Welcome to Carbondale, Colorado, a place with major eco mojoBy Kate Siber
It seems every small American town has some distinguishing feature—a famous resident, an obscure historical mention, the world's largest ball of twine—but Carbondale, Colorado, has more than its fair share of character. This is a place where voters established the dandelion as the town flower to symbolize the citizenry's friendliness toward all things green. Main Street is lined with old miners' shacks that house, among other establishments, an organic-foods restaurant, an independent bookstore, and a store for sustainable building materials. The neighborhood architecture is eco-eclectic—straw-bale houses on the same street as stately Victorians outfitted with solar panels—and the residents walk, bike, or drive their biodiesel-run Jettas to work. Every Wednesday, hundreds of locals descend on the farmers' market to shop for organic seven-grain bread and arugula. A motto engraved on the bench outside town hall sums up the Carbondale philosophy: "Get off your ass and do something!"
An Eden for the modern tree hugger? Pretty close. Carbondale, a 30-minute drive from the world-class ski resort of Aspen, in central Colorado, has been a magnet for the independent-minded ever since its incorporation in 1888. Gold prospectors, cattle ranchers, potato farmers, and coal miners settled in Carbondale during the great westward expansion of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The 1970s and '80s brought an influx of hippies, and now, as the population quickly approaches 6,000, the burg is finally coming into its own as a haven for mountain folks with environmental mojo.
It's easy to see how Carbondale works its magic: Sitting on the toes of snow-capped 12,953-foot Mount Sopris, it marks the confluence of the Crystal and Roaring Fork rivers and is a paradise of lush green pastures, towering red-rock cliffs, and mountain vistas that rival the Rockies' most spectacular panoramas. The first environmentalists to be seduced by Carbondale were Vermonters John and Anne Holden, who founded the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in 1953 for the sons and daughters of rich easterners as "an antidote to modern easy living." Students still study a high-calibre, college-preparatory curriculum but also spend at least 20 days a year in the wilderness. On the campus itself, they maintain an organic farm, process biodiesel for the campus truck, and recycle eight tons of their food scraps into compost each year.
Momentum picked up in the Roaring Fork Valley in 1994 when a group of concerned citizens founded the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), run out of Aspen and Carbondale. The nonprofit group has helped institute the stiffest carbon-dioxide pollution tax in the world, charging the Aspen residents who'd rather not part with their heated driveways and outdoor pools as much as $100,000 per household for excess energy use. Through CORE, the town recycles the tax revenues (in three years, more than $2.5 million) to invest in valley-wide programs like no-interest loans on solar panels, rebates for citizens using energy-efficient appliances, and energy-education classes for local schools.
The whole Roaring Fork Valley—about 60,000 residents—is now crammed with nearly 400 nonprofit organizations, and Carbondale is the center, geographically and socially, for people seeking the enviro buzz. Among the colorful environmental organizations and businesses that have taken root are a biodiesel cooperative (through which about 25 members process their own fuel from local restaurants' discarded grease); an organic-gardening cooperative; and a macrobiotic education center. There's even CaCa LoCo, a store that sells small muslin sacks of boutique compost with names like "Buddhapoo" and "Bureaucrap." The most popular local radio station in the valley, KDNK, is located on one end of Main Street and airs music from reggae to heavy metal to programs like "What's Growin' On?" a monthly organic gardening show.
"Carbondale was more of a hippie enclave, and now it's changing," says Brook Le Van, executive director of the local nonprofit Sustainable Settings. "It's not just the affluence, it's the sophistication. There's still the drumming group that meets in the park on Saturdays, but diversity has improved."
What originally drew much of Carbondale's new crowd is an educational nonprofit called Solar Energy International. Housed in a ramshackle brick building downtown, it's swamped with solar-voltaic panels and has an army of solar cookers in the front yard for weekly potluck dinners. Despite appearances, since 1991, it has single-handedly attracted 1,000 students a year from all over the country and the world to choose from a lengthy menu of hands-on classes, such as how to build straw-bale houses (made from tightly packed straw and earthen plaster), brew biodiesel, and race solar cars. Most students stay between a week and six months, but some can't manage to leave, like Scott Ely, who founded Sunsense, a solar-power equipment distribution center, and Earthsense, a renewable-energy educational-tool manufacturer, on the outskirts of town.
