Archives of Headwaters X

Keynote Address

by Peter Decker

Peter Decker's Headwaters Address is copyrighted material, and may not be used without permission from the author. It will be published in a (Sept. 2000) collection of essays by Western writers entitled "Beyond the Great Divide," edited by Philip Brick and Sarah Van de Wetering for Island Press.

Talking about the West today always carries with it the problem of defining the geographical region and, inherent in any discussion, the question of what, if anything, are the West's defining cultural characteristics. Do we here in the West (and by that I mean the “interior” West of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado , Nevada and Utah) possess a regional consciousness with unique regional attributes, both physical and cultural, that set us apart from other sections of the country? Are we a distinct region, say like the South and New England? More and more observers, however, argue that the interior West is no different from the rest of the country. Sure, some westerners may wear funny-looking hats, but as our national culture becomes more and more homogenized by modern communications, it is as difficult as it is useless to make regional distinctions. A New England dairy farmer reads the same magazines, watches the same television programs, and votes for the same political party as a Gunnison banker. But the fact is we do define ourselves by regions. For to deny that the West is a distinctive region is to suggest this country is one large homogenized nation, with citizens whose memories and experiences are similar. Quite aside from our zip codes, Westerners do carry with them a regional consciousness. We can't always articulate the components, but like beauty or love, we feel it and defend it when others try to fault it or diminished it.

What makes it so difficult for us to discern our regional characteristics, of course, are the number of definitions, including myths, which encumber the American West. Some of the defining characteristics westerners create for themselves. But most of the legends, I'd suggest, are externally generated. Some are innocent and benign, causing a few laughs but no injury, while other legends provide us goals and guidance, frequently unattainable in a generation, but worthy objectives to which we aspire. Then there are those myths which degrade and cause misunderstanding -- the inaccurate ones, the stereotypes that are sometimes purposefully cruel and cause so much misunderstanding and even violence. Some of the myths die hard, still with their boots on, others refuse to die at all.

Where the outside observer sits, geographically and socially, will define, to a large extent, his or her definition or stereotype of this region and its defining characteristics. Many Europeans, for example, see us as a collection of gun-crazed, trigger-happy wildmen (and women) impatient to pull the trigger on anyone who disagrees with us -- even, sometimes, our children. This habit of violence, some of our American historians tells us, is a carryover from our relatively recent “frontier” experience. The West for these observers has always been a violent place -- our most violent region -- one burdened by a “legacy of conquest.” Sometimes we have been characterized as a more democratic and tolerant region, a place where republican principles and procedures flowered in a tabla rosa unburdened by European traditions . Because there were few social or economic divisions among the early settlers, it is argued, a pioneer generation passed on to us enduring habits of democratic thought and procedures.

The problem with these arguments, of course, is that the observers forget to mention the Civil War in the North and South, nor are they particularly sensitive to how democracy worked in this region for Hispanics and Indians, among other minorities.
Then, of course, there is the view of the West as the home of the “rugged individualist” --the macho male -- who conquered the wilderness with bravery and true grit while making the West safe not only for democracy but also for Darwinian economics. The dream factory in Hollywood also sees the West as a place where sun-bonneted maidens scamper about the daisies beside their little house on the prairie all the while Pa, with a six-shooter strapped to his hip, rides his trusty steed out across the wide-open range singing “Don't Fence Me In.” Again, the myth-makers in lotus land fail to remember, if they ever understood, that the Sioux did not fight as rugged individualists at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, a lesson Custer learned the hard way, nor did those Mormon and Hispanic pioneers who came to settle in this region cross the continent alone and on foot.

And what about the West as a plundered province, aided and abetted by residents who care nothing about the environment and everything about money? We are told that we've over- grazed, over-cut and over-mined what was once a beautiful place, leaving in our wake a raped landscape with dusty pastures and poisoned streams. In short, we're poor stewards of the physical beauty which surrounds us. But If we've fouled our nest so badly -- worse than other region we are told -- why are so many people attracted here to live and vacation? Are other regions of the country so pristine to be innocent of similar transgressions against their environment?

And to round off the list of myths, by no means complete, we have an eastern cultural and educational establishment which would have us believe the West is today something of an intellectual outback, lacking for “world-class” museums and educational institutions, where our “ “minor regional writers” struggle, like the West itself, with their own self- identity ... and the composition of a compound sentence. Associated with this myth is the view of older residents of the West as a collection of scruffy hicks and hayseeds -- provincial, uneducated dirtbags -- too lazy to move to more sophisticated, cosmopolitan regions of the country. All the energetic and smart folks born and raised in the West, often referred to as The Big Empty, departed long ago leaving behind a region that one eastern sociologist compared to “a fished out pond ... full of bullheads and suckers.”

Let me cite for you the most recent, if not the most disturbing, example of how someone unfamiliar with the West can misunderstand this place and its people. A well-known eastern writer (Joyce Carol Oates) and university professor (at Princeton) recently reviewed (in The New York Review of Books, October 21, 1999) a new novel (Plainsong) about life on the plains of eastern Colorado. The novel details the lives of decent, hard-working and caring people who look after each other in tough times in a tough country. The reviewer can barely hide her contempt for these rural residents. She finds them “boorish,” “lacking in imagination,” people who live in a “narrow, ignorant, smugly provincial domestic world,” and who are incapable of “embarking upon the adventure of independence in Chicago, and beyond.” What is worse, this critic continues, these rural Coloradans “live not in the solitude of their own thoughts, at the margins of the community, but in one another's lives.” Damned dangerous folks, these hayseeds. Sounds like they might be acting like neighbors in a community. Forget about authors who, like Larry McMurtry or Larry Watson, write about rural people and their bonds together in small communities. People just don't act that way anymore, the professor tells us. No, if you really want to understand what's going on out in the western countryside look at authors like Anne Proulx and Cormac McCarthy who “explore isolated, estranged characters in stark settings,” people who spend their lives involved in “metaphysical speculation,” whatever the hell that means. The professor's message is clear: anyone who writes about the older, traditional values of rural life is engaged in an exercise in “fantasy.” What we need instead, we are told, are more books which portray the dark side of rural life, books like William Faulkner's The Hamlet which features a speechless idiot and his liaison with a cow. Finally at the end of her review, the professor sums up what we, here in the West, have to offer the rest of the nation.

“As the actual lived lives of most Americans become more complex and fractured and... more impersonal, we yearn for ‘authentic' experiences, if only in fantasy. The West still beckons seductively as our region of myth and the testing ground of what remains of the American spirit.”

This eastern writer, however well intentioned, is really quite clueless. She needs to understand the pastoral life does exist for some people in the West (as elsewhere) and that life-experiences in rural communities are not fantasies; nor are we a rag-tag collection of demonic characters living and working out here in the Big Empty gazing at our navel in “metaphysical speculation.” We do possess positive codes by which we live. Call them myths if you want, and maybe they are by eastern standards, but they do provide us with guidance, they do uplift the human spirit and generate behavior that makes the West, for many of us, a comfortable place to live, work and raise a family. If and when this writer/professor does come here, I'd ask her to look around, speak to and work alongside some folks who earn a living on our landscape; she might be surprised how much of a caring place this is. Oh yes, one other thing, I'd ask of her. If you do plan to move here, don't bring any lawyers. They haven't a clue either.

