Our winters give life to millions of people (but they're getting shorter)

I live in a very small town at 8,800 feet, nestled in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.  We are surrounded on all sides by towering mountains, forests, and high desert plateaus.  Our county is 80% federal public lands.  The county to the south of us is one of the most sparsely populated counties in the United States.

In the winter, there is one road in and out of town.  Snow banks can dwarf your car and stop signs can disappear into snow drifts.  At all times of the year, you can spend whole days in the mountains without encountering a single human being.  The joke is that the cows outnumber the people.

Even in the age of online interconnectivity, we keenly feel our remote and isolated location.  In many ways, it is easy to feel that the cares and concerns of the wider world pass by our small mountain town.  We refer to it as the ‘bubble.’  So, as strange as it sounds for such an out-of-the-way and insulated place, what happens up here definitely impacts the world out there.

That is because the emotional, financial, and ecological health and wealth of a good chunk of the country is tied to our public lands and our snow.  Our winters give life to millions of people.  This area of the county is the water-making machine that serves the Western United States.  Our public lands lands are the engine that drives the West.

Both climate change and public lands are under attack, now more than ever.  The new administration is openly disdainful of the idea of climate change.  To President-Elect Trump, climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese to gain a business advantage.  President-Elect Trump’s nominee for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is a climate change denier with close ties to the fossil fuel industry.  Tea Party members and others want to wrest public lands out of public hands and roll back protections on clean air, water, and land.

Up here, we know that we are on the front lines of the battle over climate change.  The difference of a few degrees in winter temperature means that, instead of snow, we get rain and less precipitation overall.

Some years, we are blessed with an abundance of the ‘white gold.’  Skiers are happy.  Hotels and restaurants are full of people coming to enjoy our winter.  Come spring, streams, lakes, and reservoirs are swollen with runoff.  

Other years, not so much.  Up here, climate change means shorter and drier ski seasons.  People pray for snow, and it is not a joke.  For us, it means increased pressure to make money in the shorter span before mud seasons.  People lose houses and businesses fold when the stream of visitors slows to a trickle.  Climate change means that our reservoirs look like empty shells.  We worry that the dry winters are starting to outnumber the deep winters.

But for the rest of the world, climate changes means years where the snowpack barely registers.  It means thousands upon thousands of empty reservoirs.  Colorado snowpack alone generates million gallons of water and most of that flows into the Colorado River.  Millions of people depend on the Colorado River for their water.  Lower snowpack due to climate change means a whole lot less water for a whole lot of people.

Up here, we know that we are on the front lines of the battle over public lands.

For us, public lands mean that we have ample opportunities to ski, hike, bike, climb, camp, boat, fish, and hunt.  Public lands mean that our town is flush with people coming to enjoy the unspoiled vistas and to connect with our rivers, mountains, and high deserts.  The fish, wildlife, and water are beneficiaries of protected lands.

There are forces that seek to turn over federal lands to the states, which do not have the funds or resources to manage millions of acres of land.  Forces also want to push for federal lands to be privatized.  To us, if that happens, it might mean the loss of a favorite biking trail or a degraded fish habitat in a stream.  But, if that happens throughout the West, it accumulates to millions of acres of land opened up to damaging development, loss of critical protections for habitat and species, and loss of the forests and wetlands that serve as giant water filters.

We are both the beneficiaries and trustees of our public land.  Up here, we call this land ‘God’s Country’ and we mean it.  Every time we enjoy a powder day on public lands, we are privileged.  We feel the weight of that privilege as a great responsibility.  We will fight in every way that we can to protect our public lands and to save our winters.  

- Sarah Coleman lives in Crested Butte, Colorado.  She is an attorney and currently occupied as a stay at home mom.  Her law practice included public lands, land use, and environmental issues.  She serves on the board of the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting water quality in Crested Butte’s watersheds.

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