The refuge of mountains

Monday night, two speakers addressed a nearly full auditorium at the former Crested Butte Center for the Arts for the Gunnison Valley Climate Action Conference kick-off. Both were inspiring and charismatic, and they seemed to understand the local crowd of mountain people. Friday the conference will continue at Western Colorado University, with a full day of discussions to set regional goals and strategies.

The first speaker on Monday night was Josh Jesperson from Protect Our Winters (POW) Riders Alliance, an international organization advocating keeping snow falling on our mountains. Jesperson is a mountain guide and mountaineer, and also a veteran Navy SEAL who understands that not everyone he encounters sees things the same way.

The second speaker was Heidi Steltzer, Ph.D., who has conducted research at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, is a lead author for the High Mountain Areas chapter of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and is a professor at Fort Lewis College. She’s also a mother, which I maintain is an act of faith in humanity for any of us.

Both speakers discussed how to move forward in the face of a changing climate and make our mark as a relatively small but iconic and impactful mountain town. The peaks around us and snowy climate we want to protect inspire those of us living here, obviously. As Steltzer said, the mountains provide refuge—refuge to us who play in them, and to animals seeking shelter from the summer heat, the winter cold, the wind and storms. They also provide refuge to our visitors.

Both speakers encouraged local citizens to engage with what we get excited about (snow?!) and to help lean on our elected officials to work toward climate action. Jesperson also encouraged the audience to have conversations with our visitors, to be ambassadors for the public lands around us, and to offer people we see out on the trails a perspective they might not hear otherwise in their own hometowns.

Jesperson talked about how he takes injured veterans to the mountains around Colorado and shows them how he has found fulfillment after military service. It was very moving to hear him speak about that, and of all the mountains he has climbed and skied in the state—including all the 14ers, and plenty of peaks in Gunnison County. He carried a flag with the names of fallen SEALS with him up every single 14er, calling their memory and what they fought to protect the “juice” that fuels his work. Jesperson is also lobbying to increase recreation economies in some of the areas of our state that lack the tourism leverage to turn away extractive industry jobs.

I’ve seen a lot of glimmers of why our community has decided to go forward with their climate change effort. Maybe we are more than just a small population, a blip on the map compared to the large populations and political voices of metropolitan areas. We may be small, but we may also have great impact. It also seems important that we be open to listening to opposing perspectives and remembering that the world is not all black and white, right or wrong, conservative or liberal, informed or ignorant.

Jesperson talked about affording people unfamiliar with mountain life or outdoor adventures more respect, rather than alienating them as “other.” He talked about not treating people as outsiders.

Maybe reaching out more like Jesperson suggested is a good idea. He said he has been able to reach people with more diverse backgrounds through his work as a veteran, a guide and a lobbyist. He also described Washington, D.C. from a lobbyist’s’ perspective, saying it is run by the 20-somethings. They are the aides to the office-holding officials, and they decide who gains access and who doesn’t. “If you aren’t respectful and considerate to them, you don’t get anywhere,” he pointed out. Probably good advice for all of us. Plus, go Millennials. 

Steltzer spoke of her travels around the world to study mountains and snow. She and the hundreds of other scientists have concluded that there is now overall less “presence and persistence of snow” across the world. There will still be big snow years, and big powder days ahead she said, but the patterns emerging by the scientific method are of less. Steltzer pointed out that scientists don’t easily agree on how to interpret their findings. So when they do, as on climate change, she urged us all to listen.

“Some of the most remote places in the world that are changing don’t even have a record of how,” she said. The data has never been collected, and may never be collected before it is too late and ice sheets have melted, ground has eroded, permafrost, perhaps never detected or studied by humans, has disappeared. It seems like in the politicized debate about climate science there could be a changing tide. Science doesn’t belong in political parties, and I hope it will soon recede out of the public conversation, when politics has more to do with how we solve the problems, not whether they exist.

Steltzer said scientists are a really tough group of people to get to agree on anything. Maybe that’s how people are too, but maybe we’re coming around to the fact that the scientific method is nonpartisan—telling us what isn’t happy news for anyone, which has millions of complex effects and millions of interpretations that surely will be a matter of political will. But it is telling us something—and this week Crested Butte has collectively rolled up its sleeves to agree that yes, let’s have our arguments about the best course of action, the best ways to make complicated changes. But have our discussions. Try to be nice about them.

There is a lot of commotion out in the world, but here we have some interesting changes on a micro-scale. The past week, and even the New Year, has had some hopeful events for environmental causes locally. We are seeing the local energy wholesale provider, Tri-State, begin to publicly, financially, recognize the need to change our energy sources. They are taking steps to make changes, working with the industry that they are decommissioning to minimize the impact this has on the 600 workers it will affect.

And locally, another conservation easement was accomplished along the Woods Walk with the Crested Butte Land Trust that will keep part of the Crested Butte legacy alive for future generations. The landowners who made that choice have felt respected, and have in turn been generous. Gunnison County has been quietly taking steps toward a cleaner energy future for several years now, starting with its own buildings and vehicles and supporting projects to bring in solar and geothermal energy sources to benefit residents across the county. Crested Butte adopted a Climate Action Plan at the end of last year, and has, along with the city of Gunnison, been a big part of organizing the climate action conference.

Maybe these little mountain towns can truly be, as Gandhi said, the change we want to see in the world. And maybe it can make quite a difference.

—Katherine Nettles

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