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The Greening of Telluride
by Charlotte Bell

Verdant, majestic mountains. Crystalline air, clear as a lilting fiddle tune. Azure skies bright as a singing banjo. Conifers swaying to a driving bass line. Ingram Falls cascading down the rocky slope like an arpeggio. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival could not happen anywhere else. It is the melding of magnificent music and the pristine mountain environment that make the Festival more than the sum of its parts.

In the 1800s only the heartiest of folk, mostly miners, braved this remote box canyon. In some ways Telluride’s inaccessibility adds to its appeal even today. While Telluride offers its residents many of the cultural benefits of a much larger municipality, it has been spared the homogeneity spreading across suburban America. This is partly due to its citizens’ commitment to maintaining its mountain village character and also likely due to its isolated location.

As a year-round resort town, Telluride’s infrastructure has had to be beefed up to accommodate the needs of many more souls than reside here. One weekend each year this tiny town’s population balloons by a factor of six. San Miguel Power Association reports that summer power usage consistently peaks during the Bluegrass Festival. Regular power consumption increases by one to two megawatts—that’s one to two million kilowatt hours—in the span of one week. When the Bluegrass Festival comes to town it brings 11,000 extra individuals driving cars, trucks and RVs—nearly 3,000 from Wednesday through Saturday in 2003—into the canyon. Bluegrass fans fill all available condos and hotel rooms; pack the campgrounds, restaurants and bars; and produce literally tons of trash.

Planet Bluegrass, with festival director Craig Ferguson at the helm, has produced the Telluride Bluegrass Festival since 1989. Fifteen years’ experience has yielded a festival that is almost flawless in terms of its production. The artistic line-up continues to amaze, offering something for almost every possible type of musical taste. The production—from ticketing, to parking, to camping, to foot traffic flow, to shuttle transportation, and many more areas of logistical concern—has become practically seamless.

In anticipation of the historic 30th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003, the principals at Planet Bluegrass asked themselves how they might continue to improve the event, given the fact that it almost runs itself these days under the expert guidance of so many who have held their production posts for decades. Three years ago the Fort Collins-based microbrewery, New Belgium Brewing Company (NBB), joined Planet Bluegrass as a sponsor for the event. In addition to its tasty microbrew, NBB brought with it a longstanding commitment to environmentally conscious business policies.

The company’s green awareness inspired Planet Bluegrass’ principals to begin exploring ways in which the Festival could reduce its environmental impacts in Telluride’s fragile mountain environment. “We learned about [NBB’s} practices and were inspired to develop our own programs.” says Planet Bluegrass vice-president Steve Szymanski, who is spearheading the Festival’s efforts to green its operations. “There’s definitely a ripple effect. We see ourselves as being able to introduce some new ways of thinking about sustainability and our audience will share this with others.”

Planet Bluegrass formed a Greenteam in the winter of 2002, which included Ferguson, Szymanski, Carli Zug (Festival co-owner), Hillary Mizia (NBB’s sustainability outreach coordinator), Big Jon Eaton (production manager) and Jerry Moore (shareholder) to study the feasibility of various strategies for greening not only Telluride’s festival, but all the festivals the company produces. The Greenteam has since expanded to include other partners, including additional sponsors and hands-on waste management experts.

Planet Bluegrass and its partners decided on a strategy that would allow for an evolving, long-term commitment to environmentally friendly policies. They would move slowly, implementing one component of the program each year, so that they could easily monitor its effects. They would gather feedback from Festivarians as well as the people in charge of implementing the new strategies. The Greenteam settled on refining waste management as the focus for 2003.

“We have some shareholders who have been emphasizing sustainability for a while now,” says Ferguson. “So we started from scratch last year and tried to take a commonsense inventory and give ourselves an environmental audit. We studied recycling, trash, compost and the plastic utensils vendors were using. It thrust us into a completely new recycling and composting program.”

The problem of waste management for such a large crowd has always been an important issue, rendered even trickier by Telluride’s remote location. Everything has had to be trucked out of the area, with trash going to Naturita and recycling heading to Grand Junction. Planet Bluegrass began encouraging recycling many years ago, and while it is a significant step toward sustainability, questions still lingered:  How much energy are we using to truck all our refuse out of the canyon? Is there a way we can reduce the expenditure of fossil fuels as we implement our waste management program?

The answer came to them from local organic farmer, Kris Holstrom, of Tomten Farms in Telluride. Organic farms rely on compost, fertilizer resulting from the decomposition of waste materials, to replenish their soil. Holstrom had been collecting compostable refuse from the Festival’s concessionaires and converting it to compost used on her farm for several years. In 2003 the Greenteam, along with Holstrom, expanded their composting efforts to the Festival grounds and campgrounds. Festivarians carried their refuse to one of two waste stations on the Festival grounds, where they disposed of waste and were educated  by volunteers as to what constitutes compost, recyclables and trash. In the campgrounds, Festivarians were supplied with bio-bags to transport their waste. The program was a hit. “There were so many rounds of thanks!” says Holstrom. “People would say, ‘We should all be doing this.’”

The composting program was a huge success. Planet Bluegrass reduced waste in Telluride by 50 percent in 2003, and by 60 percent in its Lyons, Colorado-based festivals. “Last year we hauled a ton to a ton-and-a-half of compostable material to the farm,” says Holstrom. “We had 40 cubic yards of waste. That’s ten times more than the year before. There’s no comparison really.” The waste material yielded eight cubic yards of compost. Szymanski says the goal for this year is to increase waste reduction to 75 percent.

