High altitute plains with cloudy blue sky

Colorado Rural Adaptation

Even and Ojima 2019 Colorado Rural Adaptation Report

Changing Weather and Livelihoods in Rural Colorado

A report on 21st century impacts and adaptation in the ranching, farming, and outdoor recreation sectors.

Abstract: As global climate patterns shift in response to rising greenhouse gas concentrations, it becomes ever more critical that policy-makers, resource managers, and other concerned stakeholders understand how these changes are affecting the lives and livelihoods of people living in vulnerable regions. This report aims to gather together the on-the-ground stories and experiences of people who rely upon natural and managed landscapes for their livelihoods across the rural and mountain communities of Colorado, using one-on-one conversations, local news reports, and a variety of other local perspectives from across the state. Conceived of through conversations with concerned policy-makers and others working in rural Colorado, it is meant as a local-scale complement to the recent Fourth National Climate Assessment, and as an introductory educational resource for congressional staffers, researchers, public land managers, and others with an interest in supporting the well-being of Colorado’s diverse communities as they deal with mounting changes in regional weather patterns. To view the full report, download the pdf: Changing Weather and Livelihoods in Rural Colorado (Full Report, 11 MB PDF)

Why “Rural and Mountain Communities” Matter for
Climate Change Adaptation and Sustainability Policy

Global climate change presents serious risks to human society and ecosystems in every region and every continent. However, these risks are not distributed equally across the human population, with some groups and ways of life more likely than others to find themselves dealing with disproportionate impacts from shifts in temperature, precipitation patterns, and shifts in ecosystem productivity that follow suit.  Around the world, this has meant a focus on populations living near coastlines – mainly in urban areas – which face serious risks from tropical storms, hurricanes, sea level rise, and various other headline-grabbing threats. At the same time, however, it is critical that people in a position to make a difference on these issues understand that islands and coasts are just one of the many areas where the near-term impacts of a changing climate will have serious effects on human wellbeing. In addition, we must also pay serious attention to the places and communities where climate-sensitive landscapes and ecosystems serve a critical role in economic and cultural life, as this complex dependency on the land magnifies the direct risks of extreme weather and long-term change many times over.

In Colorado, a semi-arid, climatically chaotic, and ecologically diverse state located in the center of the North American continent, this means looking at the social and economic systems for which the surrounding environment represents more than just a backdrop. What this means in practical terms is that rural and mountain communities – where land-based livelihoods like ranching, farming, and the broad array of outdoor recreation and tourism-based businesses for which the state is so widely known all play a crucial role in local populations’ economic and cultural vitality – become a critical area of research, for multiple reasons.

Silverton, ColoradoFirst, the dependence of these land-based livelihood systems on living landscapes means that they serve as a sort of “sentinel species” for those hoping to understand the breadth and depth of climate change impacts, as people working in these arenas interact with and respond to shifts in local weather and ecosystems on a day to day basis. For ranchers, this translates to needing to carefully manage grasslands and shrubland ecosystems as part of ensuring livestock health and productivity.  For farmers, it means planning and managing for weather impacts to soil, crops, and irrigation infrastructure, as well as carefully monitoring local and regional hydrological trends.  For outdoor recreational businesses and the small towns that rely upon them, it means understanding how different environmental conditions can directly impact their activities as well as maintaining the natural settings in which rafting, fishing, skiing, hiking, hunting, and the broad array of other activities people across Colorado know and love take place.

Second – and in no small part because of these close linkages with living environments – these livelihoods represent a critical “front line” in the global effort for climate change adaptation and sustainable ecosystem management, with practitioners in the ranching, farming and outdoor recreation sectors in many cases playing a leading role in devising and testing out ways to deal with increasingly harsh and unpredictable weather patterns in practical and economically viable ways. Across Colorado rural communities, farmers and ranchers are already working on improving the ways in which they maintain critical ecosystem functions while extracting the resources they need to make a living, whether in the form of improving soil microbiological health and carbon sequestration, shifting grazing practices to improve plant community resilience, or finding new ways to accommodate increasingly pressured wildlife populations through innovative on-farm practices. Similarly, small towns and recreational businesses have long played a critical and growing role in implementing proactive forest management, protecting rivers and streams, and conserving the natural character of public lands and the critical wildlife habitat functions they serve.

