Categories
Community Environment Report vol1:3

Continental Divide

Image Courtesy Dan Harris
Image Courtesy Dan Harris

 

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.”

 

 

Image Courtesy Dan Harris
Image Courtesy Dan Harris

 

 

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.

 

Clare Gallagher
Clare Gallagher

 

 

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.”

Categories
Community Economy Environment Report vol1:2

A Blessing and A Curse: Boulder’s Groundbreaking Open Space Policies

[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.

Categories
Community Economy Environment Report vol1:2

A House of Straw

[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.

Categories
Environment Report vol1:1

Going Neutral: Telluride’s Road to Carbon Reduction

Photo by Alec Jacobson

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Categories
Environment Report vol1:1

Building Green Can Be Bewildering: The Eco-Lumber Conundrum

Illustration by Stephen Rockwood
Illustration by Blake Suarez

 

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

That sounds like a no-brainer.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo by Alec Jacobson

 

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?”

 

Photo by Alec Jacobson
Photo by Alec Jacobson

 

A Clear-Cut Alternative

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

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

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

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

Photo by Samantha Wright
Photo by Samantha Wright

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

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

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

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

 

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.”

 

Photo by Alec Jacobson
Photo by Alec Jacobson

 

Going Local

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.”

 

Photo by Alec Jacobson
Photo by Alec Jacobson