into it. “There was no bullshit,” Gordon says. “He spoke his truth. I spoke my truth. It was totally okay. It was a seminal experience for me.”
Gordon takes a deep breath, glances out her kitchen window at the ragged meringue of mountains on the horizon. November is coming.
“I think what we need to do is we need to come toward each other,” she says. “And that is actually the most important thing.”
Though many communities lack affordable housing, the specific dynamics of each region and market are unique. So, we’ve pulled together a set of data points to help compare one mountain town to another. Median income is for a family of four and is extracted from the Department of Housing and Urban Development at a county level. Statistics describing the number of affordable units constructed, estimated need, and target housing levels are taken from town and county reports produced by each community. And the median home price data are extracted from Zillow’s recent sales data.
[blockquote3]Ogden, Utah is not the typical mountain town, which is exactly why it might be the next best adventure hub.[/blockquote3]
“I get a little bit of attitude from my ski town friends,” says Nicole Pelletier, a 45-year-old ski coach based in Ogden, Utah. “There’s always that, ‘you’re living where?’ I always sayit’s the smelling-dog-poo-on-your-upper-lip face.”
Pelletier is a product of Western mountain town culture. Born and raised in Aspen in the 1970s, she spent her adult years bouncing around elite resort towns of the Intermountain West, always struggling to make ends meet in places where the housing costs out-paced wages. Three years ago, when she finally felt secure enough to plant roots, she did so in Ogden. It wasn’t the Alpine idyll she had been chasing for two and a half decades, but it offered the trifecta of attributes people often say they look for in a western mountain community: accessibility, diversity, and affordability.
Snowbasin and Powder Mountain are both within 30 minutes, and the top of Snowbasin looks directly down into Ogden. There are rivers, canyons, biking and hiking trails, and countless acres of public land within or adjacent to the city limits. It offers a diverse economy featuring military, manufacturing, higher education, and outdoor recreation. The demographic is both racially and socio-economically mixed. Most of all, though, it’s affordable. Even as housing values surge across the Wasatch front, Ogden’s median home price is still only about $180,000. And yet it’s treated as a pariah by many from more exclusive locales.
The common refrain is that regular people are being priced out of adventure towns. While it’s true that the billionaires are driving the millionaires out of places like Jackson Hole, Aspen, and Sun Valley—all places Pelletier has called home—the existence of Ogden highlights that there are options for people who want an affordable living situation and access to mountain recreation. Or, to put it bluntly, it’s not necessarily the skiing and the outdoors that we are being priced out of, but rather elitist towns featuring the same economic barriers that have long kept coastal communities such as Laguna Beach, California or Greenwich, Connecticut unobtainable.
Historically, Ogden was a bastion of wealth in its own right, with more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country in the early 1900s. At the time, then called Junction City, it was a railroad hub that linked America’s heartland with the rest of the world. But then came the interstate highway system, the diesel locomotive, the airline industry—all of which changed how we ship our goods and move about the country. Eventually even the tracks were rerouted through Salt Lake City, and Ogden’s relevance evaporated.
The city floundered through the 70s, 80s, and 90s. But then, following the success of the 2002 Olympics (Ogden hosted the curling events, and the skiing downhill and super-G were at Snowbasin), community leaders realized the area had something unique to offer: access to the outdoors. Rather than build another mall or convention center, they decided to attach their future to outdoor recreation. “We needed to capitalize on things that nobody could duplicate,” says current mayor Mike Caldwell who worked for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee in 2002. “It’s these natural assets.”
In the 16 years since the 2002 games, Ogden has added approximately 18,000 jobs, according to Caldwell. Though he estimates that only 10% of those come directly from outdoor recreation, he says that Ogden’s reputation as an outdoor hub has given the city a new identity and helped attract other companies to the city. “It’s not about wages. It’s about lifestyle now, and affordability,” Caldwell says. “We can provide that in ways that other communities [can’t]. The outdoor industry has really validated that selling point”
Many of Ogden’s long-blighted neighborhoods are now seeing a renaissance. Neighborhoods that were 70-percent rentals for decades are becoming more owner-occupied. “Having a constant turn over in rentals destabilizes neighborhoods,” says Caldwell. “We’ve had a lot of people come in, buy some of these old, little urban homes, put sweat equity into them, and drop roots. It’s really stabilized a lot of our neighborhoods.”
