Mountain Towns in a Changing Climate

By Whitton Feer – Gothic, Colorado

Evan Marcus stood behind the counter of Teocali Tamale. His curly black hair and mustache blended together beneath his ski industry trucker hat as he prepared tamales and blended margaritas.

“It’s hard to be a local here,” he said.

Marcus, who has lived in Crested Butte for 6 years echoes what many locals and climate experts believe. 

Climate change is putting pressure on mountain towns and if not addressed soon, will jeopardize the tourism industry that supports remote mountain getaways such as Aspen and Crested Butte.

Just like the rest of the world, these towns are not insulated from the effects of climate change. As the lead scientist at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, David Inouye has studied the plants and wildlife surrounding Crested Butte for decades. Everything is dependent on snowpack, he said, which is melting earlier than it should. Inouye stressed that earlier snowmelt causes a chain reaction that disrupts all aspects of the ecosystem.

Pollinating insects and plants are moving up in both latitude and altitude, said Inouye. Eventually, larger animals will follow. In 30 years, the wildflowers that Crested Butte is famous for could be replaced by the sage brush from the lower elevation Gunnison valley, Inouye said. These effects are few of many. Irregular, late season frosts will wreak havoc on plant life, and ticks have moved into the ecosystem, threatening the health of mammals, he said.

All of these effects will negatively affect tourism. This is Crested Butte’s only major source of income, according to former ski industry executive John Norton. Tourism is Crested Butte’s lifeblood. Without the outdoor industry, this town will suffer, said Norton. He is on a committee that promotes Crested Butte to potential tourists, specifically mountain bikers and skiers.

Climate change is threatening both of these industries, said Ian Billick, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic. 

“Avalanche dynamics are changing”, said Billick, and “they’re losing whole riding seasons up in British Columbia” because of wildfires, he said. 

Residents are aware of these changes, yet aren’t too concerned, said Drew Kelley. Kelley moved to Crested Butte after graduating from Colorado College. He works at the Alpineer, a store dedicated to backcountry skiing and mountain biking. 

“I ski every month of the year,” said Kelley.

He does this to appreciate the snow while it’s still there, as he knows we’re headed for a bleak future of dry winters.

Even though Kelley is aware of the threats that climate change poses, he said he’s not worried yet. Although irregular avalanche cycles resulted in snow until mid July, he said it didn’t affect the towns’ mountain bike industry. People visited later, said Kelley. The revenue they lost in June and July was made up by a strong tourist season in late summer and fall, Kelley said, referring to sales numbers from the previous summer.

This recreation reliant town hasn’t yet felt the effects of climate change that will be exacerbated by increased tourism. More people and travel will result in more negative ecosystem impact, said Billick. Crested Butte will not be able to sustain the current growth in tourism that is being pushed by officials, Marcus said.

“Moving down in elevation is like moving forward in time,” said Billick. 

The wildlife and wildflowers that attract so many to mountain towns will be driven up and out of the valleys, as high desert flora and fauna move in, said Inouye. Since these threats loom near on the horizon, but haven’t arrived yet, mountain town are still growing and marketing themselves regardless of the threats on the horizon.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, according to Auden Schendler. Shendler is the vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Ski Company, a ski resort widely recognized as being on the forefront of climate advocacy in the ski industry. Companies need to do a better job wielding their power, said Shendler.

“We want to use our name and brand to drive big change,” he said. Shendler recognizes that Aspen is an access point to the worlds’ most powerful and influential people. If Aspen can be a model of environmental responsibility, it will instill an ethic of sustainability on its visitors, said Shendler. 

“The people we are trying to influence are here, or would like to be here,” said Amory Lovins, the chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute. Lovins has chosen the location of RMI strategically. He has placed one of the most influential climate NGO’s in the Roaring Fork Valley, echoing Shendler’s point that the people who visit these mountain towns have the power to create real change in the fight for our climate.

These towns are committed to recreation. They want to continue to thrive on this industry for as long as possible. “If we have 10 more years, we’re gonna try to run it for 10 more years,” said Shendler.

“We don’t really want coal or natural gas, we want recreation”, he said.

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