Basalt Cultivates A Climate of Green Innovation

by Paul Anderson

With new thinking and design, Basalt sets the model for a Community in Harmony with its Environment

“Basalt is a community that is asking the next set of questions that will determine our planet’s future.” With that forecast Robin Waters, Basalt Chamber of Commerce president, is bullish on Basalt’s promise. Her belief is backed by a growing number of creative, collaborative visionaries who bring diverse backgrounds and widespread expertise to the historic railroad town.

Foremost among Basalt innovators, and a major player on the world stage, is Amory Lovins, cofounder and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a dynamic thought laboratory where innovation is an institutional imperative.

RMI recently completed construction of its Innovation Center, a “living lab” housed in a super-efficient 15,000 square-foot office building located in downtown Basalt. The Center serves not only as a regional home for RMI, but brings into three dimensions the innovative mandate RMI applies to its global outreach.

“The Innovation Center is not about technology,” says Lovins, “but about design. This building achieves beyond net-zero energy because we have gotten better at choosing and combining technologies to maximize building performance.”

“All innovation comes from problem solving,” adds Michael Kinsley, facilitator for RMI and a former Pitkin County Commissioner who consults with communities on how to become sustainable and remain affordable. “It’s about asking the right questions, about breaking out of the box, about whole system thinking. Innovation is collaborative, it’s about noticing your assumptions and then questioning them.”

The Innovation Center serves as a practical model for thousands of buildings worldwide that would otherwise contribute significantly to the worsening climate crisis. And it starts with innovative design.

For John Katzenberger, there is no greater incentive than climate. The Aspen Global Change Institute he cofounded in 1989, located in Basalt, harnesses over a thousand scientists to monitor, analyze and forecast climate shifts that are impacting the world. By taking a whole systems approach to Earth sciences, AGCI pools data and expertise from 35 countries to “break down disciplinary barriers and promote relevant scientific engagement with the public.”

This level of outreach, radiating from rural Basalt, fits Katzenberger’s definition of innovation as “the application of human knowledge and capabilities to activities that benefit human kind in social equity, health, environment, education and opportunity.”

Founded with initial support from John Denver’s Windstar Foundation, AGCI workshops enlist scientists as ambassadors who promote relevant scientific engagement with the public.

“AGCI is dedicated to identifying promising policies, technologies, and research ideas that accommodate the energy requirements of the human population while reducing the environmental impact of civilization’s energy needs.”

A different yet complementary educational outreach from Basalt is studying local rivers and applying findings to models for conservation and environmental awareness. The Roaring Fork Conservancy has, since 1986, equated care of local waterways with community values, bringing people together to act as stewards of local streams and riparian ecosystems.

“Innovation as applied to the future of Colorado and water is about how people in the Roaring Fork Valley become educated and aware of water issues,” states executive director Rick Lofaro. Lofaro, who serves as a technical advisor to the Town of Basalt and addresses community watershed issues, is spearheading construction of a new river facility.

The Conservancy’s “River Center” is planned to break ground next door to RMI this fall, adding environmental innovation to what will feel like a campus adjacent to the town’s newly developed riverfront park. “Located at the junction of two Gold Medal trout streams – the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan – there is nothing like the River Center,” says Lofaro.

The Center will become home for the Watershed Institute, which will convene conferences and watershed action projects. The Center will focus on promoting education for children and their parents through schools and community-based programs. “Rivers are important to Basalt,” explains Lofaro, “as $3.5 million in direct income to the town comes from activities on our rivers.”

Where rivers inspire environmental awareness, plants can do the same – especially those that nurture us. At the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, located on the southern flank of Basalt Mountain, innovation is seen in the tropical fruit that grows in state-of-the-art greenhouses.

For the last three decades, CRMPI founder, director and teacher Jerome Osentowski and his many students have demonstrated how “Forest Garden Greenhouses,” now described in a book of the same name, shows that it is possible to raise food crops from any climate zone indoors.

Osentowski has brought innovation to local agronomy through decades of his own experimentation. His agricultural successes are coupled with innovative greenhouse design by Basalt architect Michael Thompson through a “climate battery” that stores solar heat in the earth to be released gradually during even the coldest winter nights.

Thompson credits CRMPI with helping to challenge and potentially reverse the national trend of industrialized food growing and processing. “As communities realize that they have relinquished the power of feeding themselves in favor of convenience, low cost and poor health, some are taking that power back and finding ways to foster a renaissance of local food.”

A self-described “market farmer, greenhouse pioneer, designer and builder, and plant and animal observer and caretaker,” Osentowski is driving this renaissance through his “desire for a deeper connection with nature and the food I eat.”

That desire is manifest in a cold climate on a rugged mountainside where food is grown sustainably and with delectable results. Whole system thinking is the broader template for a revolution in agriculture where the “culture” part of the mix thrives in everything from tropical fruits to garden vegetables.

“This is much more than a greenhouse book,” remarks permaculturist Toby Hemenway on “The Forest Garden Greenhouse,” “it’s a manifesto and guidebook showing how permaculture can help us live regenerative lives.”

Near to Basalt are some of the country’s most advanced innovators including The Aspen Institute, Aspen Center for Physics and Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and its agricultural center Rock Bottom Ranch in Basalt.

“Innovative thinkers and institutions are increasingly looking to Basalt to relocate and establish synergistic opportunities,” Waters says. “Some organizations bring a regional or international focus. Others concentrate on local, broadly relevant and applicable initiatives,” she added. “All are at the forefront of pressing global issues and enjoy working in a beautiful setting.”


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