By the simple numbers of population, the fundamental basis for power has not shifted in Colorado during the last 80 years. The census then showed that only 12 percent of all Coloradans lived west of the Continental Divide.
From all the growth evident along Interstate 70 and in other mountain resorts during recent decades, it would be easy to suppose that Colorado's population axis has shifted westward. It hasn't. Today, the Western Slope is home to only 11 percent of Coloradans.
Yet a profound power shift has occurred. That story is partly told at the Moffat Tunnel, which was dedicated in February 1928. With the opening of that tunnel, Denver gained direct railroad access to the Western Slope's stores of coal and other commodities, but also a pipeline that brought something more scarce: water. There was not even a murmur of dissent from the Western Slope. Denver's leaders had been thinking ahead. Not so the Western Slope. Even if it had thought to protest, though, it really couldn't. It had feeble power. It was a colony.
As is partially reflected in the inclusion of think-tank visionary Amory Lovins and state transportation boss Russell George on this year's list of Colorado's top 25 power brokers, the Western Slope is a colony no more. With an accelerating pace in recent decades, the region west of the Continental Divide has gained an affluence that is dependent upon the mountains and canyons not strictly for their commodities, but as places apart, as places to pause, reflect and replenish. From that affluence has come influence. The days of Denver, or any other Front Range entity, boldly grabbing the raw goods have ended. There's a new triangular relationship between Denver and Boulder, and the Western Slope.
That new strength of the Western Slope as a place apart but yet connected to major population centers is also illustrated in other figures on the ColoradoBiz Top 25 list, including Harris Sherman and Tim Gill. Sherman, now in this second stint as director of the state's Department of Natural Resources, has for decades gone to work in downtown Denver. For many of those years, as a senior partner in a law firm, he had a corner office high in one of Denver's tallest buildings.
It's an enviable sight--but perhaps not one that stirs Sherman the most. He also has a getaway in the Blue River Valley between Silverthorne and Kremmling. He also was on the advisory council for the Trust for Public Lands, which nailed down conservation easements on old mining proprieties near Telluride, Crested Butte and Aspen, among other locations.
Gill, who has twin homes in Aspen and Denver, also illustrates this new underlying foundation for power of the Western Slope. It's not incidental that it was in Aspen that George Soros and other billionaires met in 2004 to hatch their strategy to dump George W. Bush.
A curiosity of the Western Slope is that it has no homegrown congressional representation. That may not matter, but it may be telling. The larger portion of the Western Slope is represented by John Salazar, who comes from the San Luis Valley, which many people think of as the Western Slope (but it isn't), and whose cowboy boots, snap-pocket shirts and verging-on-conservative views align with the older Western Slope. Mark Udall, representing the 1-70 corridor, comes from Boulder but is a former Outward Bound instructor whose wife, Maggie Fox, was a long-time regional director of the Sierra Club.
Other powerful individuals from the Western Slope, although not making the Top 25 list, are distinguishable for their power, if sometimes held and used in unconventional ways. Among them is Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, high-end real-estate developer Harry Frampton, utility director Dan McClendon, water director Eric Kuhn, and the Southern Ute Tribe.
Amory Lovins typifies this new foundation for power. The 60-year-old Lovins rarely makes Colorado's papers, has never held elected office, and if he has money, it's not evident at his home and work headquarters along Capitol Creek, east of Aspen. He and former wife Hunter Lovins chose that location because, given the $10,000 they could scrape up in 1982, it offered both lifestyle and work advantages. It has heartwarming scenery out the door in a rural setting, yet is near the vibrancy of Aspen--and also near Pitkin County Airport.
As such, Lovins figured it made him as proximate to the nation's cities and university campus power centers as if he lived in metropolitan Denver. Although hardly a household name in Colorado, he nonetheless has the ear of the Department of Defense, Wal-Mart, Detroit carmakers and dozens of others in his now three-decade-old effort to promote what he calls the soft path of energy, wringing ever-more efficiency out of hydrocarbons.
Helping sell this new gospel of efficiency are dozens of apostles from his institute at Old Snowmass and those at an associated campus in Boulder. With the specter of rising greenhouse gas emissions the source of growing concern, coupled with heightened awareness of American dependence on foreign and perhaps declining oil reserves, his arc is rising. Tellingly, he was one of only two Coloradans profiled during the last year by The New Yorker. He does not have power in the traditional sense, but it is power nonetheless--the power of ideas, the power of argument.
Power of an unusual nature is also seen in nearby Aspen, which is both representational and exceptional. It is exceptional in wealth, with direct connections to more people on Fortune magazine's list of 400 wealthiest Americans than any other zip code in Colorado, maybe all of Colorado put together.
Aspen is also first in many things, the middle of the resort pond, the first place you're likely to see trends in this vigorous economy based on recreation, leisure and lifestyle. Among those firsts was the state's most advanced program of deed-restricted affordable housing--Aspen, of course, being a special place, where even doctors and lawyers need affordable housing. So does the new mayor, Mick Ireland.
Ireland, a one-time dishwasher and bus driver, pedaled his bicycle to campaign forums in June and a clear victory over a Porsche-driving developer-friendly candidate. As mayor, he then was the decisive vote in a new coalition that scuttled a proposed slope-side hotel that had been five years in the pipeline. The same majority in August then rejected developers again--and in the process the Aspen Skiing Co.--when it returned with an even better offer, supposedly agreeing to offset 100 percent of housing needs of its expected work force, toeing a line deep in the turf in the continual battle about growth--a theme resonating strongly across the ski town communities from Steamboat to Durango.
These places we still call ski towns are, in fact, something much bigger, places premised on a broader platter of amenities. It never was a simple skiing economy, nor even a tourism economy, and it's even less so now. At one Vail clinic, only a third of accidents come from skiing; most are from construction. Also, it's not simplistically a second-home economy. It's also an economy based on location-neutral businesses, like the new Hewlett Packard executives based in Steamboat Springs who live there ... well, because they can. Rural, regional airports have stitched the country together even as Internet technology has...