Neighborhoods like Pelletier’s. In the three years she has lived there, she has seen the area evolve. “I’m seeing a lot more young families move in that are homeowners,” she says. “There’s that pride of ownership, and it’s showing in the way the neighborhood is tightening up.”
Pelletier has lived the mountain-town housing crunch. She was the youngest of five kids raised in Aspen in the 70s, all of whom were ski racers. Her father worked on ski patrol and built houses, and the family ran a restaurant at the base of Tiehack lift. They were able to afford a house down valley in Emma, and in the winter would live in an apartment below the restaurant to be close to the slopes. “It was like living on a ship,” Pelletier says. “There were five of us kids. We had a hallway that my dad built out with six bunk beds. Our only private space was a bunk bed in a hallway with this long pipe that was all our hanging stuff. You had, like, your five feet and you had your one drawer. The trade-off was we could step out the door and go ski.”
When she was in her teens, her family moved to Hood River, Oregon—just in time to see that town boom. Over the next 25 years, she bounced from one high-rent adventure hub to another. When she finally saved enough to consider buying a place, Pelletier wanted to go back to Sun Valley, but the best she could do was a studio apart or small condo.
Instead, she compromised and landed in Ogden. “It hasn’t been easy,” she admits. “On one end, it definitely took a financial monkey off my back. The livability of Ogden is awesome. What I feel I’ve given up, is that I don’t feel like I have a really concentrated sense of tribe here.”
Pelletier likens her neighborhood to some of the grittier sections of Bend before that town boomed. “I’ve talked to people that were in Bend in the early years,” she says. “And it used to be like that in parts of Bend, where it was really sketchy. Now that place is untouchable.” A house on her street that she looked at for $65,000 just three years ago Pelletier says recently sold for $175,000. “From what I’ve witnessed in that short period of time, I think it’s only going to get better,” she says.
Which begs the question: is Ogden merely on track to be the next place regular people get priced out of? Neither Pelletier or Mayor Caldwell see that as a risk.
“One of the things we’ve focused on that targets directly affordable housing options, is we’ve put a lot more density in our downtown,” Caldwell says. “We’ve had almost 1200 units that either have been constructed or are in the process of construction just in that downtown core.”
Due to geography, population, and relative proximity to the state capital, Ogden often draws comparisons to Boulder, Colorado, where housing is 400-percent more expensive. Caldwell, however, likens it more to Pittsburgh, a place built on a hardcore blue collar economy that went belly-up when its anchor industry left. Because Ogden’s housing infrastructure is still in place from its boom era, the city has been able to grow in a way that’s less exclusive than similarly sized mountain communities.
“Our housing stock was really built out in the 1930s,” says Caldwell. “Those older homes sometimes just don’t appeal to that real higher profile buyer. A lot of those older places, a lot of the spaces we’re creating right now, really appeal to artistically minded people. That’s the market I think we’ve seen the most growth in, the art and culture groups. Not necessarily the second home owners who are just looking to put an exclusive title on their business card or mailing address.”
As someone who’s seen hometown after hometown blow up, that’s fine with Pelletier. “It’s like a secret surf spot,” she says. “You don’t want to over share, but at the same time you’re, like, proud.”
[blockquote3]The unintended consequences of Boulder’s groundbreaking open space policies[/blockquote3]
For the past half-century, Oakleigh Thorne has stared up at the iconic Flatirons — the three slabs of 1,000-foot rock that jut crooked-tooth-like across Boulder, Colorado’s western skyline — and he’s felt a stab of swelling pride.