It is one thing to read and listen to these stereotypes as they bombard us from other regions, but now the voices are closer, sometimes next door, brought here by the thousands of new residents moving to this region and the millions of tourists vacationing here. The West is today the fastest growing region in the United States. In Colorado, we lose one acre to development every 15 minutes. Suburban ranchettes now spread out from our cities into productive farm land while much of our rural countryside now sprouts new homes for retirees, the recreational industry and a growing number of “Dot Com” starter castles, part-time homes for a new class of modem cowboys. As these new residents move in from the East or South, or bounce back off the west coast into this region after souring on the California Dream, they carry with them their own set of values and modes of behavior, including their view of what is sometimes called the “Code of the West.”

The “code” as they see it is a function of how they perceive this place, and for many, they envision the West as a playground, a place to vacation and recreate, a sort of fantasy theme park where Cowboys and Indians define the work force and mountains and rivers define the workplace. If, in the eyes of visitors, we're a fun-filled destination resort, how could we possibly be burdened with the problems facing the rest of the nation. How happy and carefree we must be, like children, in this beautiful, idyllic landscape, where cattle outnumber people, cowboys ride the range, and not a discouraging word is heard.
If these are some of the more destructive stereotypes and myths that derive from our mistaken identity, what then are the codes by which we live here in the West, and from where do they derive? Let me suggest one major source and a few historical values which, though often forgotten, flow from this source and continue to survive in today's fractured West.

What is unusual about the West, what makes it so unique as a region, and what to large degree defines its people (culture), is our landscape. It is a landscape as immense in scale as it is varied in composition -- a complex web of forests, mountains, rivers, deserts, and grasslands. It is also a landscape that over time and throughout its space has experienced human contact -- more gentle contact, certainly, prior to the late 19th century than recently, but contact with man nevertheless. The term “landscape” has always carried within its definition the presence of man -- man living and working on the land. One cultural historian (Simon Schama) refers to it as a “manscape,” a place of human habitation. Even Henry David Thoreau, that misanthrope naturalist, recognized the historic connection between Walden Pond's wild landscape and the local Indians. It is only recently that we in the the United States and Europe have begun to think of the landscape as an aesthetic, a place of pastoral beauty where man and his work are either totally absent or at least barely visible. As Wallace Stegner and others have suggested, it is from this massive and varied western landscape, our interaction with it and our life and work on it, generation after generation, that defines the contours of our western culture, our memory and our history. And more than in any other region of the country, it is the landscape that influences our behavior and helps to define our most important codes.

This is true, I think, because we are a region not far removed in time from the soil and our agricultural heritage. Hispanic migration from the south occurred little more than two centuries ago, and Anglo settlement from the east is even more recent. And there are Hispanic and Indian families among us who have lived on this land even longer. Their marks on the landscape are still with us today, including the skills and memories of their work. And though these traditions which derive from the land are not uniformly present throughout the interior regions of the West, particularly in our cities, they are present nevertheless in places like: Glendive, Montana; Sundance, Wyoming; Blanding, Utah; and Gunnison, Colorado. The descendants of these settlers and thousands of others who today continue to live on the land, work its fields, graze its meadows and harvest its crops consider the landscape not as an abstraction nor as a playground. Nor is the land viewed as a commodity to be traded and monetized like a side of beef, a barrel of oil, or a rail car of coal. People who make their living from the land see it as a workplace, the source of their livelihood and the place of their home. It is the primary source of memories and hence self-identity.

It is from this agricultural experience, this intimate connection with our landscape, that provides us with many of our codes. As a region we place a high premium on hard work, honesty, thrift, and tenacity. To work the land involves all four qualities. To this day, the work ethic remains strong in the West. And because our relative wealth did not come easy, we are careful how we, and others on our behalf, spend it. Nor are Westerners quitters in the face of overwhelming odds. (Who but westerners would endure these headwater winters when the warmth of Arizona beckons? ) But our close relationship to our agricultural heritage involves something else, I believe, a code more important and enduring. And it is this code I wish to explore in my remaining time.

As I've already suggested, people did not come to this place alone nor could they survive alone. Those who migrated into the West along the trails and rivers both from the East and from the South did so in immigrant companies, highly organized units, often modeled after military organizations. And upon arrival on the high plains or in the mountain valleys of the Rockies, settlers understood quickly that any attempt to confront the forces of nature alone in this dry, harsh country was an invitation to failure, if not death. Survival depended upon hard work and patience, but it also depended even more so on cooperation. In this spirit, people together built houses, barns, roads, irrigation ditches, fences and a host of institutional structures such as churches, schools, firehouses, court houses and jails. In addition, the succession of economic depressions, which hit harder and longer in the interior West than in any other section of the country, embedded in the survivors a wide array of skills and memories which survive in their children and grandchildren to this day. Those who managed to stay on the land, and only about a half did, reminded themselves and their offspring of life's harsh lessons: avoid unnecessary risks, especially debt; work hard, pray for God's grace, hope for a dividend of luck, and above all, cooperate with your neighbors in good times and bad, especially bad. Imbued with a new, grimmer view of life's possibilities, no one expected to be cut any slack, now or in the future. And if they felt like passive agents in a national economic system they neither understood or profited from, they had at least survived with each other's assistance. And that was important.

If the scriptures taught homesteaders the lesson that cooperation might save the soul, experience in a harsh environment taught them that cooperation also saved the body. Hardship and adversity only strengthened the custom. And in a new region where there was little capital to purchase labor and no excess labor to supply the need, the exchange of labor and scarce tools became a habit of survival. The distances between home sites, setting as they did in lonely isolation across an immense landscape, further encouraged cooperative endeavors. This was no country for John Wayne.

This code of cooperation carries forward to this day. Farmers and ranchers share labor and equipment, and together they work brandings, roundups and harvests. Rural people call it “neighboring,” a verb which simply translated means helping others. It can be something as simple as repairing an irrigation ditch or as important as helping to care for a sick neighbor. A good neighbor will return the assistance, the exchange of labor, out of personal friendship and a shared sense of community responsibility. No one keeps an accounting of how much labor is given and how much is received because no one is willing to equate or reduce personal relationships to a definitive value; not because it can't be done by some sophisticated mental calculus, but because it is inappropriate, even rude, to even attempt such a calculation. You are just brought up to learn that labor and assistance are mutually shared, in good times and bad.

“Neighboring” includes also a high degree of mutual trust and predictable behavior. As a good neighbor you can expect certain things to occur, like tolerance for opinions not commonly held, the offer of assistance, and a respect for one's privacy. A neighbor is concerned for your well being, he may know your fears and anxieties, but he won't break confidences with gossip or rumors. Most of all, he keeps his word. A promise made is a promise kept. Not to do so is to destroy the trust upon which the entire “neighboring” edifice is built. Let me cite one personal example.

Some years ago late one October afternoon, after a very dry summer, a neighbor of mine (now deceased) asked me if I had any hay for sale. I said yes, about 100 tons, and without much discussion we settled on the going rate at the time. He said he'd pay me half now and the other half in the spring. We shook hands on it and went on to discuss the cattle market over a beer. In the spring my neighbor picked up his hay and handed me a check for the balance due. Except it was more than I expected. I asked him, why the difference? “Oh, I know you didn't have any scales so I weighed about 50 bales and found they were heavier than you thought. There were actually 112 tons ... that's the difference.” I thanked him over a beer and a game of pool and thought nothing more about the transaction until a year and half later the IRS showed up on my ranch. In the course of the audit they wanted to see the hay contract with my neighbor. “There is no contract,” I responded. The IRS agent looked at me as if I had just fallen off the onion truck. “No contract for a $7,000 sale?” “That's right.” I informed the IRS agent we didn't use contracts around here, at least not with neighbors, and I'd made the hay sale with a handshake. I suggested he call my neighbor, which he did. I later apologized to my neighbor for the inconvenience of the call. I told him the audit occurred on the occasion of my daughter's fourth birthday party and that I believed it was the first time an IRS agent had ever been made to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey. He thought a moment and responded with a grin, and said: “I hope you used the IRS ass as the object.” This is the same neighbor who served for many years as a County Commissioner, volunteer fireman, head of the county cattlemen's association, member of numerous state boards and commissions and who, right up until his death at the age of 86, assisted neighbors with their brandings and fence work.