Silverton, ColoradoThird, and perhaps most importantly, rural and mountain communities are often poorly understood by both policy-makers and the interdisciplinary research community.  As a result, even when rural areas are highlighted for their vulnerability to disasters and long-term ecosystem change, the local perspectives of the people who live and work in these areas are often left out.  Because of this, it is essential that both researchers and decision-makers find better ways to open up the conversation about climate change and its impacts in ways that are grounded in the values, ideas, and experience of the places where it is already having serious consequences for everyday life.  In our case, this means shifting away from discussions of the global climate, and towards discussions of how changing weather interacts with and guides activity in these key rural livelihood sectors. As part of this, this report relies not only on the small but growing scientific literature on climate change in Colorado, but also on the local news reporting and on-going ground level conversations taking place in rural and mountain communities across the state as they come to terms with deepening drought, more frequent wildfires, unpredictable extreme storms, and ecological transformation taking places in the landscapes they rely upon.


Ranching for the Future: Adaptation in the Livestock Sector

Currently, over 20 million acres across Colorado (roughly 1/3 of the state) are used as pasture for cattle, sheep, goats, and other livestock, generating around $5-6 billion in cash receipts each year, and playing a powerful role in the state’s $40 billion+ agriculture and food production sector. As weather patterns change across the state, ranching operations – some of which have been in operation for 100 years or more – are finding themselves facing new challenges, from adversaries both old and new. Generally occurring on lands that are too dry for production agriculture, too rugged for easy navigation, or too remote for large settlements, ranchers in the state have always dealt with difficult circumstances and have had to deploy all manner of strategies to maintain healthy herds when rains fail, grasses wilt, and water sources dry up. In recent decades, however, cattle ranchers and other livestock herders across the state have found themselves dedicating more and more resources each year to addressing weather related risks, both from disaster events relating to extreme storms, flooding, and wildfire, as well as due to long-term drought trends. When these costs become too great, they can upset even the most resilient operation, and can have serious negative impacts on rangelands, cattle, water resources, ranchers themselves, and the communities they live in.

Cattle in MountainsHowever, ranchers are anything but passive observers when it comes to the variety of threats presented by the environments they rely upon.  Across the state, ranches large and small are implementing a number of innovative practices to protect the vitality of their livelihoods in the face of increasingly challenging conditions, be it in the form of changing how they view and manage the ecosystems they rely upon or the more concrete diversification of the income-generating portfolios associated with ranching landscapes.

For example, numerous ranchers across the state have begun to adopt a broad range of philosophical and practical management principles centered on landscape-scale ecosystem management which shift the emphasis away from maximizing on-the-hoof meat production and towards the maximization of the resilience of forage producing ecosystems.  Seen by some as a practical response to both market- and climate-driven volatility, these approaches rely upon the integration of ecosystem science and an understanding of the value of rangeland biodiversity so as to buffer against the impacts of droughts (which can be exacerbated by pre-existing range degradation), improve livestock health, and maintain the quality of local water sources and the riparian biology that surrounds them. In other cases, ranchers are installing increasingly sophisticated water management systems, utilizing remote monitoring and pump control technology so as to reduce the costs of grazing rotations and minimizing the risk of over-grazing in critical resource areas.  In other cases, ranchers are partnering with conservation groups, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and other outside organizations to implement programs aimed at integrating wildlife habitat protection approaches into grazing, fencing, and overall ranch management practices. As a result, these ranchers are able to benefit from income streams associated with both hunting activity on ranchlands, payments for ecosystem services, and, as a side effect of these efforts, improve the resilience and long-term sustainability of their grazing resources.