As he should. Fifty years ago, Oak (as he likes to be called) won big by spearheading the citizen-led team that established Boulder’s “Greenbelt” — the swath of protected Open Space and Mountain Parks land that rings the city like a thick golden-green moat. Oak had even bought and then sold a parcel of land to the City to ensure the belt would close full-circle.
In his eyes, there was no way of knowing what that the seemingly progressive conservation methods he helped employ would do to the social and economic fabric of the community he loved decades later.
It was to keep the city from spilling out over the landscape,” he explains. Homemaking and protecting were fresh on Oak’s mind when he moved from the Northeast to pursue a zoology Ph.D at the University of Colorado Boulder. His thesis led him on walks along Boulder Creek, catching and breeding white-footed mice to study their nesting habits. With his hands among the dried leaves and roots of Boulder’s earth on a near-daily basis, he grew intimately familiar with the varied ecosystems that stretch across valley.
In the mid 1950s, during a post-WWII population surge that threatened the quaintness of the mountain town, Oak joined forces with with two CU Boulder professors and a handful of other young professionals to take action. As Oak recalls, they were asking the question: “What are we going to do to prevent the backdrop of Boulder from being developed?”
Hotels, they feared, would sprout along the mesas at the base of the Flatirons. Plans for a large church atop the southern sloping hill were already in the works. Developers and their gangly apartment complexes threatened the mountain views. The white rock formations out east needed safeguarding.
So, Oak helped the City buy up every square inch of the land surrounding Boulder and swear to its protection.
Around the same time, Oak lived with his family near downtown Boulder. In the mornings, the kids walked to Lincoln Elementary School. The mountains, just a glance away, kept watch over the city. The railroad tracks, Oak recalls, ran a block down from school, along Water Street; he remembers the small houses that lined it, the freight yard and the depot, the makeup of the elementary school — “It was a wonderfully integrated school. … There were a lot of Latino and African American families … Asian families, too.” He chuckles, remembering the school once asked his daughter to join a program because “they needed more white kids.”
While the rest of town ambled throughout the day, Oak turned to the CU professors, eager to help them answer their question. Leading up to 1959, he campaigned for one of their ideas — the “Blue Line,” a boundary mark that limited municipal water distribution above 5,750 feet, effectively preventing any buildings from taking root at the base of the Flatirons.
Then, in 1967, when citizens approved another of Oak’s missions — the “open space sales tax” — Boulder became the first U.S. municipality to tax themselves for the specific purpose of purchasing and preserving open space. It was with these funds that Boulder bought most of the Greenbelt that now rings the city.
Four years later, plans for a 17-story building threatened downtown, and the citizens led another mission to limit the height of buildings to 55 feet which is approximately the hight of the mature cottonwood trees common around the city.
Today, the height ordinance remains and the open space surrounding Boulder firmly stakes its city limits, preventing both outward sprawl and the encroachment of neighboring communities. No development is allowed on the protected land, which now exceeds 45,000 acres and houses more than 150 miles of maintained recreational and commuter trails. The quick access to greenery from any point in the city, coupled with the unobstructed mountain views, is, in large part, what makes Boulder Boulder; “No buildings [beyond city limits], that’s the nice thing,” Oak considers.
“I feel very proud of what we did,” he says with the reverence of a grandfather.
But then, within a matter of years of protecting that open space, development took an unexpected turn. The city stripped the railroad tracks, Water Street turned to Canyon Boulevard, the freight depot became a library, the neighborhood houses dissolved, apartments shot up, the college population doubled, and one side effect of Oak’s hard work, one that he never thought to consider, manifested right before his eyes.
When we passed the Greenbelt, and got the open space, and made Boulder so attractive, it started to shoot up the [cost of living],” he says somberly. People who could not afford the new apartments, those who had been living near the railroad tracks and attending school with his children, eventually left. “That’s the one thing we did not anticipate … It literally drove out that diversity that we had. That was one of the negative aspects of the Greenbelt and open space.”
Allyn Feinberg — who grew up in Boulder and now serves as co-chair of People’s League for Action Now (PLAN-Boulder County), a citizen advocacy group that formed early in the lobbying process for the Blue Line — says, “Really, the affordability of housing wasn’t on the radar screen of the City’s fathers.”
