For Colorado’s mountain towns, Independence Day marks the start of the summer season. Legions of visitors take to the highways, byways and trails in their RVs, four-wheelers and mountain bikes. Anglers and boaters swarm high country rivers and lakes, while shoppers browse art galleries and snap up souvenirs on Main Street.Tourism is a vital and significant economic factor regionally, as well as on a national and global scale. But robust growth in the sector inevitably raises questions of sustainability. And while planners and decision-makers in towns with tourism-based economies stay busy grappling with day-to-day issues, they don’t always have time to address the long-term implications of ever-increasing visitor numbers. In some cases, it even seems difficult for officials to acknowledge that there may be a downside.The first challenge is to admit that tourism, in all its many forms, does have potentially serious social, economic and environmental impacts. The next step is to find a common definition of sustainable tourism and agree that it’s a worthwhile topic of discussion.For a shopkeeper in Aspen, it means ensuring enough business to pay the mortgage. To the police chief in Breckenridge, it could mean having enough officers to keep up with enforcement. For an angler, it’s making sure there are fish in the stream, while hikers and mountain bikers want to preserve access to their favorite trails. Some towns struggle with parking and transportation issues and try to preserve historical architecture, while wildlife officials and environmentalists are concerned with habitat preservation.Of course, a useful definition needs to encompass all those special interests and so much more. In the broadest sense, sustainability means meeting the needs of global society indefinitely. Every decision made today should maintain opportunities for future generations without dipping into economic, social and environmental capital – harvesting the fruit but not the tree.To narrow it down, some planners say sustainable tourism requires balancing the economic health of the community, the subjective well being of locals, the protection of resources, a healthy culture and the satisfaction of guest requirements. Tourism should only be part of a balanced economy, many experts agree.Local conditionsA universal definition of sustainable tourism is useful, but addressing on-the-ground concerns in a meaningful way requires a more localized application."Communities have to define what those terms mean to them rather than applying a textbook definition," says Francisco Valenzuela, a regional recreation planner with the Forest Service. Valenzuela offers a wide-angle view of the issue based on national and international demographic data he’s compiled as part of his research. "It’s a global topic right now," Valenzuela says, acknowledging that communities around the world are wrestling with similar questions how to preserve rural character in a modern economy, for example.Some free market advocates emphasize a laissez-faire approach to tourism, explaining that market forces can best determine a direction. But Valenzuela says good planning can help communities take control of their future and perhaps avoid the boom and bust cycle that has thus far prevailed in Colorado."People need to have an awareness of what they value and develop tools to protect that," Valenzuela says. "You need a little structure and some mechanisms to manage and address change. You have to say to yourself, ‘what happens if tourism drops by 10 percent?’ and have some answers ready," he says.Communities need to have a vision of what they want their communities to look like in the future and what role tourism will play. "If you wait too long, somebody who has a different vision might define that future for you," Valenzuela says.The tourism picture is not all gloom and doom, he points out, explaining that in some rural areas, properly managed tourism can help build other desirable aspects of a sustainable economy."Some rural towns are lacking adequate schools and basic municipal services. In such cases, the economics of tourism can be positive, but communities have to stay on top of it," Valenzuela says. That means ensuring adequate infrastructure is in place and developing an appropriate tax structure that enables a community to tap into tourism revenues, he explains.Another important dynamic in resort towns is the rapid proliferation of second homes. Demographic data shows that, in some cases, those homes are a bigger economic factor than day-to-day visitation, according to Valenzuela. As the overall population ages, more of the second homes are becoming permanent residences, a significant trend that shouldn’t be overlooked, he says. If the trend continues, the population of some resort towns could explode beyond current expectations, straining infrastructure and services like health care, he says.Environmental concernsIn many cases, the question of sustainability seems to end up revolving around environmental issues – perhaps justifiably so, since healthy ecosystems provide the basis for all life. And in Colorado’s mountain resort communities, the natural environment is, to a large degree, the focus of tourism. The big challenge seems to be figuring out how to preserve that environment while accommodating ever-increasing demand that shows little signs of tapering off."What kind of tourism can you have that doesn’t place an undue burden on natural resources?" asks Bruce Hamilton, national conservation director for the Sierra Club. In Hawaii, the Sierra Club tried to get a detailed answer to that question when it sued the state, trying to force officials to evaluate and disclose tourism impacts before spending additional state funds on promotion and marketing.Hamilton acknowledges that tourism can be a positive economic factor. "From out perspective, a certain level and a certain kind of tourism is desirable," he says. "The key is figuring out what the maximum allowable impact you can have without destroying what makes the area attractive to begin with." Simple common sense indicates that degrading the scenery, air quality or water quality in mountain resorts ruins what people came for in the first place, he concludes.Outdoor recreation of the type that is popular in Colorado’s mountain resort areas poses a particular threat to ecosystem sustainability, according to Roz McClellan, of the Rocky Mountain Recreation Initiative."The type of education all we recreationists could benefit from is understanding the totality of our interaction with nature," McClellan says. While there are hopeful signs and baby steps in some areas like well-run open space and trails programs, McLellan says, overall, Colorado is not currently on a sustainable path when it comes to outdoor recreation."In terms of recreation, we’re on a collision course, at right angles with sustainability," she says. "Planners and decision-makers don’t seem to realized the downside of space-intensive recreation," she adds. "It seems like there are two non-intersecting paradigms; the lure, the thrill of outdoor adventure and the way biologists see the land."Of particular concern to biologists is the proliferation of motorized and mechanized trails, especially the systematic development of trails in riparian corridors across the state. McClellan say that, to preserve natural resources in the face of an increasing population and growing recreational demand, we might have to accept more intensive management of our activities.And she prefers to see that as a positive challenge rather than a limitation. "I visualize this as a tremendous opportunity for human ingenuity to create exciting recreational settings without increasing access to pristine backcountry," she explains. "We need to figure out how to concentrate impacts without compromising the quality of the experience."
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Vail’s updated plans regarding the state guidelines and isolation housing requirements is one of several pieces of information guests are waiting on heading into the 2020-21 season.