Peter Sheltonby Peter Shelton
A lot of people believed, back in the 1970s, that Telluride's exchange of mining for tourism was a big step toward sustainability. The heedless, extractive industries -mining and timbering -would be replaced by "clean" industries -skiing and its summer corollaries.
But it turns out ski area development, in Telluride and elsewhere, especially in the arid West, comes with its own set of unsustainable baggage.
Skiing, it seems, is not simply about sliding downhill on exquisite, snow-covered mountains. Not any more. It is about creating very expensive real estate with exquisite views and then building astonishingly large and expensive second homes on those lots. A recent study in Eagle County, Colorado (home of Vail and Beaver Creek) found annual spending of $677 million on second homes and only $387 million on winter tourism. Profits accumulate much faster selling $750,000 condos than selling $70 lift tickets.
The real estate/construction "lifestyle" economy threatens the land on which it is built. Its subdivisions fragment connectivity in previously uninterrupted wildlife habitat. Stream flows are sucked precariously low in order to manufacture snow, whose guns and compressors use millions of dollars worth of electricity per year, not to mention the millions it takes, once the snow is on the ground, to construct a regulation half pipe. Trophy homes and the roads leading to them eat up fabulous amounts of concrete and gravel, logs from Montana, beams from British Columbia, hardwoods from Borneo, natural gas from Wyoming -and more electricity, which comes, most of it, from coal-fired plants hundreds of miles away. This power and heat and water may actually be used only a few weeks a year, but it must remain on 24 hours a day, 52 weeks a year.
To bring in folks wealthy enough to afford these extravagantly wasteful homes you need an airport nearby, big enough at least for private jets. The airport also serves to attract the preferred skiing visitor, the destination skier, who may come from thousands of miles distant and has pockets deep enough not to flinch at a five-day tab easily topping $10,000 for a family of four.
In addition to the jet fuel burned, skiing causes a remarkable amount of everyday gasoline and diesel fuel to be consumed. This has less to do with the snowmobiles and snowcats and backhoes on the mountain proper than it does with the social stratification caused by the lifestyle economy. As real estate prices rise, the people actually doing the building (and cleaning and cooking and teaching and policing, and so on) must relocate elsewhere and commute. Telluride's working class drives up every day from downvalley San Miguel County, from neighboring Ouray and Dolores counties and, increasingly from Montrose and Delta counties (up to 100 miles one way), which are experiencing growth pains of their own as suppliers and trades people move in to service Telluride's "skiing" economy.
All this long-distance driving creates dangerous, sometimes fatal traffic. The roads must constantly be repaired and upgraded -and drenched every time it snows with magnesium chloride, a liquid salt that seeps into creeks and kills trees along the roadway.
All this oversized consumption, with its attendant contributions to global warming, may actually hasten the day when skiing (and skating and rafting and fly-fishing and other forms of tourism) will no longer be possible in these mountains. How sustainable is that?
JOHN LIFTON RESPONDS
Although I agree with Peter Shelton that Telluride's current ski economy is far from sustainable, I think it is incorrect to claim that it was any different back in the early 1970s when Peter and I first came here with our respective families.
In fact, a century earlier, back in the 1880s before the narrow gauge railroad arrived, pretty much all the food and dairy products that the Telluride miners survived on was grown on the mesas around Telluride. Wasn't that more sustainable?
Actually, not. Not the way in which they farmed, at any rate. The rich soils of the farms that were clear-cut of Aspen stands became depleted after a few years, and, if the narrow gauge had not come in, the locals would have gone hungry. Many of these mesa areas have not reforested over a hundred years later. The higher you go, the slower natural processes run. The wasteful trophy homes aren't, alas, something peculiar to successful ski areas. They're happening all across the country, and all round the planet.
No, the fundamental problem isn't Telluride's success, the problem is that we live with an economic system and tax codes that pay no attention to whether a consumed resource is renewable or non-renewable. And this a global and not a local problem. Both the Republicans and the Democrats pay lip service to free markets, but in practice they distort those markets out of any freedom by both subsidies and taxes on energy, food , etc., etc.
To address this major problem we will need to grow more political and economic understanding, and more political will. If we are to bring any common sense and real market efficiency to this situation then we will need to remove all these special interest subsidies, add new taxes that accurately value the eating-up of non-renewable resources, and additionally add new financial incentives for investment in renewability.
And we also need to realize that sustainability is complex, and that it will be achieved step by step, and that we can't afford to give iin to exhaustion, nor to simple-minded pessimism or simple-minded optimism. Sustainability begins not off in some utopian future, but right here and right now. Real and substantial gains are being achieved in sustainable practices all over the world and the rate is accelerating.
Locally speaking, photovoltaic devices generate about 15% more power in the Telluride region than the manufacturers' specifications, because of the altitude and how far south we are (the next ski area due east of the San Juan Mountains is in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco!). And the Telluride Institute's research garden in the '90's on the West
Meadows was said by experts to be the best site in the Northern
Hemisphere for growing Quinoa (the only grain to contain all the amino acids found in meat). Every day regional citizens work to develop and to use more sustainable methods in many areas. Now we are working to coordinate with each other, and to monitor and measure our outcomes.
All is not lost.
Although we cannot simply edit greed out of the human repertoire, still it's true that peoples all around the planet are embracing sustainability at the local level, whether they live in the First World or the Third World.In fact, somewhat under the radar, the move to Sustainability is becoming the largest international political movement since Socialism. Which brings me full circle; Tourism has replaced Socialism,(which didn't work that effectively), as the major way to redistribute wealth.
I bellieve that so long as Telluride looks after its beautiful natural environment, houses its working population, and continues to create a complex and indigestible culture, then tourists will come here and pay us for doing this. And I think that will be a piece of sustainable economy we'll be able to be proud of.