DENVER -- Up in the mountains, the pine beetles have laid waste to 4 million acres of forest -- a gray, Lorax-like landscape of standing dead trees and jackstraw. Warming temperatures have swollen the beetle populations -- cold snaps no longer kill them as they once did -- and the domino effect on the ecosystem is in full force. The only question now is whether the tons of deadwood can be harvested and converted to fuel or charcoal, before igniting in massive forest fires.
A visit to the Intermountain West these days carries with it just this kind of foreboding challenge -- but also hope and promise, for adaptation, innovation, and reinvention. The latter was a major theme at the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute's 20th annual land use conference, The Next West, co-sponsored by the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and the Lincoln Institute. The nearly 500 participants stared down "what awaits us as we grapple with the recent economic collapse, climate change, population growth and increasing constraints on our natural resources, among other forces,” said William Shutkin, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute. Some highlights:
-- Author Rick Bass, who is active in the Yaak Valley Forest Council in Montana, warned against continued over-management of forest lands and wilderness areas, and the restoration of the natural integrity of ecosystems. "It's a time for new crops, and new gardeners," he said. He also ruminated on what holds the West together as a region, given that places like the Pacific Northwest are more like rainforests, while large parts of Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico are much more arid.
-- Ralph Becker, mayor of Salt Lake City, provided an update on the efforts to clear out the underbrush of outdated zoning, codes, and ordinances "that get in the way of good practices" and sustainability. These range from overly restrictive rules on accessory dwelling units to a prohibition on crops over two feet tall on residential lots. "We're all in a competition to see who can be the most green," he said. In the same session, Shutkin reviewed the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute's proposed Sustainable Community Development Code, a transect-based framework for communities to customize local land use and development rules.
-- Representatives from the EPA, DOT, and HUD asssured the audience that regional sustainability grants would continue, and that there would be more investment in transit in the upcoming transportation reauthorization process.
-- Peter Pollock, a Lincoln Institute fellow based in Boulder, and Jim Holway, director of Western Lands and Communities, a joint venture of the Lincoln Institute and Sonoran Institute, discussed the critical issue of water and water management tied to land use, as well as prospects for reshaping far-flung, single family home-based development patterns in the Intermountain West, now that the housing bust has left many platted subdivisions unoccupied.
-- James Balog, director and founder of the Extreme Ice Survey, presented an update on the alarming rate of melting of polar ice sheets, glaciers, and snowpack.
-- Don Elliot of Clarion Associates and Arthur C. Nelson from the University of Utah discussed future housing trends, including decreasing demand for owner-occupied single-family homes, a topic covered here by Colorado Public Radio. The Lincoln Institute has had a continuing interest in the Intermountain West as a critical part of the country addressing issues of land use and development, large landscape conservation and ecosystems, regional planning and infill redevelopment in major metropolitan regions, and climate change.