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For many people, especially in ski towns, addressing real and urgent issues can feel daunting. Housing inequities are increasing, climate change is altering snowpack, and it seems like the list of critical regional and global issues keeps growing. And let’s be honest, the traditional tourism-based economies of ski towns are set up more for enjoyment and selling a dream than confronting these issues head on. However it appears that the ski town dream is also in peril and that the world has reached a tipping point in which inaction is no longer an option. Many ski towns and resorts are stepping up sustainability initiatives, going green, reducing their carbon footprint and reinvesting in the people that truly make these areas so special.

But who is going to help implement these changes, conduct the studies, monitor progress, invent creative solutions to problems and work alongside regional nonprofits on these issues? This is where Western Colorado University’s Master’s in Environmental Management (MEM) program comes in. For 7 years Western’s MEM students have tackled such issues in Gunnison and Crested Butte, nationally and abroad. Through applied master’s projects with community organizations, MEM students foster ecologically resilient, economically sustainable, and socially just communities. The MEM program’s mission states simply, “Cultivate the knowledge you need to change the world.”

Now starting in 2021, Telluride Institute and Western have partnered to create a new cohort of six MEM students focused specifically on issues impacting the greater Telluride region. MEM students earn their Master’s degree while working for regional nonprofits or environmental organizations on projects like helping create the regional climate action plan (EcoAction Partners), creating a management plan for the Prospect Basin Fens, assisting with the Valley Floor Wildlife Monitoring project and helping to pilot the Payment for Ecosystem Services program for San Miguel County.

All of the current students have been living and working in Telluride’s tourism industry for years (some grew up in the area), but were eager to earn a higher degree and also make an impact here in the Telluride area. They also wanted more than a traditional online degree. With the Telluride Institute cohort they receive shared office space, a room to Zoom into classes, teambuilding experiences, and nonprofit management skills. Telluride Institute and our partners also introduce students to local change makers at regional meetings, group presentations and potlucks.

Through the MEM program in Telluride potential students can stay in the Telluride area instead of leaving to pursue a Master’s degree elsewhere, do real and important work for local organizations, develop new skillsets and help increase the capabilities and capacities within our community to address some of the complex issues that face people, place and planet.

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