Climate change in Crested Butte as seen an environmental activist and the chief promotor of tourism

By Emily Stamper

Crested Butte tourism association director and former ski company chief John Norton lives in a gorgeous home at the top of a mountain valley, where he contends business overall can benefit from climate warming, which may be pushing more visitors toward the relatively habitable conditions here.

Norton calls his energy-efficient abode the “most environmentally friendly house in the valley.” He has his own pond with an island and his garage looks like an outdoor gear shop. A paraglider landed by the pond recently as Norton was speaking with a group of Colorado College student journalists.

Norton welcomed economic growth in the Crested Butte area, including new housing construction. “Dense is good. We need dense,” he said.

“I don’t have too many worries. Our water is cleaner. Our air is cleaner. There are more fish in our rivers and more game in our forests.” 

Meanwhile Sue Navy, the board president for High Country Conservation Advocates, sees things differently. Navy raised concerns about climate impacts and an influx of visitors during a recent interview.  She moved to Crested Butte 48 years ago when the population was between 200 and 300 people.  Now the population hovers around 3,000. And every new resident means more of a strain on natural resources.

She contends  species are dwindling, including fish, birds and bugs. Water flows in streams have decreased, leading to higher temperatures and fewer fish, she said.

Pika seem to be moving up as temperatures warm, seeking higher habitat to survive. “Where do you go when you are at the top? You can’t go any further,” Navy said. 

Winters used to be a lot colder than they are now, she said. Before she came to Crested Butte people would talk about winters hitting 50 degrees below, but she has never seen that. It used to be common to have many days 20 degrees below, but last year there was only one. 

“The snow last winter was strange,” Navy said. It came late and it was heavy and wet. In the winter the birds have to get under the snow for warmth and food and when it is iced over, like last year, they can’t do that and they die. 

Norton is focused on the profits of the outdoor recreation community while Navy is worried about the effect it is having on the environment.

Crested Butte getting warmer is leading to a greater business emphasis on earning profits during summer. Ski compnay officials have installed a ski lift for sightseeing and one for mountain biking. Mountain biking is extremely profitable for Crested Butte.

Norton said he has never once considered the environmental impact of mountain biking. “Our engine is a tourist economy,” he said. 

On top of a more profitable summer, global warming is not negatively impacting the ski industry. Norton said that skiing in Colorado has never done better. The months in which Crested Butte might not get enough snow to ski don’t make the industry money anyway. Crested Butte does not hesitate to use snow makers on the slopes either. 

But Navy challenged this thinking.  “One of our biggest problems is people using the backcountry and kind of loving it to death,” she said.  

Navy said she loves the outdoors and thinks it is the best thing a person can do for themselves and their mental health. She said having easy access to the outdoors and that being an avenue for mental health is what keeps the people of Crested Butte “jumping off a cliff.” 

Navy said that climate change is deeply affecting people’s lives in Crested Butte. “Everyone is freaked out about it,” she said. 

Navy went to a town meeting about raising taxes on tobacco and nicotine products and a 16 year old at the meeting stood up and said that all her friends are freaked out about their futures. Some say that “If I’m going to die anyway, why would I worry about vaping.” 

Norton said he doesn’t worry. “It is a great world. I just love it.”

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