Ski gondolaIn addition to these efforts, a growing number of ranchers are undertaking a broad effort at diversification, both in terms of how they generate income within their ranching businesses and in terms of the resources they rely upon.  In the former case, numerous ranches have pivoted to novel business models in which ranching landscapes are viewed as resources both for grazing and for a broad array of nature tourism ventures, with prototypical “dude ranches” and resort-style facilities emerging alongside efforts to showcase working landscapes for their cultural and educational values. In other cases, ranchers are breaking out of the traditional ranch model, and have begun utilizing increasingly diverse and heterogeneous landscapes – often separated by large distances – so as to maximize production viability when one or more grazing areas are undergoing stress.  In southeastern Colorado, for example, a number of ranchers are forming partnerships with farmers and other land holders in nearby Kansas and Oklahoma to utilize cattle as a means to clear crop fields of post-harvest plant debris and weeds. Similarly, some northwestern Colorado ranchers are working with the U.S. Forest Service and other public lands agencies to implement low intensity forest grazing strategies using goats as a means to clear out underbrush and overgrowth often seen as a powerful driver of poor forest health and increased wildfire risk.


Farming Innovations: On-Farm Sophistication and Between-Farm
Collaboration to Manage Scarce Water Resources

Using around 16% of the state’s total land area – and around 80% of its water supplies – Colorado farms form the backbone of many of the state’s most isolated rural communities, generating roughly $3 billion in direct crop production each year and directly employing over 40,000 people.  A diverse and often regionally distinct sector, Colorado farms rely on a wide range of crops and cropping types, with dryland farming of wheat and sorghum taking place alongside extensive irrigated production of a wide range of staple and specialty crops, including a number of highly specialized fruit tree and greenhouse production facilities in the San Luis Valley and throughout the Western Slope. As with ranchers, those who make their living off of farming landscapes face numerous challenges as temperatures rise and precipitation patterns become more variable, including increased risks from crop disease, potential crop losses resulting from early spring warming, and direct damage to fields and soils due to flooding. Droughts, however, present by far the most serious risk to farming livelihoods, as production is simply impossible without access to predictable and reliable water supplies. Moreover, because of the state’s complex water distribution and management systems, in which snow-capped mountains historically fed irrigation systems far downstream, local precipitation conditions are only one piece of the puzzle for farmers attempting to monitor and plan for shifts in irrigation supply.  Similarly, with many areas relying heavily on semi-renewable groundwater supplies for irrigation, long-term trends toward declining water tables present farmers across the state with mounting challenges at a time when the long-term drying of landscapes looms on the horizon. At the same time, many farmers also face increasing pressure to sell off what water rights they do have as the state’s numerous thirsty Front Range cities continue to grow and the market price for water continues to rise.

Much as is the case with ranchers, however, farmers are taking a broad variety of steps to both improve the water efficiency and overall resilience of their production systems, as well as to devise wholly novel mechanisms for water resource management.  In places like the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, this means utilizing sophisticated monitoring and water delivery systems to execute high precision irrigation techniques to grow high quality silage and grains in the near-desert southwestern parts of the state.  In other areas, many farmers are developing new ways to adapt their cropping systems to the dynamics of the surrounding soil and wild plant communities, and working to make production agriculture fit in with the ecological rhythms of natural systems.  At the same time, farmers across the state are also placing greater attention on soil health and moisture retention capacity, through the implementation of minimal tillage practices and cover cropping. Seen as a means to both reduce the need for fertilization, and to improve the resilience of croplands to the desiccating, soil biology-stunting impacts of drought, these techniques as well as those mentioned above remain an area of serious research need, pointing toward a growing demand for stronger collaboration between the state’s research and scientific community and the wide array of farming systems found in the state’s diverse regions.

Windmill on plainsBeyond these “on-farm” practices, farmers are also working to develop new legal and social mechanisms for protecting their regional water supplies and the agricultural systems that rely upon them. For example, potato, corn, and alfalfa farmers in the San Luis Valley, reeling from groundwater shortages following the serious droughts in the early 2000’s, have developed an increasingly collaborative weather monitoring, landscape conservation, and water management system.  Central to this is a new form of self-governance, in which individual farmers pay fees to withdraw water from shared groundwater reserves, and farmers who restrict their own withdrawals during drought periods are compensated from pooled funds.  As a result, farmers have been able to restore dwindling groundwater levels at the same time as they enable their neighbors to maintain the viability of their businesses during otherwise economically devastating drought episodes. Similarly, agriculturalists in other areas are increasingly turning toward community-driven models for supporting local farming systems, with both farm-to-table, and direct-to-customer marketing models growing in influence as a means to align the interests of urban consumers and rural farming systems.  As part of this, numerous community-centered leaders in the agriculture field have emerged, with a growing number of sustainable and community-based agricultural organizations working to advocate for farmers’ interests around the wide variety of land, water, and subsidy-related issues that shape modern farming today.