The “rugged individualist” doesn't get any of this, of course. He represents the individualism of the self, the self-congradulatory braggart, who doesn't understand that a mature independence carries with it the assumption of responsibility in and to a community larger than the self. The “rugged individualist” proudly protects his privacy in his urban bunker or on his ranch compound, both posted with “No Trespassing” warnings. He smugly assumes that with his large bank balance he's doesn't need, nor will he be indebted to, his neighbor and his assistance. He can buy all the help he needs, including a covey of lawyers, who don't recognize the code either, to prosecute those who violate his “property rights.” In his arrogance he will go it alone because that's the way he made his money outside of agriculture. He doesn't realize, at least at first, that the habits on Wall Street in the East are far different than the codes on Main Street in the West. There are stock markets at both locations, one with two legs and the other with four, but because the landscapes are so different; so also are the cultures, the habits, the memories and the codes.

There is, I believe, one other important quality of the West --- I hesitate to call it a personal code -- but rather a physical characteristic which influences our behavior and, to a degree, places a premium on the code of cooperation. I'm referring to the immense space which surrounds us, the scope of it -- all 100,000 square miles -- much of it barely touched by human activity. The presence of this space, with its natural beauty and productive capacity, is certainly one of the most important physical components of this region; it is also, I would suggest, a critical component of our regional psyche. As Westerners we carry within our mental geography a different, which is to say, a larger sense of space, different from New Englanders and certainly different from city dwellers. We just need more elbow room to feel comfortable, and we get damned grumpy when we feel crowded -- on a highway, in a city, or by new houses in the subdivision across the fence. It has been our good-fortune, we say to ourselves (and to others), that the population density of this region is only fourteen residents to the square mile compared to New England, a region a fifth our size, with a population density of two hundred. But it is all this gorgeous open space that now attracts others to this region

Not too long ago we could escape this demographic intrusion for less crowded destinations. And if we cluttered and trashed one place, there were always more pristine nests just over horizon at the end of the rainbow. But it is more difficult now. We're not only running out of space, we're running out of rainbows. We're learning, sometimes slowly and with considerable difficulty, that it makes more sense to maintain and improve our present communities than it is to move to and start new ones.

There has always been in the West contention between our empty landscape and newer populations. As a large number of new residents move into our communities, it is not easy to absorb them. Newcomers have their own habits of behavior and expectations. We have our own. And as newcomers crowd the space around us, they seem to want to lecture us on a multitude of subjects: what to teach in school, when to rezone the neighborhood, who can save our souls, and how to care for our land,. Established norms are questioned and older traditions challenged.

But folks from distant cities, quite aside from their diverse opinions, also carry with them a different sense of place and space from ours. They are accustomed to communities; we like open communities. On our landscape, they wish to relax and vacation; on the same landscape we wish to work and harvest. We are accustomed to more space and fewer structures, more acreage and fewer roads, longer sight lines with more sky. I'm not suggesting our view is any better, it is just different. Let our cities crowd themselves, we say, but not in my backyard, not on this landscape which, for many generations of Westerners, carries so much of our own history. Certainly these different views of how to use the lands have caused considerable internal debate and raised the noise level, if not the contentiousness, in our Western cities and towns.

Maybe it is time Westerners remember one of our strongest traditions, that of being a good neighbor This Western code of “neighboring” has always assumed a degree of tolerance and a willingness to listen to different opinions. And there is, of course, a mutual obligation for others to do the same. Being a good neighbor includes also taking care of our landscape, being good environmentalists. I'm not referring to those professional nature lovers who have, like chameleons, transformed themselves overnight from human predators into environmental saviors, the ones who jet between New York and Aspen and lecture us about where and when they wish to introduce grizzly bears, and that if we don't clean up our act, they'll run over us ... in their sports utility vehicles. No, I'm talking about environmental neighbors, like agriculturalists and others who have lived on our landscape, who possess an authentic knowledge of what works on the land, people who have learned the hard lesson that to consume our landscape is to destroy our livelihood. If all of us, natives and newcomers can not cooperate and neighbor, how can we possibly expect to preserve the landscape we so cherish? To do anything less is to be a poor steward; but to do more is to be a good neighbor.

I recognize inherent in this message is a degree of nostalgia thought to be, in these cynical times, both unrealistic and inappropriate. But if nostalgia is looking to our past for something that worked, a code that allowed people to live a life of dignity, individually and among themselves, then I plead guilty. If this is nostalgia, maybe we should have more of it ... and let it blossom throughout this land.

Toward a Sustainable Colorado:

A Necessary Code of Behavior for the West

Prof. Walt Hecox
Student John Herter, Class of 2001, Sustainable Development Major
Sustainable Development Workshop
Economics Department
Colorado College, Colorado Springs, Colorado


What future for Colorado do we want? How can we protect that which is beautiful and precious to us, while maintaining our comfortable material lifestyles? If both are not possible, will we ever choose conservation and preservation over material comfort? Is a "sustainable Colorado" a desirable condition towards which we should strive and work? At what level is individual and group action feasible? Where can we find examples of regions taking action to promote and maintain "sustainability"?

These are just a few of the questions that arise when we think about "a necessary code of behavior for the West." For the question "what type of behavior should we seek" presumes that we know our end objective: "what kind of West do we aspire to create and maintain?" Without the latter "vision" of a livable and desirable West, the former code of "behavior" cannot be defined.

We argue that guidance about the West we seek lies in the concept of sustainability, what is often termed sustainable development. In fact, we believe that our commonly shared objective through the Tenth Headwaters Conference, as well as in all else that we do as citizens of this state, should be to work towards a "sustainable Colorado." Have no illusions: the path to a Sustainable Colorado will be difficult, fraught with controversy, and demanding on our values and lifestyles. Only profound changes in each of us, individually and in groups, can form the basis for "sustaining" a Colorado that maintains for future generations the amenities we now share in common. But we also argue that just such change is indeed underway in many places around us; in fact, we look to the Gunnison Headwaters as a prime example of what individuals and communities can do to enrich and protect lifestyles and regions.

We also present a set of Golden Rules that help define Sustainability:

  • Regrow the Harvest
  • Find Renewable Substitutes for Resources "Mined"
  • Foul Not Our Nest
  • Waste Not:
  • Be Fair
  • Inclusive Decisions Pay
  • Satisfice, Don't Maximize

These rules or criteria for sustainability are first discussed. Then we briefly review some Profiles in Sustainability as examples of "sustainable" projects in the Headwaters region: the upper Gunnison River Basin:

  • Where the Pavement Ends: the West Side of Cottonwood Pass in Gunnison County.
  • Ranchers Grow Open Space: Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Project.
  • Water is More Than a Drink: Union Park Reservoir/Water Diversion Proposal.
  • Trophy Homes --- or Trophy Elk? Revising County Land Use Guidelines.
  • Triple Swap: Crested Butte Resort, Forest Service and Colorado Land Board Exchange.
  • More Protection for the Monument? Actions to Provide Safeguard the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
  • Mines vs. Moguls: Cyprus Amax's Latest Proposal for Mt. Emmons.