In the 50s and 60s, when Colorado’s Front Range was still predominantly rural, Boulder County was all about growth, she explains. The mentality was: “How can we get more business to locate here?” Attracting innovation, accruing sales tax, and carving a name on the national stage were Boulder’s top priorities.
A lot changed. Between 1950 and 1970, the population ballooned from 20,000 to 72,000; a turnpike was built, and academic and business expansions fleshed out the city’s innards. A steady influx of people were welcomed (mostly professional and white; Boulder’s population is now 90% Caucasian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau). Yet some things stayed the same. Term after term, citizens continuously voted to extend the open space sales tax and height-limit ordinances.
It was in the latter part of this era that Boulder’s first need for affordable housing surfaced.
Constrained laterally by the Greenbelt and vertically by the height ordinance, Boulder initiated a period of housing infill and re-use of present development to fit the newcomers in town. But when growth didn’t slow, subdivision construction began.
Thousands of building permits were issued in the mid-1970s before the Danish Plan, another citizen-led initiative intending to mitigate population and new building growth — “One of the first, and most widely emulated community growth management plans in the country,” according to the advocacy group Livable Boulder — limited new building permits to a 2 percent growth factor per year.
In 2000, the City published its first affordable housing goal: 10 percent of Boulder dwellings affordable for low/moderate- and middle-income households. By 2010, however, the City had only achieved 67 percent of the low and moderate income homes, which included shelter beds, and only 22 percent of the goal for middle-income households. In 2011, a task force convened to examine the situation. The group agreed to extend this 10 percent goal, but there were some who wouldn’t fully endorse it without including a provision restricting expansion of the current growth area surrounding Boulder.
Today, as the American Community Survey reports, the median household income for the Boulder metro area hovers around $75,000. That’s about $9,000 higher than the median Colorado household income, and nearly $17,000 greater than the U.S. median household income, indicating by some measures that the real estate bubble created by Boulder’s three-dimensional development restrictions has contributed to the influx of the wealthy and the outflux of others.
Between July 2015 and July 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau noted Boulder County gained 10 new residents a day, and according to the Boulder Affordable Housing Research Initiative, “home-ownership is out of the question for over 40% of Boulder’s residents.” There were two months in 2017 when the average single-family home sale price topped $1 million. Thus, more than 60,000 people who work in the city now commute from elsewhere each day.
Given current policies, Boulder is projected to reach residential and non-residential zoning capacity by 2080, according to city officials.
Allyn says as soon as the city identified a problem, they dutifully initiated policies and funding that were dedicated to affordable housing for low and moderate income residents. But many might argue it hasn’t been enough. “I would say we’re just like everybody else who has a booming job and real estate economy,” Allyn says. “The people who are in the service industry are getting pushed out of town; it’s that simple. And it is difficult to deal with.”
In short, she says, “I’m not sure there’s a … development that would’ve changed things much.”
The displacement of the workforce and the surge of wealth begs the question: do environmental values in Boulder trump community values like diversity and affordability?
Shae Frydenlund doesn’t believe for a second that the Greenbelt’s role in driving out diversity was an accident. “Preserving open space … was decidedly to insulate Boulder and to protect open space for the elite few who already lived there,” she says.
As a Ph.D. student at CU who specializes in economic geography and who has published research on Boulder’s affordable housing, Shae is well versed in the politics of privilege. As she sees it, the Greenbelt was a political move just as much as it was environmental.
While Oak’s intentions were to preserve the natural ecosystem, a different perspective regards open space policy as a group of powerful, privileged people who simply bought up the land surrounding the city and said, OK, only those who were either lucky enough to be here to share our original environmental ideals, or those who can afford to cross the greenspace and find a home in which to live can reside in our city.
Allyn, on the other hand, is cautious of throwing darts at any one target, though she admits housing and open space policies do seem to be related. “There are many, many issues that are interconnected,” she says, considering a growing city with a growing economy. “A lot of people think that if you didn’t have open space around Boulder that you would just build, build, build and have so much housing that you would make it more affordable.”