Outdoor Recreation and Tourism: Coping with Unpredictability and Change

Whether one looks to Colorado’s numerous National Parks and Monuments, its world-renowned ski slopes, its famed river rafting destinations, or its prized hunting and fishing locations scattered across both the mountains and plains, it is hard to deny the influential role of outdoor recreation, either in its economy or its highly sought after standard of living. Bringing in over $60 billion in proceeds to Colorado businesses and communities in 2018, the wide ranging and diverse outdoor recreation sector plays a powerful role in shaping the state’s character, and is a central pillar of many rural and mountain communities.  However, as with agriculture, the outdoor recreation sectors complex reliance on various ecosystem services and climatic conditions means that rising temperatures over the last several decades have brought with them serious risks to even the most well-resourced and adaptive recreational livelihoods.  Across the state, dramatic wildfires, rapid forest health declines associated with insect infestation, drought, and rapidly dwindling snowpack have all combined to have serious negative impacts on the sector, with many small tourism dependent towns left wondering whether or not they will be able to survive another year of poor air quality, diminished environmental quality, and frightening national headlines.  In small towns like Sterling, Ouray, Montrose, Steamboat Springs, Manitou Springs – and even in wealthier areas like Aspen and Vail – local community members and city officials are all wondering: what will happen to skiing dependent towns as snow cover dwindles?  What will happen to prized cold water fish when mountain headwaters heat up to dangerous levels?  Likewise, what will hunters (and hunting guides) do when wildlife populations alter migration patterns, or fail to yield the prized trophy animals that tourists have come to expect? Where will river rafting companies take guests when river levels either dwindle, or, as snowmelt hastens, become too dangerous to safely navigate? More importantly, how will small, seasonally dependent economies be able to adapt when the characteristic weather conditions that tourists have come to know and love no longer reliably materialize?

Ski gondolaAs a result, just as can be seen in the agriculture sector, significant work is underway in a variety of contexts to plan for and respond to the numerous weather-driven risks that mountain and rural recreational economies face. In many ski towns, efforts have long been in place to shift away from single-activity tourism models and towards more diversified offerings, with rafting, fishing, nature guides, and a variety of other activities filling the gap left by shortening ski season.  In other areas, river rafting guides and others in the recreation sector are working closely with dam operators, irrigators, and nearby cities to maintain river flows for recreation when normal conditions would leave rivers dry.  In many headwaters areas, local communities and fishing guides are taking proactive steps to protect fish species habitat and avoid activity during times of heightened wildlife sensitivity to human interaction. More broadly, mountain communities are also taking strides to widen their role as environmental stewards, with the city of Monarch (a well known family-oriented ski destination) taking on the role of forest management to fight back the worst effects of the pine beetle epidemic, and a wide variety of wildland-urban interface communities working to restore damaged riparian areas and work towards mitigating local wildfire risk.  As such, while serious challenges remain, just as with other land-based livelihood sectors, the outdoor recreation community is gaining momentum as they attempt to head off a collision with a new, hotter, more variable climate reality.

This broad overview only briefly touches on some of the numerous factors shaping the complex relationship between changing weather patterns and the land-based livelihood sector. And although the full report holds more detailed, in-depth descriptions of these challenges, this effort is meant not as the final word on these matters.  Rather, it represents our attempt to bring together just some of the diverse voices speaking up on these important, culturally critical issues across the state, with a mind to initiate a more sophisticated and grounded conversation among the numerous stakeholders with a role to play in shaping Colorado’s weather adaptation efforts. In this and other research, we hope to continue to build this knowledge base, through both communication with policy- and other decision-makers, land-based livelihood practitioners, and other concerned citizens who work with and care about these iconic livelihoods and the cherished landscapes that they rely upon.