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Down on the Ground with the Unentitled

by George Sibley

I’m just back from “Spring Break,” and you won’t believe where we went. We went thirty miles upvalley to Crested Butte for a couple days of mixed business and pleasure, and stayed in a lodge. Since it snowed close to a foot over the two nights and a day we were there, it was truly a break in the early spring we’ve been enjoying most of the winter; spring broke, and we returned to winter for a couple days.

The skiing must have been great, you’re probably thinking; but we didn’t go skiing – which is okay in a way because I heard from a skier at the bus stop mid-afternoon that it wasn’t very good – “like skiing in wet cement.” And late that afternoon, the memorable “red snow” hit, three inches of frozen mud out of big billowing clouds of red dust off the Colorado Plateau, a snowstorm that looked like some kind of Old Testament punishment. A good day for not skiing.

But I didn’t even get to see most of that; I spent a lot of the day in a windowless room, in a board retreat for a Very Serious Organization engaged in the Sisyphian task of changing the way the Upper Gunnison Valley does energy.

The board retreat was mostly about the funding problem that all not-for-profit organizations are facing today – along with most for-profit organizations. The ongoing implosion of capitalism as we know it is showing that we truly are all one. Those of us who see ourselves as part of the solution depend heavily on those who are not even aware there is a problem – and we look lustfully at the wealth controlled by those who overtly and noisily deny any problem. Organizations out to change the world are ultimately as dependent on the “currents of currency” as are the most voracious organizations out to exploit the status quo. And when the currency current slows, the not-for-profits are among the first to dry up – many of them the organizations we need most when times are hard.

You might not agree that our Very Serious Organization, promoting energy efficiency and a transition to renewable energy resources, is as essential in these hard times as, say, the big financial institutions that have sucked up incredible amounts of our wealth (on top of what they’d already diverted from our true worth), but we’ve been hoping since January that some of the “economic stimulus” that was going to save us all might trickle down in some measure to Central Colorado and its Very Serious Organizations, thereby making up for some of the current currency drought. It seemed like a reasonable expectation, given all the rhetoric about “change” and “grassroots” we heard all last year.

But as word filters down about where the money is to go, we have learned that Central Colorado is basically designated as “unentitled.” The “entitled” places that will get direct stimulus money for energy efforts are those census places with at least 35,000 people or counties with 200,000. A relative pittance – $8 million of the $50-plus million coming to the state – will go to the Department of Local Affairs and the Governor’s Energy Office to spread around all 60 “unentitled” counties. This may be “fair” on some complex quantitative basis – but couldn’t they have used some less damning terminology? Especially coming from an administration that supposedly draws its strength from the grassroots?

So we concluded our retreat with the realization that, except for some possible token sum through the Governor’s Energy Office, we are basically on our own at the unentitled level. We need to do what we more or less concluded we needed to do after last year’s retreat, which is to find a new board member who both understands energy and understands money, or who is close to money, to figure how to squeeze blood from the turnip of local wealth. (How many oxymorons can you find in that sentence?)

Which brings me to the second thing we did on our Spring Break Friday – about the same time the Biblical-plague red snow started. We took the bus up to the ski area’s posh new convention-center-hotel, where we heard a presentation from an economic consultant for a local economic-development organization, Gunnison Valley Futures (report available at

The consultant did not have any good news for us. It was a very statistically oriented presentation that focused most on the vulnerability of Very Small Businesses (less than 10 employees) in a recession that is hitting construction, retail, and tourism industries hard – not good news for a valley 85 percent of whose businesses are Very Small and half of whose businesses are in those three sectors. “Not a time or a place conducive to entrepreneurism,” he observed.

Someone pointed out in the comment period that the valley’s economy has always been pretty marginal, both economically and geographically (with the latter contributing to the former), and that entrepreneurs come to the valley knowing that they will be sacrificing some economic potential for the “lifestyle” opportunities here. But there does come a point where that sacrifice ends in bankruptcy as the economic and geographic margins become more marginal, under changes in the cultural environment far beyond any local control. The consultant showed that average proprietor income has dropped from around $35,000 to $17,000 over the 35 years from 1970 to 2006. That’s paying a lot for the scenery you probably don’t even have time to enjoy, since the proprietor’s share of the workload has also increased from one-fourth to one-third in that time.

So not-for-profits versus for-profits – where does this leave us all? There is a sudden ominous clarity to the recent history of the Upper Gunnison Valley. We were settled and stabilized on a base of coal and railroads, and have been totally dependent ever since on cheap fossil fuels; subtract fossil fuels, and will civilization be done with Central Colorado? The consultant had observed that he usually does his economic consultations in the Third World, “in strange little countries in the middle of nowhere.” Well – welcome to unentitled Central Colorado.

But – what the hell. I have, as it happens, a relatively limited tolerance for such realities, thank god. And we walked out of that second meeting at dusk, into the world of mud and snow that is the mountain valley version of springtime in the Rockies, with better prospects for the remains of the day. It was “Flauschink” weekend – the last weekend of the industrial ski season in Crested Butte, and the town’s forty-first flush-out-winter, welcome-in-spring festival of dancing, drinking, and other forms of Dionysian debauchery. All the events are directed toward putting ourselves in our place – of remembering that we are, after all, just big mammals both blessed and cursed with big troublesome brains, and that the first and hardest thing about surviving is wanting to.

This part of Spring Break had begun the night before with an invitation from the Flauschink Committee for me – a Flauschink “foundered” – to wax nostalgic about what it was like when Flauschink began, back in 1969. At that time – as I’ve written in this column before (CC 168, Feb. 2008) – Crested Butte was still hovering somewhere between the revival of its marginal mining economy and the full transition to a marginal resort economy. The year 1969 was also what could be called a time of great economic fragility and marginality, and despite some differences between then and now, that basic similarity seems like something close to a constant. One valley businessman says, “There are hard times and there are times of self-delusion.”

So Friday night, after a day of rationally slogging through the trials and tribulations of an imploding and contracting civilization – we danced. Danced till the band quit, and I woke up feeling relaxed and ready for whatever, even though it was snowing again (white, not red). As Spring Breaks go, it was a mixed bag, but all’s okay that ends okay, or doesn’t end; for Homo adaptivus, the adaptive mammal. Life is neither fair nor foul, it just goes on, and I got up feeling like going on. As one of our great Flauschink queens, Susan Anderton, proclaimed: “Less lifestyle, more life!”

George Sibley writes from Gunnison, CO, where Dionysian debauchery springs up only on occasion.