But the decades of Allyn’s city planning experience have taught her that isn’t exactly the case. “When you have a community that’s desirable, you can’t ever build enough,” she says, having learned from studying the housing situation in San Francisco. “The housing that you end up building has the same upward price pressures because more people want to live here than you can ever accommodate. … People in Boulder have said ‘OK, we’re not willing to give up our environmental values for just creating more stuff that isn’t going to be affordable.’”
There are ironies embedded within Boulder’s relationship with affordable housing and the environment, however, that Shae and her research haven’t overlooked. She points to the fight for co-operative housing to illustrate how she believes that insulation and the protection of a privileged community are motives buried underneath Greenbelt policies.
Until Feb. 16, 2017, co-op houses — residential homes with more than four unrelated people — were illegal in Boulder, despite the fact that co-ops are “the best, most environmentally efficient way to live in a city, period,” Shae explains. For instance, sharing a house leads to sharing appliances, cars, and physical space, drastically reducing an individual’s carbon footprint.
The law relied on citizen reporting to identify over-occupied houses, so some neighborhoods, particularly near the University, tolerated co-op living. But, in campaigning to eliminate the law throughout 2016, Shae says the residents of established neighborhoods closest to open space — where much of the older, more established Boulderites live, many of whom were active in the fight for the original open space policies — were almost uniformly opposed to the idea of co-ops in their neighborhoods.
It’s a thorny issue,” Shae says. “The demographic that claims to want to keep [Boulder] environmentally focused is the same demographic that is effectively blocking and even sabotaging one of the most environmentally conscious ways of life, because they see it as a threat to their property rights and lifestyle.”
This is part of the larger economic narrative that Shae studies in Boulder and around the world. “There are power dynamics at play shaping who wins and who loses in all housing markets,” and she cautions against letting those dynamics lead the housing situation in the city.
Instead of asking, How can there be a balance between environmental conservation and affordable housing? Shae insists, while moving forward, the better question is: “What power dynamics have emerged to create a society in which only the wealthy in Boulder and elsewhere have the guaranteed right to housing and access to open space?”
Allyn, like Shae and Oak, understands Boulder’s growing homogeneity and the outward flux of the working class is a pressing and unresolved issue. “If you don’t have that diversity of income, then you probably don’t have diversity of ethnicity, racial makeup, gender… [everything is] more limited if you only have a community that’s full of rich people,” she says. “Having a distribution of income across a spectrum is the critical thing for keeping a good community.”
This past October, on the day Oak turned 89, nearly 500 people gathered alongside him in a CU auditorium. Rather than sing to him though, he and the guests were there to celebrate a different birthday. The open space sales tax turned 50.
As the founding generation mingled over cake with a crop of future young professionals, the party was as much a celebration of the past as it was a dedication to the future of Boulder’s defining traits: progressive citizenry and environmental stewardship. These traits have shaped Boulder as an international voice in the environment, a booming economy and a desirable zip code.
But Shae can’t help but consider the injustice that bubbled up alongside that trajectory: when progressive thinking was solely applied to nature, the fate of certain human beings falling at the wayside.
By the end of 2017, Boulder determined 7.4 percent of its dwellings were affordable for low/moderate income households, with about a quarter of those units permanently so. Within the last few months — to help shrink the 2.6-percent gap between reality and the 2000 and 2011 10-percent-affordability goals — the City increased its inclusionary housing provision from 20 to 25 percent, requiring new residential developments must contribute the equivalent amount of 25 percent of their developments as affordable housing to the city. This, in tandem with the 700 affordable units under construction or in the approval process, means at the very least there are people who are listening.
[blockquote3]Affordable housing nonprofit Community Rebuilds has built 28 straw bale homes with low-income families since 2010, but when they took their model to a wealthy mountain town, they ran into housing issues of their own.[/blockquote3]
In Colorado’s Gunnison Valley, home values are correlated with the elevation; as you move north both rise together. Over the valley’s 30-mile length from the college town of Gunnison to the 700-person ski resort village of Mount Crested Butte, median home prices more than triple.