The lesson we take away from this preliminary look at the Gunnison Region and examples of how it seeks to "sustain" itself is that Colorado can learn a great deal about cooperation and compromise as well as about community action in search of a "Sustainable Colorado."


Sustainable development, is paradigm popularized by the UN Commission on Environment and Development, a means of bridging the sciences, humanities and social sciences as we think about humans and their impact on the planet. The Commission's Report: Our Common Future gives us this definition:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.(Our Common Future)

Another definition:

A sustainable society is one that can persist over generations, one that is farseeing enough, flexible enough, and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social systems of support." (Donnella Meadows: Beyond the Limits).

Thus, sustainable development can provide a common "language" and framework for discussing and acting to achieve a future that works and is sustainable.

Scarcity and Commons

Economics is the study of scarcity, of how people allocate scarce resources among competing needs over time. When resources are abundant, it is obvious no allocation is necessary: everyone can have as much as they want. But most things in our life are indeed scarce: from time to money and the objects it can buy. Given limited time and money, we seek to spend or allocate so that our self-interest is best served. This extends from decisions about how much to work and at what, to the division of our income between consumption, savings and even taxes. Markets exist for much of what we buy; there are a buyer and seller and the "entrance fee" to consume is the expenditure of some of our scarce money. If we cannot afford some goods and services, we are excluded from their enjoyment. Markets work efficiently at matching buyers and sellers, of allocating production to those products most valued (monetarily) by customers.

But markets also fail. When some goods and services are "jointly" consumed, those who do not pay may not be excluded. This is true of national defense, as it is largely of fire and police protection, communicable disease control, air traffic control, and a host of other "public" programs. For such goods and services, the market fails; we must reveal our preferences through the political process and collect taxes to pay for those government expenditures we value.

Markets also fail when "third-parties" are affected by our actions. If our cigarette smoke or car exhaust impacts others who must breathe the air, then we have impacts (costs) beyond the transactions between buyers and sellers. If we enjoy views of open space that others provide, but we cannot be excluded from doing so, then we receive impacts (benefits) external to the land owners without having to pay for something we value. In science the concept of a "commons" is used to depict the possibility that some of our actions can have consequences on others who are not directly part of our actions or market transactions, thus adding up to group behavior which is destructive of the scarce but common resource. Too many hikers climbing Colorado fourteeners, rafters and kayakers on a river, or backpackers crowding wilderness areas both diminishes the experience for each and damages the resource for others. In economics "third party" effects are equivalent to the idea of a "commons" for the concept recognizes that we may act to use others' resources if we do not have to pay, or are involuntarily affected by the actions of others.

The concept of the "commons" has been subject to much economic and ecological analysis within the last quarter century. In general terms, a commons can be defined as a resource system capable of producing a limited flow of products, benefits, or values shared and used by a group of consumers. These examples of "commons" vary from regional to global, from our open pastures and forests all the way to the oceans and the air we breathe. Within this broad definition of the commons, two major divisions can be made- a managed common-property resource system, and an open-access resource system. Common-property "commons" are defined as an area owned and used jointly by a group or community and managed so as to limit and exclude other potential "outside" users. In contrast, an open-access commons does not prohibit any potential users, and the tendency of exploiting and degrading the resource system arises- extraction at an unsustainable rate. It is important to recognize and distinguish between these two types of commons for they are both prone to poor management, if they are managed at all. However, we must remember that it is the management or lack thereof where the sustainability of a resource system is determined.

Solutions to abused "commons" or externalities, as economists describe the phenomenon, are complex and varied. For our purposes we can divide them into two options: take "commons" that are abused and manage them better via the public sector, or privatize them so that owners exist and will protect the resource. Highly innovative techniques to accomplish each of these are evolving as pressure mounts on our commonly shared natural resources.

The dilemma facing society is how to affect change so that our shared commons are protected. What must we do, and who will do it, so that Colorado's beauty is preserved, so that our streams and lakes are clear and productive, so that open space is available to satisfy demands for recreation and solitude? These and a myriad of other issues face Colorado if it is to become sustainable.

Sustainability is an "Inside" Job

Global problems often first come to mind when thinking about sustainable development. Is there global warming and what should be done? How do we cope with the growing ozone hole in the atmosphere? Will the oceans be over-fished and polluted? What harm is done as we lose chunks of the world's rainforests? Is species extinction significant to humans?

But global issues are often "cosmic" in proportion; abstract, distant, difficult to grasp and even harder to act upon. In truth, all problems, even those called "Global" are local, individual, yes even personal. Note this provocative observation:

How, after all, can anybody — any particular body–do anything to heal a planet? Nobody can do anything to heal a planet. The suggestion that anybody could do so is preposterous..

In fact, though we now have serious problems nearly everywhere on the planet, we have no problem that can accurately be described as planetary. … There are also no national, state, or county problems, and no national, state, or county solutions. The problems, if we describe them accurately, are all private and small. Or they are so initially.

The problems are our lives … The large problems occur because all of us are living either partly wrong or almost entirely wrong. … The economies of our communities and households are wrong. The answers to the human problems of ecology are to be found in economy. And the answers to the problems of economy are to be found in culture and in character.

The question that must be addressed, therefore, is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet's millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others. Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence — that is, the wish to preserve all of its humble households and neighborhoods. .. ("The futility of Global Thinking," Harper's, Sept. 1989)

This is a challenging, perhaps even maddening hypothesis. But it conveys much the same idea as the famous Pogo quip: "We have met the enemy and it is us." It calls upon us to "Think Globally, Act Locally."

We need to take apart this hypothesis, explore why both the root cause and source of solutions to apparent "global" problems resides within each one of us, in our families, our communities and regions.

If Sustainability is so Good, Why is it Not Happening?

Intuition tells us that sustainability is a sensible and appealing concept to humans, at least in the abstract. We can grasp the idea of sustainability if we think about it in our own context. This is true for us as individuals, as families, perhaps even as neighborhoods and communities. But as the arena of concern grows to regions and even a state like Colorado, our understanding of the problems and ability to take corrective actions diminishes.

As individuals we usually act prudently, in our self-interest. We pay attention to our diet, to the substances we use, to our personal safety, even to our appearance. This is logical, for the consequences of not doing so are personal; they can even be painful or harmful. Our actions directly affect ourselves. Exercise and a healthy diet improve our physical and mental state; smoking, drinking, and junk food often do the opposite. But in each case our actions directly affect ourselves.

As families again we usually seek to act wisely. The human instinct to form families and propagate the species is strong. We act to protect our spouses and children, to nurture each other through material comfort and mutual support. But here a wider circle exists; our individual actions can and do affect other family members for good or bad. There are what economists call "externalities" to our behavior. But the consequences of harmful actions fall upon our own immediate family, so again we tend to act in their self-interest (which is really our self-interest also). We work to support our family, to provide education and nurturing to our children, to instill values and healthy lifestyles. When we are unable or unwilling to do our part, the consequences fall upon our immediate family. Smoking now not only affects the smoker, but also those in the immediate vicinity who do not smoke. If we smoke in the car or home, there are health implications even for those in the family who do not smoke. Individuals in family units with unhealthy diets, addiction to TV, or violent behavior now affect others "external" to that individual but still within the family. The consequences of harming "our own" are so strong that normally we shape our individual behavior to support the self-interest of the family.

