Bridging The Gap

For years, environmentalists and ranchers have been suspicious of each other. Fort Collins’ Sustainable Living Fair is doing a pretty darn good job of changing that.

September 2012

Humans like to compare themselves to others, and with that comparison, often, and almost without intentionality, comes judgment. Colorado, perhaps because of its diverse geography, has a long history of dichotomous groups: cowboys versus Indians; hardscrabble plains residents versus the monied mountain folk; gun lovers versus gun haters; and the aggies versus the hippies. This last contrast is of particular interest to me because, if it’s possible, I have both feet firmly planted in both camps: I grew up on a cattle ranch in Northern Colorado and still help out, and for years I’ve been proud to say that I’d rather go dumpster diving for cast-off treasures than flip on the latest buzzy TV show.

But these two groups don’t always coexist peacefully. Wear Tevas into a cattle barn, or cowboy boots at some conservation gig, and you’re likely to get some looks. Not only do the two groups judge each other, but they also do it within their own ranks. (So-and-so flies without offsetting their carbon footprint! That dude can’t ride a horse!) It may seem like a frivolous chasm with all we’ve got going on in this election year—this understanding gap yawns wide between the ranchers and the environmentalists—and yet there are consequences for all of us who live in this beautiful state. I have rancher friends who think environmentalists are extremist liberals. And I have conservationist friends who say ranchers are nothing more than a bunch of stubborn, mean, old right-wingers. What both of these groups refuse to acknowledge is that they share many of the same conservation goals, and if they could simply work together, they could actually get something done on this front.

Enter the Sustainable Living Fair. The SLF was founded in 1999 (this year it will take place at Fort Collins’ Legacy Park September 15 and 16) with the mission of growing environmentally sound jobs, fostering energy independence, and advocating for clean air and water. “Living a sustainable lifestyle ensures that social, environmental, and economic systems are viable, and offer a healthy and meaningful life for our citizens and future generations,” the Sustainable Living Association, which puts on the fair, says on its website. It’s pretty serious hippie-enviro stuff, and I mean that in the best possible way. Want to try raising a chicken or two, if for no other reason than to occupy your kids? This is the place to learn how not to kill them. Been meaning to set up a small box garden and grow 5 percent of what you eat? The SLF will show you how to grow, and prepare, that kale just right.

One of the most compelling aspects of the SLF, though, may be that over the years it’s evolved into a two-day forum at which you can see cowboy boots and Tevas, or big belt buckles and multiple body piercings, all ambling amicably side by side. (On top of everything else, there’s great people watching at the SLF, which includes 10-seat pedicabs and the whirling dervishes who dance among the tents.) When it comes to sustainable living—and everything that entails—it seems as if a lot of the superficial divisions between the environmentalists and ranchers melt away. SLF director Ray Aberle points out that “aggies” have always been a critical component of the fair, but their presence has grown more recently. Thanks largely to the organic and local food movements, beef is no longer bad. “In the last 10 years, that antagonism toward beef is gone because of the huge interest in natural grass-fed beef,” he says. Five years ago, Aberle says, the “Eat Local” tent was mostly vegetarian; today it features an increasing number of meats—and for good reason. “We are an economy of sun and meat,” Aberle says. “We can’t grow exotic fruits here, so it can be tricky to eat a well-balanced vegan diet. Sustainability looks different in each locale.”