There’s trouble in paradise. It’s happening in Bozeman, Jackson Hole, Park City and all across Colorado.
In fact, our state’s signature attraction — our treasured Rocky Mountain lifestyle — is critically endangered.
Colorado’s sweet, charming mountain towns are under siege from climate change, hordes of outdoors enthusiasts and eccentric real estate investors who think the laws of the land and of nature don’t apply to them.
A recent story in the New York Times bemoans the crushing impact that “wanderlust-filled white-collar workers” have had on mountain communities as they have “pounced” on available housing so they can work remotely or score a second income by transforming affordable housing into out-of-reach short-term rental income property.
Long-time residents in the high country recall a moment not so long ago when moose wandered through the willows, bald eagles nested along the neighborhood creek and young people actually could find an apartment they could afford with their income from a job as a ski instructor in the winter and a bartender gig in the summer.
Alas, those days are gone.
Old-timers smile wryly at the lost cultures of places like Fraser, where back in the 1970s a couple of cheeky locals created an authentic-looking highway sign that said, “Leaving Planet Earth” that they posted at the entrance to town. Back then, they said with knowing looks, you bought your weed in a spot behind the dumpster at the Safeway.
Now, party-hearty tourists stand in line at dispensaries to stock up on dark chocolate designer edibles. Wetlands where the moose once ruled are drained for private fishing ponds whose owners may — or may not — ever use them. And big-money dudes buy swaths of high-value mountain town property, shutter essential businesses and impose their sterile self-aggrandizing visions onto quirky, once-thriving towns like Crested Butte.
Thanks to an exceptional snowpack and a wet spring, the threat of wildfires this summer has been much lower than that of recent years on the Western Slope. But the drought trend lines are indisputable and anybody who has tried to buy insurance for a mountain property knows the situation is dire.
Even that hasn’t stopped the run on real estate in resort towns, though, which has driven up prices and pushed the workforce to look for housing an hour or more out of town. Or just give up and leave.
Recent employment reports found 190,000 job openings across the state, and all it takes is a drive through the resort areas with “Help Wanted” signs posted everywhere to see where a lot of these opportunities are. Still, they’ll remain unfilled until the affordable housing crisis can be addressed.
And, I know this sounds alarmist, but it probably can’t be fixed.
The whole economy of the high country is based on land speculation, after all.
Heck, the state was founded by land speculators, including Territorial Gov. John Evans, who acquired sections of open land and led the efforts to drive out the Native tribes in a bid to lure the railroads and make his fortune.
Why would anybody think the 21st-century monied classes would be any less rapacious?
As the land rush escalates and the Aspenization of places like even Leadville accelerates, it’s starting to feel like a kind of desperate revelry before the apocalypse.
Which, by the way, is right around the corner for these fragile environments.
The planet had its hottest week ever in July and even the richest among us couldn’t escape the resulting heat, smoke and misery. Canada’s boreal forests exploded in flames and the historic town of Lahaina and, tragically, more than 100 of its residents were reduced to ashes.
Despite decades of warnings from scientists and sincere efforts by environmentalists, greenhouse gas emissions are at an all-time high and the impacts of climate change are bearing down on every part of the world. The Colorado River, quenched by extraordinary rains, is still unable to meet demands from downstream water users and much of it remains under severe drought conditions.
Still, only 37% of Americans believe addressing climate change should be a top priority for our leaders.
Instead, we’ll just crank up the air conditioning, complain about energy prices and dream of escaping the city for the luxe life in the high country.
While it lasts.
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