Within our communities, the distance between ourselves and the consequences of our actions grows. If we fail to keep up our house and yard, it may save some money from a strained family budget, but it diminishes our neighborhood. If entire neighborhoods are run down, the community will suffer from blight and crime. If we drive our cars across the city, we gain convenience and mobility, even as we may cause air pollution and congestion. If we fail to vote for a school bond issue, the consequences may fall more upon families with children in school than upon ourselves. This distance between the individual and affected groups causes us to pay more attention to our own self-interest than to the well being of the larger groups of which we are a part.

Distance from cause and effect tends to breed indifference, immediate self-interest, and a focus more on ourselves and those immediately around us, less upon those more distant in space or across generations. This is human nature! To break out of this mode, to mold our immediate behavior around its impacts on distant regions, even those yet unborn, takes discipline and a value system that supplements self-interest with compassion and concern.

We should highlight and celebrate examples of societal and intergenerational concern and action. They do exist, and many people are willing to temper their immediate self-interest through concern for others across space and time. The coincidence of self and society in our values and actions is the path towards sustainability. And such "enlightened" behavior is consistent with the pursuit of self-interest, but one that is broadened to include the satisfaction of knowing that our actions and values contribute to the well being of others now and in the future.

Appropriate Levels of Action

We have seen that behavior by humans sometimes contradicts our "sustainability" intuition, leading to actions contrary to the health and well being (sustainability) of ourselves, families, communities, regions and state. We need to understand that our behavior, interacting with natural systems and their ownership and management as "commons," is at the root of non-sustainability. Our self-interest clashes with our intuition about "correct" behavior to achieve sustainability. Once we grasp this contradiction, we can reform our actions to make them more supportive of sustainability.

A code of behavior exists to move humans and society closer to sustainability. The physical dimensions of this code focus on resource use and management as well as treatment of pollution. The social dimensions of this code encompass efficient but equitable interaction with nature and other humans, democratic decision-making, and engenderment of human happiness as a goal at least on a par with material comfort. We argue that sustainability requires the following physical and social rules:

Physical rules:

  • Regrow the Harvest: A sustainable system uses a renewable resource no faster than that resource regenerates itself. Forests, fish and wildlife all can "renew" themselves if given the opportunity to regrow or replenish the base population. It is common sense that excessive "harvesting" of such renewable resources can lead to dwindling stocks or even extinction in extreme cases. Terms such as "maximum sustained yield" or "carrying capacity" help define prudent rates for human use and management of renewable resources.

  • Find Renewable Substitutes for Resources "Mined": A sustainable system draws down nonrenewable resources only along side actions to invest some of the proceeds in development of a renewable substitute, sustainably used. Minerals and petroleum-based energy resources are nonrenewable in human time scale. Wise use of these resources over decades and centuries requires that humans plan for and create alternatives as nonrenewable stocks are diminished. Proper pricing of these resources must include the "cost" to society of either finding substitutes or denying future generations the use of resources consumed by earlier generations.

  • Foul Not Our Nest: A sustainable system discharges pollutants only as fast as natural systems can absorb them and make them harmless. Air and watersheds, eco-regions and types of natural habitat each can absorb and process limited amounts of pollutants. When humans exceed these thresholds of "absorptive capacity" these natural systems are harmed. Limits to discharges of pollutants into our air, water and landscape exist today but are contentious. What are the proper limits to discharge, and according to which criteria? A major reason for this controversy is the fact that human production and consumption activities, if allowed to freely discharge bi-products and waste into natural systems or "commons", are "cheaper" in monetary terms to the producers and consumers. Alternatively, where discharges must be abated or eliminated to protect "commons," monetary costs to modify production and consumption rise and make the apparent costs to humans higher. Debate over and adjustment to these pollution controls is at the heart of sustainable solutions.

Social rules:

  • Waste Not: A sustainable system uses resources efficiently (sparingly). Economics is often charged with being excessively focused on efficiency since it is the study of scarcity and best use of resources. As humans we all experience scarcity of our monetary resources and even time to work and have leisure. Acting on these constraints, we humans often seek out "least cost" or most efficient or cheapest prices for goods and services. Market systems of production and allocation work well to make the primary objective just such efficiency of resource use. As long as the full costs of our actions face producers and consumers, markets indeed help eliminate waste, maximize efficiency of resource use. But where "third party effects" exist, such as "commons" that are ill-defined and managed, then the same markets, seeking least-cost solutions, will strive to push off costs onto others in the form of waste discharge and excessive use of resources not properly priced for present and future generations.

  • Be Fair: A sustainable system will provide equitable (not equal) shares spatially and temporally. A companion concern of economics (the "science" of scarcity) is to address the issue of equity along side of efficiency. In market systems, humans gain access to earned income in proportion to the intellect and skills they possess and can make available through work. Where the same humans possess saved assets (such as stocks, bonds, real estate) there are additional sources of "unearned" income. The pattern of income and wealth distribution in any society is never either totally equal (each person having the same share) or totally unequal (one person possessing all, others nothing). Degrees of inequality exist and change over decades within any society. Decisions about "fairness" of ownership and income are primarily political decisions, but have substantial economic consequences on the motivation and reward for work. Excessively unequal or inequitable distribution of income, wealth and access to natural systems and resources violates the concept of sustainability. Severe poverty of entire societies and of individuals within societies forces humans to focus exclusively on survival, often ignoring the "external" impacts of this desperate race on natural resources and systems. This gives meaning to what some claim: concern for the environment is a luxury reserved for affluent societies and individuals.

  • Inclusive Decisions Pay: A sustainable system encourages participation (democracy) in decision-making. Incentives to cut corners, go for the immediate monetary gain are always present and powerful forces. Where "externalities" exist because "commons" may be harmed or resources denied future generations, market-driven decisions about production and consumption often must be modified. To do so requires policy intervention, a function of government. We have complex layers of laws and regulations at all levels of government to carry out these policy objectives. Healthy discussion and agitation exists both to reduce (or eliminate) such constraints on human activity and to expand limits on how individual humans and firms behave. This discussion, if it is to be perceived as fair and thus be supported by the majority of the population, must be inclusive of many perspectives and interest groups. It must also be comprehensive of the many implications of existing policies and what proposed changes would do.

  • Satisfice, Don't Maximize: A sustainable system engenders human happiness through moderation, balance, and harmony between humans and nature. Despite the "winner-take-all" dimension some attribute to western capitalism, be it in salaries and fame for sports heroes and celebrities or massive compensation of CEOs and stock options for the few, moderation is sensible in our lives. We know the individual consequences of excessive eating, for obesity denies us strength and wellness. We know that moderation in use of alcohol is OK, but excessive use leads to addiction. In our individual personal lives we intuitively understand moderation. But when we move beyond self, family, and perhaps community, we tend to loose this perspective. Societal norms and values begin to signal that "winners" are defined by maximizing wealth, income, and lifestyle. The transfer of moderation and altruism, that is intuitive at the personal and family level, to societal decisions about resource use and management is perhaps the largest challenge to achieving sustainability of societies and economies.

This set of sustainability rules can be used to evaluate both our current behavior and changes we could make in our lives to become sustainable. In doing so we gain insight about what is necessary to "live within our bounds" and thus make the patterns of our lives congruent with the human happiness we intuitively seek and covet.

Applying this "sustainability" code to various levels of human interaction with each other and nature illustrates the "common sense" aspects of these rules for behavior. Examples drawn from the Gunnison river basin show that we can and are working towards sustainably. The transition to human actions, individual and group, that engenders sustainability is happening all around us! The Gunnison area leads Colorado in many ways as it seeks to accommodate and temper the effects of growth with conservation and preservation of a rural, western lifestyle and natural setting.