On the flip side, like the rest of Colorado, which is the third fastest-growing state after Nevada and Arizona and has swelled at twice the national rate for the last ten years, Carbondale has seen an alarming—and perhaps destructive—population boom. In 1990, just over 3,000 citizens lived here; by 2002, the population of this tiny mountain town had almost doubled It's not just the green folks who are moving to this mountain town; there are also strong contingents of Latino immigrants and even some newly minted millionaires, forced from Aspen by the billionaires to buy their second homes in Carbondale and nearby Basalt.
"When we first came here in 1941, there were probably about 430 people in Carbondale, and the whole economy was based on hay and cattle and potatoes," says Bob Perry, owner of Mt. Sopris Hereford Ranch in Carbondale. "Today We're a community that's totally different. There are lots of people around here who run corporations all over the country from their homes." It's these people who have forced the prices to soar. In just the last eight years, the average cost of a new single-family house has gone from about $150,000 to over $350,000.
"All the prices are going up," says Cameron Burns, an editor at the Rocky Mountain Institute and a 14-year resident of the valley. "The population boom is creating this massive up-and-down swing of traffic on the highway, and it's bringing in all the ills of the urban world." Large multimillion-dollar developments have sprouted throughout the area, and the valley has yet to provide a highly effective public transit system to accommodate new arrivals. (Until properly funded, Carbondale's electric buses are destined for hibernation.) But the ills of population growth and suburban- and urbanization are plaguing countless Colorado mountain towns. Here, however, there is still a remarkable sense that affordable, sustainable development and positive change are possible.
"This is no Shangri-la tucked away in the mountains," says mayor and local architect Michael Hassig. "But I think what sets this town apart is that It's a place where an individual can make a change and really get involved. There's always a new nonprofit or a new committee or a new group with an idea. People are not apathetic here." Case in point: In 2002, after the town government approved the construction of a 250,000-square-foot mall on 25 acres of pasture land on Carbondale's west side, residents petitioned to hold a referendum on the mall proposal and subsequently shot it down, sending the California developers packing.
Citizens in this town have big ideas, and, amazingly, many of them work: One development company that is building 48 houses on the east end of town has put 20 acres of its 82-acre property into a conservation easement. Nine of its houses will be deed-restricted and affordable, and two of those will be passive-solar designed and decked with the latest energy-efficient technology.
On the other side of town, Sustainable Settings, a seven-year-old nonprofit, has already raised more than $2.5 million toward building a learning center on its historic 244-acre farm. Schoolchildren already visit the farm to study the wetlands and play with the barnyard animals, but when completed, farm managers, interns, and scholars will live on the premises in a retrofitted 1893 farmhouse and brand-new super-efficient buildings. They'll use energy from a 110-foot windmill, enjoy the ritziest compost toilets on the market, and study everything from permaculture design to ethical animal husbandry.
And there are still other big ideas in the works. Scott Chaplin, director of a Carbondale social-justice nonprofit called the Stepstone Center, is securing land for a green office park, to be known as the Center for Sustainable Technology. By 2005, Solar Energy International and other nonprofits and businesses plan to move their headquarters to the new green-designed building to pool resources and attract more businesses to the area. In 2002, a Carbondale nurse founded the nonprofit Davi Nikent, dedicated to establishing a holistic healing center in Carbondale by 2005. A local acupuncturist is raising funds to build an unconventional retirement community with an organic farm, alternative therapies, and a combination of herbal and Western medicines.
"You know, if we can let people know that there's a place out there where people can make things happen, maybe that'll give them hope that they can make things happen in their own communities too," says Chaplin. It may be ambitious to create a model community of Carbondale, with its population boom and soaring prices, but, on the upside, the wealth that's moving into the town is making it possible for many nonprofit and community projects to survive.
"We'd all like to see the sustainable thing become mainstream," says Ely. "It might seem far off, but what better place to start than Carbondale?"
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