Planet Bluegrass committed 19 volunteers to man the stations. The staffing of the waste stations was largely responsible for the program’s success. In addition to the overall reduction of waste, the Festival’s recycling efforts were made more efficient. “Craig [Ferguson] did what he does so well,” says assistant production manager Denise Mongan, who oversaw the program. “He said, ‘What does it take to improve the system and let’s do it.’ He added the manpower with paid staff and volunteers. We had signs made. People got the message that we were really trying, and the purity of our recycling comingle was increased.” Mongan says the enthusiastic cooperation of Festivarians was overwhelming, and was what made the program such a resounding success.

This year the Festival hopes to decrease trash and increase the compost yield by requiring all food vendors to serve their foods in corn-resin-based, compostable plates, cups and utensils. Working with BIOTA Brands of America, a Ouray/Telluride-based company headed by David Zutler, the bluegrass festival will be the first commercial enterprise in the world to sell water packaged in compostable bottles. The Festival’s vendors will sell only BIOTA’s water. Each year 94 billion petroleum-based plastic(PET) water bottles end up in landfills. This is enough petroleum to power 400,000 vehicles for a year. “Our goal is to try not to add to that type of pollution and waste,” explains Zutler, whose bottled water company has been looking for a more environmentally friendly bottle for some time. The new bottles, which are derived from corn (PLA) resin, will biodegrade in 90 days in a commercial composting situation. As of now, BIOTA is the only company worldwide utilizing this technology for bottled water or any other beverage.

Last year Mongan’s waste management crew collected all the stray beer cups on the field each day and handed them over to NBB, who transported them back to Fort Collins. Because No. 2 plastics are not recyclable in Telluride, NBB took upwards of 3,000 cups and washed them all, making them more suitable for processing. This year the company will provide reusable plastic cups and collect any strays at the end of the Festival. They plan to wash and send them to a company that converts the recycled plastic into plastic “lumber” for use in park benches.

Choosing the most environmentally friendly beer cup is much more complicated than you might expect. (See sidebar, “The Cup Debacle”) NBB explored using recyclable cups for their beer but the idea proved not to be feasible. “Reusing is the best possible thing you can do,” says Mizia. “Compostable cups are not the best thing for beer. In the hot Colorado sun, a cup with dark beer in it will melt.”

 Mizia likes the idea of reusable cups because it solidifies the habit of reusing rather than disposing. Last year NBB initiated a program that rewarded Festivarians who used the same beer cup all four days. The company placed stickers on people’s cups for each day of use and at the end of the weekend they awarded prizes—little bike bells—to the first 300 customers presenting cups bearing all four stickers. Mizia instigated last year’s incentive program as a response to an idea she got from Teva, who gave away sandals to Festivarians who picked up a certain amount of trash. This year, Mizia says, they’ll have enough bike bells for everybody who uses their beer cup for the entire Festival.

In addition to further refining its waste management policies Planet Bluegrass plans to convert to using Biodiesel, a fuel made from refined vegetable oil, to run its trucks and the generators that power the Festival. Organic cotton Festival T-shirts will be available this year in the Country Store and will become more ubiquitous in the future as suppliers expand their repertoire of colors and styles.

While the infrastructure is not in place for wind power to be exported to Telluride, Planet Bluegrass purchased wind power certificates equivalent to the amount of power used during the week of the Festival in 2003. Wind power is a completely clean method of producing power, eliminating CO2 emissions generated through the burning of fossil fuels. Using wind power also reduces dependence on oil for power production. “We’re a year or two away from being able to use wind power directly,” says Ferguson. “In Lyons we get the electricity from the town. Right now we’re subsidizing the price of wind power so that those who live close enough will actually use it. It’s a subsidy of the wind farm in general.” Recently Planet Bluegrass, with the help of White Wave (the tofu maker), committed to buying wind power to offset power used for all its operations in Lyons—its offices and Festivals.

Planet Bluegrass’ commitment to greening its festivals has rippled out. Last year Telluride Blues & Brews Festival followed suit and implemented a composting program. This year the Jazz Festival will join in. Be sure to visit Greentown on the Festival grounds and find out how the Festival’s sponsors and partners, New Belgium Brewing; Whole Foods Markets; Teva; Utne Reader; Renewable Source Energy (wind power provider); Sunsense Solar; and NatureWorks, PLA (developer of corn-resin plastics) are working with Planet Bluegrass and beyond to support sustainable practices.

Despite Telluride’s remote location, the Festival’s legacy has spread into all corners of the world. There is a global awareness of its unique blend of acoustic-based music, owing largely to Festivarians who travel to Telluride from locales as far-flung as Europe and Japan. Mongan hopes that Festivarians will take what they learn about sustainability out into the world as well. “Hopefully [Festivarians] all learned something and/or we helped them establish a habit that they might take back with them. I hope we have increased awareness of alternative ways to deal with our waste. The more they see people caring, the more they will be aware of it in their lives beyond Telluride.”

What Can You Do?

The success of our efforts to make the Festival more green depend on everyone. Last year, everyone involved noted a great spirit of cooperation among Festivarians in regard to the efforts to reduce waste. There are a lot more things we can do to reduce our impact on Telluride’s fragile ecosystem. Here are a few ideas:

Charlotte Bell is a yoga teacher, freelance writer, oboist and Festivarian since 1983. She is currently writing a book titled Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life that will be published by Rodmell Press in 2007.

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