Aspen and the deterioration of mountain town culture

The mayor of Aspen, Col., says its tough to act on climate change in his town because of an influx of city people.

Climate change policies can run into opposition even in communities filled with outdoor enthusiasts

Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, Colo.: A new breed of moneyed class has led to the "deterioration of mountain town culture" and a corresponding decline in green values, Mayor Steve Skadron says. (The Associated Press)

As if hip mountain outposts such as Whistler, B.C., and Aspen, Col., didn't have enough to worry about with climate change cutting into ski season, resort towns are now facing a hurdle that might be tougher to deal with than warmer weather — people. 

Steve Skadron, the mayor of Aspen, says he can handle climate change effects such as a shorter ski season, more frost-free days, insect outbreaks, more invasive species and even increased fire risk.

What's really tough to deal with is the influx of a new breed of moneyed class into his community, which has led to the "deterioration of mountain town culture" and a corresponding decline in green values.

We're very progressive on a lot of things, but everything is hard- Steve Skadron, mayor of Aspen

"What gives me the most anxiety is when people say 'I love your town so much, I moved here,' because then I'm thinking what set of local values do we need to change to accommodate your lifestyle," Skadron told CBC News. "Basically they've picked up their lifestyle from Houston or Los Angeles or Atlanta and plunked it down in Aspen. Then they come to me and complain about the traffic problems, and I say, 'Well you should have left your second SUV at home.'"

Mountain town stereotypes would suggest residents would be gung-ho for nature and taking local action to fight climate change, but in Aspen, ironically, that's now an uphill battle. More one-time weekend warriors settling in the community full time mean the town's colours no longer run quite as green. 

Change in values

"Before, you came to Aspen because you subscribed to a certain set of values. The top of those values was a kind of environmentalism or passion for the mountains or skiing," Skadron said. "Now it's more about suburban values — you have a good school system, cool social programs."

Other mountain communities are experiencing a similar pattern, although to varying degrees. The mayor of Whistler, B.C., Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, said "we're seeing some of that certainly," although the main demographic still remains people ages 15-35.

In Canmore, Alta., the evolution has been about transitioning from coal town to recreation destination. 

"Resource extraction is a different kind of economic generator and the people are different. When you transition into a different type of community as we are now, ultimately the people change too," said Coun. Vi Stanford.

The diverging values in Aspen are creating challenges for the local government as it tries to introduce more environmental projects and policies. Aspen already has the largest rural mass transit system in the United States and its electrical utility is 100-per-cent renewable. 

Skadron says the town began to change when the people who used to have vacation getaway properties, such as cabins and cottages, decided to make it their permanent residence in retirement.

"It's a much more conservative class of people than those who settled the mountain towns and developed the programs that built the town on a set of values that attracted those people," he said.

Mayor Steve Skadron says he feels the most anxiety when newcomers bring their city lifestyles to Aspen. (City of Aspen)
 Skadron said he is receiving interest from other mountain towns around the world who want to learn about Aspen's successes and failures with its climate-change policies, economy and culture. In the last two months delegations from Whistler and as far away as Papua, New Guinea, have paid a visit.

Skadron spoke recently at the UN climate change conference in Paris, where he gave CBC News a presentation on adapting and building resilience to climate change in mountain communities.

Aspen has several dozen environmental projects and policies underway, including measures to reduce vehicle traffic.

"We're very progressive on a lot of things, but everything is hard," Skadron said. "Every single thing is a challenge."


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