Profiles in Sustainability: Toward a Sustainable Gunnison

Energetic, creative ACTION is taking place in the Gunnison area to make the region more "sustainable." Examples abound, each of which fits at least some of the dimensions of the Golden Rules established here to define sustainability. We highlight here a diverse range of activities to demonstrate that individual and community "grass roots" action can lead to positive results, and that ordinary citizens can make a positive difference.

None of these examples is without some controversy or its set of critics. But each shows that through broad-based citizen and agency participation creative "compromises" can be reached to protect and enhance the Gunnison region's natural attributes, economy and lifestyle.

 Where the Pavement Ends: The West Side of Cottonwood Pass in Gunnison County

The Issue

Should the west side of Cottonwood Pass, connecting Buena Vista and the upper reaches of the Taylor River, be paved? Currently it is a partly paved and graveled 35-mile road through magnificent mountain scenery, peaking at 12,000 ft over the pass. If the east side of this 35-mile road is already beautifully graded and paved, why not finish the job on the west side in Gunnison County? Now open only in summer and fall, a rerouting, widening and paving of the road into a full-blown highway would open the area to tourist and truck traffic 7 months out of the year. In 1997 Federal Highway funds under the Forest Highway Program became available to the tune of $38 million for just such a project. Established by Congress in 1916 to open "large tracts of unaccessed lands to the driving public," this program was approached by the Gunnison National Forest in 1979 so that the Cottonwood Pass road could be "improved." By 1992 funds became available under the Federal Highway Administration for this project and a $650,000 environmental assessment was completed. All that remained was approval by Gunnison County and the Forest Service.


In 1997 Gunnison County commissioners, faced with the option of paving the highway with available Federal funds had a different reaction, Why do it? The Forest Service, still a proponent, argued that the existing road could not handle the current traffic, over 50,000 vehicles a year, and a realigned and paved road would improve safety. Opposition came from almost everyone else in Gunnison County. Some were suspicious that the Forest Service had plans for logging operations in the area and to promote more recreation that would generate greater fees from forest users. Ranchers, environmentalist and even businesses opposed the impacts an upgrade would have on the forests and steep cliffs of the Taylor River. Also many felt that paving would bring hordes of "East Slope" types into a wilderness setting. On Nov. 10, 1997 the County Commissioners unanimously turned down the funds.

What is being sustained?

The citizens of Gunnison County clearly value a rural way of life, the lack of more modern highways from the east slope, a forest sparsely used by recreationists. This is an example where a price tag existed for how much locals can value a slower pace of life: $38 million! This issue was about more than money, it was about local control of growth and sprawl, of limiting uses of the upper reaches of the Taylor River to something approaching "carrying capacity" of human users and uses.

For more Information:

Colorado Dept. of Transportation, Planning: 303-757-9266

Ranchers Grow Open Space: Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Project

The Issue

The Gunnison Basin contains over a million acres of public lands, including portions of 6 wilderness areas, a National Recreation Area, national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands. The critical river bottomland, originally homesteaded, largely still exists as large private ranches. The open vistas and scenes of hay meadows and cattle grazing against a backdrop of snowcapped peaks largely defines in a visual sense "the Gunnison way of life." And yet this way of life may fast disappear. Demographic and economic forces are threatening ranching as a way of life; if it goes so does the character of the open space ranches now provide. Wide swings in agricultural commodity prices and rising costs of inputs make ranching a marginal business at best. A flood of Americans in search of second-homes and alternatives to the crush of urban areas is pushing land prices to astronomical levels. Aging ranchers, facing huge tax bills for land that society says has high "value" for housing developments but not for raising crops, are caught in a severe bind. Gunnison County faces the prospect of loosing the lush valley bottomland along all of its rivers and what Time Magazine calls its "high-lonesome charm" to sprawl mimicking what is going on in so many of Colorado's other mountain valleys, that are "overbuilt, overcrowded, and irrevocably scarred." Will the area preserve the open river bottoms, critical winter wildlife habitat and migration corridors, as well as free flowing streams or will it give way to more and more housing developments and "ranchettes."


A group of local ranchers, environmentalists and business owners has come together seeking to preserve some 20,000 acres of family owned ranchlands in the Gunnison Basin. Time is critical in the face of these threats to preserving ranchland, and this Project hopes to achieve this preservation goal over the next 5 years. Unique among land conservation efforts in the US because it began locally, with the landowners themselves, the project operates by placing permanent conservation easements on ranchland at the voluntary request of the ranch families. This is done by purchasing development rights from willing ranchers, with each participating ranch family donating 25% of the value of development rights and the Gunnison Legacy Fund purchasing the remaining 75% from the family using grants and donations. The development rights are then placed permanently in trust as conservation easements, while the ranch can continue to operate as a productive business, producing not only feed and cattle as part of our rich agricultural heritage, but now also open space and visual attributes that comprise the "Gunnison way of life." Ranchers benefit by receiving compensation for the development rights foregone and keeping the land in production with reduced land values for estate taxation. Wildlife benefits through permanent provision of large expanses of hay meadows, riparian areas and other habitats. The general public benefits from protection of beautiful agricultural corridors that will never be developed.

What is being sustained?

Agriculture is vital to the American way of life; production of crops and animals is an important part of our renewable resource base. Maintaining the ranching lands capable of growing crops and livestock is key to sustaining food and fiber production. But such lands also have external benefits to others, including wildlife and the general public that enjoys the open vistas and maintenance of river bottomlands. Cooperation among disparate groups in Gunnison and payment of fair compensation for development rights makes this an inclusive, fair, "win-win" solution.

For More Information:

Gunnison Legacy Fund, P.O. Box 984, Crested Butte, CO 81224

Water is More Than a Drink: Union Park Reservoir/Water Diversion Proposal

The Issue

What "values" does water have and to whom? Whose "rights" to water prevail in the Water Court? These questions are at the heart of a proposal by Arapahoe County to make a trans-mountain diversion of 70,000 to 100,000 acre feet of water from the headwaters of the Taylor and East rivers in Gunnison County so that some 100,000 families on the Front Range could have a "renewable" source of water. The claim is that this water is "surplus" and if not captured and used, will continue to flow undeveloped to Nevada and California. But existing uses of water in the basin include federal hydroelectric generation and agricultural uses, while other water demanders are in line, including Amax Corporation and even the Federal Government for water rights in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument. The Union Park Reservoir proposal calls for catchment and diversion of water 25 miles east of Crested Butte, high in a mountain bowl at 10,000 feet. Arapahoe County purchased the rights to water for this project and a decade of efforts to develop the project have lead to legal wrangling that has consumed millions of dollars. In 1991 the state water court ruled against the project, saying that Gunnison river basin water supplies could not support the development of this diversion project. Successfully appealing to the Colorado Supreme Court, Arapahoe County claimed the water court applied the wrong standard for measuring water availability. The case was remanded to the water court for re-evaluation. The cost to Gunnison County water interests to defend their water rights has run in the neighborhood of $1 million in each round of this continuing water fight, while Arapahoe County has spent some $3.5 million trying to perfect its water rights. An April, 1998 Water Court ruling denied, once again, Arapahoe County's claim to water rights at the headwaters of the Gunnison River. Continuing the saga, Arapahoe County in July 1998 handed over the Union Park Reservoir fight to 6 local water districts in Arapahoe and Douglas counties where large numbers of residents currently depend upon diminishing amounts of ground water.


The Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, representing ‘in-basin" water users and interests, in 1998 sought and won from voters approval both to double the mill levy and keep surplus revenue without further voter approval (a so-called "de-Brucing" act). The purpose was both to finance legal battles with Front Range communities seeking to divert Gunnison Basin water and to have financial resources to develop existing conditional water rights. This latter purpose is essential in Colorado since Water Courts require water rights' holders to show "due diligence" in efforts to use all of the water rights conditionally allocated by the Bureau of Reclamation 37 years ago. Without forward movement to develop the conditional water rights, they could be revoked and awarded to other uses and users. The water projects that could be developed by the Conservancy District range from small ponds fed by diversion of naturally occurring channels on the Gunnison River to large reservoirs. These are in themselves controversial within the Conservancy District, but what is not at issue is a determination to prevent trans-mountain diversion of water outside of the basin.

What is being sustained?

Water is fundamental to rural agriculture as it is to healthy natural aquatic and terrestrial systems. The mountains, lakes, streams and open spaces of Gunnison exist because of abundant water. Historically there has been "excess" water flowing through the system. But such flows of water should be viewed as a renewable resource, one that both nurtures life and provides recreational and esthetic value. State water law in Colorado is extremely limited in protecting only what are termed "beneficial" uses (municipal-agricultural-industrial). The concept of "in-stream flows" as a value has some weak recognition, but requires that "beneficial" uses be dedicated to this alternative use. The thorny issue at stake in Gunnison is how to protect continuing flows of water through the county and how to broaden the concept of water value beyond the technical concept of "beneficial use." This is complicated by powerful financial interests both along the Front Range and "down the Colorado" that seek this precious commodity and view as "wasteful" the current water uses in the basin. There is no doubt that fights over water will continue for decades; Gunnison has taken serious steps to fend off outside threats and explore ways to perfect their conditional water rights into appropriate water projects.

For More Information:

Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District: 970-641-6065.

Trophy Homes --- or Trophy Elk? Revising County Land Use Guidelines

The Issue

Sprawl or cluster development? Low-density development spreading across thousands of acres, or concentrated development in harmony with open space, wildlife habitat, wetlands, trails and view corridors? Reasonable size houses for all income classes that are in harmony with the surroundings or "monster homes" for the wealthy? Ridge lines dotted with second-homes or development that is sensitive to the views of others? Gunnison is at a threshold, a critical decision point. Once ranchland is sub-divided according to the traditional mentality in Colorado: rectangular private plots of an acre or five or even 35, then the character of the county is determined as one of eventual sprawl. Alternatively, if large parcels of land are kept as open space, either in working ranches (protected via conservation easements) or public open space, and if housing is "clustered" in appropriate portions of the available land, then the county can enshrine its rural character even as growth occurs. Unless reasonable design guidelines exist to protect both the needs of the inhabitants and the interests of the surrounding community and of visitors to the area, housing and commercial development take on a haphazard character that oozes across the landscape, insensitive to the land, wildlife, and esthetics.


A centerpiece to dealing with this issue is the Gunnison County Land Use Resolution, the law that guides county officials in land use decisions outside of municipalities. Other actors in the puzzle are decisions of municipalities such as Gunnison and Crested Butte concerning building codes and zoning. Prolonged discussion is taking place about revisions to the LUR in Gunnison County. Many parts exist to build a coordinated land use "ethic" in Gunnison, one supportive of continued development in harmony with a protected "Gunnison way of life." The Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Project and the Crested Butte Land Trust serve as mechanisms to protect open space and the accompanying viewsheds, wetlands, recreation, and ranching heritage. A 1% for Open Space program generates revenue, as does a county-passed ballot initiative in 1997 designating a portion of the sales tax for the Gunnison Valley Land Preservation Fund. More open space is created as developers offer conservation easements as part of the development process. Comprehensive land use planning and improved regulations can blend housing structures and development into Gunnison's "quilt-like fabric" of open space, ranches, free-flowing water, and magnificent mountain backdrops.

What is being sustained?

The very "quality of life" of Gunnison is at stake as growth and sub-division development pressures mount. The beauty that exists today is a powerful magnet for outsiders to want "inside." It is often said: "growth cannot be stopped." But it is possible to say: "growth will occur along lines that are in harmony with our surroundings, in ways that are supportive of our lifestyles and economies." Broad participation is essential if the County's LUR is to be revised. In many ways, what happens on this issue is a "referendum" for the entire county on its future. Many individual initiatives exist to preserve parts of what makes Gunnison unique; the LUR revisions have the promise of pulling these actions together so that the "fabric" of the county remains diversified, strikingly beautiful, and in harmony with nature.

For more information:

Gunnison County Planning Dept. 970-641-0360

Triple Swap: Crested Butte Resort, Forest Service and Colorado Land Board Exchange

The Issue

A patchwork of landowners often makes a mess of efforts to manage land and its uses. Gunnison County is not immune from this. Private and state land holdings exist within federal government entities, including wilderness areas. Ski areas are often hemmed in by government lands that constrain where development can occur. Escalating private land values make it difficult for governments to buy in-holdings even when there are willing sellers. Forced to work around such a pattern of land ownership, both government and private businesses are often required to make decisions and investments that are not in everyone's best interest.


In June, 1998 a complicated agreement was reached that provided the US Forest Service with 5,000 acres of in-holdings including a strategic square mile within the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area in a three-way land swap with the state of Colorado and the ski area. The patch of state land within the wilderness as well as smaller pieces scattered throughout the national forest, while owned by a government entity, was under a mandate for the State Land Board to maximize revenue, which could eventually mean outright sale to private interests. To compensate the state, Crested Butte Ski Corp. bought the 2,020 acre Ochs ranch near Gunnison and gave it to the state, which in turn could be purchased by Gunnison County conservation groups to provide it with permanent protection as a working ranch and open space. The resort also gave the Forest Service some 557 acres of old mining claims it owns within the national forest. In return, the Forest Service has transferred about 420 acres of federal lands adjacent to the ski area to the resort. Finally, the resort, as part of the deal, abandoned plans to develop scenic Snodgrass mountain, instead concentrating future development plans on land adjacent to the existing ski area.

What is being sustained?

The rural character of the region and the flavor of openness are improved by parts of this agreement. Development of the ski area is concentrated into a smaller area, thus reducing the "sprawal" effect. There are many parts of Gunnison that gain from this complicated land-swap "compromise." Open space and rural character are enhanced if conservation groups indeed purchase the Ochs ranch from the State, with appropriate conservation easements added. Sitting astride the road from Gunnison to Crested Butte, the very character of the valley is defined by this and other ranches remaining whole and in production. Sanctity of wilderness and forest areas is enhanced as large parcels are protected permanently in areas such as the Maroon Bells. The compactness and character of the ski area and nearby town of Crested Butte are shaped by acts to consolidate the development that will take place, leaving other areas and vistas open and wild. Cooperation and compromise are key dimensions to this agreement and the resulting impacts on land and its uses. There are winners and losers in such a complicated swap, but the Gunnison area "wins" by moving forward, making the best of land patterns and limited financial resources, putting in place key decisions that will help shape the region for decades into the future.

