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Local leaders from Aspen to Vail call for regional climate action

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio

From wildfires to drought and dwindling snowpack, local communities are facing the impacts of human-caused climate change.

Eight mayors and county commissioners from Aspen to Vail gathered during a three-day United Nations’ convening last week to talk about solutions and the importance of regional collaboration.

The public panel discussion Sept. 28 was part of the recent U.N. Mountain Partnership meeting at The Aspen Institute.

Local resident and Aspen International Mountain Foundation board member John Starr helped organize the discussion and introduced the panelists.

“We have before us the mayors of every single valley community in our area, 43 miles long,” he said. “And our friends from Vail and Eagle County have joined us.”

The conversation was moderated by Dallas Blaney, the new CEO of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE).

He said he was excited to join a regional nonprofit with a long history of working toward a net-zero future.

“CORE supports improvements in building codes, advancing electrification for homes and businesses, and driving forward green energy innovation,” Blaney said. “One of the things we've learned is that collaboration, both within and across communities, is really the key to advancing our goals towards sustainability and climate action.”

The panelists were Aspen Mayor Torre, Snowmass Village Mayor Bill Madson, Basalt Mayor Bill Kane, Carbondale Mayor Ben Bohmfalk, Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes, Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid, Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman and Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr.

Starr said it’s rare for elected officials from Aspen to Vail to gather in one spot — especially to talk about climate change.

Godes agreed with that sentiment in his opening remarks.

“I think five years ago, you wouldn't have had a representative from Glenwood Springs here,” he said. “Our community has shifted quite a bit to understanding the importance of climate change — not for any other reason other than we've had to.”

According to Godes, recent events have made it difficult to ignore the local realities of a warming planet.

“We've had a number of fires: the Grizzly Creek Fire, the Storm King Fire,” he said. “We've lost lives, we've lost homes and we've had a 500-year rain event that just happened last year that closed I-70 for two weeks and caused the state economy hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Godes’ fellow panelists agreed that an increase in extreme weather linked to human-caused climate change has pushed public awareness and local policies to a new level.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio

Kane announced during the panel that the Basalt Town Council had just voted almost unanimously to approve updated building and energy requirements for new construction.

“I'm happy to report that less than 24 hours ago, our town council — with counsel from CORE and with a lot of help from Holy Cross Electric Association — adopted sweeping changes to our building code,” Kane said. “And we adopted another kind of visionary piece, which everybody in this room is aware of, called the Roadmap to Net Zero, which is not politically easy to accomplish.”

The council voted four-to-two for the roadmap, which outlines the town’s goal to have new homes and buildings rely completely on renewable energy rather than natural gas sources by 2031.

Vail also recently adopted more climate-friendly building requirements, Aspen is considering amending its building code next month — and all of the municipalities represented on last week’s panel have some sort of climate action plan or goal in place.

“We've taken a step back, looked at our conditions, looked at our goals and our values and where we want to go and codified those into an actual plan,” said Torre. “You know, we're looking at getting to net zero for our community in greenhouse gas emissions — 63% by 2030 and 100% by 2050.”

Langmaid said Vail has been working on its own climate goals, including electrifying new affordable-housing projects, transitioning Vail’s fleet of cars to be all-electric and collaborating with the rest of Eagle County.

“In 2015, we really became part of the larger countywide Climate Action Collaborative and set goals in alignment with the collaborative and the other municipalities in the valley and Basalt,” she said. “And we’ve been working in tandem with that group ever since to create policies to forward to our councils.”

Ben Bohmfalk said he’s often impressed by what neighboring communities are up to — and that sparks some competition.

“You know, we still wanna be the first one to net zero and so do all of you, right? So we're kind of competing in that way,” he said. “I think that it can be really healthy and good that we're all kind of striving to be on the cutting edge of policies that'll address the impacts of climate change.”

Although some healthy competition can be good, Bohmfalk also thinks that a new regional coalition might be needed.

“You know, I don't care if the project is in Aspen or Grand Junction or Carbondale, if it's gonna reduce X-number of metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere that's a win,” he said. “I can imagine a future in which maybe we collaborate more around those goals and contribute to each other's projects because the climate doesn't care where the reductions come from.”

Most of his fellow panelists expressed interest in building on regional efforts already underway by individual counties and groups such as CORE, Holy Cross Energy and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.

The panelists also acknowledged that regional collaboration requires not only better communication among neighboring governments but an effort to engage local citizens.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio

For Poschman, that means including more young people and students in the conversation.

“Several years ago, I was the chair of our board of commissioners and a group of kids came in from the middle school and maybe high school, and they demanded we take action,” he said. “The upshot was that we declared a climate emergency and we created a reporting program where whenever one of our departments comes to report, whether it's an annual report or a budget, they have a climate lens through which they look at everything and we've been sticking to that pretty well.”

Godes and Bohmfalk agreed that engaging a wide range of local residents from different backgrounds is especially important in their county.

“Garfield County is one of the biggest natural gas and oil producing counties, mostly natural gas, in the state and sometimes in the country,” Bohmfalk said. “And so within our county, we have communities that are very reliant on the natural gas industry for jobs and tax revenue and their basic economic life.”

Bohmfalk said he has been learning a lot about finding common ground on climate action from his work with Garfield Clean Energy, a collaborative group of municipalities throughout the county that helps residents, businesses and local governments become more energy efficient.

“Some language that helps us talk about these things together are words like ‘efficiency,’” he said. “You know, ‘energy independence’ sort of resonates across political divides, ‘affordability,’ talking about lowering people's electric bills, and ‘stability.’ I think everybody can get on board with that kind of stuff.”

Langmaid said it’s a worthy challenge and one that certainly isn’t new.

“It's always been this dynamic tension between environment, economic development and community — and really making sure that we can embrace all of those,” she said.

As the discussion came to a close, Torre said he’d like to see the momentum from the evening continue.

“This is great to have us all together on this stage, but going forward from this, we need to continue this conversation,” he said. “We need to be communicating more and that involves a lot of learning.”

Copyright 2022 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio.

Growing up in the valley listening to KAJX in her parents’ car on the way to school, Eleanor learned the power and urgency of community storytelling. She was further captivated by the medium while interning at APR after graduating from Middlebury College in 2015.