Dispatch from the Western Slope
Luke Schafer calls on Coloradans to save the places we love
Did you know Conservation Colorado has offices and staff across the state? Colorado’s Western Slope is where the vast majority of public lands and some of our state’s most scenic, wild, and remote places are located. It’s also home to communities and conservationists who know better than anyone why preserving these places is so important.
Our West Slope Director Luke Schafer has been on staff at Conservation Colorado before we were even called Conservation Colorado. He’s seen us through some of our greatest victories as well as some conservation fights that seem to never end. That means he has a unique perspective on the moment we’re in now. And he’s telling us we need to go all in.
Some years ago, I was talking to a local community member in Craig, where I’ve lived for 17 years. “What is it you do for a living again?” he asked me.
“I’m a tree-hugger,” I said.
“No way.” His jaw dropped incredulously. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
I chuckled at my own joke, but I was really only half-joking. Like my Grandpa said, you can call me anything as long as you do it with a smile. And it’s true—I do love the cedars, the sagebrush, and I especially love the weird little birds that look like chickens with balloons stuck to their chest. I’ve spent the better part of my adult life trying to protect them, working with great people in places like Moffat County who, like me, may not look or sound like your average tree huggers, but care a lot about protecting them too.
I moved to Craig right out of college, knowing I wanted to work for conservation on Colorado’s Western Slope.
For most folks, places like the wide open spaces of Moffat County seem devoid of life. It’s what I call windshield country. People just drive through on their way from one destination to another, if they even go at all, and probably don’t think much about what’s there. But if you know where to look, these landscapes are filled with life. There are 350 species that depend upon this sagebrush ecosystem. It’s some of the best wildlife habitat in North America, particularly for ungulates like mule deer, elk, and pronghorn that are also very important to our local economies, customs, and culture.
In the mid-2000s, the BLM set about revising the Little Snake Resource Management Plan, which included spectacular places like Vermillion Basin, as well as habitat for endemic critters like Greater sage grouse. A brand new stakeholder group with a broad array of interests spent over two and a half years trying to develop a consensus community alternative to what the BLM had laid out. We had to find common ground—not only with other conservation groups, but also ranchers, state agencies, oil and gas companies, and other residents. I learned a great deal about how to empathize and appreciate different perspectives. It’s important to challenge your assumptions about where people are coming from and what they care about.
Eventually, we won protections from energy development in the Vermillion Basin, and I’m confident that some day places like the Basin and the other spectacular wildlands in Moffat County will enjoy permanent protections so future generations can enjoy them as I have over the years.
“But Northwest Colorado is still facing an existential threat. It’s the same one on the whole Western Slope, and the whole world for that matter: climate change.”
But Northwest Colorado is still facing an existential threat. It’s the same one on the whole Western Slope, and the whole world for that matter: climate change.
Climate change is ravaging the places I love. The West and particularly Colorado’s western slope is undergoing aridification, which means it’s getting hotter and drier. We can’t just stick our heads in the sand and wish this one away. It’s not just about saving a certain species or a special area. It’s everything from whether we continue to have fresh, cold water, to recreational economies based on rivers and snowpack, to viable local agriculture, to a relatively stable climate where we don’t have extreme weather events. All of these expectations we’ve held for most of our lives aren’t so certain anymore.
We need to figure out how to adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change—in addition to cutting emissions—so we can keep enjoying some semblance of the Colorado that we know and love.
In my time here at Conservation Colorado, we’ve had to adapt, too. We now take a more holistic approach to solving these difficult, cumbersome problems. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do to address the historical wrongs that have polluted communities of color, and the systemic racism behind those patterns. But if we get this right, we can make progress on not only climate change, but the existential threats to our democracy and attacks on civil rights.
One thing that I’m glad hasn’t changed is we continue to have a presence here on the Western Slope. We’re not parachuting into communities to do retail-style politics and leave. You can’t impose things on people. You need to work with them.
Most people aren’t thinking about climate change, wildlife conservation or public lands policy every day like I am. Most people in working class communities like Craig don’t have the time. But if we give folks accessible avenues to engage, they will get involved.
That’s why we organize in these far-flung places. People out here care. They’re interested in the future of the land because they’re a part of it. There are cultural differences, sure—not only between the Western Slope and the Front Range but within the same valleys. Steamboat is very different from Craig; Rifle is very different from Aspen. But we’re able to bridge some of those divides and find common ground.
“That’s why we organize in these far-flung places. People out here care. They’re interested in the future of the land because they’re a part of it.”
That ‘s why, I’d argue, we’re doing this work better than anyone else. Not only do we have a wide breadth of interests to address what’s at stake, we try to reflect our communities as a whole.
You might find there are more unlikely tree-huggers out here than you’d think. Maybe you’re one of them yourself.
If so, you can help us. For a lot of folks, the best way to play a part in combating these existential threats is to donate financial resources so we can keep doing the work. These next few years will be the most important in our fight. If we all work together, we can achieve the future we want to see.