For More Information:

High Country Citizens Alliance, Crested Butte, CO., 970-349-7104

More Protection for the Monument? Actions to Provide Safeguard the Black Canyon of the Gunnison:

The Issue

Established in 1933, this National Monument protects a stretch of the Gunnison River as it cuts through a sheer canyon with unique geological features and assorted wildlife. Plunging 95 feet every mile, this stretch of river is one of the greatest drops of any North American river. Now a "sleepy" part of the federal government's real estate, increasing threats endanger its beauty and natural features. The size of the monument is small (20,700 acres) and contains some private land inholdings. The Gunnison River goes "through" the canyon but the monument itself lacks appropriate "in stream" water rights. The Gunnison is dammed above the monument by Bureau of Reclamation power projects, thus preventing annual floods that would scour the canyon floor and stimulate trout populations. Instead, exotic vegetation such as box elders and willows has started to grow in the depths of the 2,000-foot chasm while the native trout are in danger. This is not the natural regime before the dams were built and threatens dramatic changes to the character of the canyon. Three prime parcels of private in-holdings within the monument are up for sale at prices way above appraised values. If sold and developed the vistas and character of the monument would be substantially changed. Put up for sale by a firm notorious for other attempts to force the government to buy such in-holdings rather than see them developed, the sanctity of the existing monument boundaries as well as the need to expand the boundaries is now a live issue. These threats, combined with the ambitions of now Senator Campbell, formerly a US Representative for the Western Slope, add up to a serious effort to provide more protection.


Conferring National Park status on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument would improve long-term protection of the canyon's resources and raise its visibility among tourists. By adding some 10,000 acres to the size of the proposed park, it would provide more protection from nearby development. Senator Campbell is once again championing a favorite issue by pushing for expansion and designation as a national park. The Park Service, steward of the monument, is trying to address the in-stream flow issue by negotiating with the Bureau of Reclamation. Because the up-stream dams (Blue Mesa, Morrow and Crystal reservoirs) were build after the monument designation, they have junior and thus weaker water rights. And yet, the monument has thus far "lived" with an altered in-stream flow. This would require both higher spring "flood" releases and more winter flows to maintain the trout populations. Efforts are also underway in Congress to block development of private land within the monument. There is widespread but not unanimous support in the region for higher levels of protection. But the sanctity of private property rights bedevils actions that could be taken while some question the value of natural attributes in the canyon if it means operating up-stream reservoirs other than for maximum power generation and financial return.

What is being sustained?

Many natural characteristics of the upper Gunnison region are beautiful. But the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is unique. If the scenic vistas are scared by housing developments and if the river becomes clogged with exotic vegetation and devoid of trout, then the uniqueness is severely diminished. For the region the canyon is both a precious natural feature and a magnet for tourists into the area. Local governments, business people, and environmental groups are mostly agreed that protective steps need to be taken. Pressures arise as private property rights, power generation and reservoir recreation interests find themselves threatened by more protection for the canyon.

For More Information:

Black Canyon of the Gunnison Nat. Monument - 970-641-2337

Mines vs. Moguls: Cyprus Amax's Latest Proposal for Mt. Emmons

The Issue

What happens when one of the world's richest deposits of molybdenum sits adjacent to pristine scenery and a ski area? Perpetual confrontation. Twenty years ago Amax Molybdenum Co. sought to develop this rich deposit on Mt. Emmons, literally outside the front door of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte Ski Area. The bitter battle that ensued ended in a decision by Amax not to mine "at that time." Now the issue once again is on the table, as Cyprus Amax Minerals Co., the world's largest producer of molybdenum and second biggest coal producer in the US, works it way through the process of obtaining approval for a mine in the same place, for the same rich mineral deposit. Both the mining company and the opponents have changed dramatically. Crested Butte 20 years ago was a town of 350 residents, partly retired miners living along side young recreationists and environmentalists in a town with no paved roads. Now Crested Butte has near 1,500 residents, increasingly representing recreation and amenity-based interests. Roads are paved, stop-signs monitor increasing flows of traffic in the summer into the backdrop of spectacular mountains, in the winter as skiers use Mt. Crested Butte for downhill skiing and back bowls for cross-country skiing. Amax has changed also, growing larger through acquisition, now having huge corporate resources to pursue another fight to mine the minerals it controls. The mine proposal has also changed, from 20,000 tons of ore processing a day with a peak workforce of near 1,500 to 10,000 tons per day with a workforce of 350 and most recently 6,000 tons per day as a "high-grading" facility with fewer tailings ponds. Construction and operation of the mine will require a dozen federal, state and local permits. It will also require water, some 1,500-acre feet a year for mine use. Amax owns some agricultural water rights in the area, perhaps one-third to one-half of the water needed, and applied for rights to divert all the water needed from junior water rights it claims on Slate River, Elk Creek and Carbon Creek into reservoirs on Ohio and Elk Creeks with a pipeline moving the water to the mine site.


The most recent move in this decades long battle has been a Sept. 1999 Water Court decision denying Amax the water it sought for Mt. Emmons mining. The request for conditional water rights was denied because of a lack of available water in the Gunnison Valley. Similar to the Union Park water decision, the issue is complicated by the Bureau of Reclamation and its Gunnison River reservoirs and power generation, both having accompanying water rights held by BOR. The ruling said that Cyprus Amax, like the Union Park reservoir proposal, may not claim any portion of a quantity of water that is stored in downstream BOR reservoirs, unless a water delivery contract is obtained from the BOR. Congress apparently intended that BOR authorize a "subordination" or sale of water by contract where appropriate, to protect in-basin junior water rights of some 60,000 acre feet from the huge senior hydropower rights held by BOR. Lined up against Amax over the water issue were 33 entities, including Crested Butte, Gunnison County, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, Gunnison County's High Country Citizen's Alliance, Western Slope Environmental Resource Council, and even Front-Range Arapahoe County.

What is being sustained?

Water, ranching, pristine mountain meadows and wetlands, unscarred vistas, undisturbed recreation; all of these weigh in on the side of opposition to this mining proposal. The "current" proponents of a ranching, recreation and tourism based way of life in the upper reaches of the Gunnison basin appear nearly unanimous in their opposition to the intrusion of a major mine into their region. Depicting the classic western conflict between need for natural resources vs. the impacts extractive industries have on amenity-based economies and lifestyles, there may well be losers on one side or the other of this confrontation. Despite a set-back in water court, Amax may be able to obtain the water it needs through additional purchase of senior agricultural water rights, that could then be transferred into mining use. Clearly many other hurdles are down the road for Amax, not least of which is the question of when or if the world price of molybdenum rises to a level where profitable mine development and operation is feasible. The broad-based opposition to Amax's filing for water rights may erode some over other dimensions to the mining proposal. Diversification of the region's economy, and a partial return to natural resource extraction as a viable economic activity in the area are arguments some will make for allowing an appropriately scaled mine to operate, under safe-guards for the environment. Economies highly dependent upon single industries, be it only mining or lumber, or tourism, are vulnerable to boom-bust cycles. Diversification of regional economies so that employment and income are generated from a number of economic sectors makes good economic sense. The "externalities" of some of those activities do not please everyone, and this is the "rub" over this classic confrontation between mining and recreation interests.

For More Information:

Cyprus Amax Minerals: 313-643-5000; High Country Citizens' Alliance: 970-349-7104.


If "sustainability" is an "inside job," then the Gunnison region is an outstanding example of citizen alertness and action. The examples reviewed here all point towards positive, broad-based decision-making over complex problems of growth and development as well as conservation and preservation. The need to balance economic requirements of a sound, thriving economy with the equally compelling requirements to protect and enhance the natural environment is demanding and controversial. The Gunnison region is in the midst of such a struggle, and it will not end soon! Better that we all look at the concept of sustainability, the processes underway to achieve it, and the lessons to be learned. Gunnison is a prime place in Colorado to do this and the Headwaters Conference is an ideal venue for discussion and reflection. Thanks to all of you "locals" for the actions being taken to move the Gunnison River Basin "Toward a Sustainable Colorado."