Crested Butte workers mull carrying capacity for tourism

CRESTED BUTTE- As climate change constrains skiing and biking seasons and outdoor recreation emerges as an economic mainstay in Crested Butte, residents are raising concerns.

Some assert that the town may be at carrying capacity for tourism.

“Normal Monday to Friday locals are pissed,” said Evan Marcus, a ski and bike coach for Crested Butte mountain who also works as a chef for Teocalli Tamale restaurant.

He discussed what he and other locals see as the overpopulation of the town during the summer and winter seasons.

The flux of tourists to Crested Butte has increased in certain seasons as the climatic thresholds for ideal recreation shrink. The issue starts with climate change.

Last year, avalanche dynamics changed in Colorado, said Ian Billick, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. Laboratory studies show that snow density is increasing, and rain is coming earlier and more frequently. Wildflowers that used to bloom near the town are migrating up the mountain and the frequency of daytime freezes is decreasing.

“These events are extreme and consistent with climate change,” said Billick. These are also the changes that Billick believes will change tourism in the valley.

Last winter, Crested Butte was affected by new avalanche paths that ran over one of the most popular recreation trails, the so-called “401 trail”. This shrunk the summer recreation season.

“We didn’t start renting bikes until mid-July,” said Drew Kelly while painting a wall in the Alpineer, an outdoor recreation gear store in Crested Butte.

Kelly started renting bikes in late July and August instead of June when they usually get a bulk of their summer business. Business was not slower, he said. Instead it was offset a month later and they got more rentals that summer than they normally do.

On a recent November afternoon, Alpineer employees were taking advantage of the slow offseason to reorganize for the upcoming winter ski season.

“The erratic weather is making the seasons more unpredictable,” Kelly said.

Climate change doesn’t appear to be rendering the town uninhabitable and the warming of the valley will be relatively less severe than other parts of the state, Billick said. The valley is high enough in elevation that slight changes in temperature will not affect the average citizen and living conditions will be more-or-less the same.

“It’s going to be a more pleasant place to be once it gets a bit warmer,” Billick said. “We are going to see essentially climate refugees here.”

These “refugees” coming from the front range, Texas, Oklahoma, and multiple other countries are getting a lot of attention from the tourism industry.

“Our engine is a tourist economy,” said John Norton, executive director of the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association and retired chief of Crested Butte ski company.

Norton said in a recent interview that town officials are trying to improve trails and generally shore up trails for mountain biking in the summer, a growing industry.

Town officials have also been grappling with the problem of finding affordable housing for seasonal employees. A large scale building development was recently rejected due to the aesthetics of the town.

As the outdoor industry grows in Crested Butte, habits of land use are changing. There has been a decrease in  Norton acknowledged this challenge. Town officials aren’t likely to advertise and promote motorized use in the Crested Butte area, he said.  noticed this too and wants to divert motorized land use from Crested Butte.

The growing numbers of tourists into certain months of the year are bothering locals, who say that it will be detrimental to the town. In the middle of the ski season, Teocalli Tamale is so crowded that it is practically impossible to serve people, Marcus said behind his cash register.

People coming from other states are moving in and starting to open businesses in their spare time. An Oklahoma businessman recently opened a taco shop down the street from Teocalli Tamale that is run in the tourist seasons, hurting the business that has been locally owned for years, Marcus said.

“As the winters get shakier, the response has been to jack up the summer industry,” he said. “This town is beyond carrying capacity and everyone knows it…… Being a ski bum here used to be easy, but that dream is fleeting for a lot of people.”

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