A report on the UNMP Summit from Executive Director, Tucker Szymkowicz.
I stared down on the city of Aspen Colorado from the top of Ute Rock, the leaves were just starting to change as the crisp blue sky framed the famous mountain town below. I was accompanied by Dr. John Hausdoerfer, Dean of the Clark School of Environment and Sustainability at Western Colorado University. We had fittingly made this meeting a hike and talk prior to our participation at the UN Mountain Partnership (UNMP) Summit conference hosted by Aspen International Mountain Foundation (AIMF) at the Aspen Institute. Together AIMF, Telluride Institute (TI) and Western are the Mountain Resilience Coalition and have represented North America in the UNMP since 2015 when this group all met in Rome for the last UNMP Summit. Now spearheaded by AIMF and its president, Karinjo Devore the summit was now being held here in Aspen, CO, the first time being held in the US since being founded in 2002.
The next day I picked up my conference credentials for the UN Mountain Partnership Summit and stared at my name tag. My name tag identified me as a UNMP “Delegate” in large letters as well as my name and that I worked for the Telluride Institute. I looked around me and saw over 150 other delegates from around the world and inhaled deeply, there was a certain gravity surrounding this group of people, a deeper mission behind each smile and name tag, a goal of uniting around mountain related issues and solutions or as the tagline of the conference went bringing “ideas to action.”
I was happy to have the company of my co-worker Madeline Allen with me as we navigated the rows of tables, selecting a seat off to the right side a few rows back. As we sat down we were greeted with smiles from our table mates, two female delegates from the UN University in Rome and UNESCO in Paris. I sat down and looked around realizing I had not recently if ever been surrounded by such a diverse and accomplished group of people at a conference in my life.
As I received the blessings from Buffalo Child of the Lakota-Sioux I inhaled again reminding myself of the reason we all were here, the mountains, our relationship to them and our desire to both conserve and protect them and the web of life and cultures they support.
The conference was composed of panel discussions and side events on a variety of topics ranging from emerging innovation and technologies to traditional ecological knowledge, education, waste management and policy. The theme of the mountains united each, connecting topics like the ridge-lines of a mountain range with us as delegates meeting in the saddles and valleys provided by coffee breaks, meals and music. Those moments of pause from the discussions and panels where were the world really came together, friendly and professional exchanges, greetings and by the end of the conference hugs were exchanged amongst a group of mountain people as unique yet similar as the mountains we each call home.
I heard over and over again how the mountains around Aspen reminded people of their own mountains. That they somehow felt at home because of the presence of the mountains and that they hoped to one day return with family and friends if possible, to truly explore and enjoy the area more fully. I was reminded that many cultures visit the mountains as they believe that is where the spirits live and that they are considered as relatives rather than resources.
The seriousness of the challenges ahead of us as mountain communities was accompanied with hope that with more collaboration, sharing and networking that we could indeed make exponential change happen to meet the moment and do what we each can to fight climate change. There were also very real discussions around equity, environmental justice and the imbalance of the communities being the most impacted by climate change also being some of the smallest carbon emitters globally. Delegates from Pakistan and the Appalachias in Kentucky spoke of recent flooding events and reminded us that the catastrophic effects of climate change are here already and that the time to act is now.
Our host city of Aspen acknowledged this disparity and what they referred to as their responsibility to help lead the way on climate change initiatives as a wealthy, highly consumptive society, touting meeting 100% renewable energy goals, their climate action plan and collaboration amongst other regional leaders. An audience member from the community reminded us that we all need to live simply so others can simply live. An Indigenous panel member reminded the community that if we have an abundance of time to recreate we should donate half of that towards action, community groups and fighting climate change. We all have a role to protect our beloved mountains. We all benefit from their beauty, resources, lifestyle and spiritual qualities.
As a group we worked on the Aspen Declaration a set of goals birthed from the conference and voted on UNMP committee members to represent our respective regions of the globe.
As I said goodbye to the people I met at the UNMP to catch my flight which left just just before the closing ceremony, Wende Valentine of dZi Foundation requested I stay for a few minutes as her husband Jake Norton a renowned mountaineer and UNMP goodwill ambassador was going to say a few words about Hilaree Nelson who had recently died in a ski mountaineering accident on Mount Manaslu in Nepal. Hilaree was a long time Telluride native, ski mountaineer, National Geographic Explorer, mother and lover of mountains. I taught her son Quinn briefly at the Telluride Mountain School, shared the skin track and conversations with her while living in Telluride and the previous day had been shaken at her passing. Telluride like so many mountain communities frequently loses friends, family members and heroes.
As the audience shared in a moment of silence in her memory it was a somber reminder of the power of the mountains as well as how fragile they can be, that even these majestic, huge sentinels are being impacted by climate change. Some articles directly related the unstable conditions to climate change, which took the life of Mingma Tenzi Sherpa on the same expedition as well. Like Hilaree everyone at the UNMP Summit feels the call of the mountains. We all respond to it in our own way, but for some reason we cannot resist. They are our homes, water towers of the world, ancestors, sources of recreation and inspiration.
Sometimes as the Executive Director of a small nonprofit I struggle with the immense pressure, of all of the things that need to be done and all of the challenges we as a community and planet face. Meeting and getting to know some of the many inspirational, committed and intelligent delegates and presenters this week and hearing about their work and ideas did not make any of those issues go away, but getting to know some of these people who are tackling these issues did give me hope. I am excited for the follow up from the conference and the collective actions we can take and share as UNMP delegates. For me, the UNMP Summit helped me feel like Telluride Institute is part of a global network of incredible people, each doing our part and that together we can do more to remind the rest of the world that Mountains Matter.