According to a 2016 survey, 70% of businesses in the Gunnison Valley said that the lack of affordable housing was one of their most critical problems, leaving nearly 360 local jobs unfilled that summer and even creating an e. coli crisis in local rivers when employees crowded into tent cities on public land.
But, during the second half of 2016, at the high point of the valley where most dwellings are second homes with an average price of $1.6 million, a team of student workers learned how to use straw bale insulation and clay plasters to build a duplex that was both ecologically friendly and affordable. Every morning, the students would rise at 6am and commute from a rented house in Gunnison, through cow pastures, outlying subdivisions and the historically funky town of Crested Butte up to the ski slopes of Crested Butte Mountain Resort, working to ensure that two families would be able to live where they worked.
This project, unique among its surroundings, was a test piece led by the nonprofit Community Rebuilds to see if they could bring a model they have honed in the desert around Moab, Utah, to the extreme weather and price conditions of a ski resort town. The organization got its start in 2010 when Emily Niehaus noticed a prevalence of drafty trailers scattered throughout the mountain biking mecca and, around the same time, met a builder using “dirt cheap,” natural materials to create cheap, energy efficient homes. “If we combined an affordable housing job site with a student education program,” Niehaus realized, “we could get free labor and also solve for another need we have which is training young emerging professionals to build straw bale.”
By 2016, Community Rebuilds had completed 22 straw and clay homes, optimized for passive and active solar, in Moab for under $100,000 a piece and had started an offshoot program on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. For each of their builds, the organization requires homeowners to contribute an average of 20 hours of labor per week and also helps them to secure low-interest USDA Rural Development loans – targeted at individuals and families making less than 80% of their area’s median income – to cover material costs. Community Rebuilds brings in natural building experts who lead the homeowners and a team of student laborers through a modern day barn raising.
“It was meant to be a fun, small project,” says Niehaus of the group’s early days. “I was not intending to solve for what has now emerged as a major affordable housing crisis.”
But when a Community Rebuilds board member in the Gunnison Valley suggested the organization take on a project in Mount Crested Butte, Niehaus agreed it was time to take test their triple-bottom-line model – eco-friendly, educational, affordable – in a ski town.
“People were saying that’s sort of random replication,” Niehaus laughs, referring to the differences between Mount Crested Butte and Hopi. “But we wanted to show that straw bale, this housing typology, is absolutely replicable in every community.”
The team quickly ran into unique challenges in the resort town, though. First, Community Rebuilds struggled to find housing for their students until they settled on a rental 45 minutes (on a clear day) away in Gunnison. Mitch McComb, a natural builder from Utah, had to turn down a paid position as head carpenter because, he says, “I was going to have to live in the back of my truck to do the build. I turned the job down because I didn’t think I’d be able to afford living and working there.”
Then the team ran up against the Mount Crested Butte’s Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs), which forced the crew to shift from their standard, rustic, single-story design to a three-floor structure gleaming with galvanized steel. And to top it off, subcontractor fees, material costs and impact fees for connecting to electricity, sewage and water pushed costs higher than any project in Community Rebuilds history.
“The cost of construction was twice as much [in Mount Crested Butte] as it is in Moab largely because we had to conform to the CC&Rs,” says Niehaus.
To keep the project affordable, Crested Butte Mountain Resort donated a lot in the Prospect Homestead subdivision – a neighborhood with deed restrictions that favor sales to members of the local workforce who meet strict income and asset caps – to the Town of Mount Crested Butte, which in turn sold the land for $0 to two pre-approved workers in town. Then, with 13 unpaid construction interns, Community Rebuilds was able to keep the cost of each unit below $205,000.
“You have to get creative in mountain towns,” says Carlos Velado, Mount Crested Butte’s community development director. “Land costs and the costs of construction are so high that, when accompanied by the income limits and maximum purchase prices that are dictated by the deed restrictions, it becomes difficult to develop affordable units without taking a loss.”
Finding developers to take on affordable housing projects has been difficult. Ten years after Prospect Homestead was deed restricted, only 15 of 37 units have been completed. The Gunnison Valley will have to add 420 units by 2020 to fully meet the needs assessed in 2016 and to account for projected growth.
“In order to build Affordable Housing projects, there is a need to explore alternative methods in order to build units in a way that doesn’t end up costing the developer financially,” says Velado. “In the case of Community Rebuilds, the Town and CBMR were able to provide the land at no cost to Community Rebuilds and Community Rebuilds had a system with economical labor costs and they have a good working relationship with the USDA. I think in the end these factors played a significant role in the project being successful.”
Moving forward, Mount Crested Butte is exploring other partnerships with Crested Butte Mountain Resort and with private developers to complete Prospect Homestead, considering plans to waive some fees and provide free land for the project. Additionally, the Gunnison Valley region recently established a housing authority to standardize deed restrictions from Mount Crested Butte to Gunnison to simplify the system for developers, employers, renters, and homeowners.
And, in the town of Crested Butte, voters passed a 5% tax in November on short-term vacation rentals to subsidize affordable housing programs, adding to the mitigation, in fees or units built, they assess on all new commercial and residential construction. As a result, they are able to harness the region’s economic growth to provide for the shrinking affordable home market.
“The community here prides itself on having an eccentric flair,” says Andrew Arell who bought one unit in the Community Rebuilds duplex. “If we don’t maintain a strong, permanent community–a true community–things that make this place iconic will diminish.”
As the Director of Events at Crested Butte Nordic, Arell organizes world-famous competitions like the Grand Traverse ski race from Aspen to Crested Butte. For his work, which bolsters the area economy and draws significant volunteer support, he earns of $40,000 per year. Before buying into the new straw bale home, Arell moved his two sons all over the valley. “I lived in Gunnison, I lived in Crested Butte South, on the mountain, in the town of Crested Butte,” he recalls. “For a period, we were living in a studio efficiency apartment, you know, sleeping on pull-out couches. It was not fun.”
Jess Manderfield, a former student intern at Community Rebuilds, says she first applied to the education program because she wanted to develop hands-on building skills. As she worked alongside Community Rebuilds homeowners, though, she soon saw the need for affordable housing. She returned to work as a paid apprentice for the Mount Crested Butte project in large part to help out local workers. “I think the workers make the culture,” she says. “You have your locals and the ski bums who don’t want to move away, the people who love mountain life, they created the vibe Crested Butte is known for, and that’s what brings tourists as well.”
But with the duplex complete, Community Rebuilds has no further plans to come back to work on homes in resort communities like Mount Crested Butte. “We really have more fun building in rural towns where we’re not restricted by CC&Rs,” Niehaus says, “where we can replicate our [$100,000] Moab model: a really simple, beautiful, one-story structure that’s truly affordable with adobe floors, earthen plasters, passive solar.”
Instead, Niehaus and her team hope to create more offshoot programs like the one they started on Hopi in 2015. So far, four homeowners there have participated, and the Community Rebuilds team has trained members of a Native American-run organization, Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Institute, to continue constructing eco-friendly houses with tribal members. Niehaus plans to lead her team to expand soon into Bluff and Boulder, Utah, two small towns that are dependent on tourism but are less expensive and less restrictive than Mount Crested Butte.
Meanwhile, the Gunnison Valley is adapting some elements of Community Rebuilds’ experiment. Last year, high school students at the Crested Butte Community School assisted with the construction of a small rental unit for town employees, and in 2018, and the students will be helping with an even more ambitious project: a new duplex in Crested Butte South.
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.
[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.
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?
CREATING AN INCENTIVE TO DO THE RIGHT THING
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.
LOST ITS PIZZAZ?
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.”
COVERED IN COBWEBS
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?”
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.
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.”
GREENING THE NEXT GENERATION
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.”
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.”
THE CARBON QUESTION
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.”
BALANCING THE EQUATION
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.”